1. Issues and Misconceptions
1.1 Issues Presented in The Exorcism of Emily Rose
1.2 Misconceptions in the Anneliese Michel Case
1.2.1 Epilepsy Caused the Condition
1.2.2 Non-Physical Objects Are Hallucinations
1.2.3 Schizophrenia Explains the Behavior
1.2.4 Demons Were Suggested by Doctrinaire Induction
1.2.5 Medical Intervention Would Have Helped
2. Case History of Anneliese Michel
2.1 Early Seizures (1968-70)
2.2 Medication and Visions (1972-73)
2.3 Consultations with Priests (1973)
2.4 Depression and Stronger Medication (1973-74)
2.5 Improvement and Relapse (1974-75)
2.6 The First Exorcisms (1975)
2.7 Exorcisms, Drugs and Prophetic Messages (1975)
2.8 The Demons Return (1975-76)
2.9 The Death Agony (1976)
2.10 Cause of Death
3.1 Neurological Factors
3.2 Psychological Factors
3.3 Pharmacological Factors
3.4 Religious Factors
The film The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) revived interest in the case on which it was based, that of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who died in 1976 after a failed exorcism. As with most sensational stories, the underlying facts have been obscured by misinformation and skewed interpretations, generating misconceptions that impede understanding the relevant questions, much less answering them. We will identify the questions raised by the Emily Rose film and contrast popular misconceptions with the established facts of the Anneliese Michel case, to enable a clearer analysis of the issues.
The fictionalized film version begins with the death of 19-year-old Emily Rose, and focuses on the subsequent court case faulting her exorcist, Fr. Moore, with negligent homicide. Although the heavy-handed special effects, with moving furniture and self-removing clothes, biases us toward belief in a supernatural explanation from the beginning, it is only of secondary importance whether or not there is such a thing as demonic possession. What matters is whether private citizens have the right to choose alternative forms of treatment for psychological maladies, especially when standard treatment proves ineffective.
The prosecution takes the view that Emily Rose’s condition was purely medical, indeed physical. The exorcist persuaded her to abandon medical treatment that would have saved her life. In the film version, she refused follow-up appointments after her diagnosis of epilepsy, claiming her affliction was spiritual. She stopped taking the (fictional) drug Gambutrol, which would have cured her epilepsy-induced psychosis. The proximate cause of death was malnutrition, which inhibited her ability to recover from self-inflicted injuries.
In a reversal of expectations, the film presents the prosecutor as a man of faith, who questions the received “facts” of paranormal phenomena. The defense, by contrast, has only to show doubt in the supposed scientific certainties asserted by the prosecution.
The defense counters that Emily Rose’s psychological condition does not fit the profile of an epileptic, and there is no scientifically established “psychotic epileptic disorder.” It is more plausible that auditory and visual hallucinations would be caused by the anticonvulsant Gambutrol than prevented by it. The prosecution’s medical witness would have recommended compulsory electroshock treatment, which patients have the right to refuse.
One line of defense is that the religious beliefs of Emily Rose and her family ought to be respected as at least possible, if not demonstrated facts. After all, whether we are alone or there is another spiritual world, both options are equally astonishing. It may seem bizarre or insane to believe in angels and demons, but the materialist alternative, that we are randomly assembled from matter, which is here for no reason, and tends to no purpose, is hardly less insane. If people fail to see the same madness in their own belief system, theist or atheist, it is because they are less critical of their own beliefs and do not ponder them with sufficient depth. We cannot disregard a belief merely because it is astonishing or may “sound crazy,” for the same holds of all accounts of ultimate reality.
Although the film’s audience sees rather convincing evidence of the supernatural, the evidence presented in court is either equivocal (speaking in Latin, dual vocalization) or reliant on the sole testimony of Fr. Moore (knowledge of personal details). This soft-pedaling of the evidence allows the film to focus on an alternate, anthropological approach.
The anthropologist called to the stand by the defense is transparently a stand-in for Felicitas Goodman, a consultant to the film who studied religious altered states of consciousness in pre-industrial societies. She found the phenomenon of possession was widely known across many cultures, and that remedies akin to exorcism, confronting and expelling the bad “spirit,” were generally effective. It is not necessary to make any claim about the reality of otherworldly demons in order to show that exorcism is effective. The family believed that this was not a medical condition treatable with drugs, so they chose a form of treatment in which they believed. Despite the best efforts of those involved, death was unpreventable in this case.
The film’s anthropologist speculates that Emily was hypersensitive to alternate states of consciousness, making her susceptible to the state known as possession. Psychoactive drugs interfered with the therapeutic efficacy of exorcism, since exorcism relies on inducing psycho-spiritual shock, which is prevented by sedatives. This hypothesis that the drug kept the subject in a possessed state conflicts with that offered by the real-life Dr. Goodman, who posited instead that the drug made the demonic personalities lethargic and subdued, making confrontation impossible.
The defense challenges the claim that Emily Rose was psychotic. Most of the time, she was lucid, and fully aware of her alternate mental state as something other than herself. This is contrary to psychosis, which entails mistaking delusions for reality. The prosecution’s doctors never witnessed her supposedly psychotic condition (only signs of epilepsy were observed). The one physician who was there (but never testified) felt that the horror was fundamentally different from schizophrenia (though the latter can be fairly horrible).
The prosecutorial decision to go after the priest rather than the parents helps the film focus on the validity of exorcism as therapy rather than issues of parental discretion, as in some cases of Christian Scientists refusing medical treatment. In this case, we have a lucid young adult who can decide for herself whether or not to follow her priest’s advice to repeat the exorcism (she refuses in the film) or to stop taking the drug.
At times, the defendant is portrayed as indifferent to his exoneration, caring only about revealing Emily’s story in a public forum. By confronting the devil in this way, Fr. Moore hopes to somehow release Emily posthumously, which he could not do in life. His rejection of a plea deal confirms his commitment to principle and selfless love for Emily. It is on this basis that, even if he is found legally guilty, the judge may find grounds for mercy toward a kind heart.
Too often, we get wound up in who is right and who is wrong, which, while important, is only subordinate to the goodness we will for ourselves and others. In the actual German case upon which The Exorcism of Emily Rose was based, secular political and medical institutions asserted their superior authority over a supposedly backward religious institution. Much like the Communists and the Jacobins, they thought their righteousness justified the suppression of any contrary way of life as mere ignorance. With the artistic transfer of this case to the United States, a land with more emphasis on individual rights over social conformity, a more subversive attitude is sustainable, with the judge effectively nullifying the law by a sentence of time served.
The film’s emphasis is not so much on whether the subject was genuinely possessed by demons, but rather on the right of loving caregivers to treat spiritual problems according to their own beliefs, even when these come in conflict with the beliefs of established political and medical institutions. The actual German court case of Anneliese Michel reflected this conflict, as secular law and the press passed judgment on traditional belief in demons and exorcisms, pathologizing the defendants as ignorant or deluded. Their evidentiary testimony was valued at nought, since its substance required one to at least consider the possibility of the supernatural or preternatural, and therefore the possibility that secular liberalism might be a deficient account of reality. It was assumed without proof that the materialist ideology held by most scientists is itself a part of science.
Decades after the original German court case, discussion of the Emily Rose film fell into similar tropes, with the secular press invoking scientific-sounding explanations that are merely subjective interpretations of phenomena, forcing reality into materialist categories and denying any evidence that will not fit. We recapitulate some of these well-worn assertions below.
One common misconception is that the diagnosis of epilepsy is a causal explanation of the girl’s condition. In fact, epilepsy is simply the state of having recurring seizures, anomalous electrical events in the brain that can result from a wide variety of causes. A diagnosis of epilepsy describes or labels neurological phenomena, but does not explain the physical cause of the condition, which in many cases is impossible to determine. To say Anneliese’s condition was “caused by epilepsy” is to practice a sort of word magic, where applying a Greek term to a phenomenon supposedly gives us a power of understanding, when in fact it simply describes or labels a physical condition without providing any insight into its cause.
Anneliese Michel did have several seizures in her life, but they were few and far between, with the last occurring in 1972, four years before her death. Her first seizure, in 1968, caused her to lose control of her body. She could not call out for help though she was fully conscious. This type of seizure, where the body convulses while the brain exhibits abnormal electrical activity, is called a grand mal seizure. Again, this term just describes the phenomenon, without identifying a cause, as grand mal seizures admit of many possible causes. The seizure recurred, and Anneliese Michel was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, identifying the area of the brain where the seizures originated, but still giving no explanation of the cause.
The diagnosis is useful, nonetheless, since we know that the temporal lobe affects sensory perception, memory and emotion, the same faculties that become disturbed during seizures, according to the testimony of epileptics. Such patients also claim to have a vivid sense of reality for their hallucinatory experiences.
This leads us to another misconception, namely that labeling a paranormal experience as a hallucination constitutes a physical explanation. A hallucination is simply a sensory experience that does not correspond to a real, external, physical object of sense. This does not prove that there is no real basis at all for the experience, i.e., that the person is deluded, unless we presuppose that physical reality is the only reality. Such metaphysical naturalism is precisely what is being called into question. It is circular reasoning to dismiss a paranormal claim on the grounds that the absence of an external physical object proves the experience is not grounded in some objective reality.
Anneliese Michel certainly had experiences that were “hallucinatory” in the sense of not corresponding to external physical objects, but the question in dispute is whether these experiences might be triggered by an incorporeal yet real agent, be it an alternate personality or a demonic spirit. In such a scenario, the agent might cause seizures and other neurological anomalies, providing the physical means by which the subject is forced to experience visions. To address this question, we must at least admit the theoretical possibility of the preternatural or paranormal, rather than dismiss this out of some a priori naturalist or materialist prejudice. Otherwise, we are ignoring the question, not answering it.
Schizophrenia is another vague diagnosis masquerading as a definite explanation. Like most psychiatric diagnoses, schizophrenia is more descriptive than explanatory; indeed, there is no objective test for schizophrenia, and more than a few reputable psychologists have expressed doubts that the term really describes a single disorder. Rather, ‘schizophrenia’ is an umbrella term covering any disorder where the patient exhibits hallucinatory experiences, paranoia, social dysfunction, and disruption in cognition or emotion. The list of symptoms defining schizophrenia varies by country, and such lists are generally so unwieldy that there is strong reason to doubt that this is really a single disorder. For those who do not consider a label to be an explanation, the diagnosis of schizophrenia offers little insight, especially since it is not clear if this supposed psychiatric disorder has any causal relationship with epilepsy.
At any rate, Anneliese’s condition is an imperfect match with most diagnostic definitions of schizophrenia. By 1973, four years after her first attack, she saw demonic faces and heard voices telling her she was damned, even apart from her epileptic fits. These hallucinations are consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but other symptoms fall outside the ordinary indications of this class of disorder. She tore off her clothes, compulsively performed hundreds of squats a day, ate spiders and coal, licked her own urine, bit the head off of a bird, and even hid under a table for two days, barking like a dog. These behaviors constitute a veritable smorgasbord of psychoses, too broad to be contained even under the vague rubric of “schizophrenia.” The question remains whether these apparently psychotic behaviors had a natural or preternatural cause.
Psychiatrists testifying at the trial against Anneliese’s parents and priests suggested that Anneliese had been a victim of “doctrinaire induction,” meaning that the priests had provided the content for her psychosis, by treating her as though she were possessed. Yet Anneliese had come to believe she was afflicted by demons well before any exorcism was requested. She first saw visions of demons in her daily prayers in the autumn of 1970, and by 1973, after years of medical treatment, she was seeing demonic faces in the people and objects around her. That summer, her parents requested an exorcism, but this was rejected by the local Catholic clergy, who urged that she continue with her medical treatment. Another request for an exorcism was made by Pastor Ernst Alt in 1974, but this was denied by the bishop. Anneliese’s demonic experiences preceded ecclesiastical intervention by several years, and as late as 1974 the request for exorcism was denied.
Convulsions, visions, and voices continued to assault Anneliese, and she began to exhibit more exteme behaviors, eating coal and insects, insulting and biting her family members, and running through the house, smashing religious paintings, crucifixes and rosaries. When Anneliese went on a religious pilgrimage, an older companion noted that she avoided walking past an image of Jesus, refused to drink from a holy spring, and had an awful stench. At this point Anneliese was brought to an exorcist, who judged her to be possessed. A request for an exorcism was finally approved by the autumn of 1975, five years after Anneliese first perceived herself to be afflicted by demons.
While the chronology of events makes it extremely unlikely that the exorcist priests or the rite of exorcism caused so-called doctrinaire induction of Anneliese’s condition, it is conceivable that Anneliese’s own religious fervor provided the content for her hallucinations, in a sort of self-induced psychosis. Before her first seizure, Anneliese had been an unusually religious child, praying frequently, and even sleeping on the floor in penance for the sins of wayward priests. Such devotion, while strange to secular liberals, was common among traditional Catholics in Bavaria, so it would be a mistake to pathologize this behavior or consider it a sufficient cause for Anneliese’s symptoms. If such piety sufficed to induce psychosis, we should expect there to be far more cases of purported demonic possession. More plausibly, Anneliese’s religious convictions may have provided the specific content of hallucinations that would have occurred anyway. This would not necessarily contradict the authenticity of her visions, as it is conceivable that spiritual beings would convey ideas using imagery that is familiar to the subject.
The central accusation against the parents and priests was that they were guilty of criminal negligence for failing to provide Anneliese with conventional medical treatment and by subjecting her to the exorcism. This assumes that conventional medicine could have done her any good. In fact, she had seen neurologists and psychiatrists for years, and their drugs often seemed to cause more harm than good. The physical cause of her death appears to have been starvation, as she refused to accept food. The injuries on her knees were caused by her own compulsive kneeling and squatting. The rite of exorcism does not require the possessed to genuflect or perform any other physical exertion. Of course, when treatments fail, modern doctors prescribe stronger drugs or coercive measures such as intravenous feeding. German law at the time favored such medical coercion even against the will of the adult patient and her family, so the guilty verdict confirmed the supremacy of established medical and legal institutions. Without disputing the legality of the verdict, we examine the law’s underlying assumption that conventional medicine would have been beneficial.
