The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D Goodman

exorcism of AM cvr

In Guy Lyon Playfair’s Enfield poltergeist investigation, This House is Haunted, Playfair reports: ‘I was reluctant to get involved with exorcists, as were both Maurice Grosse and Mrs Harper [i.e. Mrs Hodgson], especially in view of the dreadful Michel case in Germany…’ (1980, pp. 234-5).*  What was this German case that decided the three of them they did not want to entertain exorcists at 284 Green Street?

Anneliese Michel was born on 21 September 1952 in Leiblfing, Bavaria, part of the Federal Republic of Germany.  Her family was devoutly Catholic and Anneliese shared their religious beliefs.  Her health was poor and she had a number of blackouts and seizures in her teenage years.  She spent some time as an in-patient at a tuberculosis sanatorium, and although she had ambitions to become a teacher, her health issues disrupted her studies.  She was prescribed anti-convulsion and anti-psychosis drugs but began to experience hallucinations which had demonic overtones.  Suffering depression and with the doctors she consulted unable to provide relief, she began to see her symptoms as an expression of demonic interference.  These included the development of an episodic intolerance towards religious places and symbols.

Her family and close friends agreed with her and approached the Church for exorcism.  There was initial reluctance because of the difficulty in disentangling psychological issues from demonic possession.  However, Anneliese’s behaviour deteriorated until eventually the local bishop authorised an exorcism.  Her symptoms took a variety of forms that escalated in severity, such as difficulty walking and complaints of horrible visions, ‘fratzen’, and the hearing of voices.  There was often a burning smell in her vicinity.  Demons allegedly spoke through her in guttural voices, captured on tape.  Yet she was able to carry out automatic writing, channelling Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  They as well as saints occasionally visited her for encouragement in her travails.  One of these was Padre Pio, and Anneliese herself on occasion showed stigmata.

Sixty-seven exorcism sessions took place in secrecy over a period of some ten months in 1975 and 1976, during which time Anneliese did not seek medical assistance. A number of demons and entities were identified, Judas Iscariot and Hitler among them, but their expulsion was protracted and took an enormous toll on her physically, exacerbated by a reluctance to eat.  She died on 1 July 1976, aged 23, from malnutrition and dehydration.  By then she weighed only 4st. 12lbs. (about 31kg).

Her parents and the two priests directly involved in the exorcism were charged with negligent homicide and put on trial in March 1978.  Naturally there was intense debate over whether Anneliese’s condition was psychological or caused by demons.  As a rather gruesome sequel to Anneliese’s death, her body was exhumed just before the trial, ostensibly to provide a more expensive coffin than the cheap one she had originally been quickly buried in, but in reality because her parents thought that her body might be incorrupt, which would bolster the theological over the medical interpretation of her affliction, which was that she had been suffering mental illness.  The effort failed, Anneliese’s body having deteriorated as one would have expected.  The defendants were found guilty and each given six months’ imprisonment suspended for three years, plus costs (to its credit the prosecution had not sought punishment for Anneliese’s parents beyond a guilty verdict on the grounds that they had suffered enough).

It is not surprising that the Mrs Hodgson, Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair were reluctant to allow an exorcism at Enfield given that Anneliese Michel died as a result of hers, even though it would hardly have been as rigorous.  All that they would have known about the matter would have been what they gleaned from the trial, covered by British newspapers in lurid detail; thus the Daily Mirror of 31 March 1978 stated: ‘Anneliese had epilepsy … but two Catholic priests decided she was possessed by devils’ [ellipsis in original], and further on Father Alt, one of the two priests on trial, failed to help his case by arguing: ‘You can’t get an injection against the Devil.’

Felicitas D Goodman (1914-2005), a linguist and anthropologist, examined the case in depth in her 1981 book, using the tapes recorded by the priests during the sessions and interviewing them, Annelies’s boyfriend and her youngest sister.  As that access suggests, she is sympathetic towards the family and clergy and gives them an easy ride.  By contrast she is highly critical of the medical profession and their reliance on the prescription of medication for Anneliese, much of which may not have been necessary, and the pre-trial medical assessments that claimed one of the priests to have calcification of the brain, the other a mental illness.  She decries the verdict of the court because it accepted the expert medical opinions it had considered as having the status of fact rather than conjecture full of inferences which condemned the priests’ actions.

The family and the priests in her view were justified in not seeking medical attention, on the grounds that Anneliese would have refused the ‘brutal interference’ of medical intervention to save her life against her will, even though at the end she was in no position to make a rational decision.  Goodman concludes that the priests and parents ‘were sentenced because they allegedly had been responsible for the sick girl and had not provided medical help for her.’  It is difficult to see why that ‘allegedly’ is there.  Goodman sees Anneliese’s situation as one of self-determination which she chose to exercise even though it led to her death.  One wonders if Goodman would have had the same attitude towards anorexics who refused help.

Goodman makes a great deal of a doctor to whom Anneliese and her mother turned for help saying that she should consult a Jesuit, the implication being that even he thought there was substance to the claim that Anneliese was affected by demons.  The doctor denied making this statement, but it is easy to see how it could have occurred, someone medically trained seeing a neurotic girl with psychological problems for whom drugs were ineffective trying to tell the family that the trouble was in her head and the Church could offer more appropriate therapy for a believer.  That Anneliese may have been acting up is suggested by the language the demons are supposed to have used.  Even allowing for some censorship on Goodman’s part this seems to have been fairly mild:  ‘you damned dirty sow’ crops up a lot, suggesting either a lack of imagination on the part of the demons or a limited vocabulary of dirty words on the part of a young woman with relatively little experience of the world.

