True or False Possession?


In the not too distant past, unexplained and sudden afflictions were usually attributed to demonic possession. Some of these instances were legitimate possessions. Other individuals were misdiagnosed, as they were actually suffering from a mental illness. As our knowledge in the fields of psychology and psychiatry has increased, we are now able to better assess afflicted people. With co-participation from doctors and exorcists, we can better determine if a person is suffering from a true possession or a mental illness. The book True or False Possession? addresses just these circumstances.

True or False Possession? was written by Dr. Jean Lhermitte and published in 1956. Sophia Institute Press has made it available again with some editing by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, who also co-wrote The Catholic Guide to Depression. In this short but deep book, Dr. Lhermitte seeks to differentiate for the reader true demonic possession from actual mental illness. He does this by providing definitions and symptoms of mental illnesses that are often confused with possession, such as epilepsy or conversion disorder, and he provides numerous examples of people afflicted with these diseases, like Sibylle and Sr. Jeanne of the Angels.

The case study of Marie-Therese Noblet is equal parts fascinating and gruesome.  In her condition, she endured multiple illnesses with rapid cures throughout her early life. She also claimed multiple attacks by a demon, which cruelly beat her and dragged her into Hell to witness the sight of the damned. Other times, there were multiple demons attacking her which took the forms of different animals. As St. John of the Cross stated, “The devil is far less to be feared in so-called external manifestations than in the underground influence he exerts in souls that are not sufficiently instructed or well tempered.” She underwent multiple exorcisms to rescue her from the power of the “evil spirit.” However, Dr. Lhermitte commented that “the exorcist never suspected that such practices only aggravated the passions of the so-called ‘possessed’ person. This case study is used to bring to light the difficulty distinguishing between true possession and mental illness.

This book is more than interesting stories of possession and illness though. Instead, Dr. Lhermitte has a twofold purpose of instruction and cooperation. First, he wants to instruct Catholic doctors and clergy in identifying the difference between genuine demonic possession and mental illness. He does this by detailing the criteria the Church holds for demonic possession. Secondly, he wants to encourage cooperation between doctors and clergy so that the proper healing process can begin. This means that a priest won’t attempt an exorcism on someone who has mental illness, and a doctor won’t prescribe medicine to someone who is possessed. Both of these tasks are accomplished brilliantly.

Despite being nearly sixty years old, this book has stood the test of time and still proves to be relevant today. As someone with a degree in psychology, I personally found it to be full of wisdom and depth. It opened my eyes to a subject which secular psychology programs never acknowledge, let alone study. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of all Catholic clergy and doctors. Additionally, anyone with an interest in demonic possession would find this book an edifying and worthwhile read.


Stuart Dunn is a native of Mobile, AL. He is a husband, father, convert, catechist, bookworm, and blogger. At his blog, Stuart’s Study, you will find him reviewing Catholic products of all types, but mainly books. He is a graduate of the University of South Alabama with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a Master’s in Business Administration.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage