Devil or Disease?

January-February 2015By Stephen J. Kovacs

Stephen J. Kovacs, a regular contributor to the NOR, serves on the humanities faculty of Western Governors University.

True or False Possession?: How to Distinguish the Demonic from the Demented.  By Jean Lhermitte. Edited by Aaron Kheriaty, M.D. Sophia Institute Press. 129 pages. $14.95.



In the nineteenth century major advances began to be made in the fields of neurology and psychiatry. The new findings in these sciences soon revealed that some persons with bizarre and seemingly inhuman symptoms, believed to be caused by demonic possession, were actually suffering from syndromes or disorders of a naturalistic origin. World-renowned French neuropsychiatrist Jean Lhermitte (1877-1959) spent decades observing and treating such patients, and in the process became an authority on cases in which demonic possession could not be readily distinguished from disease. In 1956 he published this groundbreaking book on the subject of true and false possession, which was later translated into English as a volume in the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, edited by Henri Daniel-Rops. This newest edition, edited by Catholic psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty, is a much-needed re-introduction of a physician’s perspective into the ongoing discussion about demonic possession. Dr. Kheriaty attests that the book, though nearly sixty years old, is as timely as ever, with no subsequent developments contradicting Dr. Lhermitte’s analyses.

From the start, Lhermitte makes clear that even though he is a believing Catholic, he speaks only as a physician and not a theologian; his concern is with the scientific aspect of supposed possession. Therefore, the treatment of genuine demonic possession, the various levels of harassment by evil spirits, and the moral and spiritual factors involved are beyond his competency. Lhermitte does insist, however, that physicians and theologians must collaborate on cases in which demonic possession is suspected, since the expertise of both parties is required to make a determination. But if and when true possession is established, the physician must acknowledge the limits of his profession and defer to the cleric trained to perform the Rite of Exorcism.

Despite his clinical approach, Dr. Lhermitte spends the first chapter referring to sacred Scripture in order to confirm that there is indeed such a thing as demonic possession, distinct from organic pathologies, and to determine some of its identifying characteristics. In several places throughout the New Testament, a distinction is made between sickness and demonic possession in Jesus’ healing ministry, which Lhermitte believes indicates that they are separate phenomena requiring different treatments. While real diseases of mind and body can be the result of diabolical influence within a person, the curing of physical illnesses by Jesus was always handled separately from exorcisms and with a different approach. When Jesus cured the sick, His attitude toward them was one of pity as He relieved them of their afflictions; when He performed an exorcism, He would free the victim of the demons but issue warnings and admonitions.

The accounts of possession in Scripture show that “what distinguishes the possessed…is chiefly his behavior,” due to the “outward transformation of the personality,” with the human victim’s own personality substituted with that of a demon(s), who acts with the body of the victim and even speaks through his mouth. The possessed have power and agility exceeding what they would otherwise be capable of, have violent fits, and have superhuman knowledge. These traits are best seen in the story of the Gerasane demoniac (Mk. 5:1-15), who had the power to break the fetters and chains by which he was bound, and could fight off all who tried to restrain him. Day and night he could be heard crying out and be found cutting himself with stones. Finally, when our Lord approached, the demoniac, without introduction, immediately recognized Him as “Jesus, Son of the most high God.” According to Lhermitte, what stands out in this and other accounts of Jesus performing exorcisms as confirmation of diabolical presence is the fact that the voices recognize Jesus for who He is, yet they never offer Him their praise.

The fact that Satan and his legions of demons have the power and evil cunning to impose themselves into a person’s being in ways initially undetectable makes determining genuine demonic possession a difficult task. What must be remembered is that evil spirits can influence men with the utmost subtlety and will take full advantage of any frailty of soul or body. As Lhermitte writes, “The evil spirit can…profit by the disorder which an already existing mental sickness may have introduced into the human composite, in order to provoke and enlarge a functional disorder, under cover of which it insinuates itself and makes its abode in the patient.” Given this ability, Lhermitte claims that genuine possession is typically accompanied by “mental and nervous disturbances,” either magnified or caused by the evil spirit. Thus, the line between sickness and possession is often very fine. It’s easy to see why our ancestors, lacking the scientific knowledge we have today, would suspect a person experiencing, say, convulsive seizures or a personality disorder to be possessed, and subject him to an exorcism. Yet Lhermitte cautions that to perform an exorcism on someone who is only suffering a mental or nervous affliction would prove detrimental to the patient. Making a correct diagnosis is, therefore, vital.

