Stories have rules, even stories about exorcisms. Heroes follow a certain type: most often, Roman Catholic priests, superheroes like Constantine or Hellboy, and revivalist preachers like Smith Wigglesworth. The locations of these stories vary but as a rule they are far, far away or a long, long time ago. They do not happen in the town where you have lived your entire life. They are not accomplished by your father. Until one day they are.
In my case, one day was Saturday, March 6, 2010. I got a call from dad while I was driving home from brunch with my wife. “You missed a good prayer meeting today,” he chuckled, “we just wrapped up a little bit of an exorcism. It was pretty wild stuff.”
Despite being an evangelical pastor, my dad is basically a Clark Griswold type. He’s a minivan-driving suburb-dweller who quotes Bob Dylan or Bill Murray nearly as often as he quotes Jesus. And he’s a college-educated liberal arts grad—not some fundamentalist nut job. He reads the New Yorker and the Atlantic regularly and listens to NPR. And he knows about mental illness: My aunt is schizophrenic, and several family members struggle with depression. While I’m sure dad prays for all of us, he doesn’t generally attribute these maladies to demons. He believes in the existence of demons, but he’s not one to use the term lightly.
She was yelling in a voice that belonged in a man triple her size. She kept trying to molest herself. It was like her arms belonged to someone else.
So when he told me he had performed an exorcism, I couldn’t simply file that information under “dad being dad.”
So here is the story of how my dad became an exorcist. It was 2010 and our church was holding daily prayer meetings. At the time we didn’t have a real church building. We met in some leased office space. The only thing that identified us as a church was a decal on the door. On that Saturday, shortly after the group of six or seven took our seats for the 6 a.m. service, a 15-year-old kid rushed in frantically looking for a priest. A trail of cold Illinois spring air followed the boy into the plainly adorned sanctuary and together they woke my dad and the other disciples of Saint Arbucks and Jesus Christ from their holy morning stupor.
The kid told my dad that his mom had a demon and needed help. He begged my dad not to just call 9-1-1. “She doesn’t need a shrink,” he said, “She needs a priest.” Even though no one in that room had personal experience with exorcisms, my dad isn’t one to let a lack of training get in the way of helping someone, so he suggested that the group “just move the prayer meeting to the lady’s apartment.”
This is how he remembers his encounter with the demon:
When we arrived it was clear that there was another presence in the room. She was yelling in a voice that belonged in a man triple her size. She kept trying to molest herself. It was like her arms belonged to someone else. She roared obscenities, blasphemies, and threats of violence. The entire time we were there her son and husband had to hold her down on the bed to keep her from hurting herself or one of us.
During the exorcism there was a disappointing lack of holy water or prayers in Latin or even a kick to the woman’s stomach, in the style of old Smith Wigglesworth, to loosen that demon’s grip. My dad and the folks from the prayer meeting just did exactly what they would have done at the church. They sang songs and read the Bible out loud and prayed.
It took a couple of hours, but after a while the demon left without any dramatic bursts of flames or final threats.
Barb’s eye’s cleared, and she hugged her husband as if she had just returned from a grueling journey. Her voice returned to normal. “It worked.” Her husband eked out a tired smile. “Well, amen then,” my dad said. Pretty wild stuff. Wilder than my brunch anyway.
Barb started attending our church with her husband. She had an ongoing history of drug and alcohol abuse and clinical depression. They had both experienced long periods of unemployment. From the day of the exorcism, they both went straight-edge, cold turkey. After a couple of weeks, her husband found a pretty good job. Barb got back in touch with her dad after years of separation. Life didn’t become a frolic in the Garden of Eden, but it was a hell of a lot better than deadlock traffic in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Another rule of real exorcism stories is that the exorcist, statistically, is almost always a missionary. Apparently, while most of us are living demon-free lives in America, missionaries the world over are casting out a demon a day and two on Sunday. I’m not a missionary. I’m a young, over-educated, socially liberal guy with a full-time job helping Fortune 1,000 companies build information management strategies. I’m uncomfortable believing in the existence of demons; it feels very medieval, or at least very backwater. Just telling this story induces a compulsive urge to assure you that I’m not a birther, or an anti-vaxxer, or a season ticket-holder at the Creation Museum.
Even so, the effect is about the same. I believe in something that most modern people would equate with geocentrism or alchemy.
While most of us are living demon-free lives in America, missionaries the world over are casting out a demon a day and two on Sunday.
A friend of mine, paraphrasing Carl Sagan told me: “I don’t think that people with the positive position ‘demons exist’ have provided the extraordinary evidence required to support their extraordinary claim.” That is true. (Though, if we know anything about demons, it is that they hate being subjected to longitudinal studies by Ph.D. candidates in the psychology of religion.)
