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from the June 2013 issue

from “The Confession”

In the spring of 2005 an exorcism took place in a small, unfinished monastery in Vaslui County in northwestern Romania. Casting out demons is more common in Romania than in the West, but there was nothing typical about this rite. A single priest officiated, whereas Church policy requires three. The person undergoing the ritual is generally a willing, quiet participant, accompanied by family. On this occasion, the hallucinating and unwilling victim lay restrained on an improvised stretcher of planks and boards that witnesses would later see as a recumbent cross. The young woman being exorcised seems to have been suffering from end-stage leukemia at the time, and she was probably psychotic—for reasons that may or may not have been related to her infection. After two days of exorcism, Irina Cornici gave signs of returning to her right mind and died. Whether she expired at the monastery or in an ambulance on the way to hospital will never be known. She was twenty-three years old. She was born in 1982, seven years before Romania’s anti-communist revolution. She was an orphan and unsure of her sexual identity. She was attracted to women and protected herself against men.

Was the religious community at the Tanacu monastery guilty of a crime that seemed to have been ripped from the pages of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s lurid gothic, The Monk, or was Cornici the victim of real-world, Dickensian social injustices and prejudices that dated back to the Ceausescu period? Then-head of the BBC World Service’s Bucharest bureau, Tatiana Niculescu Bran investigated. Her efforts materialized in Romania’s first nonfiction novels: The Confession and The Book of Judges. These strongly imply that Irina Cornici died the victim of malefic corruption, an overburdened, inadequate hospital system and benighted but benign ignorance.

Cristian Mungiu’s 2012 film, Beyond the Hills, was “inspired by” and at times clearly based on Niculescu Bran’s books. The excerpt printed here is a reconstruction that follows Niculescu Bran’s interviews with Irina’s friend Chiţa. The Guide to Confession is a manual for Orthodox nuns and monks. Nevertheless, this passage is a work of reconstructive fiction that attempts to recreate Cornici’s frame of mind before the final madness that led to her exorcism and death.—Jean Harris

The Guide to Confession was a small pamphlet with well-thumbed pages. You could see it had been used a lot. It contained a list of some 200 sins with brief descriptions and useful instructions for the person preparing to confess. Having this list of sins before us, we may examine our conscience in detail, and in this way, we may particularly discover the hidden sins we have committed which we did not know were sins or which we committed without realizing that we were sinning, it said on the first page. Several pieces of practical advice followed.

The surest and simplest method is to provide yourself with a piece of paper. Proceed with pen or pencil in hand, and note the sins you have committed as you go on reading. The Guide then explained that the sins need not be presented to the priest in detail but rather as briefly as possible without insisting on the circumstances in which they occurred.

I despaired of God’s help and pity,” mother Anastasia began with sin number 1. The church porch held a wooden bench where the two women had now settled. Anastasia had already explained what preparing for confession meant, and she had offered to tick off the sins on a piece of paper so that Irina could better concentrate on her answers.

“I despaired . . .” Irina repeated. She had never thought despair was a major sin.

Anastasia looked at Irina to see if she understood what this was all about. She seemed to understand. Anastasia traced a dash ahead of sin number 1.

I declared that God will never forgive me, that I’m too full of sin and that I’m going to hell anyway,” the nun carried on with the second sin.

Irina grew thoughtful: so it was a sin to think you’d go to hell! She even believed that she had been in hell. Or, at least, that’s what her friend Chița, who was preparing to become a nun, had explained to her. Chița said that you can’t mix prayer with the tireless lusts of the body and that you needed to bridle your thoughts too because you could commit great sins in thought as well. The two of them and Bianca used to listen to the songs recorded by Enigma when they were at the orphanage, and they imagined that they were inspired by the lives of medieval monks who imagined, while chanting in their stalls, that they were kneading the burning bodies of women. Then they flayed themselves till they bled. As they wearied, the whips would fall from their hands. They would feel the deep wounds with which they had punished themselves on their backs, and they would wake from their reverie. Then they would proceed again to prayer.

Time after time when she had listened to “Sadeness,” Irina felt that a vibration of pleasure gushed somewhere beneath her ribs. It would set off in concentric circles through her whole body, and it seemed to produce electric shocks from the top of her head to the soles of her feet—with a bittersweet warmth, like those times when she made love to Bianca. But now she understood that it was a sin to not believe in God’s forgiveness. She looked at Anastasia and nodded her head. Yes, she had doubted God’s forgiveness. The nun drew a dash ahead of sin number 2.

Irina brightened up. So, God forgives you. She was beginning to like this review of sins. It was like a game where the one with most dashes wins. On the other hand, hearing how many sins were left, she reckoned she hadn’t committed many of them and that was a kind of relief too. I oppressed servants, the poor, orphans, widows, the powerless. I mocked them. No, she had never committed sin number 13, nor number 24: I injured my fellow man, spiritually and physically.