It is a misconception that continued medical treatment could have “cured” Anneliese, as there is no cure for epilepsy, but only palliative treatment. Treatment involved anticonvulsant drugs to reduce the intensity of seizures, and in severe cases patients were sedated and force-fed. These intravenous anticonvulsants and anesthetics have high rates of failure, morbidity and mortality. The medical “solution” would have been to keep Anneliese heavily drugged, keeping her body alive indefinitely, but offering no hope of correcting the cause of her condition. Like too much of modern medicine, this only treats the symptoms. In a humane society, patients and their guardians reserve the right to reject burdensome treatments that offer no hope of cure.
Diagnosed schizophrenia was usually “treated” by the crude method of suppressing dopamine activity. Dopamine is a basic neurotransmitter essential to many brain functions, and it is believed, though not proven, that increased dopamine activity is correlated to schizophrenia. Even if this correlation is correct, it would not establish a cause of schizophrenia. For example, heightened dopamine activity might be a necessary neural correlate for the expression of the subject’s heightened attention. Inhibiting dopamine reception would then be treating a particular symptom, not the underlying disorder. Since dopamine affects many essential brain functions, including movement, emotional response, pleasure and pain, its inhibition can have a host of bad side effects. Anti-schizophrenic drugs are effectively sedatives, and some, such as haloperidol, impair learning and other brain functions. Anneliese had been subjected to such drugs previously, but as a bright, industrious college student, she found it unbearable to live in the dull, lethargic state the chemicals induced. Again, modern medicine would keep the body alive while destroying the human quality of life.
Far from being overly zealous or credulous, the Bishop of Würzburg did not grant permission for an exorcism until 1975, after Anneliese’s condition had worsened considerably over the previous year. Her behavior had become violent and feral, and she would often refuse to eat, because her demons forbade it. From September 1975 to June 1976, a rite of exorcism was performed once or twice a week. There was some modest improvement in her condition, enabling her to complete her examinations at school, yet the attacks continued.
In the final weeks before her death, Anneliese consistently refused food and drink, resulting in her death from malnutrition and dehydration. Psychiatrists recommended that Anneliese should have been force-fed rather than permitted to reject food. Anneliese in her lucid moments emphatically refused to be sent to a mental hospital, where she would be sedated and force-fed, and potentially subject to electroshock treatment. Given the expressed desire of an adult patient—for she was then twenty-three years old—and her family, the psychiatrists at the trial were essentially arguing for coercive psychiatric hospitalization. In their materialist worldview, the bottom line was to keep the body living and breathing, even at the expense of numbing or suppressing the patient’s will. If we accept that adult patients have a right to refuse treatment such as force-feeding, in nowise can legal responsibility for homicide be laid at the feet of the parents or priests. Rightly or wrongly, the adult patient consciously chose to refuse treatment; there was no negligence involved, as all were fully aware of the potential consequences and accepted them. It is ironic that many of those who support euthanasia should deny a patient’s right to refuse treatment in this instance, evincing a visceral antipathy toward a religious viewpoint rather than admitting a sober, consistent ethic.
We can now smile at the scientific pomposity of the psychiatric experts of this period, when Freudianism was still intellectually credible. Many of their solemn pronouncements seem to us hardly more rational than the superstitions they ridiculed. Some men of science are not content with their role, and try to become statesmen or priests. The trial of Anneliese Michel’s parents was really an assertion of the cultural power of medical men to impose their will over that of the family, particularly when the latter is motivated by a religious worldview. In the secular German view, people did not have the right to decide if the body might be permitted to suffer for the good of the soul. The body must survive at all costs, even if the soul is reduced to a stupor.
In more libertarian countries such as the United States, patients and families have considerably more discretion in their right to refuse treatment, but there are always ethical grey areas in the matter of coercive treatment. Too often, the consulting experts appointed to advise the goverment on bioethical issues have been doctors and scientists with a mechanistic view of humanity and a desire to increase the social authority of their profession. Supposing that man is a machine, no one allows a plumber or electrician to tell him how to run his household; much less should technical knowledge of the body give someone moral authority on life or death issues. As ethics is not a physical science, it is disingenuous for scientists and medical professionals to pretend that their ethical opinions have scientific authority.
Medical men, and scientists more generally, like to pretend that they belong to no philosophical school, but they practice metaphysical and moral philosophy without realizing it. I should like to make some of their naive philosophical assumptions explicit, as we examine how medical experts engaged the curious case of Anneliese Michel, and tried to make the facts conform to their preconceptions of how the world must always work. We shall peel away the philosophical assumptions that prevent us from considering even the possibility of otherworldly spirits or paranoromal states of consciousness. Recognizing that ridicule is merely an emotional reaction to that which one personally finds implausible, we will dismiss no explanation that is self-consistent and uncontradicted by the facts.
A detailed biography of Anneliese Michel was written by the late anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, who interviewed the surviving principals and examined original documents, including audio tapes of the exorcism sessions. Her published work, The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (Doubleday 1981, Wipf and Stock 2005), provides all the relevant facts in narrative form, together with interpretations gathered from her comparative studies of religious experiences in other cultures. We will draw upon this resource for the factual details of Anneliese’s case, confirming it with other sources when possible, though I will include my own analysis in addition to the theories proffered by Dr. Goodman.
Josef and Anna Michel lived in the town of Klingenberg in rural Bavaria. They were devout Catholics, as was common in that region, and their families were fairly accomplished in business. Their first child, Martha, died at the age of eight from kidney failure. They had four more daughters: Anneliese (b. September 21, 1952), Gertrud (b. 1954), Barbara (b. 1956), and Roswitha (b. 1957). Anneliese proved to be exceptionally bright, with enough promise to eventually go to university and become a schoolteacher. She was also especially devout in her religion, but by no means insulated from the secular world, nor did she have a dour demeanor. For the first fifteen years of her life, she lived no differently than thousands of other Bavarian girls, without any odd experiences. She was what most would call well-adjusted, a cheerful spirit who enjoyed good fun with her friends, yet also showed serious commitment to her school education and her religious practices. Even after her first seizure events, she would continue to exhibit her usual personality traits.
Anneliese’s first seizure-like experience occurred in the fall of 1968, near her sixteenth birthday. While sitting in class early in the school year, she suddenly blacked out, but dismissed the experience as fatigue. The following night, she woke up after midnight and found she could not move, feeling a pressure on her abdomen and emission of urine. She was unable to call out for help, as her tongue felt paralyzed. Less than fifteen minutes later, the experience ended. The following morning, she told her mother about it, attributing it to illness.
A year later, on August 24, 1969, the phenomenon recurred, with a blackout during the day and a conscious paralysis at night (early August 25). She was referred by the family physician, Dr. Vogt, to a neurologist, Dr. Siegfried Lüthy. Dr. Lüthy was unable to find anything wrong with Anneliese, testifying in 1977, “Neurologically and psychologically all findings were negative.” Her electroencephelogram (EEG) on August 27 showed “a normal, physiological alpha-type brain activity.” Dr. Lüthy could only make this tentative conclusion, “I judged from the description I was given that this was probably a case of cerebral seizures of the nocturnal type, with the symptoms of a grand mal epilepsy.” [Goodman, op. cit., Wipf ed., p.15.] He advised further observation.
Shortly afterward, with the start of school in September, Anneliese fell ill with pneumonia and tuberculosis. She was hospitalized and eventually transferred to a sanatorium for children with lung disease. She was kept there even through the spring months, due to lingering circulatory problems.
On June 3, 1970, she had her third seizure, with similar symptoms of stiffness in the arms, a crushing sensation on the torso, involuntary urination, and difficulty breathing. Again she was unable to cry for help for a time, until finally she let out a scream that was heard by the nurse and doctor.
A few days later, some of the other girls observed Anneliese praying the rosary, and noted that her hands were contorted like a cat’s paws, and that her pupils were dilated so that her eyes seemed nearly all black. Anneliese dismissed their astonishment laughingly, but then noticed the change in her eyes for herself in the mirror.
On June 16, Anneliese was examined by another neurologist, Dr. von Haller in Kempten. He recorded an EEG showing an irregular alpha pattern with some theta and delta waves, but nothing pathological. He was unable to induce any seizure by stimulation at any locus of the brain. Nonetheless, in view of her previous seizures, he recommmended anticonvulsant drugs.
A week later, while praying, Anneliese suddenly saw a huge grimacing face for a brief moment. From that point onward, she often feared to pray the rosary, thinking that the monstrous face might return if she did so. This was her first inkling that her ailments might be something other than an ordinary illness, though the possibility of demonic possession had not yet crossed her mind. She did not mention the horrible face to the doctor.
Note that this first grimacing face did not appear until shortly after she was put on anticonvulsant drugs. Dr. von Haller’s record was not included in the police investigation, so it is not known precisely which drug was administered at this time.
After another negative EEG on August 11, she was finally dismissed on August 29 as she had no seizures since the one in June. The sanatorium recommended a follow-up examination a month after discharge, so she was brought to a lung specialist, Dr. Reichelt, on October 6. By then, she had experienced another seizure, early in the school year. Dr. Reichelt referred her to an internist, Dr. Packhaüser, to examine her circulation problems. Dr. Packhaüser believed that having four seizures in two years was cause for concern, though this was outside his area of expertise, as shown by his erroneous characterization of the seizures as “apoplectic,” or strokes. [Ibid., p.27.] The family physician, Dr. Vogt, did not refer Anneliese to a neurologist at this time, but he did prescribe an anticonvulsant, which she took only for a brief period.
During the next two years (1971-72), Anneliese often missed school due to illness and felt lethargic and apathetic, but she experienced no more seizures until June 1972, though she was not taking any anticonvulsants for most of this period. Her seizure on June 5, near the end of the school year, was quite severe, followed by several smaller “aftershocks,” but afterwards there was nothing. Nonetheless, her concerned mother convinced her to see the neurologist Dr. Lüthy again prior to the following school year.
On September 5, Dr. Lüthy examined Anneliese and could find nothing pathological in her EEG. He prescribed the anticonvulsant Zentropil (Dilantin in the U.S.) and recommended regular follow-up appointments. After one minor seizure on November 8, Anneliese had no further incidents through the first half of 1973. Dr. Lüthy examined her in January, March and June, finding no pathological signs, and reported that she was free from seizures during this time, with a normal EEG reading in June.
Although the anticonvulsant treatment generally succeeded in suppressing seizures, Anneliese experienced several adverse events that she did not report to the doctor. Starting in October 1972, she began to feel stiffness more frequently and to smell a horrible stench that others could not perceive. Again she saw grimacing faces from time to time. Prolonged muscle contraction, or dystonia, is a known side effect of Dilantin, but the drug is not known to cause visual or olfactory hallucinations.
In the spring of 1973, Anneliese began to hear a knocking sound in her room. Dr. Vogt could not find anything wrong with her hearing, so he referred her to a specialist. Her mother Anna, however, began to believe something supernatural was occurring, for she and her other daughters were soon able to hear the same sound, like a rapping or thumping in the wardrobe, then above the ceiling and below the floor. Anneliese was now seeing overtly demonic faces with horns, telling her she would be damned for all eternity. Her father Josef dismissed these phenomena as products of hysteria, though he was disturbed by his wife’s account of Anneliese staring at a statue of the Virgin with a malicious expression, with dilated black eyes and contorted hands like paws.
The Michels were a traditional Catholic family, yet the father was reluctant to invoke supernatural explanations for Anneliese’s afflictions. Anneliese herself feared that she was crazy or had something wrong with her head, and did not immediately speculate that she was assaulted by demons. Her mother Anna seems to have been the first to voice this suspicion, being perhaps more credulous in such matters, but also because she witnessed the strange, inexplicable sounds for herself. Anneliese was especially pious and scrupulous, praying frequently, and filled with an imaginative spiritual life. The voices telling her she would be damned might be a manifestation of her scruples, but other aspects of her religious inversion do not admit this simple explanation. Not only did she silently stare at the Virgin with hatred, but she had other moments where she sensed, in her words, “a dread that makes you think that you are right there, in the middle of hell. You are totally, utterly deserted. You can call all you want to for help, to the Mother of God maybe, but they are all deaf.” Anneliese may have been so used to having palpable emotional consolations during prayer, that in their absence she felt alone and deserted, leading to confusion and despair. She even had thoughts of suicide.
This spiritual barrenness is a common problem encountered by contemplatives, and described by St. John of the Cross, who says the contemplative must learn to love God even in the absence of an emotional consolation during prayer. Brain scans of praying nuns that show activity concentrated in the limbic system, the seat of animal emotions, are no proof that the spiritual life is mere emotion, for the emotional response to some spiritual object is distinct from the object.
Despite her illnesses and the lethargy she attributed to the anticonvulsant drugs, Anneliese was able to pass her difficult examinations and graduate. In the summer, at the suggestion of her father, she went on a trip organized by Thea Hein (a fellow parishioner) to the unofficial Marian shrine at San Damiano, in the hopes of lifting her spirits. Once there, she found she could not enter the shrine, feeling the ground burn like fire beneath her feet. The praying pilgrims seemed to be gnashing their teeth. She had to avoid looking at the picture of Christ, while pictures and medals of saints shined so brightly she could not bear to look at these. She would not drink from the well, the water of which was reputed to be miraculous. Frau Hein witnessed this strange behavior, and other pilgrims took note, regarding the girl as crazy. This was not considered ordinary behavior, even in the context of her religious culture.
