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In the summer of 1961, I was a Benedictine monk in St. John's Abbey at Collegeville, Minnesota, studying for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. That summer I was in charge of the little book store set up for people who came to the Abbey for summer retreats and other events. One of the pamphlets on sale the book store was Begone Satan!, an account of what was up to that point probably the best known and most spectacular case of satanic possession in the history of the United States. (The pamphlet cost 15 cents at the time, but it sells for the better part of $100.00 at a rare bookstore today.) Begone Satan! recounts the possession and exorcism of a 40-year-old woman in 1928 in a small rural town in Iowa. It contains vivid, eyewitness descriptions of how this woman came under the power of the devil and was the centre of extraordinary paranormal occurrences in the process of her exorcism. The exorcist was a Father Theophilus Riesinger, O.M.Cap. When the rite of exorcism began, she was being held down on an iron bed by a number of assisting nuns. As the first words were pronounced, she broke free of their hold and her body was carried high into the air and stuck to the wall above the door of the room. At times her body became horribly distorted (her emaciated frame swelling enormously, with her lips becoming many times their usual size and her head changing shape and colour). On occasion she vomited huge quantities of spaghetti-like material, although she had eaten practically nothing for weeks. This uneducated woman, under the influence of the demon corrected Father Riesinger when he misread Latin words in the ritual of exorcism and showed other signs of having knowledge of things she could not have known through ordinary means. In the process of the exorcism, the demons that were thrown out included Beelzebub, Lucifer, and Judas. After twenty-three days the exorcism was brought to a successful conclusion.
This account of possession and exorcism was originally written up in a magazine in Germany. It was translated from the German into pamphlet form by a Father Celestine Kapsner, O.S.B., a member of my community. Father Celestine was in charge of the garden, and on occasion, when pulling weeds, I would ask him what he knew about possession. He assured me that such things did happen (in fact he knew the pastor of the parish in which this exorcism had taken place). He told me he had himself seen similar occurrences and been involved in exorcisms. But I have to admit that I had my doubts. Although I was a monk and about to become a priest, I was really quite a rationalist in my world view, and I could not fit these stories into my way of thinking. It took me some years to change this view, as I will tell you.
In that same summer of 1961, I was also helping out with a pastoral institute that had become an annual tradition at St. John's. Each summer the Abbey invited some of the best-known psychiatrists in the country to come and spend a week there and give talks about psychology to workshop groups made up of pastors of all faiths. At that time, American psychiatrists and the American Medical Association were dominated by psychoanalysis, and that was what we were exposed to in the seminars. I was impressed, and the thinking of the lecturers fit in very well with my rationalist turn of thought.
It was not until many years later, when I had been practising for some time as a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist that my thinking began to loosen up. And it was not the Church or religion that forced me to revise my thinking. It was the experiences of my therapy clients that, if I was going to treat their experiences with the serious consideration they deserved, made me look beyond the usual psychological frameworks to get a perspective on what I was hearing.
I was ordained a priest in 1964 and began practising as a psychotherapist in 1966. By 1969 I had left the monastic life and the priesthood for the secular life of a psychotherapist, and I left it in good standing, so to speak--which was possible in those days of Pope John XXIII. Then in the late 1970's I began working with cases of possession, such as I describe in my book Multiple Man, and in the early 1980's I started to work with cases of multiple personality--as it was called then.
It was particularly these cases of possession and multiple personality that forced me to stretch my thinking. I could not simply dismiss my clients's experiences as delusions and explain them away in terms of standard psychological models. That approach was totally unsatisfying and--I felt--dishonest. Although I was left in the uncomfortable position of saying that I did not know precisely what was behind these experiences, I was unwilling to fit them into the Procrustean bed of psychological dogma.
So from that time I have never doubted the reality of these syndromes or the genuineness of the experiences. But I have to say that I have always had questions about the status of the Aentities involved. I have come to realize that one can have these concerns without calling the whole phenomenon into question. The thing that most bothered me about my Catholic religion was the notion that to critically scrutinize the dogmas of the church was a sin--a serious sin. When I left religious life in 1969, I regained my freedom to question, to doubt, to be sceptical, to challenge. I was not about to give them up again as a therapist, in some kind of blind adherence to psychological dogma on the one hand, or new-age dogma on the other.
So yes, I have always had serious questions about the status of the personalities of multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder) and the spirit entities of possession. And I can say that my inquiries have led me to conclusions that do not, to my knowledge, coincide with any position that is currently being taken in regard to this matter.