Nor had she committed sin number 35: I believed that after it leaves the body, the soul migrates into the bodies of various animals. Nor had she committed the sin of witchcraft. She had not moved boundary lines to take property from her neighbor, hadn’t harbored contraband in her house, damaged anyone’s property, swindled the state, taken contraceptive pills, used the coil, had an abortion, committed adultery with a relative, a godchild, a godparent, a cousin, a brother, a son, a daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew, lived with someone out of wedlock, eaten unclean things, joked about holy matters, taken communion when she was having her period, read sectarian books, killed willingly or unwillingly, set foot in the Holy Altar, put sanctified bread on the ground, married a Jew, a Turk, a Catholic, a sectarian . . ., denounced anyone with intent to do harm, hauled anyone into court.

At sins 82, 83, and 84 she had to acknowledge: she had not prayed every morning, evening, and before every meal, she had not fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, and she had not kept the four yearly fasts in their entirety. When she had worked in Germany, it was different. They abstained from meat, but you could eat eggs, milk, and cheese. After that, Mama Neli and “the old guy,” her “stepparents” in the village of Cuptoare, slaughtered five or six pigs a year, plus calves and fowl, and they spread big feast tables at the holidays, but they didn’t worry themselves too much over fasting.

And yes, she had committed other sins on top of that: she had used double entendres, had lied, had a tendency to embellish, had looked at trashy movies and pictures, told people to go to hell, worked on Sundays and holidays, worn slacks, had fits of rage, had been unforgiving, thought of other things during prayers, had been greedy about food, been proud of herself, stubborn, had struck and beaten, had enjoyed being praised, had put her hands on other bodies to feel and provoke the pleasures of licentious dissipation. Yes, maybe that’s what it was called when she grabbed Chiţa by the cheeks, felt her up or hit her or when she was torturing Bianca. Only, she wasn’t tormenting her, in fact. She was very attached to that girl: she had caressed her, knew many of her secret places, and she had hit her too with passion. Bianca would become fearful, pant, go on crying . . . Irina recalled her fingers. With her she had first felt the throb she imagined the boys from the dorm felt when they would take a younger girl and bring her into a side room where they would turn the music up to the max. She had heard loads of things about what went on there. It hurt the girls. Some of them vomited. But she had prepared herself: she had learned to fight so well that not one boy would dare get close to her.

I committed the sin of onanism (which is what happens when a person provokes his own pleasure through masturbation). This sin is known as fornication with the devil,” Anastasia read, parenthesis and all, to be sure that Irina understood.

She had thus reached sin number 108. Without stopping, Anastasia went on to read the following sin since they were joined:

I committed the sin of onanism with another person, one acting on the other. I with the other, the other with me, with the opposite sex, man with man, woman with woman, with children,” Anastasia concluded and raised her eyes to Irina’s face, waiting for a sign, to know whether she should tick off 108–9 or not.

Irina began to reminisce silently about Manix. On one of their vacations, a good many children from Children’s Home Number 2 had gone to the camp at Tălăşmani, which, like the Home, was located in Vaslui county. That would have been the summer of 1995. Irina was fourteen years old. Among the “educators” was a boy of around twenty. It had been arranged with the directors that he not be taken off the orphanage’s rolls at the age of eighteen, and the management went on using him as a monitor and to receive goods transported from Germany by the Schindler charitable association.

Manix was short and thickset with a broad chest, an agile mind, wide, ravenous jaws. He looked like the Roma singer Adrian the Wonder Kid. He knew more-or-less all the management’s tricks: how they distributed the goods-in-aid sent by the Schindler Family Association, who took what, what was deposited in the warehouse and what was taken to the consignment store . . . he knew a whole lot.

The directors often used him for more delicate affairs . . . "I’m the lock and key to a whole lot of things,” he would say when they had put him in prison. After his first condemnation, he had come back and contributed to exposing Pfaff, that German with the photographs, the ones with the orphanage girls—Pfaff, who had so many important friends in the city.

Manix had been given the responsibilities of an “educator” in the camp. He had his own room, separate from the rest of the kids. Every evening he’d call one of the girls to his room. He’d threaten to beat or kill her if she didn’t do certain things for him. In the home, the older boys knew that forcing oral sex and masturbation would protect them from eventual accusations of rape. They were hard to prove, so to speak: “I made this agreement with a girl that we’d do some stuff . . . More out of curiosity, and it wound up the way it did . . .” Manix would recount years later. In prison at the Vaslui Penitenciary, he killed time studying the legal terms used in his file.