Revulsion toward religious items is a classic sign of possession. If Anneliese’s condition admits of a natural cause, it is a strange pathology that reversed her personality. She described her behavior as involuntary, or more precisely, “My will is not my own… Someone else is manipulating me.”
Anneliese’s strange behavior went beyond mere aversion toward sacred objects. She spoke to Frau Hein in a deep voice, and behaved inappropriately toward her, even tearing off her medal. More strikingly, she exuded a stench that Frau Hein described as similar to feces or something burning, and all others on the bus smelled it as well. The other passengers were angry with the girl’s behavior, yet did not suspect anything paranormal. Thus the stench cannot be easily dismissed as a hallucination or the product of religious suggestibility.
On September 3, Anneliese visited Dr. Lüthy again, and finally told him of the hideous faces she had been seeing. She even confided that there was a devil in her, and that a judgment of fire would come upon everyone. Dr. Lüthy recalled, “She could not get her mind off these things. She had no power of decision, and everything was empty in her.” Anna Michel claimed that Dr. Lüthy advised them to see a Jesuit about the demonic faces, but the secularist doctor vehemently denied that he had done so. It is possible that he made a tongue-in-cheek comment to that effect which he later forgot, since Frau Michel was adamant that she had got the idea of calling a Jesuit from the doctor, and she had never before heard that Jesuits were specialists at exorcisms.
At any rate, Dr. Lüthy did not think much of the visions, since he prescribed only Aolept (periciazine) drops, a medium intensity drug for neurosis in children. In his words, “It could not be stated with certainty at the time that there was the beginning of a psychotic symptomatology.” Terms such as ‘neurotic’ and ‘psychotic’ then carried the hopelessly imprecise concepts of Freudianism. With the arrogance characteristic of this pseudoscience, he averred, “I merely noted that there was no experiential content behind what she was saying.” [p.38.] This kind of absurd statement—she did not experience what she thought she experienced—is what comes from trying to force all data into a preconceived materialist philosophy. Had the doctor been more philosophically accurate, he might have said that there was no external physical basis for Anneliese’s visions, but to say there was no experiential basis is an absurdity, effectively dismissing data you cannot explain.
Anneliese never saw Dr. Lüthy again. He dismissed her experiences and did not prescribe anything beyond another drug that dulls the brain and creates a state of apathy. The disdain he showed toward the patient’s experiences was poor psychiatric practice, with ruinous results, as Anneliese never again confided her demonic visions to any doctor.
Despite continued treatment with Dilantin and periciazine, Anneliese’s visions did not go away, and the drugs only seemed to make her tired and depressed. The Michels believed that the visions were a distinct problem from the seizures, and now followed in earnest Dr. Lüthy’s offhand suggestion to see a priest about them. They first sought Father Habiger, pastor of the Mother of God parish in Aschaffenberg, who examined Anneliese and found only a normal, shy girl, with no signs of possession. He recommended that she see a physician.
Anneliese, understandably, had had enough of medical tests and drugs over the last few years, all to no avail. She perceived that the best drugs could only dull her brain rather than remove her visions, so she refused to see another specialist. By now, she was twenty-one years of age, and none of the doctors who examined her had ever contested her competence of mind; indeed she was able to complete the demanding German school curriculum throughout all her ordeals. While Dr. Lüthy may have pooh-poohed her religious beliefs, he could not prescribe any remedy except drugging her into an apathetic state. Anneliese wished to continue her academic studies, and this would not be possible if heavily medicated.
Thea Hein was able to contact an elderly Jesuit, Father Adolf Rodewyk in Frankfurt, about Anneliese’s case. Father Rodewyk was an expert on possession, having published a book on the subject, but he was unable to travel to Klingenberg, and instead recommended the retired Father Herrmann of the Mother of God parish in Aschaffenberg. Father Herrmann met with Anneliese ten times in his home, and found her to be a nice, deeply religious girl. He recommended that she see a neurologist, but she protested that she had already seen Dr. Lüthy, who could not help her. Father Herrmann did not observe any sacrilegious behavior by Anneliese; in fact, she calmly prayed the rosary with him many times without incident.
In September 1973, Father Herrmann visited Father Ernst Alt of the St. Agatha parish in Aschaffenberg. Father Alt had already heard about Anneliese’s case from Thea Hein, and had long had a deep interest in the paranormal, having conducted studies of extrasensory perception (ESP). This was not unusual at the time, as even secular researchers took ESP seriously in the 1970s, but Father Alt also believed himself to have powers of telepathy, precognition, and even dowsing. Evidently, he was predisposed toward belief in the paranormal, perhaps explaining why the doctors conducting his psychiatric evaluation in 1978 came to the following conclusion, notwithstanding that all his neurological and psychological tests had normal results.
In the case of Father Alt, we are dealing with an abnormal personality in the widest sense of the term. Parts of his prehistory, as he reported them, even suggest the presence of a psychosis of the schizophrenic type, although the findings cannot be construed as pointing to any symptoms that could prove this diagnosis. [p.43.]
Despite their admission that Father Alt exhibited no pathological symptoms, the doctors still slapped the label of schizophrenia on the priest, after hearing his testimony of his paranormal experiences. It is one thing to believe that Fr. Alt is foolish or mistaken for believing he has paranormal abilities, but it is irresponsible to disguise this subjective judgment as a medical diagnosis, unsupported by any objective test. ‘Schizophrenia’ then becomes a vague umbrella term used by psychiatrists to embrace a host of behaviors and experiences they judge to be abnormal, including hearing or seeing things that have no external physical manifestation. By this standard, every prophet and seer is a schizophrenic by definition, though such an assessment merely assumes and does not prove a physicalist philosophy.
This pseudo-diagnosis notwithstanding, we can see from his testimony that Fr. Alt was either susceptible to delusions or genuinely attuned to spiritual realities. The priest claimed that he was able to share Anneliese’s experiences from afar, perceiving details that he had no way of knowing at the time. He was able to see her entire family before he had even met them, and perceived a kind of radiation from Anneliese’s head during this vision. Two days later, Fr. Herrmann handed Fr. Alt a letter from Anneliese, but the latter could not read them, “because, all of a sudden, I became so nauseated that I thought that at any moment I was going to faint. I experienced a strange excitation such as I had never been subject to before…” Fr. Alt did not consider these experiences to be proof of possession, but to those of us unaccustomed to such paranormal experiences, it seems he had a hypersensitive psyche or soul, disposed to strong reactions.
That same evening, Fr. Alt offered Mass on behalf of the troubled girl whom he had yet to meet, and while preparing for the consecration, he had another startling sensation.
All of a sudden something hit me in the back, the air turned cold, and at the same time, there was an intense stench as though something were burning. I had to lean against the altar. With great effort and only by dint of considerable concentration was I able to speak the rest of the text. I felt deeply distressed, as if a negative force were surrounding me, which, however, aside from vexing me, could inflict no real harm. [p.46.]
After Mass, Fr. Alt calmly related this experience to another priest. That night, he was unable to sleep, even with the aid of a sleeping pill. He smelled a variety of stenches, alternating from dung to sewage to something burning. Additionally, he heard a thumping sound in his wardrobe. After praying to Padre Pio repeatedly, he suddenly smelled an intense fragrance of violets. At that time, he noticed that his “field of vision had been very much narrowed,” and his “color perception was reduced,” but now his eyesight was restored. [p.46.] The next morning, he spoke of his experience to his fellow priests, and suddenly they could all smell a burning stench throughout the parish house, though the windows were open.
This fantastic account might be explained away by the power of suggestion, though it is not clear how Fr. Alt should coincidentally experience many of the exact same sensations as those witnessed by the Michels. While Fr. Alt was predisposed to believe in the paranormal, his fellow priests were not nearly as hypersensitive, yet they were able to smell what he smelled. As for Fr. Alt himself, his psychiatric evaluation in 1978 found:
His statements are carefully formulated, impressive, and convincing. He is fluent, analytical, [and] has a large vocabulary demonstrating his schooling and extensive reading. His formal thinking processes are entirely undisturbed, even under prolonged questioning. [p.43.]
Despite this finding, and the aforementioned normal results on a battery of psychiatric and neurological tests, Drs. Lungershausen and Köhler decided that Fr. Alt was “abnormal” in the “psychiatric sense.” [p.43.] There was no basis for this judgment, save their prejudices regarding the content of his reported experiences. They decided a priori that such things cannot possibly occur, therefore he must be deluded or a liar. The latter option is strongly suggested by their asssessment of his visions.
His visions that he describes, in their scenic and pictorial character, are not what might be expected, for instance, in the case of a schizophrenic psychosis. They must be considered rather as pseudohallucinations. [p.44.]
As noted previously, elsewhere in this same report the doctors suggested that Father Alt was indeed schizophrenic, solely on the basis of his self-reported “prehistory.” Here instead they call him a liar, for a pseudohallucination is a hallucination brought about by the exercise of memory or imagination, where the person experiencing it realizes that it is not real. Whatever else may be said of Fr. Alt, it can hardly be denied by any fair observer that he truly did believe in the reality of his visions, so the “diagnosis” of pseudohallucination is really a gratuitous accusation. By implication, the other priests and the various witnesses in the Michel household were also reporting false hallucinations.
Despite their use of scientific-sounding terminology, the psychiatrists had no objective empirical basis for their findings, since all tests yielded normal results. Their alternating characterizations of Fr. Alt’s experiences as schizophrenic or pseudohallucinatory carry no more weight than their personal judgment that such experiences could not possibly be real. The reality of these experiences is precisely the question we wish to investigate, so the psychiatrists offer us no help here, only their opinion that these occurrences are impossible a priori. The terms ‘hallucinatory’ and ‘pseudohallucinatory’ offer no real insight, for they simply mean that the visions have no external physical basis, a fact that no one disputes. The question is whether these visions have a non-physical, yet no less real, spiritual, preternatural or supernatural basis. Use of the term ‘hallucination’ offers no distinction between delusions and supernatural experiences, but simply assumes that the latter are impossible. This self-imposed conceptual limitation in psychiatry is fair enough, but it should not be invoked as a proof of the non-existence of the supernatural. Simply defining the supernatural out of existence is just a verbal trick, not a real argument.
The psychiatrists’ treatment of Fr. Alt is typical of secular evaluations of paranormal experiences: they are all delusions or fabrications. These judgments are made a priori, even in the absence of positive evidence. It is intellectually worthless to complain that there is no evidence of the paranormal when one dismisses testimony as delusional simply by virtue of having paranormal content. In the case in question, multiple people smelled the same smell, but we must call this a delusion or pseudohallucination because there is no physical cause for the smell. Philosophically materialist doctors assume rather than prove that all phenomena must have a sensible physical cause, which is precisely the thesis that this evidence challenges. It does no credit to the cause of materialism to dismiss all evidence to the contrary as invalid simply by virtue of contradicting materialism.
After these initial experiences, Fr. Alt finally learned of the details of Anneliese’s case from his friend Fr. Roth. Several weeks later they met Anneliese herself, and Fr. Alt later recalled his first impressions:
She looked in no way ill or sickly, but she was pale and very serious. As far as I can recall, she said verbatim, “I am looking for people who would believe me.” She never used the word, “possessed,” and from the conversation there was no way in which one could conclude that she was. I don’t think she knew what, exactly, the word meant, and I must confess that neither was I clear on the theological concept of possession. [pp.47-48.]
Fr. Alt found Anneliese to be an intelligent girl with a “gift for analysis,” consistent with her academic performance. He did not assume that she was possessed, but believed that proof of possession would take a very long time. The secular investigators would fault Fr. Alt and Fr. Roth for enabling Anneliese’s supposed delusions; in other words, they were blameworthy for believing her rather than dismissing her contemptuously, as did Dr. Lüthy. This lucid, intelligent young adult demanded to be taken seriously, and secular doctors could not do so because of their philosophical prejudices, which forced them to pigeonhole her as delusional rather than admit any possible credibility to her testimony.
Anneliese attended university in Würzburg in the fall of 1973, and continued to take her prescribed medications dutifully. Dr. Lüthy’s records confirm that her parents obtained a renewed prescription for Dilantin on November 20. Although she was not troubled by seizures, she continued to see the hideous faces, and was troubled by depression and homesickness. In November, she met a young man named Peter at a dance, and though she fell in love at first, she warned him that her depressions often made her feel emotionally numb.
On November 27, she saw Dr. Lenner, a Freudian psychiatrist. She reported that she felt listless and drained as soon as she awoke each morning, and had difficulty concentrating or focusing her will. “I have no willpower, I simply float around and don’t know what I want.” [p.52.] Like a good Freudian, Dr. Lenner deduced that Anneliese had a neurosis stemming from her father’s failure to understand her and from her deep-seated hatred of her mother, who forbade her from having boyfriends.
Dr. Lenner recommended a neurological examination, due to Anneliese’s history of seizures. An EEG during sleep was performed the following day (November 28), and examined by Dr. Irmgard Schleip. For the first time, Anneliese’s EEG was judged abnormal, as Dr. Schleip found “epileptic patterns,” referring to a discharge in the left temporal region. [p.52.] Dr. Schleip changed Anneliese’s prescription from Dilantin to the stronger Tegretol, in the hopes of fully suppressing epileptic symptoms. She believed that the stenches perceived by Anneliese were also products of epileptic activity.
The new medication, however, did nothing to relieve the nauseating stenches, nor did it get rid of the hideous faces, which Anneliese did not report to the doctors, for fear of not being taken seriously. The psychoanalyst Dr. Lenner pretended to explain everything in Freudian terms, while the neurologist Dr. Schleip thought everything could be explained by brain waves. It is common for experts to exaggerate the explanatory power of their specialization.
