After twenty years, Peck describes these exorcisms in his book "Glimpses of the Devil." In this Beliefnet interview, Peck discusses why he thinks demonic possession needs to be recognized--and grappled with--as a reality.
Can you talk a little bit about your own beliefs? Religiously speaking, how were you raised?
I was raised in a pretty profoundly secular home. Only after her death did I realize my mother was what I came to call a crypto-Christian. In some ways, I am grateful that I was raised in a secular home, because that meant that I didn't have any old religious baggage to carry with me. I was free to go and think what I wanted.
Even though it was a secular home, as I look back on it, I was a freakily religious kid. From the age of three on, as far back as I remember, I just knew there was a God behind everything.
My first contact with religion was taking a world religions course my senior year in high school. I immediately gravitated toward the mystical writings of Hinduism and Buddhism and the Upanishads and then Zen Buddhism. I kind of stayed with that until my late twenties.
I was what you might call a mystic, but definitely not a Christian. Christianity made no sense to me. I didn't believe Christ was divine, I didn't know where all this stuff in the Bible came from.
I had been led into Sufism by Idris Shaw, who was a mentor of mine. One of the things that put the clinch on my moving toward Christianity was at a lecture, somebody asked him what book would he refer somebody to about mysticism. He instantly replied, "Mysticism" by Evelyn Underhill. It was the first time I realized that there was a huge, rich tradition of Christian mysticism.
That was not the only thing that converted me. I started to be converted way back before when I first saw "Jesus Christ Superstar," about 1971. That was one of the first things that made Jesus really come alive for me as a human. Another was reading the gospels seriously for the first time at age 40 or 39, after I'd written the first draft of "The Road Less Traveled." Having quoted Jesus a couple of times, it seemed incumbent upon me to check the references. So I used the time in between drafts to read the gospels. I was thunderstuck by the reality of the man in there. Gradually I moved into Christianity through the back door of Christian mysticism, or maybe it's the front door...
I hope it's the front door.
Or the top door or whatnot. So I was finally baptized at the age of 43 in 1980. I was deliberately non-denominationally baptized, and I've very jealously guarded my non-denominational status ever since. I am very Eucharistic, which means I celebrate communion or the Eucharist. I never thought I would ever be middle of the road anything, much less a middle of the road Christian, but it actually ended up I'm extremely middle of the road.
It was right around the time of your baptism that you came to consider the possibility that people might be demonically possessed. You sort of struggled with this, because you're a scientist and a psychiatrist as well as a spiritual person. Could you talk about that struggle?
I had come to believe in the reality of benign spirit or God, as well as the reality of human goodness. I'd come to believe distinctly in the reality of human evil, and that left me an obvious hole in my thinking. Namely was there such a thing as evil spirit, or the devil specifically? In common with 99.99 percent of psychiatrists and with 80 percent of Catholic priests--as confidentially polled back in 1960, the figure would be much higher now--I did not believe in the devil.
But I was a scientist, and it didn't seem to me I should conclude there was no devil until I examined the evidence. It occurred to me if I could see one good old-fashioned case of possession, that might change my mind. I did not think that I would see one, but if you believe that something doesn't exist, you can walk right over it without seeing it.
What was it about these two "possessed" women you describe in your book that helped you to rule out psychiatric causes like schizophrenia, and caused you to settle on demonic possession as what was wrong with them?
These cases, in a whole number of ways--the more I studied them, the more they did not fit in a typical psychiatric picture. The second case [Becca], for instance. As she should have been getting better, she got worse.
And this is what's called diagnoses by exclusion. I'd go through the whole range of psychiatric conditions, whether they could explain the patient's condition. In both of my two cases, they were unexplainable by any kind of traditional psychiatric terms.
But you think there was a method to his madness.
Oh, without question. But he lied about other things. He lied about his own identity a great deal.
And he seemed to think there were a lot of Satanists in the Vatican--he seemed to have a lot of conspiracy theories.
Right. That was in later years somewhat. He was not always right, but boy as far as my case, he batted a 1000.
