Man praying

I was just finishing a chapter on exorcism in a book of my own on Jesus when M. Scott Peck's "Glimpses of the Devil" came into my hands. I have been a psychotherapist for many years and have always addressed spiritual issues as well as psychological ones. I wanted to learn from Jesus how to move beyond psychology to deal with the demonic directly. While I agree that people can be taken over by an urge to be destructive, I never imagined anything so graphic and traditional as the exorcisms Peck describes in his new book. Here, Peck--well-known author of "The Road Less Traveled"--offers case studies of two emotionally troubled women and the demons he believed possessed them. He tells the story of the two exorcisms he conducted in the 1980s with a small cadre of clergy, health professionals, and available lay people. He thinks that in rare cases people may have psychological problems but may also be literally possessed by Satan and other demons. In dealing with possession, psychology, he implies, is inadequate and must give way to more muscular, daring, and religious acts of "deliverance" and exorcism-procedures that Peck describes in detail. In both cases, he and his aides gathered with the "patient" in a bedroom of a house that had been offered to them. The sessions took about eight hours a day over the course of three to four days. Peck was the exorcist, leading the group in prayers and pronouncing the classic commands for the demon to depart. He addressed the demons one after another by name, trying to trick them into submission by clever reasoning or by personal righteousness.

The crucial point of knowing the difference between psychological disturbance and possession was pretty much left to the exorcist's intuition and judgment. I'm surprised that Peck presents such a literal notion of the demonic. He consults a self-professed expert on exorcism, Malachi Martin, who had a reputation for being both brilliant and preposterous, and he gathers a team who don't seem terribly knowledgeable or confident in what they are doing. Yet they are inserting themselves aggressively into these two women's lives. One fears that the book will encourage others to see demons everywhere and deal with them harshly. Years ago, in an effort to gain insight into evil, I studied the writings of the Marquis de Sade. His fiction depicts situations, such as confession and education, that tend toward sadism. He shows groups of men, sometimes clergy, gathering around women in a remote room to examine them and taunt them. The image is uncomfortably close to the exorcism scenes in Peck's book. In everyday life, some situations--like going to the doctor or dentist--may be painful and require submission, and yet are beneficial. But they may sometimes cross the line into sadism, where a patient might be literally abused and taken advantage of. I am concerned that Peck's well-intentioned but highly improvised attempts at exorcism crossed that line. As I read this book, I found myself scribbling "SM" in the margins. In a scene the Marquis de Sade would have applauded, one of the women described in Peck's book was tied to a bed with sheets during the exorcism. The other said that she felt "violated" and "raped" by the exorcism sessions. To his credit, Peck confesses to some of his misgivings and his failure to notice what was going on, but in general I sense a blindness in the book that is profoundly disturbing. Peck thinks he sees the devil in the taut, grimacing faces of these two women. One had been sexually abused by her father. Such an experience can indeed tear the psyche into pieces to the point where the sufferer feels possessed by all sorts of figures. But Satan itself, to use Peck's neuter gender? That sounds like naive religion. Therapy always walks a thin line between dominance and submission, but the shift into exorcism, especially when conceived in such a traditional way, increases the risks. I am concerned about other therapists, especially those with a strong religious bent, being inspired by this book to experiment with their own improvised exorcisms. Peck mentions that he has heard from parents who think their children are possessed. The implications there are chilling.

But a more fundamental issue bothers me about this approach to evil. Peck's brand of exorcism, right out of the movie "The Exorcist," distracts us from the evil that really counts. First, it makes the devil too literal. I do believe that we all get possessed by jealousy, greed, anger, and many other things and some people are led to atrocious acts. But to see a lurking and literal devil behind all this insanity leads to macabre medieval ritualism. We need a more subtle way of personifying evil and a more subtle way of dealing with it.

It is also distracting to bring the whole mythology of Satan onto an individual with obvious emotional problems. Individually we are all poor sods who do our best and become neurotic at times, but we are not afflicted with the Devil incarnate. Some acts certainly do reach a Satanic level of seriousness, but you don't hear of exorcists rushing to Osama Bin Laden's cave or Abu Ghraib prison. When I read of Jesus casting out the demonic as part of his work of transforming human culture, I think of the children of Iraq, Africa, and Afghanistan who have died or have been badly wounded in wars we too easily justify. I have no doubt that modern governments, ours included, have crossed the line into sadism. I think of business leaders who see no moral fault in poisoning our air and water and carving up the natural world, so necessary for our spirituality, for commercial profit. We all get mysterious illnesses from this pollution, but no one sees demonic possession in what we take to be a corporation's tolerable self-interest.

Many try to correct bad corporate behavior, but generally they don't speak of it as demonic. Maybe we should be more graphic in our condemnation of such evils. I'd like to send Peck and his friends to some government offices and corporate headquarters to do their exorcism. I see the demonic in governments convincing their people to allow the rich to become richer, while children are hungry and poorly educated. These are the demonic challenges of our time, and we as a society are truly possessed--by fear, paranoia, and self-interest. I'm concerned that the sensational reduction of exorcism to Gothic and ghoulish practices of devil-busting will distract us from the less melodramatic demons that possess us. This question of confronting the demonic is a crucial one and requires all our intelligence. I think Dr. Peck and I agree on the need to deal with human destructiveness and to push beyond the social sciences into the spiritual domain. But I am sad to see a return to old-fashioned ideas and images of theology and religion. We need to move ahead into a new level of spirituality that is subtle and acute. I want to be an exorcist, too. But I want to protect our children from the demonic insanities of dehumanized politics and culture. I'd like to add my two cents to saving ourselves from worldwide catastrophe. I'd like to steer religion away from moralism and blind sadism, freeing it up to provide the spiritual vision needed for us to survive and thrive. The demonic in our midst is more real than any local snakelike, snarling devil incarnated in the distress of yet another woman subjected to the dominating fantasies of a savior male.

I'm not judging Dr. Peck for these savior fantasies. I have them, too, and I admire those moments in his book when he questions himself and confesses to his failures. It makes me want to have a long conversation with him about the important questions that he and I have explored in our separate ways for many years. My chief frustration is directed at our failure to confess to the demonic in us--what makes us dangerous to ourselves and to the world. At a time of global demonic possession, we all need to become exorcists, and we are all in need of exorcism.

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