Science not Satan
A few months ago, I wrote about exorcism and the fact that over 50% of Americans still believe in demon possession. It’s such a terrible contributor to the stigma surrounding mental illness that I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
When I’m stuck on a topic like this, I start reading everything I can find. I've spent months poring over articles about priests and devils.
“And I can't get it out of my head." -- Electric Light Orchestra
Recently, I stumbled across a fascinating article by Mike Mariani in The Atlantic titled “American Exorcism.” In it, Mariani writes about our country's growing interest in exorcism and the various steps that Catholic priests take during the ritual. But the focus of the story is Louisa, a woman whose chilling experiences certainly make her seem targeted by an evil spirit. When you read it, the hairs on the back of your neck will begin standing on end.
I found myself intrigued—not because I thought a demon was actually haunting Louisa—but because it all seemed so real to her. And her husband, who witnessed several “possessions” and captured one on video, seemed certain that a spirit had entered his wife’s body. Even one of her psychiatrists admitted that she had never seen anything like it. Clearly, it’s cases like these that drive a belief in the supernatural and, admittedly, are hard to explain.
But Mariani hints at a possible answer, referencing a specific mental illness called Dissociative Identify Disorder (DID). I referred to the official manual of the psychiatric world, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or “DSM” for short), to learn more about DID. The DSM defines it as “a disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states.” These different personality states, or alters, are classified into sub-types. Several of these different alters can exist within the same person. For example, a common sub-type is the child alter, where an adult personality might live in the same body as its child alter. One might also have an opposite-sex, teen, protector or any number of other identities. As I kept reading, I discovered that one less common sub-type is the “demon, demonic, or evil” alter.
“She's just a devil woman." -- Cliff Richards
Most cases of DID are caused by suffering, usually childhood trauma. Before someone’s personality has had the opportunity to fully develop, they experience something so upsetting that the brain fractures, tucking that extreme pain into a section of the mind that can be kept apart. Indeed, many cases of DID include dissociative amnesia—one alter is not able to access the memories of another. Simply put, it’s a survival mechanism for extreme trauma. Our brains are so powerful that to protect us from past horrors, they’ve devised a way to eliminate the memories.
But the brain is even more amazing. Listen to this: Different alters can have altogether different biological markers. What that means is that someone’s heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and similar measures—even responses to medication—can be dependent upon which alter is controlling their mental state. One alter can be diabetic while the other is not. In fact, a person can have different immunological responses depending on their identity. One alter could have different allergies than the other alters in the same biological body!
In this light, the spooky experiences of people like Louisa can be better explained and understood. Demonic alters are the result of children who have been abused or otherwise hurt and are then tricked into believing that they deserved their punishment. Forming the alter is the only way the poor child can cope with the guilt of what happened. Sadly, the “evil” side of their personality is given its own identity and remains with the individual as they grow. Given the brain's incredible power, it’s not surprising that these alters might remember Latin phrases they heard in prayer, other languages they overhead in conversation, or assume the personas and mannerisms that society and the Church typically associate with demons: low, guttural voices, a hatred of religious symbols, and names like Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Satan.
All of this explains Louisa’s situation, especially given that she was molested by a family member as a child. One of the priests that Mariani interviews states that “as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors.” The Catholic Church believes that childhood sexual abuse creates a “soul wound” that makes someone more vulnerable to demons. But what’s more likely, that an evil spirit infiltrated Louisa’s body or that a proven mental illness developed in response to her extreme PTSD?
The answer is clear, and as a society we need to accept it. We should show victims like Louisa compassion and support; they need trained clinicians with tools that can actually help, not priests with holy water and Middle Aged scriptures. Instead, we’d rather cling to outdated notions of supernatural spirits. It allows us to hide the fact that serious mental illness exists and justifies us ignoring those who suffer, exacerbating a stigma that already causes too much damage.
It’s a travesty, and we need to stop. When it comes to supernatural vs. science, as investigative journalist and podcaster Carrie Poppy says: