Evil Incarnate – Rumours of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History
By David Frankfurter
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by Nicholas Opyrchal
This year I thoroughly enjoyed the response I got after asking one of my relatives for the impressively titled ‘Evil incarnate – Rumours of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History’ for a birthday present. The shock of my poor relative perhaps testimonies toward the taboo nature of the material of the book, and if ever there was a ‘tainted’ subject for a psychotherapist to get their teeth into, it is this one. Flaming letters adorn the cover – spelling the word EVIL in a way which made the book itself appear as lurid as some of it’s subject matter; the study of how society has conceived of the question of evil in overarching grand narratives, especially involving demons, satanism and witchcraft and the effect this has had on these societies. The book is of interest as it focuses especially on psychotherapeutic and spiritual communities.
As Frankfurter is a historian, this is more of a history book than a psychotherapy manual; however the writer employs the tools of psychoanalysis to look at his topic (drawing on Klein, Freud and others). As well as this he draws on philosophers who have dealt explicitly with the question of ‘evil’ and society, such as Georges Bataille. In my current studies into how our society approaches the question of ‘otherness’ and how this is reflected in and by psychotherapy, I found this book contained some great material, relevant to the social context that I find myself in whilst practising as a psychotherapist, and especially a transpersonal psychotherapist – perhaps the modality of therapy that is most vulnerable to social influences from the more historically destructive side of spiritual traditions, as well as the more positive and liberating.
The author uses meticulous historical research into documents regarding demonology, witchcraft in the middle ages and (more relevantly to our profession) the ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980’s to demonstrate that the psychodynamics of approaching evil are little changed since the medieval period.
The book begins by exploring how incidents of mass hysteria around evil have mutated from the earliest Sumerian demonologies into their most current manifestations in the 80s and 90s as therapist-led ‘Satanic Panics’. Especially the book studies how these seemingly disparate cultural backdrops have produced theories of evil which have emerged in very similar ways throughout the years. Frankfurter theorises about cultures creating the myth of networks of supreme evil as means of understanding and categorizing ‘otherness’ – specifically, trying to attribute otherness (the uncanny, the unexpected) to a sort of transpersonal evil ‘not of this world’. The author uses meticulous historical research into documents regarding demonology, witchcraft and stereotypes of Judaism in the middle ages and (more relevantly to our profession) the ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980’s to demonstrate that the psychodynamics of approaching evil are little changed since the medieval period. It can be almost funny (despite the lurid material) reading early Roman descriptions of the practices attributed to Christians next to current descriptions of Satanic cults and seeing almost identical themes.
The authors view is that the earliest demonologies were means of explaining and categorising the unexpected. Rather than having unexpected events emerge as context-specific and individual instances of good luck or bad luck, there were attempts to attribute them to a hierarchy of supernatural forces which ordered our universe, in an unseen inverse mirror world of our own. The author demonstrates the way in which this hypothesised world of inversion still shapes our moral panics to this day, and how it allows a sort of voyeuristic secondary enjoyment of Fruedian primary process – a sort of ‘pornography of evil’ for those who maintain a very split position – naming in the book religious fundamentalists and (controversially perhaps) also radical feminists looking for an abusive patriarchal-incestual underworld.
psychotherapists who were associated with evangelical and baptist Christianity in the U.S.A. found a great ideological ally in the diagnosis of DID or disassociative identity disorder (we all know the popular name ‘multiple personality disorder’)
The second part of the book is also very interesting in terms of it’s relevance to psychotherapy as a practice, especially in the US and UK. There is a focus on the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s, which the author names as his main inspiration for writing the book in the first place. This was a period in which psychotherapists who were associated with evangelical and baptist Christianity in the U.S.A. found a great ideological ally in the diagnosis of DID or disassociative identity disorder (we all know the popular name ‘multiple personality disorder’). Suddenly, modern western psychiatric medicine had a diagnostic category which could fit exactly with the concepts of Christian demonology. The author shows convincingly (without being overly polemical, but by following historical evidence) that psychotherapists who were elevated to a position of being ‘experts in evil’ and who had pre-moulded belief systems around grand narratives of hidden evil often produced material from young children which defied belief to a level approaching parody. A memorable piece of testimony (actually considered a ‘recovered memory’ by one of the therapists involved) involved a child remembering at the coaxing of their psychotherapist that they had sex with a giraffe and other beasts of the African plains in the basement of a school. Amazingly, this was considered as evidence enough to produce arrests and destroy the lives of teachers and parents, as well as children. The total lack of any evidence of substance, as well as absence of any convictions in any of the cases emerging from the 80’s is also highlighted by the book. This is all done in a way which is historical and non-rhetorical, which makes it more academically convincing, yet sometimes a slightly dry read considering the subject.
the evidence produced by psychotherapists in the ‘panic’ was analogous with the extraction of witch confessions under torture and duress.
The author draws parallels between the psychotherapist of the 80s and the ‘witchfinder’ or ‘demonologist’ of previous moral panics and shows how the evidence produced by psychotherapists in the ‘panic’ was analogous with the extraction of witch confessions under torture and duress. Not only does the book explore the psychotherapist/witchfinder position as ‘expert in evil’ but also looks at the inverse position. This is the position of the participant in evil – the witch who gives a confession, the child who is coaxed into talking about giraffe sex, the demon possessed subject being exorcised. The position is taken that there is a sort of empowering social drama between expert and client which is working in a dance of transference and countertransference. This does not mean that the performances are ‘fake’, but instead that they are attempts to buy into a pre-packaged ideology of evil and find a place in this imposed narrative.
As a psychotherapist who has worked with clients with DID, I recognize that there are affects of splitting and dissociation as a result of trauma. What is most interesting in this book is seeing how these can essentially be hijacked and proliferated as a tool of a religious and social ideology rather than a category that can help to orientate treatment. I have also worked with clients who have suffered from organised paedophilic abuse – these are very real and horrific incidents and the book does not attempt to dismiss these experiences. What it does instead is that it tries to look at the jump that some make from these incidents to overarching narratives of networks of supernatural, organized evil. There are still psychotherapeutic training organizations which talk about ‘satanic’ abuse networks without looking at the psychodynamic needs that we fulfil as a culture by believing in this, and so this book seems relevant to our profession. The book points out that of course there have been individuals that have adopted the trappings of satanism in carrying out their crimes, this is not in dispute. However the target of the book is the idea that has been proliferated of a giant, intergenerational satanic network, a transpersonal evil – and the violent attempts to destroy this illusory shadow which led to the destruction of the lives of individuals and communities in evangelical, vengeful fury.