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Cohen, Peter, (2004), Bewitched, bedevilled, possessed, addicted. Dissecting historic constructions of suffering and exorcism. Presentation held at the London UKHR Conference, 4-5 March 2004. Amsterdam: CEDRO.
© Copyright 2004 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.


Bewitched, bedevilled, possessed, addicted

Dissecting historic constructions of suffering and exorcism

Peter Cohen

"Burning accused witches during the witch hunts may thus be compared to destroying confiscated whisky during Prohibition"
— Thomas Szasz.[1]

In this presentation I will expose you to a way of thinking that tries to work toward a completely different scientific understanding of a behaviour that is now lumped under one vague definition, addiction. In cases of 'addiction' to drugs and alcohol, the substance is seen as the cause of the behaviour we call addiction.

In my view this process of causality attribution, where the drug is causally linked to the behaviour, is a source of infinite problems, both scientific and social. So, in the centre of my presentation I will put the processes of causality finding.

My ultimate aim is to make a problem of our way of describing the behaviour we call addiction. I will offer an alternative description. I will try to create a definition that will make it possible to accept the behaviour we now call addiction and see it as a normal, although infrequent type of adaptation. Once we normalise the behaviour we no longer have to fear it, and organize massive and religious discriminations against this behaviour and its alleged cause, the drug. My aim is to describe this behaviour as if it were a type of dedication, such as dedication to playing chess by professional chess players. Looking at dedicated drug use lifestyles in such a way should enable us to bring these behaviours within the bandwidth of normal, accepted human behaviours.[2] Dedications are socially acceptable, possessions by a devil (or drug) are not.

The title of my presentation is Bewitched, bedevilled, possessed, addicted.  Dissecting historic constructions of suffering and exorcism. I have chosen this title to show that I consider the way in which we make drugs the cause of many types of drug taking behaviour is just as unfounded as making witches or devils responsible for illnesses or death, during the Middle Ages and far beyond.

Let me start with an example of a real case of witchcraft, which happened here in England as late as 1889, not far from London, in Salisbury, in the home of a labourer named Hewlett. Hewlett was a Methodist preacher as well, and prayer meetings were regularly held at his home.

 "The case of witchcraft concerns his daughter Lydia, nine years old, ailing for some time and attended to by Dr Kelland of Salisbury. According to Lydia, just before her condition became a lot worse she had caught a gypsy stealing onions from the neighbours' garden, and the gypsy threatened that she would suffer for it if she told anyone. This undoubtedly seriously frightened the young girl. It was not long after this that she entered into a semi-conscious state, and rapping noises began to occur in her room. Lydia's parents and many of their neighbours believed that the gypsy had bewitched their daughter".[3]

We see here that a serious form of suffering for which temporary science or medicine had no explanation, is attributed to a type of causality that can still be made valid for these cases in those days: witchcraft.

This is an example of a phenomenon that is taking place since time immemorial: causality attribution.

The type of causality attribution in this example makes use of supernatural powers that are assumed to reside in supernatural beings. Witches, ghosts, sometimes ancestors, are agents of immense power that can strike at almost any one. In cases of incomprehensible and unjust suffering, for which no plausible secular explanation is available, supernatural power takes the place of the secular. Also epidemic illnesses like the plague were long ascribed to the power of the devil, who yielded his power through human beings who had set themselves open to this power, who had wanted the devil to choose them. Only the discovery of bacteria ended this type of causality attribution.

In an article about Cape Nguni witchcraft, the South African social anthropologist Hammond-Tooke uses words that I can use here to explain why I am interested in witchcraft or sorcery in relation to our own history of stories around addiction. He claims that theories of witchcraft should be seen as "cognitive systems in their own right, as primitive attempts to explain reality". (Hammonnd-Tooke, 1974[4]) The ideas, or theories, represent according to him 'cosmologies' or perceived heuristic structures. They allow also an interpretation of being 'similar, in certain respects, to scientific theory building, in particular the elaboration of explanatory models'. Very important is Hammond-Tooke's use of the word heuristic, or 'cosmology'. What we see in these systems of explanation is that they can be applied to many phenomena, and that the type of causality attribution is similar for al these phenomena. Once cosmology allows for the intervention into human affairs of all sorts of supernatural powers, one could speak of a paradigm, a systematic method for looking for and finding explanations. In a sense, this paradigm acts like a scientific theory. Once the supernatural has been introduced and ways to recognise it designed, normal human intervention is out of the question and some sort of exorcist action will be needed to attack the supernatural. Normal human tools like knives or rat poison are suddenly inadequate. Supernatural explanation of suffering will make the sufferer into a very special victim, one who can be feared almost as much as the cause of the suffering itself. The victim more or less represents the evil agent.

I claim here that in our modern time, to begin in the mid 18th century, a new agent of evil workings onto mankind had been discovered, and that is alcohol.

Once drink had established its power over you, many similarities with being possessed by an evil spirit or devil became apparent. Unless some special force was applied to the one being possessed, no way could the victim liberate herself from the power of the evil agent. Alcohol was  an agent that could take all power out of its victim, a force very similar to witch or devil power. We should not forget that witch and devil power were still seen and recognised in the very days of 'the discovery' of addiction (Levine[5]). The alcohol addicted user was constructed as fully in the spell of drink, and the behaviour of the person under this spell was horrible. So liquor was at least as horrible as the devil who through the heretic or witch made urban populations die like flies under the Bubonic Plague. Actually, liquor was seen as a plague by itself. And just as society had always wanted to rid itself of witches, it wanted to rid itself of alcohol.

Similarly, in the same time as the development of the ideas about alcohol as an agent of possession, opium came to be seen as a similar agent, and consequently all sorts of drugs, coming from nature or coming out of man-made laboratories were placed in the same cosmology of causal attribution. All of these drugs were seen as to be able to act like the devil, that is, take your own autonomy away and make the user a mere slave to the forces of evil. The magic or diabolic force of drugs was invented in the 18th century and then quickly became part of our explanatory cosmology[6].

Convincing arguments for this line of causality reasoning - attributing phenomenal force to drink - was that it seemed quite clear that people were harming themselves during the drug using behaviour. Sometimes the harm is spectacular, as can be seen in cases where people will drink away their marriage, their incomes, their savings and even their respectability. From the point of view of the onlooker this is the best and most spectacular proof of the drug as a devil. People not possessed will stop this harmful behaviour; the ones who are do not have that 'choice'. Of course, if the positive sides of the behaviour that co-exist with the negative ones cannot even be imagined, onlookers cannot see them.

Another very important proof of the evil agent way of thinking about alcohol and drugs was found in subjective elements of the behaviour of heavy drug taking. The drug taker was not observed as a happy camper, no, to the contrary. The drug user seemed to be suffering, and the alleged qualities of the drug were constructed to be so strong that all the misery in the world was not strong enough to make the user stop. The images of suffering created no room or willingness to see, that drug or alcohol users did not necessarily suffer from the drug use. Instead they may have suffered because of their being made an outcast, or because of some underlying condition or pain that propelled the use of drugs, not the drug itself.  But, for the onlooker it must be the drug's 'supernatural' pleasure or some other characteristic that is so powerful that the normal stop signs no longer apply. No pain is strong enough to take the user away from the pleasure (or hold) of the drug.

These basic constructions established the drug as a direct and evil enemy. But, as in the example of the suffering child, our observational instruments of causality construction may have led us astray. In explaining the suffering of the child in our Salisbury example, purely human dynamics of fear and the ways in which it can be expressed could not yet play a role. In the example of the drug user, the sheer impossibility for the onlooker to identify with the behaviour of the drunk, or the intoxicated drug user instilled the need to invoke supernatural characteristics of the drug as an explanation of the behaviour of the drug user.

But what if we no longer see the behaviours with eyes of disbelief, but with eyes that attempt to see its reasons and its functionality? Severe forms of fear will make a child try to hide or express suffering created by often extreme and fully unrealistic fantasies of danger. Now that we know this, (we needed the onset of psychology, and probably Freud, to come this far) we no longer apply supernatural explanations involving witchcraft or voodoo to behaviour we have learned to see as expressions of severe infantile fears.

