I’ve been thinking about what to say about this much-discussed Atlantic piece on exorcism, which is why I haven’t posted on it yet. As regular readers know, I take this phenomenon very seriously. A friend’s wife is under the care of an exorcist now, in fact. Take a look at these excerpts:
Perhaps as a result, demand for exorcisms—the Catholic Church’s antidote to demonic possession—seems to be growing as well. Though the Church does not keep official statistics, the exorcists I interviewed for this article attest to fielding more pleas for help every year.
Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told me in early October that he’d received 1,700 phone or email requests for exorcisms in 2018, by far the most he’s ever gotten in one year. Father Gary Thomas—a priest whose training as an exorcist in Rome was documented in The Rite, a book published in 2009 and made into a movie in 2011—said that he gets at least a dozen requests a week. Several other priests reported that without support from church staff and volunteers, their exorcism ministries would quickly swallow up their entire weekly schedules.
The Church has been training new exorcists in Chicago, Rome, and Manila. Thomas told me that in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists. Today, he said, there are well over 100. Other exorcists I spoke with put the number between 70 and 100. (Again, no official statistics exist, and most dioceses conceal the identity of their appointed exorcist, to avoid unwanted attention.)
I remember asking an exorcist once how he convinced people that they needed his services. He told me, in a quiet voice, “By the time they find me, they don’t need convincing.”
Catholic priests use a process called discernment to determine whether they’re dealing with a genuine case of possession. In a crucial step, the person requesting an exorcism must undergo a psychiatric evaluation with a mental-health professional. The vast majority of cases end there, as many of the individuals claiming possession are found to be suffering from psychiatric issues such as schizophrenia or a dissociative disorder, or to have recently gone off psychotropic medication.
Actual exorcisms are rare. Here, I think, is the most interesting thing about the Atlantic piece. “Louisa” is Louisa Muskovits, a Washington woman who opens up about to writer Mike Mariani about her struggles with the demonic:
According to Catholic doctrine, in order to take possession of a person in the first place, demons rely on doorways—what the priest in Orlando warned Louisa about. These can include things like habitual sin and family curses—in which an act of violence or iniquity committed by one generation manifests itself in subsequent generations. But the priests I spoke with kept coming back, over and over, to two particular doorways.
Nearly every Catholic exorcist I spoke with cited a history of abuse—in particular, sexual abuse—as a major doorway for demons. Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors. According to these priests, sexual abuse is so traumatic that it creates a kind of “soul wound,” as Thomas put it, that makes a person more vulnerable to demons.
The exorcists—to be clear—aren’t saying sexual abuse torments people to such an extent that they come to believe they’re possessed; the exorcists contend that abuse fosters the conditions for actual demonic possession to take hold. But from a secular standpoint, the link to sexual abuse helps explain why someone might become convinced that he or she is being menaced by something sinister and overpowering.
The correlation with abuse struck me as eerie, given the scandals that have rocked the Church. But it doesn’t seem to answer the “why now?” question behind exorcism’s comeback; no evidence exists to suggest that child abuse has increased. The second doorway—an interest in the occult—might offer at least a partial explanation.
Most of the exorcists I interviewed said they believed that demonic possession was becoming more common—and they cited a resurgence in magic, divination, witchcraft, and attempts to communicate with the dead as a primary cause. According to Catholic teaching, engaging with the occult involves accessing parts of the spiritual realm that may be inhabited by demonic forces. “Those practices become the engine that allows the demon to come in,” Thomas said.
In recent years, journalists and academics have documented a renewed interest in magic, astrology, and witchcraft, primarily among Millennials. “The occult is a substitution for God,” Thomas said. “People want to take shortcuts, and the occult is all about power and knowledge.”
In my own informal investigation of this phenomenon, I have been deeply moved by the role sexual abuse plays. It has something to do with why I reacted so very strongly to the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Something about sexual abuse puts cracks into the foundation of one’s psyche through which evil discarnate intelligences can migrate. I don’t know how it works, and it’s certainly not the moral fault of the victim. But (and this is important): because we cannot come up with a satisfying explanation for why this happens does not mean that we can ignore that it happens.
As I wrote in the must-read third update to this transgender post, trans writer Andrea Long Chu’s description of “sissy porn” and how it can provoke transgenderism in susceptible viewers is a close approximation of how demonic possession works. The assault on the personality, including prying open the crack of a person’s sense of self-loathing, and convincing the victim to long for relief through surrender to the dominant force trying to possess him — and ultimately craving for the annihilation of the personality through total submission.
It’s not only sexual abuse, though. According to the information the exorcist has gained from his work so far, my friend’s wife was initially in danger because (unknown to her), her grandfather back in the old country was heavily involved with the occult. She suffered as a teenager from severe depression, and attempted suicide. This gave the evil spirits an opportunity. Believe me, the things that woman and those who love her have been going through as they struggle with this would demolish any strictly materialist explanation.
For those who become possessed without having involved themselves with the occult, the key seems to be some combination of self-hatred and trauma. But there is mystery too. Not everyone who despises himself and/or is traumatized, sexually or otherwise, becomes possessed.
As you read in the story, Louisa was traumatized sexually in childhood, and also turned to dabbling in the occult as an adult (e.g., Ouija board, crystals). Read the whole thing.
For some reason I find myself thinking now about one of the most intriguing conversations of my life. It was on a bus last year. I found myself sitting next to a clean-cut young white man who appeared to be in his early 30s. We fell into easy conversation. He told me a long story about how he had been raised in a prosperous family, but was not satisfied with what upper middle class materialism had to offer. After college he went to live among Indians — I can’t remember where or who they were — and apprenticed himself to a shaman.
He spent years learning about plants, and plant spirits. He did not talk at all like the New Age dabbler I expected him to be. This man was deep, and very serious. He told me that had I met him only a short time ago, I would have seen someone who appeared very different. His shaman told him to leave and to return to the world. His path, said the shaman, was not there with the native people. When I met him, the young man was returning to his parents to work with his father.
As I read these last two paragraphs, I can imagine that you are rolling your eyes at them (well, not you, Franklin Evans, but everybody else). But I’m telling you, this man was not remotely spacey or woo-woo. He spoke with the quiet conviction of a physician. I remember him telling me how much he learned from immersing himself in the world of the Indians under the tutelage of the shaman. He said that he thought he knew so much about the world, growing up as a privileged, educated Westerner, but in fact he was blind to so much reality. I recall that he was somewhat amused by what he took to be the arrogance of Western, industrialized, educated people, and their reflexive materialism. He told me that the kind of people I call WEIRDoes (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people) get themselves into all kinds of trouble with their naive dismissal of the spiritual realm.
What was so interesting about it, in retrospect, was that the young man wasn’t angry, or evangelistic about his beliefs, or anything like that. He was certainly no Christian. I suspect he was some sort of animist. He had about him a gently ironic spirit, as if he appreciated how bizarre his history was. I really liked that about him. His demeanor reminded me of the stance my father and all those country men took towards rich city folks — lawyers and doctors usually — who would come up to the West Feliciana swamp to deer hunt on winter weekends. The city men carried themselves like they knew everything about the woods, but in fact they knew very little. My dad and his friends didn’t make fun of them, and in fact they tried to help them. But mostly they got a kick out of the distance between what those wealthy, well-educated, accomplished worldly men thought they knew about the world, and the way the world actually worked.
The shaman’s apprentice spoke of materialism as if it were a kind of fundamentalism. Which it is.