Demonic Foes as Witnessed by a Psychiatrist
In any case, it’s not the exorcist who liberates people — it is Our Lord.
The world’s leading psychiatric authority on demonic activity, Dr. Richard Gallagher gives scientific and psychological insight into the world of Satanic attacks in his new book, Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possessions, Diabolical Attacks, and the Paranormal (HarperCollins, 2020). Although Gallagher was once a skeptic, exorcists began seeking him out for his careful assessments. It soon became obvious that, rarely but definitively, some people were not suffering from psychosis or other psychiatric conditions, but rather from demonic attacks.
Gallagher is a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and a psychoanalyst on the faculty of Columbia University. He graduated Phi Beta Kapp in classics at Princeton and trained as a resident in psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. Gallagher has been an active member of the International Association of Exorcists since its founding in the early 1990s and is now its longest-standing American member.
How did this book come about?
A few years ago I was asked to write an article for The Washington Post. The editor wanted my perspective as a psychiatrist but did not want me to present much evidence. The article got a million hits, but people wanted more evidence. Despite an initial reluctance, I came to believe I should provide it.
One professional goal has been to educate the public about this perennially controversial topic. In part, I have felt an obligation to help ensure that psychiatric patients receive proper care, not misguided rituals. I also wanted to enlighten the public as to the import and reality of these rare diabolical phenomena and about what must be done for someone to receive help. As a committed physician, I wanted to see tormented people set free from things that would oppress or destroy their lives. I’ve dedicated my life to fighting the ravages of mental illness, and I’ve put the same sort of passion into working with people who may suffer from demonic possessions or lesser attacks.
How did you become a consultant to exorcists?
An exorcist [pseudonym “Father Jacques” in the book] came to me for help in evaluating a woman who had traveled 2,000 miles to meet him and was demonstrating signs of what he called a demonic oppression.
Out of caution, he wanted me to assess her for a possible mental or medical illness. When I told him I was open-minded but had a deep skepticism, he told me that was why I was the perfect man for the job. The woman claimed she was being beaten by “invisible spirits” (her words) and had bruises all over on her body. After an exhaustive medical evaluation, I could find no diagnosable psychiatric or medical condition.
Through a series of his and her parish priest’s deliverance prayers and through her own redoubled spiritual efforts, the attacks gradually decreased and eventually went away completely.
Tell me about your most dramatic case.
The woman I call “Julia” was the high priestess of a rare but genuine Satanic cult. I do not use real names in the book, but I had permission from everyone mentioned, including her, to recount her story. I only changed minimal information to protect identities, but the facts of the cases are 100% accurate.
Two highly experienced exorcists working with Julia described her possession as a once-in-a-century case. One of the two [Father Jacques] asked for my opinion and assistance. She came to him for help, and she herself knew she was possessed, but she was conflicted. She didn’t like being possessed, but she liked the psychic “powers” she had and was afraid of retaliation from her cult.
Did you witness any of these powers?
Yes, often. For instance, the night before I met her, around 3am, a loud, screeching noise woke up my wife and me. Our normally well-behaved cats were furiously going at one another. We had to separate them into two different rooms. I met Julia the next morning — Father Jacques brought her to my house. “How did you like those cats last night?” she started off by asking!
She had what’s called in Latin laetra, or “hidden knowledge.” She was aware of matters she could have had no natural way of knowing. She once told me how my own mother died by the precise cause of ovarian cancer, but she did the same thing with a number of other people, too. Later, I called Father Jacques to discuss proposed dates for Julia’s next exorcism, and, though she was hundreds of miles away, a voice interrupted our telephone conversation, telling us to “leave her alone” — the same voice heard during her trances during the exorcisms. Eight people reported that Julia levitated during an exorcism and spoke fluently several foreign languages she did not know at all.
In the book, you seem sympathetic toward Julia at times.
I think that’s a natural reaction, to try to see the good in people and see the part of them that is striving for health and happiness. I was not naïve about her nefarious side as well as the part of her that was terrified of leaving the cult. It had been her home for years, and, as mentioned, she was afraid of its retaliation, creating strongly mixed emotions within her. I realized I was dealing with an intelligent but highly conflicted person, basically the reason the priests wanted me to talk to her.
When the priests first consulted me, it was already obvious that she was possessed to a remarkable degree. She would come in and out of these states where an evil spirit would take take over her consciousness and speak; afterwards she remembered nothing of this state.
What originally drove Julia to the cult?