In the second chapter, Lhermitte discusses paroxysmal forms of pseudo-diabolical possession. In these forms of false possession, persons sporadically suffer syndromes that involve varying degrees of unconsciousness. Lhermitte examines six well-documented cases of this kind to show the way in which certain now-identified pathologies have been mistaken for true possession. For each case study, Lhermitte presents the facts as they are found in reliable records and eyewitness testimonies, paying careful attention to the signs and symptoms believed to be of demonic origin, and then re-evaluates the evidence based on the insights of modern science.

The strange case of Sr. Jeanne of the Angels, the prioress of an Ursuline convent in seventeenth-century Loudun, France, has all the initial appearances of true demonic possession. Sr. Jeanne was revered for her holiness, and quickly advanced to the position of prioress, but at one point she claimed to be the victim of regular diabolical torments during the nighttime. Exorcisms were publicly performed on her, against the instructions of the Roman Ritual, during which she entered a trance-like state and was overcome with “violences, vexations, howlings, and grindings of teeth.” What’s more, the nuns witnessing this spectacle soon exhibited similar behaviors, contorting themselves into postures both frightening and overtly erotic. More exorcisms were carried out on Sr. Jeanne in gross violation of the Roman Ritual, but even though she eventually said she was possessed by five demons for whom she even had names, her behaviors and eyewitness observations reveal that this could not have been genuine possession. According to Dr. Lhermitte, they instead reveal that Sister was suffering from hysteria (now called conversion disorder), which can cause altered states of consciousness, delusional thinking easily open to suggestion, and seizures. As for the other nuns, Lhermitte says that they, along with Sr. Jeanne, thought they were possessed and acted as such due to their own psychiatric weaknesses and the pressure of the careless exorcist, not because they were possessed themselves.

A more complex and controversial case is that of the notorious Sr. Magdalen of the Cross, a nun of the Poor Clare monastery of Cordova, Spain, in the sixteenth century. Like Sr. Jeanne, she was acclaimed for her sanctity and put on the fast-track to becoming prioress. After years of apparently being singled out by God and receiving marvelous signs of His favor, in 1518 she announced to her superior that on the feast of the Annunciation she miraculously conceived the Child Jesus. The ensuing uproar led to an inquiry that confirmed her virginity, yet Sister began to show all the physical signs of pregnancy, lasting until Christmas day. More bizarre occurrences took place until she was finally exposed as a fraud. It was discovered that she had staged the “supernatural” wonders that had many people fooled, such as mimicking the stigmata by cutting herself, and sneaking food while pretending to live only on the Eucharist. Sr. Magdalen’s shocking behaviors were attributed to the Devil, and exorcisms were carried out. The exorcisms were considered successful, and she confessed to all her deceptions and also told of diabolical visions she had been having all along. However, Dr. Lhermitte argues that the facts of the case show that Sister was not a victim of demonic possession but actually a hysteric and a compulsive liar. Furthermore, the physical manifestations of pregnancy that were observed can be ascribed to pseudocyesis (false pregnancy), a condition still seen by modern psychiatrists.

Two cases Lhermitte examines in the third chapter are of the lucid form of pseudo-diabolical possession, in which the patient is fully conscious and the supposed demonic control is continuous. In this form of false possession, the patient suffers what appears to be the division of his being into separate personalities, usually with one personality thought of as his “normal” personality and the other(s) that of a demon who manipulates the normal personality. In reality, he doesn’t literally have multiple personalities, yet the patient’s mental dissociation results in the morbid experience of having multiple personalities, at least one of which could easily be mistaken for that of a demon. Dr. Lhermitte explains that such a person never suspects he has a mental derangement but instead assumes he is possessed, and often lives in constant terror.

The case of Antoine Gay is particularly tragic. As a young man in the early nineteenth century, he expressed an earnest desire to enter monastic life. Around the same time, he began suffering a “nervous disorder” that complicated his plans. Eventually he showed signs of possession and alleged that three demons resided within him, sometimes causing him to howl and bark like an animal. Several failed attempts at establishing him in a monastery, and continued assaults from the supposed demons, wore down Gay’s morale, and he pleaded unsuccessfully for exorcisms until the end of his life. Gay ended up desperate and paranoid as he was relentlessly harassed with moral torments that, despite wanting only to live a life of service to God, convinced him of his ultimate ruin. What is telling, and to Dr. Lhermitte the surest sign Gay was not possessed, is that the chief demon whom Gay said controlled his body would write sublime prayers of praise to God. One reads in part: “O God, infinitely great, infinitely holy, infinitely just, infinitely good, Thou dost not despise the most miserable of Thy creatures; what have I done to deserve the graces Thou givest me, unworthy as I am? Would I had tears of blood to bewail all my ingratitude and all the offenses I have had the misfortune to commit against Thee!” No evil spirit is capable of such beautiful and humble words.