The depressions generally coincided with the stenches and the visions, which occurred spontaneously without warning. Peter suggested some explanations, but Anneliese found them wanting. She was not imagining the visions, for “most of the time they are completely real. I see them like I see you.” [p.55.] Based on this testimony, they were not pseudohallucinations, since she thought them to be real, and deliberate fictions of imagination or memory are less vivid. They were either genuine hallucinations or real spiritual or preternatural phenomena. As for the notion of religious suggestion, Anneliese said she had been taught very little about the devil in religious class, and she did not obsess about sin, knowing full well that all was forgiven in confession. Contrary to Dr. Lenner’s theory, she loved both her parents, and in fact her longing for them contributed to her sadness.
Worst of all, Anneliese felt at times that she lost control of her self, as if someone else were giving the orders, though she struggled to assert herself. In the hope of strengthening her ego, Peter and Anneliese agreed that she should make decisions as often as possible. When her inner torments visited, however, she was unable to come to a decision on anything.
In follow-up visits to Drs. Lenner and Schleip in December, Anneliese claimed that the Tegretol made her feel better, so she could enjoy tennis and the piano, but she still had difficulty communicating with others. In January 1974, she saw Father Alt less frequently since he was moved to another parish, and he advised her to continue seeking medical help. Anneliese was frustrated that neither the priest nor her parents seemed to believe that the faces she saw were real. In January medical visits, she reported that she had headaches, but had improved in her ability to enjoy the company of others. Nonetheless, she felt that she was passive and unable to make decisions or plans, leaving such matters to Peter or to chance.
Dr. Lenner recommended that Anneliese participate in group therapy led by Dr. Erika Geisler. She attended once, but found that the neurotic complexes and compulsions discussed by the others were totally foreign to her experience. She was not crazy, she told Peter, and could not see what she could gain from being in such a group.
By March, she was becoming socially withdrawn again, and the drugs did nothing to banish the faces, though the stenches had gone away for a while. She told Father Alt that she could not pray, except sometimes with great effort, and she was held back from telling everything in confession. Prayer requires focus and concentration, so this report is not too surprising, in light of her other symptoms. More disturbing is her claim that she was oppressed by some foreign agent. These symptoms dissipated each time she visited Father Alt’s parish house, where she was able to pray, smile, and converse freely, and return home relaxed. Noticing this effect, Father Alt recommended a disciplined regimen of prayer, while continuing to see her doctor.
Anneliese saw Dr. Schleip again in April 1974, and the doctor later reported that “we assumed from a description that small seizures had probably occurred once more.” [p.58.] It is not known what Anneliese reported (depression, alienation?) that would have led to this inference, and we must be wary of Dr. Schleip’s professional bias toward explaining psychological phenomena in neuropathological terms. Possibly it was her headaches, for on May 7 she told Dr. Lenner that the headaches in her forehead had become severe, with little respite. She felt well only a few hours at a time. Her reflexes were slow, and she tired easily, even from sitting through a lecture or being visited socially. She felt torn between two “planes of consciousness,” one in which she could engage with others, and the other in which she was isolated and at the mercy of a foreign entity.
As part of her studies to become a schoolteacher, Anneliese had practice taught an arithmetic class of schoolchildren. This pleased her, but also excited her so that she had difficulty concentrating. The following Friday, she felt a sort of paralysis on one side, and was unable to get up. Dr. Lenner suspected a seizure, and referred her to Dr. Schleip. The neurologist found her EEG to be “much improved, but there still seemed to be some indication for the existence of a locus of brain damage in the left temporal region.” [p.59.] Dr. Schleip suspected that Anneliese was not taking her Tegretol frequently enough, though the girl was in fact quite scrupulous about taking her medication. She supplemented Dr. Schleip’s prescription with additional Tegretol pills prescribed by doctors in Klingenberg when she visited home, so her supply lasted longer than Dr. Schleip expected.
On September 9, a distraught Anneliese wrote a letter to Father Alt, expressing her fear that she was not ready for three weeks of practice teaching, since she did not feel in control of herself. She admitted that things had improved, but she still found herself inexplicably exhausted and disconnected from external reality. Some of her symptoms coincided with known side effects of Tegretol, which include drowsiness, fatigue, and headache, and even visual hallucinations, but the severity of her predicament was extraordinary, and it is not clear that the drug can account for her lack of volition.
Father Alt was not naive about neurological and psychological maladies, for he had been exposed to insane patients in his previous duties as a priest, yet Anneliese exhibited no signs of insanity. Her neurological symptoms were ambiguous at best, as only Dr. Schleip was able to find some irregular brain wave patterns, yet she could not account for why strong anti-epileptic drugs were incapable of suppressing these patterns. At no point did any medication or psychoanalytic treatment do anything to dispel the horrific faces, which Anneliese refused to mention to her doctors. After consulting with his fellow priests, Fr. Alt came to believe that Anneliese might be suffering from circumsessio, a much milder condition than possession, where a person is surrounded by evil forces. Anneliese’s condition might have been facilitated by her spiritual hypersensitivity and her physical frailty. Although Thea Hein pressured the priest to request an exorcism, Fr. Alt felt there was no justification for doing so when Anneliese’s condition had improved considerably in some respects. When Anneliese visited him with her father, however, she was depressed and had poor muscle control. Fr. Alt gave his priestly blessing and prayed with her, and she improved noticeably within twenty minutes, as her pupils ceased dilating and she finally said she was all right.
Encouraged by this positive response, Father Alt asked Bishop Stangl for permission to conduct the rite of exorcism when Anneliese experienced her next “crisis.” He did not maintain that she was possessed, but only that she suffered from circumsessio. The bishop instructed Fr. Alt to continue observing the case, but denied permission to conduct the rite of exorcism.
During the fall semester, Anneliese became more intensely involved in religious activities, and spent less time with her fellow students, since she now had her own room. She stopped seeing Dr. Lenner, and visited Dr. Schleip only for brief checkups. Despite Dr. Schleip’s suspicions of epilepsy, Anneliese was able to continue her studies at university and to obtain a driver’s license, giving her greater independence. She grew close to two other girls who were also traditionalist Catholics, and spent much time with them. Her religious life enabled her to reassert her autonomy, and she was soon able to reconnect with her own friends.
Anneliese’s neurological symptoms also improved. In January 1975, Dr. Schleip reported, “once again, there were no signs for an elevated tendency toward seizures to be detected in the EEG.” [p.69.] Her behavior and mood improved noticeably during the spring semester.
In May, however, she again began to show signs of anxiety. On the advice of Father Alt, she went to her doctor, Martin Kehler, for a physical examination in June. Dr. Kehler found her physical condition to be normal. Dr. Schleip judged her EEG to be “quite encouraging,” but still thought her brain was abnormal, and recommended continued treatment with Tegretol.
Despite these positive signs, Anneliese’s condition soon turned for the worse. She became too depressed to study or work on her thesis, and she considered dropping out of school. She became withdrawn from her peers, and for the first time, her exhaustion prevented her from even getting up to eat, so she became visibly thinner. As Anneliese later recalled this experience in a lucid moment, she had felt a strange, cold pride followed by a wave of terror accompanying the conviction that she would be damned. She recognized that there was no reason to believe this, but a voice in her head kept trying to convince her, and she was powerless to resist. As at San Damiano long before, she again began to develop an aversion to the sacred. She found the prayers of her school friends to be unbearable, even when they were silent. She threw a rosary and a bottle of holy water, and could not bear to step into a church, so she stopped attending. Her legs became stiff as if she could not bend her knees, so she walked by grabbing furniture and pulling herself along. More disturbingly, her face would sometimes contort into a hideous demonic expression.
When Father Alt visited her on July 1, she told him repeatedly that she was damned forever. His prayers (the Hail Mary) only agitated her into a tearful screaming fit. When she calmed down, she confirmed that she was still taking her pills. During the priestly blessing, she was silent, but Fr. Alt could feel a cold radiating from her, so he prayed the exorcismus probativus mentally. Anneliese immediately jumped up as if in self-defense, and screamed, tearing up her rosary. She brusquely told her boyfriend in a strangely altered voice, “Peter, get out.” Before leaving Anneliese’s room, Fr. Alt found a piece of paper with her handwriting. The writing became progressively unstructured, grammatically and orthographically, as her emotional state apparently became more desperate. It read:
courage leaves, to say what I wanted.
I am a sinner, I have clearly recognized that in the chapel today, even if I imagined something different.
I I amI have no courage, despaired.
I am afraid that my priest… my
I am standing at the crossroads, either… life or death. Grievously injured… through the years, I no longer defended myself… not now either… I became desperate after the holy communion, in spirit and heart. An iron chain is pressing around my heart. Fear, terror… my spirit is lame, if it becomes free, freer… right away despair rises
the worst of it is that I have no choice anymore, I see that sometimes clear like lightning, hopelessness sits at the root where life is
it has become a condition
Pride, unspeakable pride will not set me free
when I speak, my heart does not speak along
I am afraid that people despair in me
still I give myself to every glimmer of hope… newly up… fettered
…things will get worse and worse with me day if no dam will be constructed [pp.73-76.]
[The ellipsis represent grammatical discontinuities, not omissions from the translation.]
Despite its grammatically garbled content, attributable to Anneliese’s distraught state of mind, almost every element of this note has reference to a well-defined symptom that she experienced. She is losing her ability to take initiative and assert her will. She worries that her priest does not take her affliction seriously, but regards it as only a physical or psychological ailment. During her years of illness, she was often unable to defend herself from the foreign entity in her mind, and now again she is yielding. Any attempt to free herself only leads to despair. More worrisome is her note that “it has become a condition,” meaning a continuous state, whereas previously her afflictions would come and go fleetingly. She felt a cold pride inside her, which would not let her go. Her spoken words are not her own; even her body sometimes becomes paralyzed. Still she clings to whatever “glimmer of hope” she can find.
Several elements of her note are not easily explained. She had previously felt a foreign entity trying to convince her that she was damned, and now in the chapel she recognizes herself to be a sinner. Christians are taught that all are sinners, so Anneliese likely meant that she discovered herself to be an especially grievous sinner, and started to believe that she truly merited damnation. Alternatively, it is possible that previously she was guilty of a sort of spiritual pride, and now she has been disabused of her self-righteousness. The first option seems more likely, since Anneliese had always been conscious of the sins she confessed. Apparently, she was losing her ability to resist the conviction that she was damned. This might help make sense of her statement that she was now “standing at the the crossroads” between “life or death.” ‘Life’ referred to the autonomy of her spirit, while ‘death’ meant succumbing to the foreign entity, with its urging toward despair and damnation. In certain moments, she could perceive “clear like lightning” that she had no real autonomy: “hopelessness sits at the root where life is.”
Most puzzling of all is her final statement: “things will get worse and worse with me if no dam will be constructed.” Seemingly, she perceived that she needed a barrier to be erected between herself and the foreign entity that could overwhelm her like a raging torrent.
On July 17, the Michels came to Würzburg and consulted Dr. Schleip, expressing concern that their daughter might not be able to continue her studies. Dr. Schleip assured the Michels that Anneliese ought to be able to pursue her profession. She believed Anneliese’s only problem was an epileptic focus in her left temporal lobe, and this was treatable with Tegretol. The distressed parents were not comforted by this assessment, given the severity of Anneliese’s behavior, so they took her home to Klingenberg.
Back home, Anneliese was able to eat again, but she still had rigidity in her legs, and walked as though they were stilts. She was unable to pray at all, and had raging fits of screaming. Since Father Alt was far away, the Michels persuaded Father Roth to see their daughter. After Josef Michel had talked to Fr. Roth on the phone, Anneliese said, “Roth, that dog, he is also going to come,” though no mention was made of the visit. [pp.77-78.] When Fr. Roth, arrived, Mr. Michel took him into the living room, where Anneliese had just passed through, and called the priest’s attention to the stench, which Roth described as “of something burning, and of dung, penetrating everything.” Recall that Josef Michel had earlier been incredulous when the women claimed to perceive stenches and sounds, but now he was a believer, as was Fr. Roth, who noted that the stench was in no other room. The girl raged at Fr. Roth, and tore up her rosary. She grew agitated when he reached for the crucifix in his pocket, though she could not see what was in there. These signs reinforced Fr. Roth’s belief that Anneliese was afflicted by demons.
On July 30, 1975, Peter came to visit Anneliese in Klingenberg. They went for a walk, limited by Anneliese’s constant exhaustion and sluggish, stiff-limbed gait. When Peter suggested they head back home, she was suddenly able to move normally, even gingerly, and she exclaimed happily that she was fully herself again.
The following day they returned to Würzburg, where Anneliese registered for the fall semester. While grocery shopping, however, her face and legs tensed up, yet she did not behave aggressively. When she returned to her room, she stood stiff in front of a crucifix, glaring at it with hatred. Peter later related:
Her face was totally distorted, she growled like an animal and gritted her teeth so loudly that I was afraid that all her teeth would fall out. I started praying for her in thought, without giving any indication at all of what I was doing. Immediately she ordered me with clenched teeth to stop… [p.79.]
Peter had not been a churchgoing Catholic before he met Anneliese, much less a staunch traditionalist. He had started going to Mass again for her sake, and now he found himself squarely facing evidence of the supernatural. For an hour, the recently lucid Anneliese stood transfixed in one spot, strangely bending her upper body away from the crucifix even as her arms reached toward it. She later explained, “I wanted to take the cross in my hand, but against my will I was pushed back, so I couldn’t reach it.” [p.79.] It seemed that more than one consciousness resided in Anneliese’s body.
After this episode, Peter returned Anneliese to Klingenberg, where her condition worsened. At this point her parents were directly petitioning Bishop Stangl for an exorcism. Fr. Alt also sought out the bishop, who was on vacation, and finally managed to obtain oral permission to say only the short German form of the exorcism rite. On August 3, the Sunday after Anneliese’s return, Fr. Alt recited the short exorcism. Fr. Roth noted her molestation was not as strong as when he had last visited her, but she whimpered and moaned throughout the exorcism, and at one point pleaded, “Stop! It’s burning.” When asked where, she said, “In my back, in my arms.” At another point, she said, “I am free,” suggesting she was free of demons, but then she continued to whimper and moan. [p.81.] The priests were in the house for a total of two hours.
