Is Mental Illness Related to Demonic Possession?

“In the late 1980s, I was introduced to a self-styled Satanic high priestess. She called herself a witch and dressed the part… I’m a man of science and a lover of history; I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether this woman was suffering from a mental disorder… I concluded that she was possessed.” R. Gallagher Washington Post

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key



Excerpt: I diagnose mental illness…I help spot demonic possession. By Richard Gallagher, Washington Post

“This was at the height of the national panic about Satanism. (In a case that helped induce the hysteria, Virginia McMartin and others had recently been charged with alleged Satanic ritual abuse at a Los Angeles preschool; the charges were later dropped.) So I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died.



Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. The priest who had asked for my opinion of this bizarre case was the most experienced exorcist in the country at the time, an erudite and sensible man. I had told him that, even as a practicing Catholic, I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus-pocus. Well, he replied, unless we thought you were not easily fooled, we would hardly have wanted you to assist us. As I see it, the evidence for possession is like the evidence for George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. In both cases, written historical accounts with numerous sound witnesses testify to their accuracy. In the end, however, it was not an academic or dogmatic view that propelled me into this line of work. I was asked to consult about people in pain.”

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ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

Pre-reading Organizer By Scholastic

Pre-reading Organizer By Scholastic


Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Satanic rituals helped induce hysteria.
  2. I was inclined to skepticism.
  3. Some people  had weaknesses such as undue pride.
  4. Six people later vouched they heard her speaking multiple languages.
  5. Many people knew about her exorcisms.
  6. I concluded that she was possessed.
  7. This was not psychosis.
  8. This was a bizarre case.
  9. I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus-pocus.
  10. The priest who had asked for my opinion.

Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following paragraphs taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

So began an___ partnership. For the___ two-and-a-half decades and over several___consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to ___episodes of mental illness — which ___the ___majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an ___role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two ___of my career in conflict.

WORD LIST: past, overwhelming, unlikely, unlikely, hundred, aspects, represent, filter,

 Grammar Focus

Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

Unfortunately, not all clergy/clearly involved in this complex/campus field are as cautious as the price/priest who first approached me. In some circles, there is a tendency/tender to become overly preoccupied with putative demon/demonic explanations and to see the devil everywhere. Fundamentalist misdiagnoses and absurd/absolve or even dangerous treatments, such as beating/beaten victims, have sometimes occurred, especially in developing countries.

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Ask/Answer  Questions

Directions: Place students in groups and have each group list 3  questions they would like to pursue in relation to  the article. Have groups exchange questions. Each group tries to answer the questions listed. All responses are shared as a class.

Extra: Web Search

Directions: In groups/partners have students  search the web  to see what additional information they can find. Students can either have further discussions or write an essay about the subject.

Additional Reading: Six Centuries of Madness: An Asylum’s History, by Patrick McGrath, The New York Times


Category: Social Issues