(This is the first of three-part series. In the next two installments, mainstream pastors describe similar experiences.)
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WASHINGTON – The psychiatrist was on the phone with a priest discussing a patient when suddenly another voice appeared out of nowhere, threatened the clergyman and nastily warned, "Leave her alone, she's ours."
Dr. Richard Gallagher recognized the voice. It was the one that had come out of the patient when he had examined her. But she was hundreds of miles away, nowhere near the two men on the phone.
"I said to the priest, 'Did you hear that?'" the doctor recounted to WND.
The priest replied, "Yes, this is a very serious case. That's what you can get in these very serious cases."
So serious, and so bizarre, Gallagher wrote a piece for the Washington Post recently that began with a gripping description of that very case, titled, "As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession."
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It was the case that launched a highly trained man of science and reason on a journey into the supernatural.
One that led him to conclude that evil spirits are real.
Dr. Gallagher is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. He studied the classics at Princeton then was trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia.
Gallagher related in his Post article how, in the late 1980s, he was "introduced to a self-styled Satanic high priestess. She called herself a witch and dressed the part, with flowing dark clothes and black eye shadow around to her temples. In our many discussions, she acknowledged worshipping Satan as his 'queen.'”
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He was skeptical but discovered too many things his training could not explain. The woman knew how his own mother had died of ovarian cancer. She knew people's secret weaknesses. Six people witnessed her speak Latin and other languages unknown to her when she was not in a trance.
"This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability," wrote Gallagher. "I concluded that she was possessed."
That episode launched what he called an unlikely partnership, as he became a psychiatrist who works with exorcists.
Gallagher has had several hundred consultations with clergy from several denominations and faiths during the past two-and-a-half decades.
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Although he says cases of genuine possession are rare, he finds certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
"I believe I’ve seen the real thing," he wrote. He can readily recognize mental illness, "But what am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?"
Gallagher does not diagnose possession. He rules out medical or psychiatric disorders and then, he told WND, "I let the clergy, the spiritual professionals, make up their own mind."
The majority of the people he evaluates in consultation with clergy suffer from conventional mental or physical disorders.
Gallagher emphasized, "There are many mentally ill people who think they are attacked by demons who are not, in my opinion. They have a mental illness. Or another type of illness. It is important that those people get medical help. I'm a physician after all, and I'm very well trained."
"On the other hand," he added, "in these other cases, which I believe a very trained person can distinguish fairly clearly from illnesses, I believe those people need spiritual help."
The doctor also made it clear that he, himself, was not treating the possessed, and they are not patients of his.
"I'm certainly not an exorcist or anything like that. I'm not a clergy member. I'm not really doing anything that's frowned upon professionally."
Gallagher indicated that his work with the clergy has not had a negative effect on his career.
"I really haven't gotten negative comments from other doctors. Psychiatry is a little more open to the value of spirituality these days. Everybody's got to have their opinion," he said with a gentle chuckle.
"And I'm sure a lot of people don't agree with me, but these are cases that people asked me to comment on. And we all have academic and religious freedom to be able to do that."
Gallagher is writing a book on his experiences. When asked how it will expand upon the topic, he first described how the Post had asked him to write an essay describing what it was like for an academic psychiatrist to be involved in helping clergy discern whether something goes beyond a natural illness or mental disorder and reaches something that might be a possession.
"What they really didn't ask me to do," he explained, "was make a more scientific case, you might say, for the idea of demonic possession. The book essentially does that. It expands the article drastically, obviously, and talks about a few cases in the United States and also makes more of a scientific argument for the reality of demonic possession."
WND asked if he had garnered any clues as to what might make a person susceptible to possession, or what causes it?
He said there are a few things, but, "The most common is that somebody has sort of turned to the occult world or even turned to evil."
Gallagher referred to the woman mentioned in his article, "who was an out and out Satanist. She worshiped Satan. I don't think there's a lot of those people, but she was the real deal, and that was kind of a classic situation that would open up one to a possession."
Had he ever spoken with one of these evil spirits?
"No, I don't speak to the spirits," he replied. "I'm not an exorcist. I've been to a number of exorcisms as a witness, as a medical professional monitoring things. But I've never spoken to them."
But they've spoken to him.
"I've had a couple of evil spirits say something to me. For instance, very obnoxiously, sometimes they'll say something like, 'How is your son?" I find it obnoxious and intrusive to bring a family member into this."
"They actually did say something about the book," the doctor somewhat marveled. "I had a demon say, 'Well, have you finished the book? It's not going to do any good, anyway,' which I thought was an attempt to discourage me from publishing the results of my findings."
Had he ever felt in danger or suffered anything he felt was retaliation?
"I've dealt with a cult or two, I've had some threatening remarks, not directly from a demon but from cult members. I don't believe I've suffered any specific spiritual attack, no."
What were the most common signs of possession that he had seen? Was there some kind of pattern?
"There's pretty much always a pattern. The most common kind of possession is the person will go into a trance and doesn't even remember a voice coming out of them. The voice during this trance state expresses a lot of hatred of religious and sacred things. It indicates they are the sort of personality who wants to torment the individual."
Possession often also involves things difficult to explain.
"They may exhibit a hidden knowledge of things. They may well speak foreign languages. And in the process of clergy trying to help these individuals, they often will fight dramatically against being restrained and kind of exhibit incredible strength, generally, for sustained periods that appears to an onlooker just incredible."
In his article, Gallagher made a distinction between a full-fledged possession of a person by an evil spirit and a slightly more common but less severe phenomenon called oppression.
WND asked, what would be a symptom of oppression as opposed to the inexplicable things he has seen in possessions?
"It's also inexplicable things," he explained. "It's of a more minor degree but the person may, for instance, feel beat up by invisible forces, they may be interfered with in fairly dramatic ways with, say their spiritual practices."
For example, he said, "They may be trying to pray and it's obvious to everybody that, in a dramatic way, they are interfered with, when they try to pray or something."
WND mentioned having heard of pastors who reported treating oppressions with some frequency. Did Gallagher think it was possible that oppression could be more common, just widely undiagnosed?
"No, I don't think it's common," the psychiatrist responded softly but authoritatively. "It's certainly not as rare as possession. I'm defining oppression as some fairly clear demonic attack that doesn't reach the level of a possession. I don't think it's routine. I think if someone is seeing it as routine, one has to be very cautious about that."
Gallagher mentioned in his article that demand for exorcists was rising. Did he believe possessions were increasing, or that recognizing them has become more common?
"I think it's probably both," he reflected. "I think these things go in waves in history. I think in the last 20 years, or so, there's been a rise in the recognition and requests for something like exorcism."
He said there also may be more people who have turned to what he described as "kind of anti-Christian and occult sources," and, "I think there may well be more people who have opened themselves up to demonic attack or possession. Although, it's obviously very difficult to pin that sort of thing down."
However, he added, "I have no doubt that in certain areas of the world, in certain areas of the developing world, in places like Haiti for instance, there's always been a certain amount of demonic activity going on in those countries where there are very few people who don't believe in the devil or evil spirits."
WND noted that people treated with anti-depressants are warned of rare side-effects including suicidal and homicidal thoughts. Did the psychiatrist believe that such medications might make people more susceptible to possession?
"No, I don't," he replied without hesitation. "I think mental illness is a different thing from spiritual attack entirely. People who have psychiatric or psychological problems need psychiatric and psychological help. The medications are not perfect but can often be extremely helpful. I don't think they in any way lower the susceptibility for demonic influence."
When asked what was the strangest thing he had seen that he believed was a sign of possession, Gallagher recalled a woman who came to him "who had been in contact with some kind of practitioner of black magic and she revealed the name of two spirits."
One of them was a spirit he had witnessed in the case of a woman a thousand miles away from where he lived. The other was the name of a spirit in a boy who came to see him two weeks later.
"So, that was pretty remarkable. In other words, the woman was getting these names of two spirits, but she didn't really know what they meant. One from a case I was already dealing with and another was a case that I was going to be dealing with in the near future. That was pretty amazing."
It was then that he also recalled the phone conversation with the priest that was interrupted by an evil spirit.
Did it alter his worldview when he experienced something like that?
"Well, by that point, I believed in spirits but it was still pretty amazing to hear that."
WND asked the doctor, who has described himself as a practicing Catholic, if he believed it possible that humans interact with the spiritual world on a regular basis, perhaps unknowingly?
"I think I have a pretty typically Christian view of that," he replied. "I do think that evil spirits cannot take away people's free will, so people are still free, but, they do try to influence us. And I'm sure to some extent angels and God watch over us to. So, I guess I would answer your question positively.
Had he ever seen evidence of beneficent or angelic spirits?
"I think there are people who have benefited from praying to good spirits or guardian angels as well as to God. You know, sometimes people do seem to get answers to these prayers. I think that's possible, yes."
How had his work affected his faith?
"It's undoubtedly deepened it," he answered softly but without hesitation. "I mean, it's hard to deal with the amount of people I've dealt with without believing pretty strongly in the world of evil spirits."
Given his experiences and beliefs, did he believe there is a spiritual war between good and evil?