The exorcist

In his new book, mega-selling self-help author M. Scott Peck asserts that demonic possession is real -- and tells the story of two exorcisms he conducted himself.

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The exorcist

In 1978, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck published “The Road Less Traveled,” a book that melded his interests in psychotherapy and spirituality. A bracing snap-out-of-it call for individual responsibility, difficult decision-making and the abolishment of laziness as the keys to mental health and happiness, it sold over 7 million copies. It was also one of the building blocks of the nation’s infatuation with the school of psycho-spiritual therapy commonly referred to as self-help.

Twenty-seven years and a dozen books later, Peck, who was baptized a nondenominational Christian at age 40, is publishing what he says will be his last book. And it’s a doozy — one that aims to scientifically examine and report on the rather radical notion that some people who appear to suffer from mental illness may in fact be possessed by demons, or by Satan himself. “Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Account of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption” chronicles Peck’s work as an exorcist more than 20 years ago in two cases of satanic possession. He’s written briefly about both cases before, in “People of the Lie,” his book about the role of evil in human nature. But in “Glimpses of the Devil” Peck “comes out” as the actual exorcist in both examples — the only two exorcisms he says he’s ever performed.

Peck’s path toward encountering what he believes to be demonic possession began with the publication of “The Road Less Traveled,” which received a positive write-up from Malachi Martin, a priest and the nation’s most public exorcist. Peck took a liking to Martin and dedicated “Glimpses of the Devil” to him. Peck expressed an interest in evaluating patients Martin considered possessed, anxious to scientifically prove, he writes, that there is no such thing as demonic possession.

But when Martin referred a young mother from the Southwest to Peck for evaluation, Peck’s mind was gradually changed. In “Jersey,” he encountered a woman who claimed to have been possessed by demons for 15 years. She is Peck’s first case study, and her exorcism, as recounted in the first half of “Glimpses of the Devil,” is a sedate and civilized affair, almost disappointingly free of the kind of bile-spitting, levitating, teeth-gnashing we know from movies like William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Peck and his team gradually expunge each of Jersey’s demons, finally arriving at Satan himself. But it’s all pretty low-key; at one point, the exorcism team breaks for cocktails, inviting poor possessed Jersey to join them. At another, Peck and his patient go out together for a much needed smoke break.



But Peck’s second possessed patient, a middle-aged, severely depressed, suicidal woman he calls “Beccah,” yields substantially scarier narrative results. For large portions of her exorcisms, Peck writes that Beccah seemed to transform into a snub-nosed, coiled snake. She attempts to bite her exorcism team, has to be forcibly restrained, and bucks violently when touched with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. She tries to escape, and puts her hand through a bathroom window. Beccah’s exorcism is ultimately a failure; she becomes repossessed and several years later dies as a result of cancer, though her doctor admits that she may also have succeeded in killing herself.

Peck, now what he called “an old 68″ and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, spoke to Salon by phone from his home in Connecticut about why it was so important to write this book, the disapprobation he’ll likely face from the scientific community, and about the devil in the Supreme Court.

As a devout religious person and a doctor, you write about how important you feel it is to make scientific inquiries about religious beliefs, and this book proposes that demonic possession is a condition psychiatrists should investigate. But how do you juggle other conflicts between theology and science, like the divide between creationists and those who believe in evolution?

Well the whole conflict between science and religion is ridiculous and shouldn’t exist. I believe that psychiatry and religion, instead of the enemies they are and have been for 350 years, are natural friends and ought to work together. For example, psychiatry can tell you a great deal about how to get rid of obstacles in your path but doesn’t say much about what path to take. Religion doesn’t say much about removing obstacles but can say what path to take.

As for creationism vs. evolution, creationism is ridiculous if you’re going to say that everything was created in six days and that it happened 7,000 years ago. On the other side of the coin, it is quite astonishing that in Genesis I the sequence of creation is exactly the sequence in which creation evolved; I see no conflict there. The problem scientists have is admitting that God had anything to do with creation. I believe God was deeply involved in the creation, but he was involved — or she was involved — over the course of millions of years.

So what were the symptoms of the two patients you treated for possession that convinced you that there was more than mental illness in play?

Possession is a rare phenomenon and is related to evil, but possessed people are not actually evil; they are doing battle with the forces of evil. I am getting old and this is my last book and I felt I had an obligation to record these two cases in which I was involved. I felt it would be a sin to go to my grave leaving them untold and wanted them told as scientifically as possible.

These were not cases of standard psychopathology. I stumbled on the first case not thinking I would find signs [of possession] because I wanted to scientifically prove that the devil did not exist. But the evidence I found defied my belief and I ended up being converted.