These days, when you work with multiple personality disorder or with spirit possession or harassment, what are you likely to hear from co-workers? In my experience the most frequently asked--or implied--question is: AThese multiple personalities, these spirit entities--are they really real?
This is a question to which I am not inclined to give a hasty answer. Over the years I have come to respect that fact that nobody asks such a question without a host of assumptions and preconceptions lurking in the background, and some account of them needs to be taken. So if I am talking about my work and the question AAre multiple personalities and spirit entities really real? is asked, I will not answer Yes or No or even Maybe. I will respond instead: ALet me tell you my thoughts about whether anything we say about our subjective experience is really real. And if at this point my questioner's eyes do not glaze over, I will continue.
To let you know where I am going with this, I would like to call your attention to a group of thinkers who some call Asocial constructionists and who have a very special way of looking at things psychological. If you were to talk to a person from this group, you would see that he is keenly aware of how strongly we are affected by the ideas and mores of our society. He believes that our attitudes about life, love, death and everything else is determined by the categories current in our culture. In keeping with this stance, he sees our notions of multiple personalities and possessing entities as creations of our society, developed to deal with the vicissitudes of life. In other words, he sees them as social constructions.
Notice what our social constructionist is not saying. Obviously he is not someone who believes that these personalities and spirits are what they claim to be--entities existing in their own right. But neither is he a psychological reductionist, who sees them as complex products of the individual's unconscious, formed to handle internal conflicts.
No, the social constructionist is saying something else, and we have to pay attention to the subtleties of his view. He is saying that the personalities of MPD and the spirits of possession are realities, indeed, but not the kind of realities that they purport to be. Instead they are social realities, formed within a particular culture to satisfy particular needs within that culture. They are, in other words, the product of their times, and while they refer to genuine experiences and are not mere unconscious figments, they can be given no absolute status apart from the peculiar cultural environment which gave birth to them.
Ian Hacking, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, has recently written a book called Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personalities and the Sciences of Memory. Hacking might be numbered among the social constructionists in regard to multiple personality. He puts it this way. He believes that one's culture determines what form a disorder can take and is in turn influenced by the form that disorder does in fact take, so that a kind of feedback loop is set up. In the case of multiple personality, he calls the multiple a Athoroughly crafted person and suggests that multiple personality is a modern disorder, one that could only come into being in a specific cultural context. He talks about multiple personality disorder as a kind of Aparasite that requires a culturally prepared host, consisting of recognized phenomena that can be used to explain the disorder. He says that when multiple personality first came into being in the last half of the nineteenth century, the host was hysteria, hypnotism, and positivism. Today, says Hacking, the host is child abuse, which in the multiple personality movement is broadly accepted as the principal cause of the disorder. To complete the picture, both then and now the concept of psychological trauma with amnesia connects cause with effect.
Hacking is not saying that multiple personality disorder is not real. Neither is he saying, as some do, that the memories and behaviour of the multiple is caused by the therapist. But he does say that the multiple is likely to reinterpret his or her past in terms of current understandings of how the disorder arises. In this way, says Hacking, Amultiple personality provided a new way to be an unhappy person (p. 236).
Now Ian Hacking's ideas derive from a thorough knowledge of the history of psychological ideas, and I believe they deserve serious consideration. Hacking is moving in a direction being taken up by other contemporary researchers, such as Allan Young, who has produced an impressive criticism of post-traumatic stress disorder as a diagnosis in a book called The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Young says that our mental disorders are not disease entities, as we tend to think them to be. They have not always been around, like the tuberculosis bug has, and they do not possess an intrinsic unity. If they have a unity, it is one imposed from the outside by our culture, which has flagged a certain set of symptoms as fitting under a certain recently constructed diagnosis. Young says of post-traumatic stress disorder that as a disease entity it is Aglued together by the practices, technologies, and narratives with which it is diagnosed, studied, and treated (p. 5). Like Hacking in regard to multiple personality disorder, Young is not saying that post traumatic stress disorder is not real, but that it has been made real by the action of our culture.
