Patti Armstrong is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious. She has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their 10 children.
Eternity is a long time to be lost to the netherworld, so those in the exorcism ministry fight for souls with everything they’ve got. And they’ve got a lot. It is the power of Jesus Christ who does battle for them, but Jesus is in the business of saving souls, not taking hostages.
Victims of demonic possession must ultimately exercise their own free will and cooperate to win their freedom. Not everyone has the fight in them. Julia did not. The 39-year-old woman had gone to her priest claiming she was possessed. He referred her to Dr. Richard Gallagher for a mental health evaluation.
Gallagher is an Ivy-League trained — at Princeton and Yale —psychiatrist working in Westchester County, New York, with a private practice. He’s also on the faculty at Columbia University and New York Medical College. Gallagher has been the longest-standing American attendee at the meetings of the now Rome-based International Association of Exorcists in Italy, and for a time, he was the only psychiatrist on its governing board.
Gallagher explained that Julia—the pseudonym he gave her—was the “creepiest” as well as the most astounding case he has ever encountered in his 25 years as a consultant for a network of exorcists across the country.
In his work, Gallagher has found that the majority of those whom he is asked to assess and who think they are possessed are not. Out of the many thousands of consultations he has done over the years, only about one hundred were actually possessed. Many more than that, however, have suffered from oppression, which are physical attacks and harassment from the devil as opposed to taking actual possession of a body.
How does a psychiatrist discern between mental illness and the demonic? “I take a careful history,” Gallagher explained. “Once I get the whole story, when there is a pattern of symptoms that don’t fit a psychiatric profile but generally include certain specific, characteristic indicators of a demonic attack, I can discern a clear difference between the medical and spiritual cases.” He includes testimony from others such as family, friends and priests.
The more severe cases have paranormal features. There is typically—but not always—an obvious entry point based on the victim’s choices. “Someone might turn to evil or Satanism in a weak moment or bargain with Satan for X, Y and Z,” he said. “Sometimes a possession is so obvious that almost anyone can tell.”
Surrounded by the Paranormal
Julia was obvious. She referred to herself as the high priestess of a satanic cult and looked the part, with dark flowing clothing and black eye shadow. However, it was not how she looked but what she did that revealed the evil grip on her.
“Her life was filled with the paranormal,” Gallagher said. “The night before I first saw her, our cats went wild in the middle of the night. When I met her the next day, she asked me: ‘Dr. Gallagher, how did you like those cats?”
He did not like it one bit. “I told her if she was ever involved in doing anything like that again, I would refuse to assess her for her exorcist,” he said. “Another time, I was talking on the phone with her priest about having a session with her, and Julia’s voice came over the phone, screaming at the priest in a demonic voice.” At the time, she was thousands of miles away.
Julia was more than just creepy, according to Gallagher, she was a mystery. Although she had requested an exorcism, she was still actively involved in the cult. “Julia was perfectly aware that she was possessed and she did not like that,” he said. “It turned out that she refused to leave the cult, so she was not someone who was going to be helped. But she was also afraid of the cult. She was torn.”
Gallagher said it was an open question: Did Julia really want help, or did she just want to cause trouble for the priest? Or was she having trouble getting away from the cult? They were not sure.
“It was the most amazing case I ever been involved in or heard of in the modern era,” Gallagher said. “Julia was willing to talk with me and gave me permission to write her story.” He was an integral part of a support team of priests, deacons, several lay assistants, nuns, and other mental health professionals, as well. Many would attend Julia’s exorcisms. They all met in the chapel of a house.
In the March 2008 issue of the New Oxford Review, Gallagher reported on Julia’s case. He explained that team members observed Julia periodically fall into trances accompanied by threats and taunts such as: “Leave her alone, you idiot… She’s ours… Leave, you imbecile priest!”
The voice was sometimes guttural and vaguely masculine and high pitched at other times. Julia’s comments usually expressed hatred for anything religious. Animal-like growls—un-human-like sounds—also came from her. Sometimes objects flew off shelves and Julia knew things about team members she had no natural way of knowing. For instance, she knew that Gallagher’s mother had died from ovarian cancer.
He wrote: “At one point, the voices spoke in foreign languages, including recognizable Latin and Spanish. (Julia herself only spoke English, as she later verified to us.) The voices were noticeably attacking in nature, and often insolent, blasphemous and highly scatological. They cursed and insulted the participants in the crudest way. They were frequently threatening—trying, it appeared, to fight back—‘Leave her alone,’ ‘You’ll be sorry,’ and the like.
“Julia also exhibited enormous strength. Despite the religious sisters and three others holding her down with all their might, they struggled to restrain her. Remarkably, for about 30 minutes, she actually levitated about half a foot in the air.”
Julia had eight exorcisms in all. “True possession can sometimes be taken care of in one exorcism but other times it can take years,” Gallagher said. “It can depend on the willingness of the victims to help themselves. The exorcism makes the demonic hold on the person weaker, but the person’s response also influences the outcome.”
Even though she was still possessed, Julia quit after the eighth session. “She was conflicted,” Gallagher said. “She enjoyed some of the powers she had.“
A year after Julia had dropped out, she called Gallagher and asked him to intervene with the exorcist so that she could resume. “Why do you want to come back?” Gallagher wanted to know.
Julia said she was dying of cancer. Gallagher offered to discuss her request with the team. “But I told her that I would need to talk with her oncologist as well as the priest-exorcist and get the state of her health and diagnosis,” he said. “But we never heard from her again. We think she died.”
To Relieve Suffering
Despite the extreme nature of Julia’s case and the type of work Gallagher is involved in (although it only makes up only a small part of his practice) he said that what he sees is just a subset of evil. Things like the Holocaust and the brutalities of war are just as much related to the work of the devil, according to him.
“These people suffer (through possession) but a lot of people suffer,” he said. “God is not causing it but he allows fallen angels to have some sway in the world. Some of it involves the fact that we have free will—free will to do good and free will to do spectacular evil.”
As a doctor, Gallagher said he sees his work as a duty to help to relieve suffering in the world, just as Jesus showed us in Scripture. “Jesus was clearly the most effective exorcist in history,” he said. “He used miracles as well as driving out demons as signs of his power. The Church still uses that power to this day.”
It is that power and the power of prayers for protection that Gallagher said gives him confidence in the work that he does. “I don’t feel fearful,” he said. “I believe I am on the winning side.”