Giving the Devil His Due: Exorcism, Psychotherapy, and the Possession Syndrome

What is the public's fascination with possession and exorcism?

Posted Aug 27, 2010

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 initially an 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 apparently an acute shortage of formally trained exorcists, burgeoning numbers of suffering souls, some deeply disillusioned with or wary of what mainstream psychology and psychiatry offer them these days, are desperately turning to exorcism to expiate their debilitating "devils" and "demons." This explosion of interest today 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 stunning 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 high 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 neglects to its and the patient's detriment?

This question as to the true nature of what I call the "possession syndrome" is at the very crux of the matter regarding exorcism: Exorcism is the traditional treatment for possession. What is possession? Is so-called demonic possession a psychological phenomenon, a form of psychosis or another as yet ill-defined mental disorder? Or is it the work of the Devil, and irrefutable proof of Satan's powerful reality? In what was literally my very first posting here, "Dangerous States of Mind," I alluded to and subsequently discussed 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 incredibly 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 "demonic possession"? And if so, what exactly is that? What is evil? Where does it come from? What is our relationship to it? Is evil and possession a proper subject of study for psychology and psychiatry? And, if so, how can we better deal with and treat it as psychotherapists?

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, subjectively disturbing qualities. Or we refer to "multiple personality disorder" (Dissociative Identity Disorder), in which one or more sub-personalities temporarily take possession of the person seemingly against his or her will. (See my prior post.) Or we diagnose Bipolar Disorder in those possessed by mania, irritability or melancholy, and Intermittent Explosive Disorder (see my prior post) 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.

The subjective experience of possession--feeling powerfully influenced by some foreign, alien force beyond the ego's control-- is, to some extent, an aspect of most mental disorders. Obsessive-Complusive Disorder, for example, consists of undesired ideas intruding unbidden into one's thoughts as though someone or something else has internally taken control of the mind. Other 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 believed by psychiatry (and sadly, increasingly by clinical psychology) to be primarily due 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 conveniently blamed. Not unlike the religious scapegoat of the Devil.

Despite its continued prevalence in varying forms, most psychotherapy does not adequately treat the possession syndrome. For some bedeviled individuals, the traditional ritual of exorcism or myth of "demonic possession" serves to make more sense of their suffering than the scientific, secular, biochemical explanations and cognitive-behavioral theories proffered these days by conventional mainstream psychiatry and psychology. If psychotherapy as a healing of the soul (not just the mind) is to survive and thrive into the next century, our obsession with cognition, behavior, genetics, neurology and biochemistry must be counterbalanced by the inclusion of the spiritual and depth psychological dimension of human existence.