Although Fr. Alt believed Anneliese benefited from this exorcism, her behavior became alarmingly worse throughout the month of August. She was now plagued by insomnia, unable to sleep more than an hour or two. She would rush through the house, bucking up and down on the stairs like a goat. She exhibited compulsive behaviors, repeatedly kneeling and standing in rapid succession, until her knees swelled. She would sometimes pray repeatedly from dawn to dusk: “My Jesus, forgiveness and mercy, forgiveness and mercy…” [p.81.] She constantly screamed, except for times when she would tremble and fall into complete rigidity. This catatonia could last for days, so her sister would have to try to feed and wash her.
Only after the exorcism ritual did Anneliese begin to exhibit apparently insane behavior, which coincides with classical demoniac behavior. The question remains whether or not this is attributable to a natural cause. Witnesses attested that she displayed almost superhuman strength, and would repeatedly kneel and rise at a fantastic speed. She felt heat throughout her body, and would tear off her clothes in order to cool herself. She put insects in her mouth, urinated on the floor and licked it, and repeatedly tried to strike her family members and destroy sacred objects. Many of her individual symptoms might be considered those of an insane person, but a psychiatric diagnosis (e.g., schizophrenia, psychosis) does not itself explain the cause of that condition. People can exhibit “insane” behaviors for a variety of reasons, and a diagnosis of “psychosis” ultimately entails a subjective judgment that a certain behavior is not salutary, without necessarily explaining why a person is behaving that way. A symptom-based psychiatric diagnosis, by itself, does nothing to address the question as to whether there is something preternatural going on.
Anneliese saw clouds of flies and shadowy small creatures that eventually her family could discern. She had visions of the deceased, and stigmata marks appeared on her. These marks were distinct from her other injuries, yet it has long been known that stigmata, at least in mild form, can be induced by suggestion in emotionally sensitive persons. There should be little doubt by now that Anneliese was a highly sensitive spirit; the question remains whether or not she was attuned to genuinely preternatural phenomena.
Although the local parish priest recommended that Anneliese be taken to see a psychiatrist, the Michels had already had their fill of psychiatrists, and there was no way Anneliese, now a 22-year-old adult, could be persuaded to go to a psychiatric clinic. They again contacted Fr. Rodewyk in Frankfurt, and the old priest finally came to see the girl for himself.
Fr. Rodewyk saw Anneliese lying on the floor in an apparent hypnotic trance, oblivious to those around her. She was led to the sofa by her parents, and the priest asked, “What is your name?” The response was, “Judas,” uttered in a deeper, altered voice. [p.85.] After a while her muscles uncramped, and she was able to speak as herself with calmness and lucidity. This clear manifestation of a second personality that named itself persuaded Father Rodewyk that this was a case of possession.
It seems strange that a man’s name, Judas, should be given for a demon, yet Fr. Rodewyk claimed that the name Judas was often given by other possession victims. It is not that the demon was actually the Judas of the Gospels, but rather the name represents the role or function of the demon. A Judas demon attempts to force its victim to imitate the apostle in the betrayal of his Lord, often by preventing victims from swallowing during Holy Communion in order to steal the Host. Anneliese did in fact feel resistance to swallowing the Host, so she allowed it to dissolve in her mouth. She also displayed a compulsion to kiss people while wearing a hostile expression on her face, reminiscent of the “Judas kiss.” Fr. Rodewyk found these behaviors confirmed his supposition that she was possessed by a Judas demon.
Shortly after Fr. Rodewyk’s visit, Anneliese became well again, without any demonic manifestations. She could take meals regularly again; previously, she explained, she “was not allowed to.” [p.87.]
Meanwhile, on the basis of the reports by Fr. Rodewyk and Fr. Alt, the bishop finally granted permission (September 16, 1975) to conduct the full rite of exorcism. This permission was given to Fr. Arnold Renz, superior of a Salvatorian monastery and pastor of a parish near Klingenberg. He was reputed to be a pious and intelligent man, kind and trustworthy. His charismatic personality won Anneliese’s respect and friendship in her lucid moments.
In the psychiatric examination of Fr. Renz following Anneliese’s death, the psychiatrists found the priest to be in good health, and of normal intellectual capacity, save what was in their view an irrational incapacity to evaluate critically the subject of exorcism. Rather than admit that they too could be guilty of philosophical prejudice, they searched for a pathological explanation of Fr. Renz’s opinions about possession. The best they could do was point to a tiny calcification in the brain, hardly an unusual finding in a sixty-five-year-old man. The psychiatrists speculated that this minute calcification was subject-specific, and perhaps just happened to the part of the brain that thinks about exorcism. Even if the brain really worked that way (it does not), the odds of a calcification hitting the “exorcism” spot would be miniscule, and anyway the brain is able to rewire itself even after minor strokes without loss of capacity. The good doctors would have done better to scrutinize their own critical faculties, as this was clearly a case of special pleading in order to pathologize an opinion with which they did not agree.
Similarly, they recognized that Fr. Renz showed no symptoms of schizophrenia or hallucinations, yet found he was “a deeply religious personality rooted in a magico-mystical thinking,” [p.92.] whose critical faculties on such topics were suppressed by his tiny yet conveniently located calcification. Here we have not even the veneer of science, but simply a pair of atheists pathologizing religious belief. By this standard, most people in human history must have suffered from similar brain pathologies, as does any modern man who finds atheistic materialism intellectually inadequate. Religious intellectuals must renounce their opinions if the psychiatrists are to give them a clean bill of health. Ironically, those who would pass judgment on the critical faculties of others preached the delusions of Freud as science, and would make the mediocre philosophy of Epicurus the standard of sanity.
Fr. Renz’ account of his first visit (September 24, 1975) to the Michel household is not that of a man disposed to see demons around every corner. On the contrary, he found Anneliese to be quite normal on that first day, with “nothing that would have indicated any possession.” He performed the standard rite of exorcism because he had been requested to do so by his fellow priests and by the family, including the perfectly lucid subject herself. The ritual involves a fixed sequence of prescribed prayers, followed by direct questioning of the demons, and culminates in direct commands for them to leave the possessed.
In the course of this ritual, Anneliese’s behavior changed. Tranquil at first, her body began to shake violently, and she screamed and squirmed as she was held down by three men to prevent her from biting or kicking others. Sprinkling with holy water elicited screams and occasionally an obscenity-laden demand for the priest to stop doing this. The whole session lasted five and a half hours. At the end of it, a lucid Anneliese said they should have continued, as she felt that the exorcism was troubling the demons. She had full recollection of all that happened, but her words and deeds had not been her own.
However we wish to explain it, it is clear from this and later evidence that there was another personality within Anneliese’s body, quite distinct from her usual self. For Father Renz, this was sufficient proof of demonic possession, as it was quite unintelligible to him how else one should account for the presence of another person in the same body. He took at face value the other personage’s claims to be repelled by holy objects and rituals, and its obvious malevolence made it hard to describe as anything but demonic.
“Multiple personality disorder” (or “dissociative identity disorder”) is little more than a name, as many scientists in the field question whether it is even an authentic phenomenon. The most illustrious case of multiple personalities, the woman known as Sybil, has been shown to be of doubtful validity. If there were truly multiple persons in a single body, one person might not know what the others are thinking or doing. This Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario is not actually observed in clinical cases. Rather, the same person may behave in ways that are radically different from usual, and he may even choose to be called by a different name, but all memories are shared, so we are inclined to say that the same person changes his “personality,” that is to say, his complex of emotional and behavioral tendencies. This is but an extreme case of more common aberrations: if a person is angry or drunk, he may act uncharacteristically and later say apologetically, “I was not myself.” This does not mean his body was literally taken over by another person, but rather, his state of mind led him to behave in ways that were very different from his usual attitude.
In Anneliese’s case, she retained memory of what occurred when the others took over her body, but it is unclear to what extent she knew what they thought. As for herself, she felt her own personality suppressed in what she called a “hole,” [p.95.] while she helplessly watched what the other entities did to her body and uttered with her tongue. This would seem to be an authentic, and therefore rare, case of split personality, since she did not simply alter her behavior, but rather her usual self co-existed with these other personalities. It would seem, then, that there was more than one mental subject or person in Anneliese’s body.
We may learn something of the nature of these other personages from the recordings of the exorcism sessions. They emit hideous screams, growls, and moans, and speak in a deep, hoarse voice, uttering curses and mocking the exorcist. They seem to understand Latin, though a traditionalist Catholic girl might be expected to know some liturgical expressions. On occasion they give evidence of understanding more advanced phrases; for example, when Father Renz says, “Ut discedas ab hac famula Dei Anneliese,” meaning, “May you depart from this handmaid of God Anneliese,” the reply comes, “No, no, she belongs to me…” [p.97.]
Fr. Renz tested the linguistic ability of the speaking demonic person by questioning it in Chinese. The personage would not oblige this transparent search for a proof of its nature, and later said, “If you want to ask something, ask it in German,” but followed with a taunt, “But I do too understand it.” The demon did respond to a question in Dutch, “Is there anything in your family that has any relation to the case and should not become public?” The answer: “There is nothing like that.” [p.101.]
As another test, Father Renz filled five bottles with water, some with tap water and others with holy water. Though the bottles were unmarked, the demons somehow knew to scream only when the holy water was used.
A more common form of engagement with the demons was to recite prayers or Biblical readings, to test their response. They hated any invocation of St. Michael the Archangel, and seemed to fear the Blessed Virgin Mary. They dreaded any mention of guardian angels, and screamed in horror during the Litany of the Five Sacred Wounds, a fact possibly related to the appearance of stigmata. The demons claimed that they had oppressed Anneliese while she was studying for her exams, but only with heavenly permission, and that she passed her exams anyway only because the Lady willed it. Some Biblical passages left no impression on these malevolent entities, as they apparently did not recognize themselves as referenced in them. Mention of the beast in Revelation 13 left them unmoved, as did the Gospel story of casting out a mute demon.
Direct questioning of the demons is prescribed by the Roman rite. This involves asking the names of the demons and how long they intend to stay in the possessed. By learning the name and identity of a demon, the exorcist hopes to gain a sort of leverage or power over it, and he uses this name in the imprecatory formulas urging it to depart. This interrogatory process yielded several names, and as each name was revealed, the demon was thereby forced to manifest its personality. We have already mentioned Judas; several others revealed themselves in later sessions. They called themselves Cain, Hitler and Pastor Fleischmann. Again, these are names of men, not of demons. Cain said very little, while Hitler only offered some muffled ‘Heils.’ Judas said of Hitler, “He, he only has a big mouth but nothing to say,” which in German idiom could mean he was stripped of all power. [p.105.]
The Pastor Fleischmann character was based on an obscure medieval priest in distant Ettleben, where Fr. Alt was now pastor. According to the parish records, this Fleischmann was a womanizer, drunkard, and brute who had beaten a man to death and a woman nearly to death. When Fr. Alt visited the Michels in the fall of 1975, he mentioned to the family that a previous pastor of his parish had killed a man. At that moment, Anneliese gave a terrible scream, though they were not performing an exorcism at the time. Several weeks later, he visited Anneliese, who was accompanied by her boyfriend Peter, and asked her why she was frightened by the name Fleischmann, upon which she screamed again, and her face alternated between smiles and hideous contortions. She immediately apologized, “Please, don’t take it too hard; I can’t help it.” [p.107.] That evening, while Fr. Renz performed the rite of exorcism, a demonic person identified itself as Fleischmann, and gave many biographical details that Fr. Alt had never mentioned in Anneliese’s presence. Fr. Alt confirmed that the archivist in Würzburg had always possessed the medieval Ettleben parish records while she was in college there, so there was no way Anneliese could have seen them.
Having observed that the demonic personages knew things that Anneliese would have no earthly way of knowing, the priests reasonably concluded that she was genuinely possessed by persons from beyond. The rationalist atheist, by contrast, typically decides a priori that demonic possession is impossible, so all evidence to the contrary must be false. This is a thoroughly anti-empirical approach to the question, which is one reason why rationalist sneering has done little to dissuade people from belief in demons, ghosts, miracles and the like. Almost everyone has either witnessed or knows someone who has witnessed one of these “impossible” phenomena. What are to we believe, the a priori pronouncements of the intelligentsia, or our own lying eyes?
Fr. Alt, in some sense, may have brought Pastor Fleischmann from distant Ettleben to Klingenberg. The parish house at Ettleben had long been haunted by a tall figure in a black hat, as Fr. Alt found out after making some inquiries motivated by his own personal experience. From the beginning, he had heard noises in the house at night: knocking, doors slamming, someone walking up and down stairs. His skin felt as though it were covered with ants, and he felt violently tugged from both the left and right sides. The housekeeper also heard the sounds, and her daughter refused to sleep upstairs because “someone was up there.” It was after these incidents that Fr. Alt found out from the locals about the haunting by the tall dark man, though he never saw this figure himself.
Impossible? Perhaps. Ridiculous? Subjective. Many ghostly claims have been corroborated (if not proven) by modern recording equipment, so it is hardly empirical to dismiss the phenomenon out of court. There are far more “impossible” and ridiculous things in modern theoretical physics, which renders incoherent the notion that corporeal “stuff” is ontologically fundamental.
Even if we were to admit that there are some genuinely paranormal phenomena in this case, there are also some indications that Anneliese’s own personality may have shaped or informed the alter egos that inhabited her. The demons taunted the priests with claims that no one believed in the reality of Hell or the efficacy of prayer any more, and mocked the fact that people now received communion in the hand. These were all issues that had been of concern to the traditionalist Anneliese. Might we not suspect, then, that by some mysterious process, natural or otherwise, some bits of Anneliese’s personality were projected onto these others?
The main problem with identifying Anneliese’s demons as a purely natural dissociative identity disorder is that there is no scientific understanding of the causes of such a disorder, nor is there even any consensus on whether such a disorder truly exists. Suggested possible causes of this putative disorder include severe trauma or stress, a lack of family nurturing, and abusive parents. None of these apply to Anneliese. The only trauma she experienced was that caused by the other personalities. Her family life had always been happy and tranquil, both with her parents and her sisters. The worst she had to deal with was her mother forbidding her to go to dances at age fifteen, hardly an unusual prohibition, though the psychiatrists tried to build this into a suppressed hatred of her mother, despite Anneliese’s emphatic denials. At any rate, that would have been a far weaker trauma than those ordinarily invoked as possible causes of dissociative disorder. Dissociative identity has not been correlated to electrophysiological dysfunction, though naturally there are different brain patterns observed when the subject is operating in different personality states. Thus Anneliese’s occasional seizures cannot be invoked as a likely cause of dissociative identity.
Moreover, we have seen that some of the phenomena here do not admit of a naturalistic cause, as is the case with the Fleischmann identity. Nor is it the case that a single subject (Anneliese) merely switched between personalities. By her own account during lucid periods, Anneliese was fully aware of what the others were saying through her mouth, so at least two personalities were conscious at the same time. The distinguished psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, in the studies leading him to believe in the reality of possession, found that the possessed are not themselves evil, but victims of evil. There is a real distinction between the true self and the other personalities; the latter are not mere manifestations of the former. Just as we routinely acknowledge the reality of the ordinary person who speaks through the mouth of a body, so ought we acknowledge the reality of these others on similar evidence.
Granting that the others were real persons, what kind of beings were they? By their own profession, they were the souls of deceased human beings, not demons in the classic theological sense. Given the propensity of these persons to delight in malevolence, mockery, and obfuscation, it is dangerous to take any of their claims at face value. According to Catholic belief, the rite of exorcism, properly executed, can compel the demons to answer truthfully. We might scrutinize the records to discern moments when the demons spoke out of obligation, against their will.
By October 4th-6th, two weeks after Fr. Renz had begun the exorcisms (performed every two days or so), the demonic personalities weakened and spoke less frequently. They rarely responded with the usual ferocity toward the ritual, yet neither did they depart from the subject. This lethargic behavior by the alter egos, apparently disinterested in the exorcism yet remaining present, is atypical of possession cases, suggesting perhaps some other factor prevented these personalities from manifesting themselves. On October 7, Dr. Kehler issued another Tegretol prescription for Anneliese, and that same evening the demons returned in full force, even uttering a hoarse scream and high pitched laugh simultaneously. This reinforces the suspicion that the prescription drugs may have been having an effect, though it is not clear whether they were enhancing or suppressing demonic manifestations.
Still, a taped conversation between Fr. Renz and a tranquil Anneliese that evening makes clear that she was lucid most of the time, and was even studying for her exams. Her mother and her sister Barbara insist she has no more physical maladies, except for the jerking motion that occurs during the exorcisms. She does not try to attack people any more, and though her appetite is weak, Anneliese insists that the demons are not preventing her from eating. She does, however, sleep on the floor; otherwise the demons will force her to sit up in bed. Her torments are now purely psychological, she reports, “with that frightful anxiety, with a mood of annihilation.” She says she has had this feeling since the tenth grade (1968-69), and it is now weakening her memory and her concentration. She felt sick if she tried to go to church, and her mysterious tormentor caused her pain when the sign of the cross was made over her during exorcism. When asked where he is, she replies, “That differs. Usually he is all around, but sometimes either back there or down low.” [p.110.]
On October 13, a strange new development occurred. Anneliese began receiving messages ostensibly from the Virgin Mary. At first, she and her family were skeptical of these inspirations, which she wrote down in a diary, suspecting a demonic trick. Yet the demons themselves cursed the writings, attributing them to the Virgin by indicating toward a religious portrait.
Upon learning of Anneliese’s written messages, Father Renz thought of Barbara Weigand (1845-1943), a seer from Schippach who was venerated by the Michels and had a similar practice of writing heavenly messages. He offered Anneliese a copy of Weigand’s writings, and immediately her messages from the Virgin exhorted her to complete the mission of the deceased seer. The sufferings of that woman inspired Anneliese to perceive meaning in her own torments, and on October 29 she wrote that Barbara Weigand told her she must suffer a great deal. [p.115.]
Regarding these inspirations, Anneliese said, “I don't hear voices, exactly. I am only given to understand.” Though she depicts the visitations with visual imagery, she writes, “I see nothing.” [p.116.] Thus these inspirations cannot be properly attributed to auditory or visual hallucinations, the ordinary signs of schizophrenia. They were purely spiritual or intellectual in nature.
By October 16, Anneliese was receiving messages from the Blessed Virgin that she would “become entirely free in October,” a Marian month. She was also told that a terrible judgment was coming, and even the demons attested to this, saying it would be “worse than the last two” (presumably the world wars), and would take place in Europe.
Anneliese was also repeatedly visited (since October 10) by Father Roth’s nephew, who died at the beginning of the month. He let her know he was in Heaven, and that he was there to encourage her in her tribulations.
She also recorded messages supposedly from Christ himself, though she repeatedly expressed doubts and fears that these messages might be satanic tricks. In one message, she is told with insistence, “You will become a great saint,” and is forced to weep tears in proof that she heard correctly. In another, the “Savior” tells her: “You are going to get married, Anneliese… In this one way you are not going to be like Barbara Weigand. But you are going to be like her in every other way, in suffering and in sacrifice…” Anneliese’s untimely death prevented her from marrying, so this exhortation to suffering and sacrifice cannot have been intended to induce her to renounce her life. Obviously, this frustrated prophecy cannot have been a divine revelation of the future, though it might be regarded as a moral inspiration, giving Anneliese a goal to pursue.
In the last week of October, Anneliese continued to receive mesages from “the Savior,” urging her to bear her suffering patiently for the salvation of other souls. The presence of the Blessed Virgin was also apparent, as the demons claimed during the October 29 exorcism that she ordered them to leave by Friday, October 31. This is confirmed in Anneliese’s diary entry on the 29th.
Accordingly, everyone expected that the demons would be driven out on October 31. That morning, Dr. Kehler wrote another Tegretol prescription. Father Renz then conducted an exceptionally long exorcism, preserving four and a half hours of it on audio tape. Some salient points:
The success of the exorcism is short-lived, however. As the priest and family start to sing a Marian hymn, a demonic growl and scream interrupts them, saying “I have not gone out yet.” [p.131.] This demon will not give his name, saying he had not revealed his presence before. Father Renz continues for three more hours trying to cast him out, without success.
Despite the persistence of this more taciturn “demon,” Anneliese was able to return to school a week later, cram for an examination, and pass with a good grade. Most of the time, however, she seemed apathetic according to her classmates, though she was attentive and empathetic toward them.
Anneliese continued to receive communications from “the Savior,” exhorting her to be patient, to pray for herself and others, to keep a humble silence, to trust in His grace with steadfastness, to struggle against temptation, and not to judge others. “I will give you my grace. You will be true unto death.” [pp.136-38.]
On a November 9 exorcism session, the demon identifies himself as Judas, saying that he and four others returned shortly after being expelled, with the Lady’s permission. For the rest of the year, Anneliese continued leading a double life, and renewed her Tegretol prescriptions. She rarely manifested demonic behavior outside of exorcism sessions at her family’s home, and continued her studies at Würzburg, with most of her school companions being completely unaware of her state of possession. On one occasion in January, however, Anneliese’s face contorted and she struck Peter. She returned to normal after he threw holy water on her at her request.
The exorcism sessions in January were shorter (around two hours), as the demon was more subdued, even disinterested in participating. In a tape-recorded session on February 1, Anneliese told Father Renz that she had recently begun to experience compulsions, so that she was no longer permitted to eat, or to cover herself from the cold. She felt that her prayers were unheard, and that her suffering for the sake of others was far more difficult than she expected. She also felt non-verbal compulsions to bang her head against the wall and to strip and go to bed. Sometimes the compulsions were verbal, like a sweet voice telling her that she must always wear the same pair of shoes.
On March 3, Anneliese had an episode of stiffness when trying to go visit home, and so remained in Würzburg. She was unresponsive to exorcism. She soon recovered, started eating more food, and resumed her studies, and was examined by the school’s general practitioner Dr. Wolfert on the 9th. She told him about her epileptic history, but not about her possession. He thought she appeared exhausted yet “psychologically normal,” and he renewed her Tegretol prescription.
In early April, while visiting home, Anneliese begged Thea Hein to promise to inform her if anyone thought of sending her to a physician. She also warned that there would soon be a strong burning stench, and immediately they both smelled an unbearable stench in the car that endured for ten minutes after opening the windows.
On the night of April 13, the Tuesday before Easter, Anneliese felt a compulsion to stay kneeling in the school’s chapel until the next morning. The following day, nonetheless, she was able to discuss her thesis with her advisor with lucidity, exhibiting sound critical thinking when discussing relevant literature.
On the night of April 15 (Holy Thursday), Anneliese felt a terror and a great weight pushing down on her while kneeling in church to pray. She believed she was experiencing “the death agony of the Savior,” [p.160.] and felt the pains of the stigmata. At the end of the Good Friday service the following day, Anneliese remained standing rigidly for hours, unable to move. The next day, her sister Roswitha came to nurse her, as she lay listlessly in bed. Anneliese would become rigid again whenever someone tried to get her out of bed and dress to go home to Klingenberg.
By the last week of April, Anneliese had again started refusing food. Some friends suggested calling a physician, but she would not have it. None were aware of the possession or exorcisms, except Anna Lippert, who called Father Renz and Father Alt on April 30, after Anneliese had started screaming loudly. On the morning of May 1, nonetheless, she was her normal self again, casually chatting with Roswitha and Peter over breakfast. When Father Alt arrived that day, Anneliese asked him if she could work on her thesis at the parish house in Ettleben, so he would be on hand to perform an exorcism if needed. On the way to Ettleben, she recounted to Peter what she had told Father Alt, that her suffering would be over in July.
That afternoon, Anneliese urged Peter to let her see the renovated church. Once inside, her face stiffened and she became impassive. When Peter tried to move her, she felt too heavy. Just as on April 15, a short prayer was enough to snap her out of it, but she resumed her state when she was brought to bed. In the early days of May, she worsened, refusing to eat, sleep, or even lie in her bed. Roswitha and a local elderly woman were soon summoned to help care for Anneliese, while the parish housekeeper prepared meals. Roswitha injured her foot a week later, so the Michels brought Anneliese home to Klingenberg on May 10.
In Klingenberg, Anneliese’s condition continued to worsen. She raged, screamed, struggled violently (requiring at least two men to hold her down), struck and bit herself. Father Renz visited repeatedly to recite the exorcism rite, but no demonic personage responded. During some sessions, she would exhibit compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly kneeling and rising hundreds of times. On May 20, she was able to stay lucid for five hours, dictating a four-page outline of her thesis. For the most part, however, she was incapable of ordinary conversation.
The only physician to see Anneliese in this deteriorated state was Dr. Richard Roth, a friend of Father Alt who visited on May 30. Dr. Roth would later testify that he came only out of scientific curiosity, not in his capacity as a physician. On June 2, Father Renz reported to the bishop that Anneliese’s left cheek was badly swollen and there were bruises around her eyes from her self-inflicted blows. Dr. Roth denied seeing any such injuries. His testimony was inconsistent and implausible on several points, however, and it is likely that he was trying to exonerate himself from a charge of criminal negligence.
According to the other witnesses in the house (the Michels, Peter, and the priests), Dr. Roth did see Anneliese from the front, remarking on her stigmata wounds, and afterwards promised to Fr. Alt that he would come in case of a medical emergency. He suggested treatments for her bruises, but considered her general condition untreatable by a physician, allegedly saying, “There are no injections against the devil.” [p.171.] It should be remarked that Dr. Roth was a fairly eminent physician, published in medical journals, and had no prior attachment to belief in exorcism. On the contrary, his new experience with exorcism led him to start going to church.
On June 8, the last time Fr. Alt saw Anneliese, she had a sunken face from malnourishment. She did, however, drink fruit juices and milk, according to her parents, and on one occasion drank nearly two liters. When they tried to force feed her, she would spit out the food or press her lips closed firmly. She chipped her teeth from biting the wall, and repeatedly bit herself and struck at others.
Meanwhile, the exorcisms were consistently unsuccessful in getting demons to speak. Instead of intelligible words, Anneliese repeatedly made mechanical, unnatural sounding vocalizations, which were taped on June 7. Fr. Renz later conjectured that this was a “penance possession,” where the possessed endures suffering in reparation of someone else’s sins, yet he admitted he could not understand the meaning of the penance.
By June 18, Anneliese’s injuries had healed, except for an open sore on her knee and nosebleeds from rubbing. She still compulsively knelt and rose dozens of times until exhausted. She screamed and raged in bed, even as her mother attempted impromptu exorcism prayers. She still had many lucid periods when she could converse normally with her family and Peter. She told them she expected that all would be over by July, and repeatedly dissuaded them from calling a doctor. On the last such occasion on June 30, she told Roswitha that a physician could not help her, and that she feared being sent to the state mental institution at Lohr, where she did not belong.
On June 27, Anneliese had a fever, but it subsided after cold compresses were applied. She refused to have a physician visit, though her father did call Dr. Roth to write another certificate extending her leave from school. Prior to the exorcism on June 30, her temperature was measured at 38.9oC (102.0oF), a moderate fever. During the rite, she insisted on kneeling repeatedly, though her family cushioned her movements, placing a pillow on the floor. Her last words to Fr. Renz were, “Please, absolution,” requesting the absolution part of the rite, which he then gave. [p.175.] The rite being finished, Peter and Fr. Renz left, while the parents remained with Anneliese. Anna Michel went to bed a short while afterward. Anneliese then started screaming and throwing herself around. Her father was still in the room, and as it was past midnight, he told her that he commanded the demons to leave in the name of the Father, since it was now July and they were obligated to depart, so she could recover. After that, she turned quietly on her right side and went to sleep.
