Exorcism and the Endangered Future of Psychotherapy

 On  exorcism and the endangered future of psychotherapy.

Posted Apr 10, 2008



Exorcism--the ritualistic expulsion of evil spirits inhabiting body, brain or place--has been practiced in some form throughout history, and is probably the prototype of modern psychotherapy. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, was a trained exorcist. Jesus of Nazareth is reputed to have healed individuals suffering from mental and physical symptoms by casting out demons. Now, more than two millennia later, the Roman Catholic Church is secretly educating a new crop of exorcists to meet a rapidly rising demand for exorcisms in Italy, Australia, America and elsewhere around the globe. Here in the U.S., where there is an acute shortage of formally trained exorcists, burgeoning numbers of suffering souls--some deeply disillusioned with or wary of what mainstream psychology and psychiatry have to offer--are desperately turning to exorcism to expel their debilitating "devils" and "demons."

This widespread explosion of interest in exorcism was confirmed by a Washington Post article (Feb. 10, 2008) titled "Exorcism makes a comeback in Europe: Citing modern ills, hundreds of priests have trained to expel the devil." In that anachronistic news report, a Catholic priest in Poland routinely conducting twenty exorcisms per week explains, " ' there is a group of people who cannot get relief through any other practices and who need peace.' " Another priest who holds a doctorate in theology and serves as the resident exorcist at a psychological counseling center outside Warsaw, states that "the institute realized they needed an exorcist on staff after encountering an increase in people plagued by evil.' " The article notes that, in keeping with current Vatican policy, exorcists regularly consult with psychologists and psychiatrists in an effort to differentiate mental disorders from bona fide demonic possession. But according to one busy practitioner, " 'My remedy is based on spiritual means, which cannot be replaced by any pharmaceutical remedies. . . .I do not stop at the level of just treating symptoms. I'm very much interested in the soul of a person. As a priest, I keep asking questions a doctor will never ask.' "

Perhaps it's time psychologists start asking some of those same questions. What is exorcism? How does it heal? Can we learn something valuable about psychotherapy from exorcism? Are there certain techniques employed by exorcists that psychologists should consider when treating angry, psychotic or violent patients? Are there vital existential or spiritual questions addressed by exorcism--for example, the riddle of evil--that psychotherapy detrimentally neglects?

In one of my previous posts, "Dangerous States of Mind," I alluded to the infamous Andrea Yates filicide case. By the time she deliberately drowned her five children in 2001, Yates was convinced she was possessed. Satan himself, said Yates, compelled her to carry out her evil deed. How can we make sense of her delusions and diabolically destructive behavior? Postpartum depression? Schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Or was Yates, as she fervently believed, a hapless victim of "possession"? And if so, what exactly is that? What is evil? Where does it come from? What is our relationship to it? Is it a proper subject of study for psychology and psychiatry? And how can we better deal with it?

The idea of demonic possession is a metaphysical, theological or spiritual explanation for human evil. The Exorcist (1973), a film based on William Peter Blattey's book about an allegedly true case, provides a highly dramatized depiction of evil, possession and exorcism, and stimulated renewed public fascination with what I call the "possession syndrome" (1996). Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck (1983) draws a distinction (like the Catholic Church, but mistaken in my view) between demonic possession and mental illness. Depth psychologists C.G. Jung (in his concept of the shadow) and Rollo May (1969) provide psychologically sophisticated, secular theories of human evil and daimonic (as opposed to demonic) possession which do not demand literal belief in the devil or demons. (I discuss these matters in detail in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.)

Possession has been a well-documented phenomenon occurring across cultures in virtually every era. But the term possession is seldom mentioned in the psychiatric and psychological literature. Instead, we speak of obsession, which has similar intrusive, involuntary, egodystonic qualities. Or we refer to "multiple personality disorder" (dissociative identity disorder), in which one or more sub-personalities temporarily take possession of the person against his or her will. Or we diagnose bipolar disorder in those possessed by mania, irritability or melancholy, and intermittent explosive disorder to describe someone repeatedly possessed or overtaken by uncontrollable rage. It must be admitted that the archetypal phenomenon known historically as "possession" persists today in differing forms and varying degrees. The only difference is the way in which we now attempt to explain and treat it.

Phenomenologically, the subjective experience of possession--feeling influenced by some foreign, alien force beyond the ego's control-- is, to some extent, an experiential aspect of most mental disorders. Patients frequently speak of symptoms, unacceptable impulses, thoughts or emotions as ego-alien, and uncharacteristic moods or destructive behaviors as "not being myself," commonly exclaiming "I don't know what got into me," or wondering "What possessed me to do that?" Presently, such disturbing symptoms are hypothesized by psychiatry to be due primarily to some underlying neurological or biochemical aberration. Biochemistry, in the form of the tiny neurotransmitter, has become our postmodern demon du jour for which all manner of evils are blamed.

Most psychotherapy does not adequately treat the possession syndrome. For some bedeviled individuals, the traditional ritual of exorcism or myth of "demonic possession" serve to make more sense of their suffering than the scientific, secular, biochemical explanations and cognitive-behavioral theories proffered these days by mainstream psychiatry and psychology. If psychotherapy as a healing of the soul (not just the mind) is to survive and thrive into the future, our recent overemphasis on cognition, behavior, genetics, neurology and biochemistry must be counterbalanced by the inclusion of the spiritual and depth psychological dimension of human existence.

The truth is, most psychotherapy patients need far more than what pharmaceutical intervention and/or cognitive restructuring--the two most popular "evidence-based" modalities today--can provide. They need and deserve support and accompaniment through their painful, frightening, disorienting, perilous spiritual or existential crises, their "dark night of the soul." They need a psychologically meaningful method to confront their metaphorical devils and demons, their repressed anger or rage, and the reality of evil. They need a secular psychotherapy willing to ask the right questions.