So social constructionists like Hacking and Young are not proposing that multiple personalities and, by extension, spirit possession is not real. At least we are not ensnared here into that old, useless debate about empirical evidence. You know, that's the one in which one side claims there is no scientific evidence for the existence of multiple personalities, or spirit entities, or psychokinesis, or clairvoyance, or whatever else is out of the academic favour, and the other side heaps up mounds of evidence for the existence of these things through controlled studies of mediums, laboratory experiments with the psychically gifted, or thousands of accounts of events that point to the reality of these phenomena. That old debate is, in my opinion, a complete waste of time, for I believe it is intrinsically impossible to prove these things to someone not predisposed to accept them. But more importantly, that debate entirely misses the main point. The main point is not how much evidence do we have for the existence of these alter personalities or possessing entities, but rather precisely what do we mean when we ask whether they are real.
Hacking and Young and their ilk at least are not caught up in that dead end. They say that these social constructions are real. They are not faked. They are not dreamed up by therapist and client. They are not fabrications of an overactive unconscious. But Hacking and Young and the rest do not take up the next question: Are they really real?
While I was mulling over this question, I came across an article by Theodore Sarbin, professor of social psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The article is a rather polemical demolition of multiple personality, published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, and it reminded me that not all social constructionists are as even handed as Hacking and Young. Sarbin says that those who accept multiple personalities as real are guilty of the Ametaphor to myth fallacy. That is, they take descriptions of experiences and reify them, make them into things (a tendency noted by William James when he said (James, Vol. 1, p. 229), AAll thought tends to assume the form of personal consciousness). So, says Sarbin, with multiple personality, they make different states of consciousness in an individual into personalities, separately existing entities that have a kind of substantialness. Thus what was originally a metaphorical way of speaking (at times I feel so changed that it is as if I am a different person) now becomes a myth (I have multiple personalities).
In describing how we come to understand ourselves, Sarbin talks about story telling. He says that we try to give our life meaning by telling stories that make sense of it. The main thing is to make the story credible to the listener. In therapy, says Sarbin, the client, as the storyteller, picks and chooses among his experiences and selects those that his imaginative skills can weave into a narrative that explains his problems. He uses the theories of his therapist as the thread that holds his story together and in that way gives meaning to what he has experienced. Sarbin says that in our society today there is a special subculture of psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists, and healers who see a whole gamut of symptoms as arising from childhood sexual abuse. They consider the client a passive victim of unconscious forces that create distinct identities that are separated from each other by quasi-neurological mechanisms. Once the patient recognizes that this is the thought framework that makes sense to his therapist, he tells his story in these terms. In this subculture, the therapist becomes co-author of the client's self-narrative. Concepts like dissociation, repressed memories, and multiple personality disorder provide the framework for rewriting one's self-story.
In stating his position, Sarbin does not really help us in deciding our question: AAre multiple personalities and possessing spirits really real? In fact he does not say anything about what is real or true. One might wonder how, in Sarbin's framework of thought, one ever arrives at something that might be called the Atruth about oneself. Sarbin does not talk about truth. Only about Avalidation of one's story. The strong implication in the article is that the only true validation is given by our social context. In other words Sarbin posits a kind of cultural common sense as the criterion for the validity of our understanding of ourselves. If our culture validates our explanatory story, then the story is OK. If it does not, and if instead validation comes from a subculture within our society, then it is not. So Sarbin ends up relying on a blind faith in culturally determined truth. This stance not only rules out the validity of subcultural views, it also denies any credibility to unique experiences, intuitive realizations that are not culturally preapproved. Within this framework, truth or validity seems to be reduced to a matter of vote. The majority view, the predominant cultural view, is the valid one. A subcultural view, being presumably that of a minority of society, is invalid. So if we were to reframe our question in his terms, it would have to be: AMultiple personalities and possessing entities--are they really valid? And then we would answer the question by asking: AWhat is our culture's view of the matter, what is culturally orthodox? Sarbin's answer to the question AAre multiple personalities really real? would plainly be, ANo, because the reality of alter personalities is affirmed not by the culturally orthodox majority but by a subcultural minority of mental health workers.
Sarbin presents himself as the sober spokesperson for common sense, protecting the population against aberrant thinking, and he does so in the name of science. This is an exceedingly problematical stance to take. To see just how problematical, one only has to recall the words of Albert Einstein who said that common sense is just a term for the sum total of prejudices acquired by age sixteen; in other words it embodies those tenets of one's culture that are accepted without critical reflexion. Surely that cannot be the basis for an approach that calls itself Ascientific.
