“Maybe that’s all demons ever are. People like us, doing things without even knowing what we’re doing.” – Orson Scott Card, Pathfinder
When you hear someone talking about the existence of demons, you likely believe they are either a religious extremist or talking about some movie or work of fiction. In this case, however, the individual making these claims is not only a professional but a well-respected member of the mental health community. Dr. Richard Gallagher is currently a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. Prior to this, he worked in hospital ERs, the psych department of a large state prison, and one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the world.
With all of this time and experience under his belt, one would assume that he would have a good grasp of reality – especially as someone working in the area of psychiatric care. It is for this reason that he shocked so many people when he came out with his opinion – Demons are real, and demonic possession explains many of the struggles that we see in the area of mental illness.
The question on many minds, looking at the situation, is how someone as well educated and experienced as Dr. Gallagher can believe in something as controversial as demonic possession. When asked, he told a story of a woman that he was asked to consult on back in the late 1980s. This was a time in history in which the nation was in a state of panic, fearing the impact of Satanism on their lives. His responsibility was to assess whether the woman was, in fact, struggling with mental illness, or if she was the victim of possession.
Gallagher went on to explain, “I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed.”
This led to a new focus for Gallagher’s work. Partnering up with a priest, he has since been called in for over several hundred consultations. With each case, he assesses the situation to determine whether they are among the majority, an episode of mental illness, or if he has a possession on his hands. In fact, he has consulted on so many of these cases that he has actually become a ‘go-to’ for exorcists across the country.
“It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician,” Gallagher stated. “But I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist – open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people – led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evils spirits, and just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.”
While some critics will claim that Gallagher is suffering from delusions, others believe that he has truly been fooled by cheap parlor tricks and mind games, leading him to believe something that he couldn’t possibly have seen. While there is no evidence, Gallagher himself firmly believes that he has experienced demonic possession first hand. He is currently working on a book discussing demonic possession in the United States.