Manix had been accused of submitting eight girls from the Children’s Home to sexual perversions, Irina among them, but he had maintained that the whole thing had been a setup so he’d be silent. He bragged that he had often protested against the starvation and beating to which the children were submitted and that he had accused one of the psychologists from the Children’s Home, a former dorm mate, of homosexuality. At that time, homosexuality was grounds for prison: Article 200 of the penal code. Manix knew a great deal, indeed, but it was not clear on which side of the barricade he stood.         

”They took my first declarations about the business with the girls right there at Tălăşmani,” he would recall, tilting his head back and looking at the ceiling while searching for the exact date of those events. “The psychologist stood there with a rubber hose in his hand and dictated what I should write. Meanwhile, I’d been framed too for doing it with a person of the same sex. In fact, I was followed by some guys that took care of things like that.” For that reason, they had begun to call him “the faggot” at the home.

The girls had been warned not to make too big a deal about what happened in the camp, but they kept whispering in corners, giggling, and giving all kinds of details, one juicier than the next. And the educators said that they deserved what they got. Good you did it, Manix!

“Your honor, don’t strike too hard with the whip of the law—take into consideration the environment in which the accused grew up,” said the then director of the Children’s Home, Mr Dumitiru, in an effort to defend the boy who knew so much. But, at bottom, they weren’t condemning Manix for what he knew, so the management of the home reconciled itself to the situation relatively soon.

In 1995, Manix was twice condemned (to two and three years in prison) on the basis of Article 200 with regard to homosexual relations. In 2001 he did another nine months for theft, and in 2003 he was sentenced to seven years for sexual corruption and deprivation of liberty. On this occasion he had molested a twelve-year-old girl. He died of a heart attack in 2006.

Irina had been asked about the events at Tălăşmani, too. They had asked her, as Mother Anastasia now seemed to be asking, if she had done those things with Manix. She had said, “Yes.” After that, things went on happening . . . So yes, dash before 108–9. Dash at “fornication with the devil.”

The sins of shame continued, sodomy, Gomorrahy, adultery with animals . . . It was getting to be evening and Mother Anastasia was barely able to make anything out, but the business had to end before it got dark for good. She could see that Irina had gotten tired and was staring into space.

“Come on, there’s not much left,” she encouraged the girl while sketching a dash ahead of sin number 149: I came late to church. I left before the end of mass without good reason. They had 44 sins to go and that was it.

Irina felt surer of herself the next day with her list of sins prepared. Father Daniel was waiting for her to confess. The girl was already over the threshold. She had lost a lot of flesh at the hospital and the black clothing seemed to make her even thinner and paler. She knelt. As was customary, he draped his clerical stole over her head. He made the sign of the cross over that and began to hear her confession.

For the sin of onanism, one hundred kneeling genuflections with head bowed to the ground were generally given per day, together with eighty days of bread and water. Irina could barely stand on her legs. Nor was it clear how guilty she was of the events life had dragged her into. But still, he couldn’t look the other way when it was a matter of such sins. God would smite him!

“Irina, I’m giving you as penance, together with prayers, fasting with bread and water and one thousand genuflections before you take communion. Can you do them?”

“I’ll do them, Daddy,” Irina had answered.

“Very well. Cross yourself so I can give you absolution for your sins.” Then he sent her with Anastasia to the font of holy water located in a small building, like a small summer house covered with glass. On the eastern wall hung a blackened icon portraying the Mother of God and, under her, a poster with devils burning in the fires of hell. The poster read: Women who have abortions will face frightful torments without end in hell.

“Look here. This is the icon of the Mother of God,” Anastasia explained, “plus ballpoint and paper. You bow to the Mother of God, do a hundred genuflections, draw a line . . . and here’s a rosary for counting.”

Accompanied by Anastasia, Irina remained before the icon until late in the evening. She would cross herself occasionally, look up at the icon of the Mother of God, then bow and touch the floor with the top of her head, raise herself again, cross herself once more, look at the Mother of God, and bow and touch the floor again. Using her fingers, she would count off a rosary bead every time she raised her head: one, two, three . . . ten, twenty-eight...when she reached one hundred she would draw a line on the piece of paper.

”How’s it going, Irina? Can you do anymore?” When you get tired, you should stop,” said Mother Neonila, who knew about the penance and who had come in now to see how Irina was getting on.

”OK. Never mind,” Irina answered glancing at the poster of burning devils. ”I don’t want to upset the evil one.” She hadn’t had an abortion, but she’d fornicated with the devil. She didn’t go to bed until she had done her thousand genuflections.

On Easter Sunday she took communion. 

© 2012 by Editura POLIROM. Translation © 2013 by Jean Harris. All rights reserved.

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