Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Possession, Safety, Law, Mental Illness and Mass Murder: More on the Spirituality of Spree Killing

Kudos are in order to Elizabeth Vongvisith and Del Tashlin for writing excellent blog entries which inspired me to finish this one.  Before parenthood intervened, I wanted to respond to a (now weeks-old) Wild Hunt post on James Holmes and the "demonic possession" narrative wherein Jason Pitzl-Waters stated:
The truth has always been that humanity needs no external spiritual help to do gross and inhumane things to one another, for reasons that can seem as opaque as this current case. We should collective reject any attempt to place a demonic possession narrative, especially a Catholic possession narrative, on these killings and instead focus on practical prevention and using our faith(s) to comfort those affected. Anything else is cynical, self-serving, and unneeded.
Jason rightly castigates the Catholic exorcist for his facile treatment of the issue.  Explaining away atrocity with a pat "the devil made him do it" is intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying: using atrocity to poke jabs at Harry Potter and Tarot cards is just gauche.  But I wonder if we might use possession not as a conversation-stopper but as a topic for further discussion and exploration.

I should note that I am not making any kind of pronouncements on James Holmes' mental or spiritual state.  As my wife Kathy Latzoni (Mambo Zetwal Kleye) pointed out, diagnosing possession on the internet is like trying to diagnose schizophrenia based on a few newspaper articles.   I have not been hired as a spiritual counselor by the prosecution or the defense and I have no way of knowing what spiritual forces, if any, drove Holmes to his terrible act.

But as one of the two people who wrote the book (OK, a book) on possession,  and as a hard polytheist who believes that the spirit world is a diverse and densely populated place, I cannot dismiss the possibility of violent possession out of hand. There is certainly precedent in folkloric and scholarly sources. The Malay "running amok" comes to mind immediately: two mediums and a spirit named Lakwena have instigated decades of bloody, brutal and ongoing civil war in Uganda. If we are open to the idea that spirits can give us good and useful advice we should also consider the possibility that they can lead us into madness, perversity and even murder.

Possession would not exonerate Holmes from the consequences of his actions. Alcoholics have a harder time saying "no" to a drink than someone with ethanol-tolerant genetics. But their disease does not provide a Get Out of Jail Free card when they get into drunken fights or get pulled over for driving under the influence. As Del (who, like yrs. truly, has first-hand experience both with possession and mental illness) says on his blog:
In fact, I take is as a moral imperative that I never excuse behavior that my body does, or words that my mouth utters, by passing the blame onto the Deity in question, even if that’s really what happened. I feel strongly that I am the gatekeeper here – I gave the Deity in question permission to use my body, I am the one who negotiated limits and boundaries, and if the Deity does something hurtful, or even worse, illegal, while wearing my skin, it’s ultimately me who has to pay the piper. I mean, would you actually consider telling a police officer, “Sorry I was running naked with a knife dripping in blood, but it wasn’t me, Sir. It was Kali Ma, who had possessed my body”? I didn’t think so.
The vast majority of possession experiences require planning and an ongoing relationship with the spirit who hopes to ride the horse. Even most cases of "involuntary" possession begin with someone opening a door -- using a Ouija board,  moving into a haunted house, etc. -- and then engaging with what they find on the other side. The spirits may use lies, promises and even threats to gain further access to the individual, but the individual must grant them that access.  (There are occasional truly involuntary possessions, but they tend to occur as mass movements.  The Klikushestvo  or "Shriekers" of imperial Russia and the Tarantella Pizzica of southern Italy are examples of this sort of mass hysteria.  Even here an academic might point out how these arose out of intense social pressures and fractures: a spirit-worker might note that people who are worn down by outside events are just as vulnerable to spirit infestation as to bacterial contagion).

African traditional religions take pains to purify the area before a ceremony and spend a great deal of time and energy on cleansing spaces and people. This is because they recognize the spirit world has some dark and dangerous corners. They understand that there are entities out there which do not have our best interests at heart: they work not for the highest and greatest good but for their own ends.  Not infrequently those ends involve wreaking havoc in the lives of those on this side of the veil.  And just as human sex predators and con artists prey on the vulnerable, these predators are wont to prey on those whose psyches are already fractured.

There's a tendency among many to frame mental illness and spirit possession as either/or.  In practice the lines are rarely so clear-cut.  One well-known Shamanic death/rebirth experience involves treading on the Madness Road -- an intense ego-disintegration and psychic meltdown which resembles garden-variety schizophrenia.  Those who have come back from this path (like yrs. truly) generally come away from the experience with some scars: almost 20 years after my meltdown I still have to keep constant guard lest The Crazy slip in again.  Certain psychological disorders can cause a heightened sensitivity to the spirit world, although they also produce difficulties in distinguishing between signal and noise.  And just as there are mental illnesses which can mimic possession, one can easily write off someone who is spirit-infested as "mentally ill" -- especially when you don't believe in a spirit realm and think that all religious expressions are psychopathologies.

In the Aurora case, we have evidence that Holmes plotted this attack for months. This is not the act of an automaton spontaneously possessed by a devil. If there was spiritual involvement in this, it was a collaborative effort.  Holmes was either the driving force or, at best. a willing participant seduced by something which took advantage of a disaffected, angry loner.  He may very well have planned the entire atrocity on his own. As Jason pointed out, humans are capable of doing all kinds of shitty things to each other without anybody egging them on.  Even if there were spiritual entities involved the evidence at present suggests he was a willing participant in their conspiracy, not a helpless pawn driven to slaughter against his will.

Were we to consider possession or spiritual infestation in a courtroom setting, it's likely that we would apply some variant of the M'Naghten Rule. According to Queen v. M'Naghten (1843) an insanity defense applies if and only if
at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.
By that standard, and given the evidence to date, it appears again that Holmes would be held liable for his actions.  And given that no remotely competent defense lawyer would mount a "possessed by the Joker" defense in this case for any number of reasons, it's most unlikely that this line of reasoning will ever be anything but speculative.

Yet amidst all these speculations I would raise this important point: the spirit world can be a dangerous place.  Murderous entities may be more common than we think. Richard Ramirez and his allegiance to Satan, Kenneth Bianchi's multiple personalities, the "Ugly Spirit" that William S. Burroughs blamed for Joan Volmer's shooting -- there are many thought-provoking examples that might or might not involve the spirit world.  There are many more examples which appear in myths and legends from various cultures and eras.  The idea that the gods are entirely benevolent and the spirit world is a harmless place is of very recent vintage.  For most of human history we have greeted the other realms with caution and trepidation: we assumed that it contained wisdom which could strengthen us but also poisons which could corrupt us.

If we are going to work with advanced techniques like possession, it behooves us to acknowledge this danger. We need to understand the difference between aspecting and full-on trance possession. We also need to realize that when we open ourselves up to shadowing or aspecting we give the entity in question a toehold into our Being, one which a malevolent spirit can use to our detriment.  There are a reason for the various ritual protections we see in trance-possession cultures. When working with those practices, we make alterations and take short cuts at our own peril.  Your new spirit companion might not urge you to shoot up a crowded theater: it's likely smart enough to know that you wouldn't be amenable to such suggestions.  But that doesn't mean that it can't cause all sorts of other difficulties for you and those around you.