By James Bishop| Richard Gallagher is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College.
Professor Gallagher is not short of experience on this subject, “For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases – from, literally, the devil’s work.”
He is aware that this is “an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. 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.”
But Gallagher is cognisant of the presence of falsehood and superstition, “Unfortunately, not all clergy involved in this complex field are as cautious as the priest who first approached me. In some circles, there is a tendency to become overly preoccupied with putative demonic explanations and to see the devil everywhere.
Fundamentalist misdiagnoses and absurd or even dangerous “treatments,” such as beating victims, have sometimes occurred, especially in developing countries. This is perhaps why exorcism has a negative connotation in some quarters.” Given this he maintains that “people with psychological problems should receive psychological treatment.”
What he has seen
Although he “was inclined to skepticism,” several convincing phenomena has convinced him – in one striking case, explains Gallagher, a “subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training.” This woman in question “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.”
On other occasions possessed individuals “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…
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.”
Gallagher is quite confident that he has
“seen the real thing… I have personally encountered these rationally inexplicable features, along with other paranormal phenomena.
My vantage is unusual: As a consulting doctor, I think I have seen more cases of possession than any other physician in the world.”
Real possession vs pseudo-possession
But Gallagher is quite aware of falsity and, what is know as, “pseudo-possession.” This is because it may well be the case that “individuals who think they are being attacked by malign spirits are generally experiencing nothing of the sort.
Practitioners see psychotic patients all the time who claim to see or hear demons; histrionic or highly suggestible individuals, such as those suffering from dissociative identity syndromes; and patients with personality disorders who are prone to misinterpret destructive feelings.”
Elsewhere he finds that indeed “Ignorance and superstition have often surrounded stories of demonic possession in various cultures, and surely many alleged episodes can be explained by fraud, chicanery or mental pathology.” Thus Gallagher is careful to judge the symptoms to his best ability but, he asks, “what am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?”
However, Gallagher always approaches “each situation with an initial skepticism. I technically do not make my own “diagnosis” of possession but inform the clergy that the symptoms in question have no conceivable medical cause.” He knows all to well how that a misdiagnosis (“pseudo-possession”) can render a negative image of the reality of the demonic.
As of now, he explains, that “the American Psychiatric Association has no official opinion on these affairs, the field (like society at large) is full of unpersuadable skeptics and occasionally doctrinaire materialists who are often oddly vitriolic in their opposition to all things spiritual.”
Yet, Gallagher explains, he has been “pleasantly surprised by the number of psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners nowadays who are open to entertaining such hypotheses. Many believe exactly what I do, though they may be reluctant to speak out.”
Weighing the evidence
“As a man of reason, I’ve had to rationalize the seemingly irrational. Questions about how a scientifically trained physician can believe “such outdated and unscientific nonsense,” as I’ve been asked, have a simple answer. I honestly weigh the evidence.
I have been told simplistically that levitation defies the laws of gravity, and, well, of course it does! We are not dealing here with purely material reality, but with the spiritual realm. One cannot force these creatures to undergo lab studies or submit to scientific manipulation; they will also hardly allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment, as skeptics sometimes demand.”
But “multiple depictions of the same phenomena in astonishingly consistent ways offer cumulative evidence of their credibility.”
Thus, Gallagher appeals, “As a psychoanalyst, a blanket rejection of the possibility of demonic attacks seems less logical, and often wishful in nature, than a careful appraisal of the facts.”
Gallagher, R. 2016. As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession. Available.