The Michels were close knit and while Anneliese’s father comes across as someone who wanted to help his daughter, Goodman does not delve into the family dynamics in any detail.  There could have been an abuse element at work, but the price for her insider privileges would have been to soft-peddle any suspicions that there was anything untoward in the home.  What is perhaps clearer is that Anneliese appears to have been a family girl, and the expectation that she would make a career may have been daunting to her.  Much of her ill health could have been a way of avoiding adult responsibilities, putting her fate in the hands of a higher power and ceding control so that she no longer had to make decisions.  If so, eventually her acting a role got out of hand, trapping her in it because a confession would have been even worse than carrying on.  Towards the end of her life she repeatedly said that the matter would resolve itself in July.  It did when she died at the beginning of the month, but it is possible she was setting the scene for the final and complete expulsion of the ‘demons’ and return to health, but her body failed her before that could happen.

Ultimately, on Goodman’s own evidence, it would seem that Anneliese was let down by all around her.  Her doctors gave up on her as intractable; her parents wanted to protect her but put their faith ahead of her welfare by not seeking medical attention when it became obvious that Anneliese herself was not in a position to make a sound judgement about her welfare; the priests’ obsession with the case as one of possession blinded them to the psychological aspect and caused them to ignore her physical deterioration.  Goodman notes that the court Opinion said that by May 1976 she had lost the capacity to make a balanced determination of what was in her best interest, and that if she had been taken to a clinic she would have survived.  If that was the case, and it seems likely it was, then at that point the decision should have been taken out of her hands.  Unfortunately for her, devout Catholicism in those around her tipped into a pathological desire to purge her of demons that completely ignored her increasing frailty.  Also, it is worth bearing in mind that in her diary Anneliese wrote on 20 October 1975 that Jesus had told her ‘You will become a great saint.’  Her family might have looked on her ordeal as having a higher purpose with which it would be sacrilegious to interfere.

Despite its bias, Goodman’s book is a sound account of Anneliese Michel’s short life and death, particularly on the trial and the characters of the priests.  It is less thorough on the family, understandable given the short time since the death and its aftermath when events were still raw, and the terms on which it was written.  She does go astray in a convoluted and unconvincing final section in which she tries to side-step the matter of Church complicity in Anneliese’s death by characterising her condition as a ‘religious altered state of consciousness’.  This is apparently generated by an extremely sensitive nervous system that allows access to a different level of reality, one as equally valid as the everyday world.

Further, a characteristic of this altered state is the generation of a religious trance, centring on performance, and exorcism extends this performative aspect for both focus and witnesses.  Possession is a form of theatre in which the ‘possessed’ individual is the centre of attention.  What Anneliese was experiencing was more in the nature of Shamanism than psychosis, but drugs were inappropriate as a means to cure her.  In fact they were worse than useless because they interfered with the exorcism’s rituals, which would have, if successful, rewired her brain by blocking pathways to her ‘pain centre’, which had become the default in her disease, and reinforcing those to her ‘pleasure centre’.

In that sense the exorcism has to be seen as a placebo that, employed alone, would have alleviated her symptoms and effected a cure.  This was an insight that perhaps the doctor who suggested the Jesuits might be able to help more than drugs could had had (Goodman bemoans the lack of an understanding of Anneliese’s Roman Catholic culture by the psychiatrists who saw her, believing that having one with such insight would possibly have led to a different medical diagnosis, but perhaps that doctor at least had more of an understanding than she realised).

In the final analysis, Goodman indicates the strong possibility that what killed Anneliese was not the negligence of those caring for her, but the extended consumption of Tegretol, a powerful drug with unpleasant side-effects unnecessarily taken in order to control seizures which had stopped before she was prescribed it, and not monitored as it should have been.  In this scenario the priests and parents were unjustly blamed, and those in the dock should have been negligent doctors.  It could be argued to the contrary that Anneliese’s problem was not a sensitive nervous system and an altered state of consciousness, it was religion itself.

 

*It is worth bearing in mind Peggy Hodgson’s reluctance to have anything to do with exorcism when watching the interviews that Janet and Margaret gave to help promote The Conjuring 2In one, Janet says in part:

‘When Ed and Lorraine come to the house, to me it felt like some sort of comfort derived for the first time in the respect that they come to try and help us.  It didn’t feel like that with anyone else visited, they just seemed to visit to see what was going on and to witness something that was happening.  But Ed and Lorraine, you felt warm and comforted that they were there to try find out what it was and how they could help you.’

This is astonishingly dismissive of Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair, who arrived at the house much earlier, spent far longer with the Hodgsons, and gave more substantial support to them than the Warrens did.  It is understandable that Janet and Margaret would want to exaggerate the Warrens’ involvement if they had a financial stake in the film (and it is good to see that they have finally made something from the story when others have profited greatly from it), but as children they would have had little say in what went on, and their mother was adamant that she did not want an exorcism.  That included involving individuals who were sanctioned by Church authorities, so it is hard to see why Mrs Hodgson would agree to do-it-yourself exorcists like the Warrens conducting one.  The Conjuring 2 falsifies history in the most basic way, and it is a shame to see Janet and Margaret complicit in its bogus assertion that the Warrens were more than the casual visitors they actually were.

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