We often think of exorcisms as a man in a room for a few hours with a lot of drama, based on media portrayals and movies. But in your book the two exorcisms--and especially the "deliverances" that preceded them--were often pretty low-key.
Since the early 1960s, since what's been called the Charismatic movement within the Christian church, a significant number of Christians believe that virtually every problem a human can have is of demonic origin. These Charismatics developed a kind of mini-exorcism technique--which they called a deliverance--to deliver people from evil spirits: a demon of alcoholism, a demon of lust, a demon of masturbation, a demon of overeating and so forth. They developed this very mild procedure where you just sit with the patient in prayer for a period up to about 6 hours. You can often discern if there is some demonic influence and you can cast it out, as occurred in the second of my cases, which was temporary successful.
I'm not against deliverance. I wouldn't even diagnose a case of possession or try to do an exorcism without doing a deliverance first.
Like trying a milder medicine before you go for the hard stuff.
Exactly. Some Charismatics, including a man named Francis MacNutt, held that there are four levels of demonic involvement. The first they simply call temptation, which I myself doubt as most of the time as demonic. I think we're just tempted all the time by all kinds of things.
The second is what's called demonic attack. Oddly enough, I think both my patients after their exorcism remained under demonic attack.
You mentioned that they would still hear voices.
The third stage Francis MacNutt called oppression, where Francis compared it to a city where the enemy has gained control of a few suburbs.
Then there's full-scale possession where Francis said is where the enemy basically gets the center of the city, as well as the suburbs, and has control over the communications. There are just a few pockets of resistance left.
You said with some people there's complete possession. People you describe as "People of the Lie" just cooperate with evil out of laziness or greed.
But Jersey and Becca, the women you describe exorcising in the book, were different-they did have pockets of resistance.
Right. As Malachi Martin pointed out, if they 100 percent cooperated, then there would be no sign of any stress of strain within them.
So people who are possessed are not what I would call evil people. I pointed out in my book "People of the Lie" that I think that evil people are much more common.
Possession is still a very rare condition. Less rare than a great many people might think. And much less common than the Charismatics might believe.
So your team gathered with the woman in a room and conducted an exorcism for several hours over the course of several days. I know that at least in Jersey's case, that one was videotaped. What would people see if they watched the video tape?
Both cases were videotaped. With one we have close to 40 hours of tape. The other, close to 30. One of the most extraordinary things for me was the facial expression of these patients. In the first case, none of these facial expressions were captured on the video tape. The patient did not show any facial changes which were paranormal, except on one occasion when she had actually been trying to hide her face from the camera. It was just a few seconds long, when her face underwent a profound change. The second patient had this snake-like appearance which was evident to everybody on the team, but again, not picked up by the video camera. Now in following up that patient there were moments where I also saw in her--and maybe this is translated into some kind of intuitive kind of vision--but flashes of her looking like an amphibian or a lizard.
Because I was a scientist I was perhaps more stringent than most people would be in diagnosing these two cases. I wasn't going to try to deal with something I wasn't sure was possession. Particularly as a psychiatrist, I was really sticking my neck out. But if you decide you have a genuine case of possession, then it's kind of full-scale war. An exorcism is a way of doing massive battle against one's demons, or if you wanted to say, one's mental illness. This is one of the sort of dangers of it, because it's potentially like a kind of gang rape, much like in the old days with cults, there was de-programming. An exorcism is much like de-programming.
What you just said about mental illness-were you equating "demons" with mental illness?
I would include possession among mental illnesses. I think...
And yet it can't just be dealt with by medication or psychological therapy. You feel at times it needs this spiritual...?
It definitely does. But it is a real condition and one of the things that I would argue, as a psychiatrist, is that it ought to be recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis.
So you think it should be in the DSM.
I think it should be in the DSM-IV and have equal status with multiple personality disorder, which people have come properly to be very skeptical of.