In the first case after talking with [Jersey] for three hours and talking with her family, I felt that she was a bit overly dramatic and naive, symptoms of hysteria. I found her pressured in speech and that she had some odd ideas, which would go along with schizophrenia. And so thinking that a combination of schizophrenia and hysteria fit a borderline personality disorder, I was already mentally packing my bags to leave. But after three hours of talking about her demons she said, “I feel sorry for them.” That stopped me in my tracks. I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “They’re such weak and pathetic creatures.” And this caused me to prick up my ears, because thinking in terms of standard psychodynamics, if someone wanted to make up demons they’d want to make up strong, hairy demons, not weak, pathetic ones. As I would later discover, within cases of possession, it’s a common phenomenon [for demons] to try and lull their victim into thinking he or she doesn’t have much to be afraid of.

Then, as in the later case with Beccah, as time went on there were other pieces that didn’t fit, and I began to think they might be signs of possession and so explored it more. It’s not a diagnosis one can make instantly or should make instantly. In one case it took about seven months and in the other it was about nine months from the time we first began to consider a diagnosis of possession until we felt sure enough to go ahead with an exorcism, which is a massive therapeutic onslaught equivalent to brain surgery or open-heart surgery.

Before the exorcisms for both Jersey and Beccah, you performed deliverances. What is the difference between deliverance and exorcism?

Deliverance is a brief procedure and a gentle one that can be done without restraints. It should be done with at least two people and can be done in the course of an afternoon. It’s very quiet and peaceful, mostly people just praying, and as the delivery progresses it becomes obvious that there is a problem that sometimes can be taken care of, as it was temporarily in Beccah’s case, by simply identifying some kind of demonic presence and ordering it out. It’s all very peaceful and easy and simple. One authority, Dr. Francis MacNutt, who is very responsible in this area, makes a distinction between oppression and possession. Oppression is like a city where the enemy has gotten hold of a couple of suburbs but does not in any way control the whole city. As far as possession, he describes it as a city where the city center and the radio stations and roadways have all been captured by the enemy, and you need a massive onslaught to get the enemy out of there, and that’s an exorcism.

In an exorcism the No. 1 exorcist ultimately is the patient himself or herself. The successful end of exorcism, the expulsion of the demon, occurs only when a patient chooses to sever his or her relation with the demonic. There are four levels of things going on in exorcism and the most important factor is the patient’s choice. The second is, I believe, that God literally comes into the room and helps out. The kind of change the patient makes is so radical that I’m not sure it can be accomplished without the assistance of God. The third is the team [of assistants] that operates as a community, something which the patient and the demonic have perhaps never experienced. The fourth is the exorcist himself — or hopefully herself, one of these days — who is crucial to success since it is he who makes the diagnosis and gathers the team together.

So I gather from your last response that there are no female exorcists?

I do not know of one and do not know of any reason there should not be one.

You describe your difficult search for an exorcist for Jersey. How hard is it to find an exorcist these days?

Damn near impossible. As my mentor, Malachi Martin, who kind of tricked me into being an exorcist by saying he couldn’t do it himself, told me when I asked him to please refer me to a good exorcist, [in Irish brogue] “Really, it’s not exactly like there’s a directory of them!” And we unfortunately are in the same place today. This was 25 years ago.

Before your first exorcism, you have Jersey sign papers acknowledging the risks — including death — of her upcoming exorcism. How are patients at risk for death during exorcisms?

In the hands of responsible clergy or medical people I don’t think that there is any risk. You hear about exorcisms where a patient dies, but usually it’s been conducted by delusional people who don’t know what they’re doing. They beat the patient and so forth. Exorcism should be as dignified and gentle a procedure as possible. On the other hand, when you get a case of thorough possession, I’m not sure there’s ever an exorcism in which the patient doesn’t require some restraint. Jersey, over the course of four days, required only gentle restraint for one hour. Fascinatingly that was when the demon who was the supposed spirit of love and gentleness was present, an irony typical of the demonic. In Beccah’s case, in a three-day exorcism, for two and a half days she required continual and massive restraint and she demonstrated almost superhuman strength.

Which brings us to our ideas of what kinds of creepy, head-spinning things happen during an exorcism. You write that the Roman Catholic Church’s criteria for the diagnosis of possession include phenomena like levitation, knowledge of future events, speaking fluently in languages the patient has never been exposed to before, and psychokinesis. You argue that these criteria are unrealistically strict. But have you heard evidence that events such as levitation and psychokinesis do take place in some cases?

I suspect they are possible. There’s a book by a reporter who went over the case which [William Peter] Blatty based his book “The Exorcist” on. He went over that case so thoroughly that it became obvious to me that it was a genuine case of possession. There were a lot of truly paranormal dramatic happenings. But in that case, Father Bowdern, the exorcist, did not have available the literature and teaching that I did later. The whole thing took about five weeks and Father Bowdern was operating in the dark; he had to figure out how to go about doing an exorcism on his own. I think there were paranormal events, but I think only because it was so long and prolonged. The boy went through great suffering. I think that it probably could have been accomplished in three or four days, but he didn’t have any guidance from anybody else.

