Dr. Richard Gallagher is a professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at New York Medical College. He has also gathered some small renown—two years ago, he wrote an article for the Washington Post, and last summer there was a piece on him for CNN—for his work with clergy to distinguish between mental disorders and rare cases of genuine demonic possession. When he was first approached by exorcists asking for assistance, he was skeptical, but he concluded that some of the cases presented were, in fact, beyond psychiatric explanation. For example, one of his patients knew that his mother had died of ovarian cancer despite not having met him before, and, in trances, was able to speak Latin without any previous acquaintance with the language. Thus, Dr. Gallagher did not deem it medically irresponsible to work with exorcists on such cases. Indeed, he argues that a psychiatrist’s responsibility is to identify mental disorder where it can be identified and to acknowledge extra-psychiatric issues if they exist so that appropriate help might be found.
Unsurprisingly, readers are often cynical. As one commenter on the Washington Post article succinctly put it, “Perhaps Dr. Gallagher should consider this a good time to surrender his license.” Scientists are expected to only consider material phenomena—those phenomena open to empirical verification. That is the basis on which the results of their investigations are held in such high regard. And yet, at the same time, by definition, such a procedure could not strictly exclude the involvement of extra-material phenomena. After all, if scientists deal with the empirical, then anything past that is beyond the scope of their field’s knowledge.
I am, however, highly cautious about this sort of argument in relation to the demonic. The hallucinations and other such symptoms that sometimes accompany certain disorders can be extremely convincing, and to put it mildly, telling an anxious or depressed patient that they are possessed is unlikely to help their condition. Furthermore, if demons sound like a superstitious proposition, then exorcisms can be downright dangerous. Since the murder of Victoria Climbié in London at the hands of her guardians in 2000, the public has been keenly aware of the real-life threats such a worldview can present. The numerous cases of abuse and murder that result from such practices are enough for some people to condemn the whole concept. In some religious communities, the demonic can be a gathering concept for all sorts of fears and anxieties, and the possessed individual then becomes a scapegoat for the community’s malaises.
Jeanette Winterson recounts one story of such scapegoating. She was locked up with no heat, no light, and no food for three days. The church’s elders prayed over her in shifts, so she wasn’t allowed more than a few hours of sleep at a time. “Nobody could believe that anyone as faithful as I was could have had sex—and with another woman—unless there was a demon involved,” she writes in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Winterson grew up in in Accrington in the 1950s, and her mother was a zealous member of a small evangelical sect, storing up tinned food for the apocalypse and training up young Jeanette to be a missionary. The very literal demonization of women’s sexuality—and, in particular, of women’s homosexuality—in strains of Christianity finds practical expression in the attempt to exorcise them via semi-organized practices of abuse.
It would not be surprising if someone with a story like Winterson’s wanted nothing to do with ideas of the demonic. And yet, in another version of her story in her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, there is what seems to be an attempt to reclaim the language of the demonic. In this version, Jeanette (the protagonist, rather than the author) has a vision of the demon that the church is attempting to exorcise from her. But this demon hasn’t come to torment her. Rather, it appears as a small, comically orange-colored creature—a guide:
‘Everyone has a demon as you so rightly observed,’ the thing began, ‘but not everyone knows this, and not everyone knows how to make use of it.’
‘Demons are evil, aren’t they?’ I asked, worried.
‘Not quite, they’re just different, and difficult […] We’re here to keep you in one piece.’
In many stories of leaving the church, protagonists strip themselves of all the vestiges of their old faith—rituals, dogmas, old habits, all stripped away to liberate oneself from a superstitious past. But Jeanette’s demons are just one case indicating that losing your religion can be a lot more complicated than we might want it to be. As Winterson writes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “if you are raised on the Bible, you don’t just walk away, whatever anybody says.” Faith permeates you at a deep level—and if you can’t walk away, you may as well make something of it. Navigating these negotiations becomes a way of staying sane, of reconciling yourself with the past that formed you.
Winterson’s demons should be understood as part of a tradition of queer engagement with culture, as John Paul Brammer puts it: “It’s a delicious subversion of the rhetoric that has historically been used against us: a reclamation, a reappropriation, a hijacking.” In much Christian ascetic literature, demons appear as one resolves upon a certain path. When one commits oneself to God, the demons become jealous and infuriated, and attempt to disrupt this path. I myself, just before my reception into the Orthodox Church, was told by my godfather that I should be prepared for a period of difficulty or trial following my chrismation, because I was declaring war upon the devil. Demons appear when there is nothing else left—when your world is stripped of comforts and distractions and you have to face yourself, you are presented with symbolic images of what may lie ahead. This theological imaginary can at times be pressed so far that St. Gregory of Sinai even describes the specific images demons take when they want to tempt you with particular sins: for anger, lions; for greed, wolves; for laziness, cats. Winterson’s demon is also an image of what lies ahead: she can reject it and retreat back into the familiar yet dysfunctional world of sectarian evangelicalism, or she can accept it and the uncertainty that comes with it.
While this embrace of the demonic might be read as an anti-Christianity, one should also recognize the ambivalence of this embrace. It is said that one of the desert fathers, Abba John the Dwarf, once prayed that God would free him from the passions:
He went and told an old man this: ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’
Taking a demon as a guide is far beyond the realm of classic ascetic literature, but at the same time, to concede even the reality of the demonic would place one beyond the bounds of the rational in most contemporary discourse. Sometimes, however, recognizing this irrationality can be a necessary part of engaging with what Winterson calls the “different and difficult.”
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. He is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in Prague.