An exorcism [is] sort of comparable to major brain surgery where you might have a team of seven in the operating room. You use not just one kind of technique but anything that you possibly can to help your patients. There's a mixture of techniques ranging from prayer and orders to the demonic and talking to the demonic to try to figure what the hell is going on if you can. And it was notably successful in the case of Jersey, the first case. Unless we had spoken with the quote "demons" unquote, we would not have known that each demon represented a kind of false idea.
Why do you put demons in quotes?
I put "demons" in quotes because this is really a frontier in psychiatry. As a scientist, I try to be very careful as to what is theory and what is fact. I cannot swear to you in a court of law that these initial demons were demons in their own right, as opposed to Satan or the devil.
So you're talking about the hierarchy of demons?
So you're saying it definitely is one of these, but you put demons in quotes because you're not sure which one it is?
I'm not sure they were so much demons in their own right as they may have been reflections of the big guy, Satan. Both cases described in the book--and this is very rare--are cases of Satanic possession, not just possession by ordinary little demons.
Meaning the kind of demons you refer to when you mention the charismatic hierarchy like a demon of lust or a demon of overeating? You're talking about the `big guy.'
Or even other real demons, as in the second case. Judas seems often to be a real demon. In the first draft of the book, I included things other than those two cases of full-scale possession. I had a vignette [about] a friend in medical school who had also become a psychiatrist.
He got in touch with me and asked if I'd come to dinner. He had become an expert in multiple personality disorder and he proceeded to regale me with this case that he was fascinated with.
I don't know about you, but after 26 personalities, I'd start to get bored or suspicious of the diagnosis. I asked him, "John (fake name), do you ever have the feeling that you're being toyed with? The demon can pull all kinds of tricks, like inventing personalities." And he said, "No, why do you ask?" Just the possibility this patient didn't have multiple personality disorder, but that this real bad guy might be a demon.
Multiple personality disorder and possession are not necessarily mutually incompatible disorders. There's some evidence that you can have both.
I consider multiple personality disorder to be a less common condition than possession. With a lot of cases of multiples, I would wonder whether they were cases of possession, as I did in this man's case.
I left the dinner feeling a little sorry for both the patient and my friend the psychiatrist, because I felt that both of them were being perhaps mistreated. The patient because my friend couldn't deal with a possible diagnosis of possession, and my friend was being mistreated because Judas may have been fooling around with him. If you're dealing with the demonic in the later stages, one of the very subtle signs you get is the feeling that although it looks like the patient is sitting in the chair talking, it really isn't the patient talking to you. It's something else that's trying to toy with you.
There were a lot of quiet times where not much happened or you'd be quietly praying a lot of time would go by, and you also had breaks. I was surprised to read that the women involved put aside their demonic personalities during your coffee breaks.
Right. They would pull themselves together. Although the second case, at the end, she would pretend to pull herself together when she was at her most demonic actually. But until the end, she had the capacity--as did the first patient--to set aside the demonic.
If you can let the demonic out a little bit in the patient, the demonic might quiet down and let the patient be himself or herself. We would try not to speak to the patient unless we were speaking to the patient being very real, authentic. Or we would speak to the demonic. But we would not speak to this nonsensical mixture. You're wasting your time until you can separate the two.
You say that in both your cases you were just facilitating it, you and the rest of the team. It wasn't you who cast out the demon, it was the person themselves.
That's right. The number one exorcist, the most essential of all, is the patient. What happens in a successful exorcism is that the patient renounces his or her involvement in the demonic and decides to side with God or Christ or the truth or whatever you want to call it. It's the patient who casts out his or her own demons by making a choice against that.
In your confrontation, what during the exorcism would cause the patient to make the decision more clearly? It almost seemed like when you exposed them in lies, they realized what was going on and pushed back against this power that had taken them over.
Yes, I think so. The patient would become aware that his or her precious demons, or precious ideas were utterly false. That's why in the average exorcism, probably the person makes the choice they do. But there are really four exorcists. The patient is number one, the second is God--and one can sense the presence of God in the room. The third is the team that the exorcist should gather. The last is the lead exorcist.