I don’t fold on my belief about demons for two reasons. The first is the closeness of this experience. There is a fundamental difference between the way you are receiving this information through a screen with—no connection to me, my dad, or Barb—and the way I received it. I’m right in the middle of it. We’ve all had personal experiences that turn our declarative beliefs into ambiguously inquisitive ones. When I talk to other people about those moments in their life, they recite some variation the modern creed of uncertainty: “That’s weird stuff.” We bracket our conclusion for later. Maybe I don’t understand, but someday, someone will have a reasonable answer.
The second reason is that I find the language of theology helpful where the other languages of modernity are impoverished. I think our lexicons have been developed for different purposes; just as Inuit fails to capture the blinding fury of sandstorms, theology is poorly equipped to deal with the natural sciences; but it richly describes the manifold beauties and dangers of the soul’s desire for the infinite. I don’t think we’ve developed better ways to describe exceptional love or evil than Rumi’s poetry, David’s songs, or a host of other religious texts.
When I asked my Dad why he thought Barb was possessed and not just off her meds or on a bender, he said:
Her husband and son had dealt with her drug use and mental problems in the past. That was normal for them. This was as if a bully had moved into the apartment and taken over.... There’s a spectrum of evil that is part of being human. Then there is unimaginable hatred, the loss of personal identity and any sense of human rationality. That’s the difference.
It is in the face of the loss of our humanity that theological language provides a source of power and the hope of transformation.
This is not to say that there aren’t other ways of describing what happened. The clinical term for a person recovering from drugs or alcohol without the use of treatment or therapy is spontaneous remission. It comes out of cancer research to refer to a cancer that is detected and then disappears. The Institute of Noetic Sciences has a database of 3,500 examples of spontaneous remission along with rigorous criteria for classifying these cases. Research in Norway has tracked the occurrence of spontaneous remission of breast cancer and shown that it might actually be more common than previously thought. Most relevant this story, a study on remission rates among drug addicts found: “Most drug abusers who had started using drugs by their early 20s appeared to gradually achieve remission. Spontaneous remission was the rule rather than the exception.” Research on spontaneous remission is extremely controversial in both the medical and psychological community. But it is a category you could use to describe the results of this exorcism.
Yet I find this concept a bit clunky when applied to this story. I think it would mean that a woman who had been a long-time drug addict and alcoholic entered into abrupt spontaneous remission when a bunch of nerdy people, singing very poorly, descended on her apartment.
That or a hundred other possibilities might be more appealing, depending on your sensibilities. Even in the 12th century, when belief in demons was the norm, folks disagreed about how to diagnose demonic possession. In Discerning the Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, Nancy Caciola summarizes the problem: “How can an exterior observer understand what takes place inside the body of another person?” The skeptic has a right to his skepticism.
And say what you will about the tragedy of epistemological uncertainty, recent history shows that attempted exorcisms can also go horrifically wrong. In 2008, 15 miles from where my dad performed an exorcism, a woman stabbed her daughter to death because she thought she was possessed. In 2014 a woman in Maryland stabbed two of her children to death during an attempted exorcism. On the other side of the world, in a sort of perverted baptism, a woman was drowned in an attempt to drive away an evil spirit.
In the case of the stabbings, my dad’s response was that if anyone was possessed, it was the mothers. “And really,” he told me on a phone call for this article, “this is an example of an essential misunderstanding of how to battle a demon. We aren’t fighting flesh and blood, so attacking the person’s body doesn’t make any sense. It is a spiritual battle. It is about the power of Jesus and the power of demonic forces. Jesus is more powerful. So we just need to invite him into the situation.”
So far he’s only done one exorcism, but my dad thinks it is just the beginning. “I’ve got people in the police department and school administrators who don’t have any interest in God or church in their own lives calling me with questions about ‘weird’ behaviors in students or people in the city. These are cases that are so far outside the norm that they don’t know what to do with them.” More surprising, the calls are from people who don’t even know about his exorcism experience. He says:
The police know that we are helping the homeless get their lives put back together. The schools are seeing kids who used to be on the fringe, at risk of dropping out or causing real damage to themselves showing up excited about God and wanting to invest in their education. It doesn’t have to be a demon. We are just really excited about the transforming power of God’s love and how that can impact our city.
I think that there are forces that strip of us our human freedoms. For some people, there will always be the struggle. I fight depression, you fight alcohol, another person fights crushing poverty. When we lose the battle completely, when the wolf at the door consumes our identity, I call that a demon. I try to fight like hell to keep the wolf on the other side of that door. But if he ever were to break through, I’d like to hope someone would call my dad.
Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.