In the case of the drunk or the junkie, why not see the behaviour as expressing some pain, some desire, and even some sort of useful adaptation to conditions that remain a closed book or even unknown to most of us?

Continued drug consumption, beyond the point where other people have long quit, does not necessarily imply a supernatural power of the drug.  It can be an indication of how some people use the drug in learning to express and neutralize desires that not everybody has.

We could say that for particular people, once heavy drug and alcohol use has acquired an amount of usefulness, it will become a habit so closely related to the user's identity and modes of survival, that untimely or forced interventions to take that part of his identity away will meet all the opposition that threatening an essential acquired ritual unleashes.

In short, heavy drug use patterns are not expressions of supernatural drug power, but of normal human learning in which a drug may play a role.

The use of the word 'normal' is essential here. Once we see both the suffering and the dynamics behind it as normal human behaviour, investigating these behaviours with normal scientific tools becomes more probable. And this is indeed what is happening nowadays, very often with the fashionable tools of brain science. In a way, we are now able to normalise these behaviours, perceiving them as open to scientific inquiry, thereby lessening belief in the supernatural powers of the drug. I consider this a move forward, and the debate can now focus on what types of tools will enable us to understand the drug-taking behaviour better. In the last part of this presentation I will engage in this debate. The real debate is more complex than I will illustrate. The reason for extra complexity is that even in a modern scientific approach to puzzling phenomena like continued drug use in the face of adversity, we can still use types of supernatural explanations, but in a very secularised way.[7]

In a study about constructions of illness in a group of African cancer patients by Mitchell and Mitchell, they observe that 'traditional' or folkloristic' explanations of disease are not mutually exclusive with explanations that are called Western or 'scientific' (Mitchell and Mitchell, 1980)[8] In my view, many of the attempts to explain heavy patterns of drug use remain 'folkloristic' in the sense that they do not abandon elements of folklore in the perception of these behaviours. The result could be that brain science and the glittering splendour of MRI scan machines have to answer questions at the level of folklore. But, folklore in, folklore out.

Neurology and Learning Theory

Our present ways of looking at heavy patterns of drug and alcohol use almost always presuppose complete lack of sense of these patterns, nor any useful, positive outcome for the user. To illustrate this let me read to you the introduction of a recent article written by Nora Volkov, neurologist and head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington DC.

"Why do men and women who have developed addiction obsessively seek and use drugs, even after the drugs no longer produce pleasure? Why do individuals who are addicted to drugs persist in behaviour that damages their health and corrodes the quality of their lives?"[9]

Quite clearly we see here at least three assumptions that may be completely wrong and that may derive from folkloristic understanding of heavy drug use. The first assumption is that people take drugs because of the pleasure they yield. The second is that the user is highly interested in her health. The third is that the decision to continue drug use per definition 'corrodes' the quality of the users' lives. These assumptions are probably fitting within a traditional view on heavy drug use as incomprehensible and therefore sick.

From what we know about how people learn to initiate behaviour and then learn to maintain behaviour, a drug user who is seen as addicted by some, who has no pleasure in the use of the drug and is destroying her health, may in reality be doing something completely different.

First, the user may only have a very limited interest in the pleasure a drug may give in the psychotropic sense of the word. Just using the drug may have been learned as a highly valued ritual that proves to the user that she is able to cope.

Second, the feeling of coping may yield pleasure, long after tolerance makes feeling the drug itself only a faint possibility. Third, the ritual of taking the drug may have acquired a strong sense of self preservation, also if taking the drug damages other aspects of self preservation, like some elements of physical health. Fourth, taking the drug may rid the user of pain or anger that so fully destroys life, that all the disadvantages of the heavy use pattern are dwarfed by this riddance .[10]So, we can question the three assumptions that Volkov makes to legitimise the rest of her article, i.e. creating hypotheses about how the affected person (she says "addicted brain") stops being able to make sound decisions. For a particular drug user, now and here continuing to use could be a very sound decision. In other words, the object we would like to study - the heavy pattern drug user - is via the terms and perspectives we apply completely different for Volkov than for me.