The following morning, at seven o’clock, Mr. Michel looked into Anneliese’s room, and saw her apparently sleeping, so he went off to work. An hour later, his wife called and told him that Anneliese was dead.
Medical examiners concluded that Anneliese’s death was caused by starvation, possibly aggravated by physical exertion. They found her inner organs to be healthy, and her brain had no damage that could cause even microscopic seizures, though her pupils were unusually dilated.
Like many postmortem examinations, this one involved more educated guesswork than certainty. The notion that Anneliese died from starvation is problematic for several reasons. Human beings can usually last thirty to forty days without any food whatsoever. Those who starve to death typically die from dehydration or from infection due to weakened immunity, resulting in some organ failure, usually the heart or kidneys. Prior to death, the patient is typically immobile for days. All of these points are contrary to the facts of Anneliese’s case.
Anneliese’s abstinence from food was not absolute, and she sometimes drank large amounts. The examiners found no organ failure. She was able to get out of bed repeatedly the night before she died, which should be impossible for someone on the verge of death from starvation. Her mobility is confirmed by the examiners’ observation that she had no bedsores, which are ordinarily found on starvation victims.
Although Anneliese did have a fever, it was not high enough to indicate a threat to life, nor even to require a physician’s immediate attention. Still, combined with her malnutrition and exhaustion, she was far from physically healthy.
Should the Michels have expected that Anneliese might be in mortal danger? Recall that Anneliese had gone through similar difficulties the previous summer, and emerged from them unscathed. That, combined with Anneliese’s repeated expectation that all would be over by July, caused them to be optimistic. They certainly thought she should see a physician, but fear that she would be institutionalized prevented this course of action.
The Michels had no religious objection to bringing in a physician. Although they believed Anneliese’s psychological torments were demonic in origin, they nonetheless recognized that these assaults had physiological consequences that could be dangerous. They simply did not regard Anneliese’s physical injuries as life threatening, and from what we know of her bruises, fever, and other physical indications, this was a reasonable inference. Anneliese’s death came as a complete surprise, as her condition, while bad, did not seem anywhere near life-threatening. Perhaps a more expert eye would have judged otherwise, but the point at issue is whether her condition was bad enough to require an expert to be brought in.
The only reason the Michels, and Anneliese in particular, were reluctant to bring in a doctor is that there was no way to do this without revealing her state of possession. They reasonably inferred that any secular doctor would refuse to accept the reality of possession, and instead judge her to be psychotic, treating her accordingly. In the 1970s, this could mean heavy sedation, physical restraint, and forced institutionalization. Anneliese had already had an unpleasant experience in a support group with neurotics, and found that she had nothing in common with people with ordinary psychological ailments. She dreaded being put in an institution with the genuinely insane, rightly perceiving that the healthy could go mad in such a place.
Two issues are central to the Anneliese Michel case: the nature of her condition (medical or spiritual) and the responsibility of her parents and priests for her death. These questions are often conflated, so that exonerating the parents is confused with declaring there was a possession, and denying that there was a possession is confused with proving that the parents were negligent. Creditably, the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose distinguishes these questions, leaving an ambiguous conclusion regarding the veracity of the possession, yet unequivocally supporting the loving intentions of the priest and parents.
Naturally, the question of possession is by far more interesting to most viewers than the question of legal responsibility. Discourse about possession is rarely fruitful, however, due to misconceptions such as a strong dichotomy between the medical and the spiritual, as though the reality of certain medical phenomena abolished the reality of possession in the same subject, and vice versa. A further problem is that, in popular discussions of medical data, symptoms are confused with pathology. This problem is especially acute in psychiatry, with its broad definitions of schizophrenia and psychosis, which have a host of disparate symptoms and can arise from an even greater array of causes. We should instead speak of contributing factors, rather than simple mechanistic causes.
There is no question that Anneliese suffered from epileptic seizures, yet this is merely a description of a symptom, not an explanation of its cause. Just as a person may have a cough caused by anything from a viral infection to dust in the air, so does the mere fact of a seizure tell us little about its aetiology. While some instances of epilepsy may be the result of neural disease or genetic disposition, many diagnoses do little more than specify the area of the brain that is affected, without giving any indication as to the cause. It is almost tautological that psychomotor convulsions are the result of epilepsy, which is defined as a paroxysmal disturbance of electrical activity in the brain, yet this does nothing to explain why neural activity is disturbed.
That Anneliese Michel had temporal lobe epilepsy only means that her psychomotor center (the temporal lobe) was not functioning properly, but this does not explain why. Similarly, the diagnosis of grand mal epilepsy is an assessment of the electroencephalographic phenomena as depicting a severe seizure, but it does not explain the cause of such a seizure. Too often in Western medicine, merely describing a phenomenon on an anatomic level and giving it a name is confused with explaining the phenomenon. As anyone with real-life experience with doctors knows all too well, modern medicine still involves as much art as science, and a diagnosis often provides only clues as to possible causes and remedies, not definitive explanations.
Anneliese had only five major seizures in her life, between 1968 and 1972. She had an additional minor seizure in late 1972. In mid-1974, Dr. Schleip assumed from unspecified descriptions that there were further small seizures, but did not actually observe these. The autopsy in 1976 showed no sign of “water on the brain” or any other brain injury capable of inducing even microscopic seizures, so Anneliese’s epileptic neurological condition had long vanished.
Psychosis is a broad descriptive diagnosis of an assortment of maladies with wildly disparate causes. One particular class of psychotic disorders, called schizophrenia, includes delusional behavior resulting from auditory and visual hallucinations. This symptomatic definition does not explain the cause, so to say some people behave a certain way “because they have schizophrenia” does not have the same explanatory power as saying that a certain person has a cough because he has a virus. Schizophrenia is just a catch-all descriptive diagnostic term for a class of disordered behaviors. The word magic of naming the behavior does not provide any explanatory understanding of why a particular individual exhibits schizophrenic behavior.
People may hear voices in their head because they are on drugs, or because of some congenital madness, or because the voices are real, but we cannot resolve this question from the mere diagnosis of “schizophrenia.” Likewise the term ‘hallucination’ is descriptive and not explanatory, for it simply means that the image perceived in the mind does not correspond to external physical reality. This does not preclude the possibility that such an apparition is really induced by a spiritual agent.
Anneliese consistently denied that she was “crazy,” i.e., psychotic, and felt that her problems were totally different in kind from those of neurotics. This assertion is supported by her general lucidity and strong critical thinking skills exhibited in her academic work, which she continued all the way until the final months of her life. Her aberrant behavior was entirely attributable to alternate personages inhabiting her. Even if these personages are held to be naturalistically psychogenic in origin, it must be acknowledged that her ordinary personality remained generally intact. She was able to function normally in school and society as late as 1975, and even in her last days she had perfectly lucid periods.
The principal problem of a psychogenic explanation is the absence of an adequate cause. Dr. Lenner’s Freudian explanations did not match the facts of her family life, nor was her religious life especially obsessed with demons and guilt. Her family and her boyfriend Peter initially suggested ordinary explanations of her condition, but she found these did not match her experience, as she was quite content with life apart from the bizarre episodes that made her lose control.
One clearly indicated psychological malady is depression, but this too is a broad diagnosis admitting a variety of symptoms and causes. Anneliese’s depressive episodes began in the fall of 1973, shortly before her medication was changed from Dilantin to Tegretol. These continued until the end of her life. In her case, depression did not entail sadness so much as a general loss of interest and mental energy. This depression was frequently accompanied by the perception of stenches. Interestingly, in the last year of her life, her alter egos seemed to have depressed activity, as her demons could become unresponsive and disinterested.
Treatment of epilepsy in the 1970s focused on the use of anticonvulsant drugs to reduce the effects of seizures, relieving the symptom without necessarily addressing the cause. It is common medical practice to first prescribe drugs based on symptoms, with only a speculative knowledge of their cause. Responsible clinicians will then examine the effects of the prescribed drug on an individual, modifying treatment depending on the patient’s response. Anticonvulsant drugs had a high failure rate in epileptics, so their efficacy varied greatly by individual.
Anneliese Michel was briefly treated with an unspecified anticonvulsant in June 1970, shortly after her third seizure. She soon had her first visual hallucination, which she did not report. She took anticonvulsants again briefly in the fall of that year, after her fourth seizure.
Anneliese experienced no seizures between September 1970 and June 1972, despite being off medication for most of that period. She did, however, suffer from lethargy possibly related to the ordinary illnesses that made her miss school.
In September 1972, three months after her fifth seizure, Anneliese was treated with Dilantin even though her EEG was negative. She had a minor seizure in early November, the last known seizure she would suffer for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, starting in October, she experienced visual and olfactory hallucinations, and prolonged muscle contraction. Only the last is a known side effect of Dilantin. Anneliese also complained that the drug made her lethargic.
Anneliese first started hearing voices and exhibiting demoniac behavior in early 1973. When she reported some of her experiences to Dr. Lüthy in September, he prescribed periciazine drops, a medium intensity anti-neurotic drug. His dismissive attitude discouraged her from ever again reporting her visions to a doctor.
In late 1973, Anneliese continued to have visions of hideous faces, and suffered from depression and extreme lethargy. She was now taking both Dilantin and periciazine. It is not clear when she stopped taking the latter, though the Dilantin prescription was renewed in November. This was changed, however, to Tegretol by Dr. Irmgard Schleip, as she judged the EEG reading to be abnormal. Dr. Schleip believed the olfactory hallucinations were an epileptic symptom, and so could be treated with this stronger anticonvulsant.
The change from Dilantin to Tegretol did not relieve the olfactory hallucinations. Visual hallucinations of demonic faces also continued, unsurprisingly since Tegretol is not indicated as an anti-hallucinogen, and might even cause visual hallucinations. Anneliese did report in December that the Tegretol improved her mood, so she could enjoy some activities.
Anneliese continued to take Tegretol for almost the entire remainder of her life, renewing her prescription as late as March 1976. During these final three years, her psychological condition repeatedly improved and worsened, though she suffered no more seizures. These facts seem to indicate that her psychological condition was to some extent independent of epileptic symptoms, contrary to the judgment of Dr. Schleip.
In this final, critical period, Anneliese was a legal adult, and mentally competent most of the time, as proved by her academic activities. She emphatically refused to pursue the route of strong antipsychotic medication, as she found that even relatively mild drugs made her lethargic and incapable of studying. Her fears were well founded, as the commonly prescribed antipsychotic medications of the time had sedative efects. The low-potency antipsychotic thorazine would be dangerous in epileptic patients, since it could induce seizures. A more likely prescription would have been the high-potency haloperidol, which is known to impair learning. Like most psychiatric medications of the time, these were blunt instruments that only softened the symptoms by dulling the mind without curing the underlying cause.
In the last two months of her life in Klingenberg, Anneliese stopped taking her medication, as she generally refused to ingest anything. Withdrawal from Tegretol can cause numbness, shakiness and fatigue, but this typically lasts only for a few days. Anneliese’s physical deterioration was likely unrelated to her stopping medication, and had much more to do with her malnourishment and compulsive exertions.
While stopping Tegretol may have made Anneliese vulnerable to seizures, there is no firm evidence that she suffered any seizure in her final months. Her periods of immobility, as well as her repetitive and violent motions appear to have been the result of psychological compulsions rather than neural paralysis. Though she had many lucid periods during which she could have reported a seizure, there is no witness who says she did so.
While Anneliese’s compulsive behaviors certainly contributed to her death, Tegretol had been ineffective in suppressing such behaviors. It was successful only in preventing the recurrence of seizures. It produced a short-term improvement in Anneliese’s mood, but her serious depression returned a year later (1975). At no point did it successfully suppress her visual or olfactory hallucinations. Regardless of whether Anneliese’s malady was psychological, spiritual or preternatural, it is not credible that remaining on Tegretol would have made a critical difference to her outcome.
It is unlikely that religious suggestion played a prominent role in the origins of Anneliese’s condition, though it may have helped shape the content of her experiences. The Michels were not predisposed to believe in demonic possession, and indeed were generally ignorant of the subject. In 1973, Anneliese assumed that her visions had a psychological explanation, and it is only after drugs had failed and Dr. Lüthy disregarded her experience that she sought the counsel of a priest.
The priests did not presume Anneliese was possessed. Fr. Habiger recommended she see a physician, while Fr. Herrmann said she should see a neurologist, before learning she had already done so. Fr. Alt, more predisposed to believe in the paranormal, nonetheless thought Anneliese showed no signs of possession (though he admitted knowing little of the subject), and Anneliese herself never used the term ‘possession.’
Anneliese continued to see doctors into 1974, seeing less of Fr. Alt, who advised her to continue seeking medical help. After further failed treatment by Dr. Schleip and the Freudian Dr. Lenner, she again sought Fr. Alt’s help in September. Fr. Alt, having much experience with the insane, perceived that Anneliese was not such, and she herself found she did not belong in a support group of neurotics. It is only at this point that he thought she might be suffering from circumsessio, a much milder condition than possession. Still, the bishop denied him permission to conduct an exorcism.
In the summer of 1975, Anneliese’s experiences took an overtly religious content, including aversion to the sacred and a foreign entity trying to convince her that she was damned. This was still before any exorcism had been conducted. Anneliese’s religious life had not entailed an overscrupulous fear of damnation, and she had always comfortably assumed her sins were forgiven in confession. Her uncanny ability to detect mental prayers and hidden sacred objects, and a powerful burning stench that came wherever she merely passed by were taken as signs of demonic affliction, finally convincing Josef Michel and Fr. Roth. Even her boyfriend Peter, who had not been a practicing Catholic, found that he was preternaturally pushed back by some unseen force.