She claimed it was a long story and that she had a hard life, that her family life wasn’t so great. I did meet her mother once, who seemed a very anxious but pleasant enough person. Julia said she had been sexually abused by a priest as a teenager. She herself felt it didn’t affect her much, but she reported that it drove her away from church and eventually attracted her to a local group of Satanists. While stories of Satanism are often highly exaggerated, her accounts were verifiable and credible. She fell in love with the cult’s leader and had become the “queen,” calling herself Queen Lilith after the name of a legendary demon. Julia was also one of the main “breeders,” she claimed, the group’s using her aborted fetuses in ceremonies, with a physician assistant in the cult performing “legal” abortions, according to her.
How did the story end?
It was a sad ending. Julia had around eight to nine exorcisms then gave up. She was a tortured person. Before she left, she explicitly volunteered her story to me. “I know you’ve tried to help me,” she said. “You seem like a nice man. You can write about me and about what I’ve told you about in my case; just disguise my identity.”
I spoke with Julia a year after the last exorcism. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to be freed from demonic influence before her death. I asked for a report from her oncologist. We never heard from her again. We assume she died but don’t know for sure.
What are the ways people can be attacked?
What are called by the Church as “extraordinary demonic attacks” exist on a continuum. The serious but lesser attacks of “oppressions” often shade into what others may call “partial possessions” — partial control of the person by the spirit. “Possessions” are defined as the control of an individual’s body (though not their will or soul). In an oppression or partial oppression, the victims may suffer greatly in diverse ways, but the demon has much more difficulty submerging their consciousness. During a more “complete” possession the person fully goes into a trance, and the evil spirit often talks through them. I’ve seen over 100 complete possessions and hundreds of partial possessions or severe oppressions. Still, I hasten to stress that these states are not common and much more often people only think they are demonically assaulted; I have seen such a number of examples from all over the country only because I have been so involved in the field.
What does Hollywood get wrong about exorcisms?
Hollywood tends to exaggerate and sensationalize. They also make it seem that the liberation is just the task of the exorcist and does not bring out the fact that spiritual effort and struggle is also required of the victim. If people refuse to cooperate and refuse to renounce their past or evil ways, they are never going to be liberated, as illustrated in Julia’s case.
The spiritual work of conversion is a big part of a person being delivered in conjunction with the prayers of the exorcist. Ultimately, in any case, it’s not the exorcist who liberates people — it is Our Lord.
Can it be difficult to distinguish mental illness from possession?
It can be murky for a while, until one gets all the facts. Sometimes I need to talk with family members and others, but once one is aware of the major details, it becomes fairly obvious for an experienced assessor to distinguish the two. On the other hand, it can happen that a very suggestible person, like “Lily” [another example in the book], can strangely become convinced of being demonically possessed when nothing of the sort is occurring. That is similar of other disorders, as well.
There’s always a context, too, which helps in the discernment process. People don’t just get possessed out of the blue; there is some reason. If someone was involved in intense occult practices, for example, there’s a greater likelihood of serious demonic manifestations down the road.
Can only Catholic priests deliver a possessed person?
Traditional Orthodox beliefs in the Eastern Churches overlap with our own in many respects, with valid sacraments and ordinations, for instance. At least in my experience, the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, with their venerable ritual prayers and established procedures, have the most success. This is not to say that other denominations, through sincere prayers to Our Lord, cannot have fine results, too. I’ve consulted on many Protestant cases that have been delivered. I also sometimes deal with people of other faiths. I have even dealt with Muslims and those of Eastern religions or of no faith who have gotten involved in the occult and been seriously attacked and been delivered, too, in part by turning to God as they know him in sincerity. It happens that a Jewish rabbi or an imam or the victim himself or herself of those traditions may ask me for a referral to a Catholic priest-exorcist. Some have even converted when they begin to understand the spiritual realities they are dealing with.
Keep on mind that people can be saved through the power of Jesus Christ without fully being conscious of that fact. Otherwise, no non-Christian could go to heaven, and that is not the teaching of the Church these days. One can be saved without being Catholic or Christian, but we believe they are still saved by the power of Jesus. Christ died for our sins; he didn’t just die for the sins of Christians.
Have you ever felt personally harassed by demons?
By the grace of God, I’ve never felt directly attacked. But I would not do this work if I did not keep up my own spiritual life and have people praying for me. I would appreciate the prayers of anyone reading this!
Why do you do this work?
I didn’t seek this out; I never volunteered. Like a lot of people, I simply try to understand what God is asking me to do. It’s my vocation as a physician to try and assist suffering people, no matter how controversial or strange a case or “diagnosis” might be. Are we just supposed to ignore these odd cases?
As a consultant, much of my work is pro bono. The “Church” never pays me; but I don’t do this (or speak for) the Church. I do this work for the victims and to help individual clergy; ultimately, I do it for Our Lord.