Some years ago Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch wrote a fascinating book about how cultural groups try to establish the validity of their views. In the book, entitled Frames of Meaning, they discuss the stance people take in regard to the reality of paranormal phenomena. They refer to two cultural groups (believers and nonbelievers) that stand opposed, each trying to gain the adherence of people's hearts and minds. Both groups claim to be working within the framework of science, but their metaphysical assumptions differ and so they approach their subject very differently. Believers accept the possibility of paranormal phenomena, phenomena not explainable in terms of current scientific thinking; on the other hand, nonbelievers identify themselves with current scientific opinion, the orthodoxies of the scientific establishment. Believers and nonbelievers belong to different paradigm groups and cannot communicate. They inhabit different worlds, and they talk through each other. Each paradigm group has its own language, and there is no third extraparadigmatic language that can be called on to mediate a dialogue.
If we translate the findings of Collins and Pinch to our discussion of multiple personality (and, by extension, possession), we find that Sarbin places himself squarely in the group of the nonbelievers, who represent the accepted view of our culture. He tells us that believers (in multiple personality, dissociation, etc.) are a Asubculture of psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists, and other healers (Sarbin, p. 173). They are a subculture, not part of mainstream cultural thinking, and by that very fact their views cannot be validated and should not be taken seriously. By adopting this establishment-seated, polemical language, he demonstrates the point of Collins and Pinch: that there is little chance of real communication between the two paradigms.
Sarbin's polemical approach to his subject is not that rare. In reviewing Carl Sagan's final book, entitled The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin points out (Lewontin, pp. 29 ff.) that many scientists find themselves in a strange dilemma, for they are using rhetoric to convince people that they should only be convinced by scientific fact. Lewontin says:
In the end we must trust the [scientific] experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand.... Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power. (p. 32)
Lewontin, writing of Carl Sagan's views, admirably describes the paradigm world view of the Collins and Pinch's unbeliever:
Sagan's argument is straightforward. We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities....Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive , no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. (pp. 28 & 31)
So what happens when we put rhetoric aside? What happens when we give up the notion that we can convince the unbeliever by amassing mounds of empirical evidence? Can we actually say something meaningful about the question: Are multiple personalities and possessing entities really real? I believe we can.
First let me say something about multiple personalities and possessing spirits on a descriptive level. How do we determine whether we are dealing with alter personalities or spirits, with MPD or possession? We are forced to rely on the experiences of our clients. We must listen to how these identities present themselves. Their presentation is simple enough: multiple personalities are identities who manifest within one body and who do not claim a life history attached to a different time and space from that of this body; possessing entities are identities who manifest within one body and who do claim such a life history.
When we ask the question about whether either kind of identity is really real, we are not asking whether they exist separately from the main functioning personality of the individual in the exact same way that you and I exist separately from each other. You and I clearly have separate bodies, and that is considered enough to satisfy any doubts about distinctness. In the case of multiple personalities and possession, we do not have any such simple solution. We are dealing with a single body, and to solve the question of separateness we must look for other criteria.
But if we are not talking about separateness in the exact same sense that you and I are separate, are we speaking about separateness is some analogous way? Is it possible to say that multiple personalities differ from each other and from the main functioning personality, and that possessing spirits differ from each other and from the host in some clearly identifiable analogy to those who have separate bodies? I think so.
Morton Prince (therapist of the famous Sally Beauchamp case of multiple personality), writing in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1907, said:
The only grounds which I have for believing that my fellow beings have thoughts like myself are that their actions are like my own, exhibit intelligence like my own, and when I ask them they tell me they have consciousness, which as described is like my own. Now, when I observe the so-called automatic actions [e.g., arising from an alter personality], I find that they are of a similar character, and when I ask of whatever it is that performs these actions, Whether it is conscious or not? the written reply is, that it is and that consciously it feels, thinks and wills the actions, etc. The evidence being the same in the one case as in the other, the presumption is that the automatic intelligence is as conscious as the personal intelligence. (p. 69)
Prince is talking about the problem of establishing criteria for recognizing the presence of a consciousness other than one's own. Among other things he is saying that when you and I interact with each other, we make an important assumption: the assumption that you are like me in this regard--that you are a conscious person. Yet I can never prove such an assumption about you, because I will never have access to your subjective experience of yourself to know that it is the same as mine is of myself. And vice is also versa.