At the petition of the Michels, Bishop Stangl finally granted permission for Fr. Alt to perform the short German form of the exorcism rite. It is only after this ritual that Anneliese began to show overtly “insane” demoniac behavior. When the expert Fr. Rodewyk visited, she manifested the Judas personality, persuading him she was possessed. On the basis of these reports, Bishop Stangl authorized the full rite (Sept. 1975), to be conducted by Fr. Renz.
During this period, Anneliese remained highly intelligent and lucid outside of her demonic episodes, and completed a demanding curriculum requiring high critical thinking. She was fully competent to request the rite of exorcism, and it was her right as a Catholic to receive it once she had met the requisite criteria.
While religious suggestion is extremely unlikely to have been the initial cause of her condition, the practice of the ritual may have encouraged the manifestation of additional demonic personalities. This is consistent with Catholic belief, since one of the functions of the rite is to summon forth whatever demons may be present, so they may be identified and ordered to depart. Regardless of whether these other personages are preternatural in origin, the long history of successful exorcisms indicates that such confrontation is an effective approach.
The exorcisms seemed to proceed successfully over two months, culminating in the expulsion of all demons on October 31. Disturbingly, however, one hitherto silent demon remained, and days later the others claimed to have returned, contrary to past assurances. From this point onward, this ceased to be a typical exorcism case.
The demons were now more subdued personalities, barely interested in the rite of exorcism. Felicitas Goodman suggests that Tegretol (which was re-prescribed on the morning of October 31) may have caused this development. In this view, pharmacological treatment was acting at cross-purposes with ritual treatment. Exorcism, ironically, requires the participation of the demons. A drug that generally dulls and subdues the mind might impede the manifestation of any strong personality, whatever its origin. This hypothesis, while interesting, is insufficiently supported by known side effects of Tegretol.
In the final two months at Klingenberg (May-June 1976), Fr. Renz was consistently unsuccessful in getting demonic personages to speak intelligibly. Instead, Anneliese made unnaturally mechanical vocalizations, and again exhibited energetic violent behavior, as she was no longer taking Tegretol, likely due to her refusal of food. She still had lucid periods even in her final days, in which she expressed her refusal to seek psychiatric treatment (understandable in the 1970s). Her last words to Fr. Renz, requesting the absolution part of the rite, indicates that she still understood the rite and desired it.
It is unprecedented that anyone should die from exorcism, though the rite has been performed in diverse modern circumstances thousands of times. Often, it is done without ecclesiastical permission or due precaution to rule out neurological and psychological ailments, yet still no one is killed from it. This should not be surprising, since the rite of exorcism makes little demand on the subject. It is largely a series of prayers recited by the priest and those accompanying him. No physical action is required of the subject, not even genuflection. At various points, the demons are interrogated, taunted with their weakness before God and their utter defeat, and commanded to depart. Modern psychiatry may disapprove of this approach, for confirming the “delusions” of a patient, and for creating needless agitation, but no sober assessment of the track record of exorcism can find it dangerous or deadly.
Even if exorcism as such is extremely unlikely to have killed Anneliese Michel, it might be held to have done so indirectly. By insisting on a purely ritual treatment of Anneliese’s condition, medical attention was thereby excluded, and it is this exclusion that caused her death. This, however, reduces to a question of the right to refuse medical treatment, which exists with or without the presence of religious ritual.
Anneliese’s refusal to see a doctor was based on her fear of psychiatric institutionalization, a fear that could reasonably exist even among the non-religious. She would have had no cause for such fear if she lived in a society where doctors had at least a healthy respect for paranormal experiences, and did not insist on pathologizing them. One might just as well say that the irreligious materialism of doctors indirectly killed Anneliese.
The case of Anneliese Michel is intriguing precisely because it is not cut-and-dried. It is neither an obviously true nor an obviously false case of possession. While it has many elements of typical possession cases, there is also evidence of a pre-existing neurological condition. We find a strange interplay of neurological and pharmacological factors with the alternate personae, which Dr. Goodman explored in connnection with her own research into altered states of consciousness. The eerie parallels between Anneliese’s later mechanical vocalizations and those found in ritual trance states support her hypothesis that possession is a religious altered state of consciousness, i.e., another mode of awareness as distinct from our waking self as the dream state. Dr. Goodman is ambiguous as to whether such a state is naturalistic in origin, which is fitting considering the ambiguous facts of this case.
It should be noted that demonic activity, as classically understood, is not something magical or miraculous (i.e., supernatural), but preternatural, meaning that incorporeal spiritual agents act upon bodies within the natural order. No law of physics is thereby violated, any more than the activity of the free-willed human soul violates such laws by being an effective first cause initiating a chain of physical activity through the body. Since the preternatural agent acts upon the human soul, in this case disturbing and afflicting her, it is only reasonable that we should see this disturbance manifested as epilepsy, which is nothing more than the disturbance of mental activity, and hallucinations, which are nothing more than the apprehension of that which is not physically external, either the product of one’s own imagination or induced by another spirit.
From the above discussion, it should be clear that most materialist treatments of the Anneliese Michel case fail to comprehend the questions involved and the range of possible answers. Descriptive accounts of phenomena such as epilepsy and hallucination do not in themselves constitute proof of naturalistic origin. When the origin of these events is preternatural (not supernatural, as is commonly supposed), the physiological response should continue to follow the natural order. Demonically induced afflictions might respond to medical treatment, but since such remedy cannot address the cause of the affliction, this care is at best palliative, and the afflictions may resume as soon as it ceases. A demoniac may be chemically sedated into comfort like any other person, but this only suppresses the symptom rather than curing the ailment.
We have shown that the medical diagnoses do not exclude the possibility of demonic possession, but this is a far cry from demonstrating that possession actually occurred in this case. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, evidence is introduced in balanced points and counterpoints as to whether the girl’s behavior was necessarily the result of possession or simply a natural mental disorder. Much of the evidence presented on both sides is fictional, or borrowed from other possession cases.
In Anneliese Michel’s case, the evidence is somewhat less dramatic, though nonetheless chilling, as she spoke in a horrifying voice with dual vocalization and displaying alternate personalities, as well as consuming insects and wallowing in her own waste. This radical change in behavior went well beyond malingering, so if a naturalistic explanation is to be had, it must be that she was severely disordered against her will. Facile explanations that the priests and her own devotions provided the content of her behavior can only go so far, as this alone cannot account for personality change and behavior that ran utterly contrary to those beliefs, not to mention the fact that countless people exhibit similar devotion without any such effects. Still, it is possible that her religious views shaped the content of a disorder that would have existed anyway.
The possibility of a naturalistic explanation is strengthened by evidence in the Anneliese Michel case that contraindicates a genuine possession. This evidence comes in the form of the self-identified personalities of the supposed “demons,” among whom were Cain, Hitler, and Judas Iscariot. In popular folk religion, it is common to confuse the human souls of the damned with demons of pure spirit, but there is no theological or metaphysical basis for a belief that damned human souls should have the demonic capability to possess others. On account of this faulty theology, and considering the implausibility that these legendary evildoers should all possess the same girl, it seems that this naming of the “demons” came from a human intellect of limited theological sophistication rather than an actual demon, though it is conceivable that this was a deliberate demonic deception. We should also note that the Anneliese Michel case lacks many of the stronger proofs of preternatural activity, such as levitation or speaking in long-forgotten tongues, which have been reported in other cases of possession. The Emily Rose film’s narrative perspective makes the case ambiguous with regard to the preternatural origin of the girl’s experience, and in this respect it is a more or less accurate portrayal of the state of the evidence in the real case.
We do not necessarily have to choose an all-or-none explanation. There may be a place where madness and demoniac behavior intersect, and one begets the other. Even those inclined to say that there was some genuine possession might also admit there were elements of insanity. This latter claim is supported, for example, by the incessant compulsive repetition of prayer by Anneliese. After all, what demon would commmand this?
Much of the ambiguity is due to the undeveloped state of psychology as a science. To this day, the science is weak regarding the identification and treatment of mental diseases, apart from clear-cut neurological disorders. It is hard to define the boundary between nature and mysticism where scientific understanding is so vague.
A further difficulty is that scientific methodology is of limited utility for understanding minds with free will. Controlled experiments are good for understanding unintelligent natures, which always do the same thing under the same conditions. Intelligent beings need not be so cooperative. The scientific requirement of repeatability cannot be met by investigations into personal existences as such. For this reason, forensic rather than scientific approaches are more appropriate for case studies.
If we cannot confidently answer the question of the authenticity of possession (though those committed to philosophical materialism will dismiss the possibility a priori), we may still address the question of whether the parents and priests were negligent, since this depends on physical possibilities and the defendants’ states of mind, which are much more accessible to our understanding. There are several possible acts of negligence: (1) ending Anneliese’s psychiatric treatment; (2) conducting repeated rites of exorcism; (3) allowing Anneliese to reject food to the point of starvation. We will consider the defendants’ level of culpability for each of these acts, while keeping in mind that the subject, Anneliese Michel, was an adult.
By the laws of the time as well as current law in most Western countries, the parents acted well within their rights to end Anneliese’s psychiatric treatment. Anneliese was never committed to compulsory institutionalization, so all her treatment was voluntary. By the time of the first request for exorcism in 1973, she was already a legal adult, capable of making her own medical decisions. The suspension of treatment was not only a matter of legal right, but a highly rational decision, considering the treatment’s ineffectiveness. Anticonvulsant therapy did not consistently suppress the symptoms, much less did it address the underlying causes of the symptoms, which remained unknown. Faced with the “cure” of being sedated into a semi-stupor, Anneliese and her parents, like many rational people in similar situations, opted against treatment.
To regard such a refusal as criminal today would be to call for a return to empowering psychiatrists to commit relatively lucid adults to compulsory treatment. Drugs may have replaced lobotomies and electroshock therapies, but the intent of compulsory treatment is the same: to pacify the subject at the expense of her rational autonomy, regardless of whether the underlying condition is addressed. Indeed, psychology is still too crude a science to reliably identify the pathology of mental disorders. In a society that values human liberty so highly, it would be foolish to entrust a poorly developed science with the power to deny liberty to rational adult citizens.
There is no evidence that Anneliese lost her capacity to reason as an adult, so any negative effect of the exorcism could only be by persuasion or suggestion, not compulsion. There is no such thing as brainwashing in the sense of compelling belief. At any rate, Anneliese already had well developed religious views prior to the exorcism.
Church discipline does not call for constant repetition of the rite, though it may be performed several times after a period of recovery. Due attention should also be paid to the physical condition of the subject, and the advice of physicians should be sought regarding the subject’s medical condition. Such guidelines have been in place since at least the early twentieth century. Roughly fifty exorcism rites were conducted on Anneliese over nine months, of two to six hours in duration. This is an unusually high number, though the rites were shorter and less frequent in the final months. Perhaps the exorcist Fr. Renz should have realized something was wrong after the short-lived cure on October 31, 1975. Notwithstanding this imprudence, the subject was physically fit for the rites at least until March 9, 1976, her last definite physical examination. Her physical condition deteriorated in May due to refusal of food and self-inflicted bruises. This was witnessed by Dr. Roth on May 30 and reported by Fr. Renz to his bishop on June 2. The injuries had mostly healed by mid-June. During the final exorcism of June 30, she had a moderate fever and compulsively genuflected to the point of exhaustion. While it is easy to second-guess Fr. Renz’s decision to perform this rite, her fever was not serious enough to require a doctor, so it is highly questionable that this rises to the level of criminal negligence.
As noted previously, it is far from clear if the direct cause of Anneliese Michel’s death was starvation, further weakening the charge of negligence. Even if she really did die from her own refusal of food, it is strange for secular liberals to argue that this adult, who had many lucid periods, ought to have been force-fed. After all, this hardly comports with endorsement of “living will” suicides where a patient agrees to have a feeding tube removed, resulting in euthanasia by starvation. The only consistent feature of secular euthanasia ethics appears to be in opposing traditional Christian belief merely for the sake of opposition. Their regard for the will of the patient evaporates when that patient rejects their world-view.
The charge of inconsistency cuts both ways, of course, and it is hardly meet that traditional Catholic parents would allow their daughter to commit suicide by refusing food. The question as presented in The Exorcism of Emily Rose is how far should a family’s beliefs be respected in refusing medical treatment. We do not know if the Michels had any ethical objection to force-feeding. They did all they could to make Anneliese take food, so they did not accept her refusals with any sort of fatalistic religious resignation. All evidence suggests that they did not believe she was in imminent danger of starvation, a reasonable belief corroborated by the autopsy.
Electroconvulsive therapy, when properly applied, can be highly effective against depression and consequences such as refusing food. It is far from clear, however, that Anneliese’s much more complex condition would have been helped by such treatment, which would be at odds with her anticonvulsant treatments. At any rate, it is now generally recognized that shock therapy should require informed consent, which she had no intention of giving.
Charges of negligence ignore the fact that the real protagonist was not the parents or the priests, but the generally lucid, intelligent Anneliese herself, who refused to see a physician precisely because she did not want her demoniac condition revealed, resulting in being forcibly committed. It is precisely because psychiatry failed her first that she was willing to turn to exorcism. The guilty verdict by the German court excused secular experts from turning a sharp eye at their own shortcomings. Lack of respect for non-materialist worldviews and failure to recognize the conceptual insularity of psychiatric diagnoses and treatments are at least indirect causes of the death of Anneliese Michel. Treating the human being as a bag of chemicals or an electrical circuit to be repaired fails as a psychology, as it does not even perceive the human, much less explain it.
See also: Vitalism and Psychology | Passion of the Christ
© 2017 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org
[*] Unpublished drafts: 2007-2009, 2011, 2014.