Volkov is a neurologist who tries to find the riddle of staying 'addicted' in the properties of the brain, while people like me would not necessarily assume even that there is a problem. I would start finding out how many incentives and reinforcements are attached to the particular patterns of drug taking within a highly adapted and functional life style. I would see these patterns as signs of learned behaviours of mastering control and explain these by long careers of many layered learning and adaptation; Volkov and her look-alikes will see these behaviours per se as proof of loss of control, and explain these by finding brain disease and/or mental pathology.

In this Volkovian world where one can speak of "the addicted brain", the drug user is no longer a complex human being with a long history. The person has been reduced to the enslaved bearer of a deranged brain.

In my world of learned control, the user is a rational being trying to reach rational goals by means of techniques that are hard to grasp for people who use other types of control to reach the same rational goals; that is to feel they master their environment, get a sense of belonging and to cope. In my view, people we call 'addicted' do the same things that people do that we call 'not addicted'. The difference is their methods. It is like looking at homosexuals. They do the same things as heterosexuals, only their methods differ. To decide that they are ill, deviant, or self destructive is not science.

So, my pointing out that the word 'addicted' fits in a list of  words like possessed, bedevilled or bewitched, is an attempt to change our way of explaining heavy drug use as the agent of magic, and to show that even 'scientific' approaches to this behaviour may mask devils and ghosts, and create Cardinals, Inquisitors, and Heretics.[11]


[1] Thomas Szasz (1974), The myth of mental illness. Foundations of a theory of personal conduct. Revised edition. Perennial Library. P.186.

[2] This does not mean that all possible consequences of this behaviour should be accepted. The relation between acceptance of previously deviant behaviour and the acceptance of some social control by the former deviants will not be discussed here.

[3] Owen Davies (1999), Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951. Manchester University Press. P. 36.

[4] W.D. Hammond-Tooke (1982), The Cape Nguni witch familiar as a mediatory construct. In: Man, Vol 9, 1974, 128-36, as reprinted in Marwick,1982, 365-375.

[5]Harry Gene Levine (1978), The discovery of addiction: Changing conceptions of habitual drunkenness in America. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 39 No. 1, p. 143-174.

[6] Evans-Pritchard (1982), Magic is not simply an individual psychological process but is a traditional complex of ideas,beliefs and rites which are handed down from one generation to another. In: Marwick (1982), p. 23, from Sorcery and native opinion. Africa Vol 4, 1931, Vol 1 pp 23-28.

[7] As is observed by Max Marwick 'modern social changes tend to be accompanied by a progressive secularization of explanatory beliefs'. Max Marwick, Ed., Witchcraft & Sorcery. 2nd ed. Penguin 1982.

[8] Hilary F. Mitchell and J.Clyde Mitchell (1980), Social factors in the perception of the cause of disease. In: Numerical Techniques in Social Anthropology, 1980, pp 49-68, reprinted in Marwick, 1982, pp 401-421.

[9] Nora Volkov (2003), The addicted brain: why such poor decisions? NIDA Notes Volume 18, 4 pp. 3-4.

[10] Similarly, the severe pains and frustration of training to become a champion soccer player, insurmountable for most, will dwarf against the fantasized pleasure of being received by a stadium full of fans.

[11] I refer here to the circumstance that the 'proper' way to deal with 'addicted' persons is a topic of heated debate among the true believers in 'addiction'. The most frequent type of 'treatment' is to give the 'addict' the drug he wants or a similar compound in a legal manner; this treatment is called 'maintenance'. This treatment is indistinguishable from the 'addicts' own drug procurement behaviour, except that in the case it is called treatment the user pays much less for his drugs and is therefore in a much  better social position. The conditions under which this maintenance should happen or be ceased and the type of disciplinary interactions with 'the addict' lead to different schools of though, exactly as exorcising devils lead to different preferred systems of exorcist action. Nowadays fights between these schools of thought are taken to court whereby the State is usually one of the two parties. In religion there is some freedom of choice, and the State can not force her civilians to choose in a particular way. However, there is not yet freedom of religion when it applies to theologies of 'addiction'. See The Independent, 23 February 2004, London UK: Liberal heroin treatment in the Dock at GMC's biggest hearing.

Last update: May 25, 2016