Now to take this a little further, I would like to describe my subjective experience of myself. When I think, feel, and make choices, I experience myself as an irreducible unity, a point source from which I am thinking, feeling and choosing at this moment. This is not to deny my complexity and my changeability. I realize that I experience conflicting thoughts, feelings, and inclinations and that I change from day to day, and even moment to moment. Nevertheless, at any particular instant of thought or decision, I experience myself as a unified centre, and, for all my changes, I experience my identity over time.
In the passage quoted, Prince is saying that when I see you apparently thinking and feeling and apparently making choices, and when I ask you about that, you describe a subjective experience that sounds just like mine. So I make the assumption that you are like me in this very important way: that you are also a unified centre of thought, feeling, and will--something we call a person.
But can I know that for sure? No. I can never know it with the certainty that I know my own consciousness. I can only know it as a well-founded assumption.
David Ray Griffin, writing of the specialness of conscious experience (Griffin, pp. 124-5, 134-5), also calls attention to the issue of interiority. He points out that our own conscious experience is the only thing we know from the inside, as subjects, subjectively; we know everything else from the outside, as objects, objectively. This means our own consciousness is the only thing we know in itself. We have no direct knowledge of the Ainside of anything else. That does not mean that other things do not have an inside, that there are no other Asubjects. It means that we if we know them to be subjects, it is only by inference. If there are other Asubjects we experience them directly only as Aobjects.
The problem of identifying others as persons has also been tackled by those investigating artificial intelligence. In the 1950's the great British computer scientist, Alan Turing, proposed a way to test for what we call Apersons. Called the ATuring Test, his method envisions a situation in which an investigator has a dialogue with two communicators (one a human being and the other a computer) through a keyboard and without any other means of contact. The dialogue takes place over a long period of time, with many questions being asked of the communicators. If the investigator, through examining the content, style and Afeel of the answers, cannot tell which was the computer and which the human being, the computer would be communicating exactly like a person and therefore have to be considered a Aperson.
Here again it is recognized that the only way we can know whether or not we are dealing with a person is from the Aoutside. If we do not have the familiar human body in front of us to convince us (by assumption) that we are dealing with a person, we have to go by the communications we receive. If our communicating source gives responses indistinguishable from those given by embodied persons in ordinary life, then, says Turing, we must accept that source as a person--even if we discover subsequently that the source was not an embodied human being.
Now let us return to the question of the reality of multiple personalities and possessing entities. When I interact with the alter personalities of a multiple, they seem to be unified centres of thought, feeling, and will like my own; they too seem to be persons. Moreover, they experience themselves as distinct from other personalities or identities associated with this one body. They have no sense of being Apart of a larger whole in any way that means they have the same identity as the others. They feel themselves to be as distinct from each other as you from me. As with anyone else that I encounter in my life, I cannot verify that each of them are persons by getting inside their consciousness and experiencing what they are experiencing. As with any embodied individual that I come across, I am free to make an inference that they are persons, like I am, even though no direct evidence for that is possible.
There is no reason to apply my criteria for personhood in one case and not in the other. There is no compelling reason to say that one body must by definition mean one person. I am not a priori prevented from making the same assumption of personhood for these identities as for separate embodied people. As odd as it may seem to those who adhere to the predominant view of our culture, there is no intrinsic contradiction in having more than one person associated with one body.
The same holds true of my experience of possessing spirits. These identities experience themselves as individual centres of consciousness, distinct from that of the Ahost personality. When each of these identities interacts with me, they come across as having subjective experiences of thought, feelings and will like my own. As in the case of multiple personalities, the only possible reason for automatically ruling out a plurality of persons would be cultural preference.
Well then, are multiple personalities and possessing spirits really real? Since I have no basis for making a different assumption about them than the one I would make about you, I would have to say that from my point of view, and from my experience of them, they are as real for me as you are. So as far as I am concerned, if you are really real, then so are they.
Given that there is no reason to reject a priori multiple persons associated with one body, and given that the personalities of a multiple and possessing entities qualify as persons, there is a further practical question to be asked: Should personalities associated with one body who experience themselves as distinct from one another be accepted as distinct? Since there is no intrinsic reason to say that they cannot be distinct, I believe that the subjective, internal experience of separateness be accepted. Since there is no external objective way to prove this experience wrong, the presumption should be for distinctness.
Does that mean that the subject's experience of distinctness is infallible? I do not believe it is. It is conceivable that through amnesia an illusion of distinctness could be created. But I believe that the burden of proof that the identities are not distinct is on those who make that claim.
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