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Issue Date:  April 29, 2005

By M. Scott Peck
Free Press, 259 pages, $26
The devil you know


Back in the 1970s, when possession and exorcism were the cinematic and fictional flavor of the era -- one that historian Martin Marty appropriately called “the silly season” -- it fell to my lot to conduct a pre-publication review of Malachi Martin’s sensational book Hostage to the Devil. I was allied in this with an internationally celebrated clinical psychologist. Working independently, our conclusion was the same: Martin’s five “cases” were fabrications of an inventive but disturbed mind, lacking all psychological, historical, theological and pastoral credibility.

Some time later, I interviewed Malachi Martin on television. A former priest, Martin had left the Jesuit order under cloudy conditions, to say the least. (The sordid details were described in Robert Blair Kaiser’s agonized 2002 memoir, Clerical Error: A True Story.) In person, I found Martin to be a clever, charming, engaging Irish rogue who evaded every effort to document the instances of possession he so graphically described. In the end, my earlier suspicion that Martin was a deeply disturbed individual was strongly reinforced.

A decade later, when M. Scott Peck’s second book, People of the Lie, was published, I was appalled to find that he, a newly committed Christian of a vaguely evangelical stripe, had accepted and endorsed Martin’s fictional ravings as accurate and instructive case studies. Now, 20 years later, Dr. Peck has returned to the topic of possession, still idolizing the late ex-Jesuit, who died in 1999, and to whom the popular psychiatrist not only dedicates Glimpses of the Devil but draws on exclusively for reference.

Insouciant in his ignorance of the real history of and the extensive literature on possession phenomena, Dr. Peck hails Martin as “the greatest expert on the subject of possession and exorcism in the English-speaking world” and “brilliant,” despite his own misgivings and warnings from colleagues that Martin was a sociopath. The psychiatrist’s resolute adulation of Martin is thus both disturbing and misleading. Despite Dr. Peck’s claim that he was the most famous exorcist in the world, Malachi Martin had no discernible training, expertise or even adequate knowledge of the history or ministry of exorcism in -- or out of -- the Catholic faith he once professed but which he bitterly turned against at the end of his unhappy life. Moreover, by Dr. Peck’s own frequent admission, Martin was a liar and manipulator.

Not surprisingly, Martin went on to write several novels as well as pseudo-histories such as The Jesuits and The Final Conclave. And it must be admitted that Martin had a gift for writing as he did for gab. But as a theologian and pastoral minister, Martin was a fraud. Dr. Peck’s choice of a mentor in regard to possession and exorcism is therefore a multiple disaster.

Dr. Peck’s book describes in copious detail his attempt to exorcise two women who were his patients. Following Martin, Dr. Peck attributes possession to indulgence in forms of belief or behavior that he disapproves of, in the case of “Jersey Babcock,” both spiritualism (or “neo-spiritualism”) and interest in the teachings of Edgar Cayce. In that of “Beccah Armitage,” he considers a number of precipitating factors that led her to evidently schizophrenic experiences and self-destructive behavior.

Even in Jersey’s case, Dr. Peck seems torn between two explanations for her condition -- her involvement with New Age spiritualist cults versus her passive consent to having been sexually molested by her father when she was 12. Dr. Peck never decides between them, nor does he suggest that some sort of synergy between these events occasioned her “possession.” He seems, rather, to opt for either explanation at different moments in his narrative. In Jersey’s case, the exorcism Dr. Peck imposes might be called moderately successful, although she is not freed from delusional thinking. In that of Beccah, her last state is ultimately not only worse than the first, but she dies at her own hand.

It is hardly novel for ideologues to press alleged demonic phenomena into service, beginning in the late Middle Ages and reaching a climax in the witchcraft trials of the 17th century that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents. The trials and executions at Salem, Mass., in 1692 still provide an instructive case in point. Dr. Peck seems oblivious, on the other hand, to the persuasive role played by suggestion and especially hypnosis in inducing dissociative states. In his enthusiasm to enter the lists as an exorcist, he too easily dismisses dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) as a simpler explanation and more easily treated condition. Far from being discredited, moreover, it is still listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV) of the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Peck’s dismissal rests on his claim that he had never seen a case of multiple personality. But he similarly admits that he had never encountered a case of possession before leaping to the conclusion that one of his patients was possessed. Despite his endorsement of differential diagnosis, he arguably failed quite dramatically to utilize it in either of the instances he discusses, at least one of which ended in failure and tragedy. By attempting to persuade, even “trick” his patients into accepting Christianity and even to study Christian theology, Dr. Peck also seems to have transgressed the boundaries of professional ethics. But this is a matter for his peers to evaluate.

“Beware the man of one book!” said Thomas Aquinas (perhaps). Here, clearly, it would have been wiser by far for Dr. Peck to consult more widely than Hostage to the Devil. And if one is tempted to read something by M. Scott Peck, choose The Road Less Traveled.

Fr. Richard Woods, OP, is professor of theology at Dominican University, Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005

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