In the fourth chapter, Lhermitte looks briefly at the relationship between sorcery and demonic possession. The sorcerer (e.g., witch, warlock) gains his preternatural powers directly through the invocation of demons. The invocation can be either external, with the sorcerer conjuring up demons through incantations or rituals, or internal, with the sorcerer temporarily possessed by a demon in order to obtain power from it. Unlike other victims of demonic possession, however, the sorcerer intentionally seeks out union with evil spirits in a sort of “inverted mysticism.” Whereas true mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have mystical experiences of a spiritual, supersensory nature, the pseudo-mystic sorcerer experiences the presence of evil spirits corporeally, with the demons manifesting themselves in various forms, like ghoulish animals and seductive women, often accompanied by stenches and horrifying noises. Though they want to get involved with demons, sorcerers inevitably end up their slaves, just as the possessed do otherwise. For this reason, Dr. Lhermitte explains, sorcerers require the same treatment as the possessed.

The fifth chapter offers valuable background on modern ideas about demonic possession, of which the most influential in the scientific and popular domains were those of Sigmund Freud. Freud argued that the human personality is a conflict between the forces of instinct, which seek only pleasure, and the superego, the internalized set of rules imposed by society and religion: “Thus man becomes the scene of the duel between God and the devil, the debate between what ought to be and what is.” Amid this inner tension, the person will ultimately reject the superego and its moral dictates in favor of pleasure, only later to feel a sense of guilt for doing so. It is this guilt, says Freud, that is “the source of the demonical illusion.” In other words, the devil is simply the manifestation of our repressed desires. With how prominent Freudianism and related schools of thought became, it’s no surprise many people today do not take seriously the reality of evil spirits or demonic possession.

Dr. Lhermitte says that cases of individual possession do seem to be rarer these days than in ages past, and he finds credible the thesis that the Devil has different plans for our age. It might be just as advantageous for him to insinuate himself within “corporate personalities or institutions” to bring about the destruction he desires, instead of taking over persons individually. One example Lhermitte gives is of Nazi Germany, where an entire evil regime grew up around the satanic figure of Adolf Hitler. Certainly we can think of similar examples from the present day. Lhermitte also mentions a chilling report made through the British press in 1948, which claimed that “hundreds of men and women, of excellent education and intellect and high social position, who [worshiped] the devil and [offered] him a regular cultus,” lived in London at the time. As unsettling as it is to hear about that happening over sixty years ago, it is known that, in the twenty-first century, devil worship still takes place in many communities around the world, possibly on a scale greater than ever in history. The Devil is real and has not gone away, nor has he lost his power to manipulate our weak humanity.

In conclusion, Dr. Lhermitte states that modern advances in science have not given us the ability to say that there is no longer such a thing as demonic possession. It is true that modern science has been able to give natural explanations in cases in which demonic possession was once attributed, as this book demonstrates well. Yet there are still many incidences that arise which science cannot explain and which show all the signs of genuine demonic possession. In such cases, do we then have a means by which to judge between true and false possession? Dr. Lhermitte says yes, we do, to an extent. When a case of suspected possession emerges, if it can be observed to follow the same general course seen in similar clinical cases, and responds to the same treatments, the case should be judged to be of natural origin. On the other hand, if a case of suspected possession emerges wherein the phenomena are only of a “parasitic capacity” or “accompanied by very high qualities of mind or heart” (i.e., superhuman powers), the physician must consult an exorcist.

True or False Possession? serves as a reminder that the exorcist is still absolutely necessary; the Church needs many more competent priests trained to carry out the Rite of Exorcism than are currently available. And this book offers a crucial warning that, despite the achievements of modern science, we are still vulnerable to assaults of the Evil One, whether we acknowledge his existence or not. Satan, the great enemy of God, knows that he cannot attack God directly, so he uses his formidable powers to try to destroy God’s image — the human person. His greatest victories come when we think we are safe from him.



“When confronted by evil, the wisest and most secure adult will usually experience confusion…. One of the characteristics of evil is its desire to confuse.” — M. Scott Peck, M.D.; People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil



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