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The Shrink Who Assists Exorcists

When it takes more faith not to believe in the demonic

Writing in the Washington Post, psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry Richard Gallagher talks about his many years of helping Catholic exorcists. He believes that almost all cases of people who believe they are demonically possessed are examples of mental illness. But he absolutely believes that demons are real, and so is possession. Excerpts:

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. 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. It’s 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 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. My vantage is unusual: As a consulting doctor, I think I have seen more cases of possession than any other physician in the world.


Most of the people I evaluate in this role suffer from the more prosaic problems of a medical disorder. Anyone even faintly familiar with mental illnesses knows 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, in what exorcists sometimes call a “pseudo-possession,” via the defense mechanism of an externalizing projection. But what am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?

Read the whole thing. 

One good point Gallagher makes in the piece is that there’s really no point in trying to convince those who are unconvince-able. The point is to help those who are suffering. Nearly 25 years ago, when I first met a Louisiana exorcist who became a friend (and who later was able to help our family deal with a poltergeist situation), I asked him how people found him, and once they found him, how they convinced themselves that he could help them.

“By the time they find me,” he said, “they don’t need to be convinced of anything.”

The friend who sent me a link to this article added:

Btw, the missionaries that I worked with in Uganda (all highly rational/educated Presbyterians) had stories like this…crazy things they’d witnessed. 

Yep. In my experience, if you spend any time talking to people from Africa or Haiti, you will hear things that will blow your mind. On this blog last year, I wrote about talking to a Haitian taxi driver in Boston about voodoo and the demonic. I could tell by the name on his taxi license that he was Haitian, and he was listening to a Christian radio station, which is why I struck up a conversation with him about it. He spoke with real passion about all the college professors from Harvard, MIT, and Boston College he drove around in his cab who struck up the same conversations with him, and refused to believe him when he would talk about the things he had seen and heard in his life in Haiti. It frustrated him to no end. He wasn’t talking about stories he had heard, but things he had personally witnessed.

It is critically important not to be quick to believe. But it’s also critically important not to close your mind so tight that you cannot see what’s right in front of your nose. My friend Julie Lyons, a Dallas journalist who told me hair-raising stories of supernatural evil she saw in Africa, wrote a wild piece for D Magazine a couple of years ago about a pair of West Texas Protestant exorcists. You see this stuff with your own eyes, especially if you see it more than once (as I have), and it takes far more faith not to believe in its existence.