There were paranormal phenomena in my two cases; they were just more subtle.

Like Beccah taking on the appearance of a large coiled serpent?

Yes, well, there was one snake during the exorcism and then after the exorcism she took on the appearance of a different amphibian. Beccah was an unsuccessful case.

Yes, Beccah’s case does not end well. Do you blame yourself?

No, I do not. Though I begin the final discussion of the case with the sentence that if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have performed her exorcism. But I didn’t know enough at the time. This is a real frontier that desperately needs to be scientifically investigated. People do not know much about it, so I didn’t know what a patient needed. A patient needs a massive support system if they’re going to do well after an exorcism. In a sense, if the demonic has been their friend for 20, 30, 40 years, you’re not going to give up your relationship with such a friend that easily, unless you have a great deal of support from other sources, and Beccah did not. Beccah was alone in the world and for that reason alone, if I had it to do over again, I would have tried to work on getting her a support system. And if I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have attempted the exorcism.

You write that one of the reasons you should have backed off of Beccah’s case is that you had a sense that the devil — Satan — would be out to get you after your success driving him from Jersey. Do you feel that the devil knows who you are and is out to get you?

I feel that the devil knows who I am. The book is called “Glimpses of the Devil” after an early Christian theologian who was trying to tell people that god is spirit, and that the most we can hope for is to get glimpses of his footprints on the ramparts he has walked. The devil being spirit, although a lesser spirit, is even harder to get glimpses of. You can if you look for them, but there’s a great deal we can’t begin to know about the devil and we won’t know unless this is scientifically investigated.

Does it scare you?

Yes, it scares me. It’s very common for people involved with the demonic to think the devil is going to get you in some way. People will say the devil flattened all the tires on my car or this bad thing happened to me. Nothing of that sort has ever happened to me. When I look at the difficult events in my life I do not think they have been demonically caused. They have been caused sometimes by my own goofs and sometimes by the goofs of other people, but they have been natural phenomena.

In the book, Jersey is not a practicing Christian. Beccah, born Jewish, became a devout Episcopalian when she married. You use Christian ritual in both of their exorcisms. Is it possible for a non-Christian to become possessed by Satan?

Anybody can be possessed, though I must emphasize that genuine full-scale possession is a rare phenomenon. But nonetheless it is recorded throughout time, in every culture that I know of. But if there is a diagnosis of possession among the people in Borneo or something, that possession is going to look considerably different than it looks in America. Cases are very much colored by the society in which a patient lives and grows up.

But had you encountered, hypothetically, an American Buddhist possessed by Satan, would you have deployed Christian ritual and symbolism to rid that person of their demonic inhabitant?

I would have employed my Christian words, and begun by saying to the Buddhist, “Are you so-and-so, child of God? In the name of God who created you and Jesus Christ who dies for you …” I would still use Christian rituals because they’re the only ones I’m familiar with. But I expect that an exorcist working the same culture as the patient is more likely to be effective.

I gather from some things you’ve said about first recognizing evil in Joe McCarthy at age 14 that you may be a left-leaning political thinker. What are your thoughts about the political implications of your work?

Well, most people would say that I am left-leaning, but I have some trouble with left and right and simplistic labels. In some ways I am extremely conservative. But I certainly have considered the nature of group evil and in “People of the Lie” there was an analysis of group evil which did not seem to involve the devil. But we live in a society where the devil plays a great role in our institutions and the way that we are governed.

I think that the group of people around Hitler was probably likely a possessed group. And I have wondered specifically about the Supreme Court in the case of Bush vs. Gore where, astonishingly, I believe that the majority — five out of nine justices — were engaged in an evil act. And I wonder how that could happen without Satan hanging around. Specifically, I believe those five justices, each one of them, violated their oath of office. Each one of them failed to uphold the Constitution. They betrayed their own past record of decision-making or at least failed to represent any known tradition of American governance, despite the eloquent opposition of their colleagues. And then they lied about it.

You write about character flaws that become cracks through which the devil can get in. What kinds of people are susceptible to possession?

A great many people in this world have character flaws. Yet very few of them become possessed. The best explanation that I have been able to come up with in the cases of possession I’ve seen is that they were somewhat holy people to begin with. Satan is on the run, and has the energy to try and put out fires, and so I think Satan goes to where the fires are, where there are people who represent some kind of threat to it.

I do not believe possessed people are evil. I believe they are flirting with it or involved with it. There are a great many evil people — I estimate 2 percent — but most people do not need the devil to recruit them to evil. Given the dynamics of laziness and narcissism they are capable of recruiting themselves.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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