It's perfectly understandable why many journalists are fascinated with the subject of exorcisms, especially when the Roman Catholic Church gets involved. For starters, we are talking about battles on the front lines between the material and the supernatural, encounters that raise eternal questions about free will, the love of God and the existence of ultimate good and ultimate evil. And then, of course, there is Hollywood.
So you will not be surprised that your GetReligionistas have taken a look at quite a few mainstream news stories about this topic. Click here and do some surfing, if you wish.
But this post is not about a news piece. Yet, over the past week people have sent me the URL to this Washington Post essay more than any other. At this point, I have begun to wonder if the demons are sending it to me. Why, well you know what C.S. Lewis said about demons (speaking through the voice of Screwtape, his great demonic professor).
We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work -- the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” -- then the end of the war will be in sight.
The headline on the Post piece, written by New York Medical College professor Richard Gallagher, was this: "As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession."
I should note that this is a sequel, of sorts, to his 2008 essay -- "Among the Many Counterfeits -- A Case of Demonic Possession" -- that ran in the journal The New Oxford Review, a very small-o orthodox Catholic publication (and one with a high digital wall around its content).
Here is the opening of the new Post piece:
In the late 1980s, I was introduced to a self-styled Satanic high priestess. She called herself a witch and dressed the part, with flowing dark clothes and black eye shadow around to her temples. In our many discussions, she acknowledged worshipping Satan as his “queen.”
I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether this woman was suffering from a mental disorder. This was at the height of the national panic about Satanism. (In a case that helped induce the hysteria, Virginia McMartin and others had recently been charged with alleged Satanic ritual abuse at a Los Angeles preschool; the charges were later dropped.) So I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed. Much later, she permitted me to tell her story.
The priest who had asked for my opinion of this bizarre case was the most experienced exorcist in the country at the time, an erudite and sensible man. I had told him that, even as a practicing Catholic, I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus-pocus. “Well,” he replied, “unless we thought you were not easily fooled, we would hardly have wanted you to assist us.”
So began an unlikely partnership.
Look at the time element here.
We are talking about decades of experience and, most likely, case studies that could be probed -- with care, due to privacy issues -- by journalists. The author notes that he has worked with clergy in multiple denominations. He sees no conflict between this work and his academic studies.
The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist -- open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people -- led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.
Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
At this point I was already thinking what many GetReligion readers have clearly been thinking: This is amazing. Why isn't this a news feature? Why is this an op-ed page piece (and a rather courageous one for these editors to run, by the way)?
Hey Post team: Why not bop out to a pub near Georgetown and interview (once again) that rather well known local author William Blatty and take this on as a news topic? Why put this explosive material deep inside the newspaper?
What makes this essay so powerful is Gallagher's tough-minded critique of the fakes and the people who turn medical issues into theological dramas.
But then there are those other cases that he simply cannot explain.
... I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.) He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things -- like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.
I have personally encountered these rationally inexplicable features, along with other paranormal phenomena.
Read it all. Now imagine the reaction of this piece had run as a solid news feature on A1, with Gallagher's experiences backed, off the record, with the voices of the priests. And what do clergy in other faiths say about the demonic?
Meanwhile, would there be experts who would line up to deny what Gallagher has witnessed? Of course. Quote them, too, especially any who have actually taken part in exorcism rites.
Why isn't this a news story? Too hot to handle?