Internal Family Systems, the hot new1 psychotherapy, has a secret.

“Hot new psychotherapy” might sound dismissive. It’s not. There’s always got to be one. The therapy that’s getting all the buzz, curing all the incurable patients, rocking those first few small studies. The therapy that was invented by a grizzled veteran therapist working with Patients Like You, not the out-of-touch elites behind all the other therapies. The therapy that Really Gets To The Root Of The Problem. There’s always got to be one, and now it’s IFS.

Sufficiently new and popular therapies are hard to get. Therapist training starts slow - the founder has to train the second generation of therapists, the second generation has to train the third generation, and so on. IFS says they have a 10,000 person wait list for their training program. So lots of people have heard great things about IFS, maybe read a manual or two, but never tried it or met anyone who has.

What I gather from the manuals: IFS is about working with “parts”. You treat your mind as containing a Self - a sort of perfect angelic intellect without any flaws or mental illnesses - and various Parts - little sub-minds with their own agendas who can sometimes occlude or overwhelm the Self. During therapy, you talk to the Parts, learn their motives, and bargain with them.

For example, you might identify a Part of you that wants to sabotage your relationships. You will visualize and name it - maybe you call her Sabby, and she looks like a snake. You talk to Sabby, and learn that after your first break-up, when you decided you never wanted to feel that level of pain again, you unconsciously created her and ordered her to make sure you never got close enough to anyone else to get hurt. Then you and the therapist come up with some plan to satisfy Sabby - maybe you convince her that you’re older now, and better able to deal with pain, and you won’t blame her if you get close to someone and have to break up again. Then you see a vision of Sabby stepping aside, maybe turning off the Windmill Of Relationship Sabotage or something like that, and then you never sabotage your relationships again. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the core.

All of this is the classic version everyone learns from the manual. Before we get to the secret, let’s examine two big assumptions in more detail.

First, this isn’t supposed to be just the therapist walking you through guided imagery, or you making up a story you tell yourself. The therapist asks you “Look inside until you find the part that’s sabotaging your relationship”, and you are supposed to discover - not invent, discover - that your unconscious gives it the form of a snake called Sabby. And you are supposed to hear as in a trance - again, not invent - Sabby telling you that she’s been protecting you from heartbreak since your last breakup. When you bargain with Sabby, it’s a two-way negotiation. You learn - not decide - whether or not Sabby agrees to any given bargain. According to Internal Family Systems (which descends from normal family systems, ie family therapy where the whole family is there at once and has to compromise with each other), all this stuff really is in your mind, waiting for an IFS therapist to discover it. When Carl Jung talked about interacting with the archetypes or whatever, he wasn’t being metaphorical. He literally meant “go into a trance that gives you a sort of waking lucid dream where you meet all this internal stuff”.

(After reading the IFS manuals, I tried most of their tricks for initiating this sort of trance and meeting Sabby or whoever. I got nothing. I notice most of the patients with great results are severely traumatized borderlines, ie the same people who often get multiple personality disorder after the slightest hint from a therapist that this might happen. We’ll get back to this analogy later.)

The second assumption is that everything inside your mind is part of you, and everything inside your mind is good. You might think of Sabby as some kind of hostile interloper, ruining your relationships with people you love. But actually she’s a part of your unconscious, which you have in some sense willed into existence, looking out for your best interests. You neither can nor should fight her. If you try to excise her, you will psychically wound yourself. Instead, you should bargain with her the same way you would with any other friend or loved one, until either she convinces you that relationships are bad, or you and the therapist together convince her that they aren’t. This is one of the pillars of classical IFS.

The secret is: no, actually some of these things are literal demons.


At least this is what I take from The Others Within Us , by Robert Falconer, a veteran IFS therapist.

But it’s not just Falconer saying this. The book has a foreword by Richard Schwartz2, the inventor of IFS, where he basically endorses it. It has cover blurbs from some high-ranking IFS trainers. My impression is that everyone high up in IFS believed something like this, they avoided talking about it lest it scare away the normies, Falconer got tired of keeping quiet and wrote a book, and everyone else decided to come clean and support him instead of denying anything.

You can see signs of the political fractures throughout the book. It tries to soften the blow by replacing “demons” with the technical IFS term UBs (for “unattached burdens”) and it inconsistently calls exorcisms “unburdenings”. It flirts with the idea that maybe this is just a useful metaphor, then veers off into “no it’s literally real”. It alternates between defiant and apologetic.

But the underlying narrative is a consistent one. The IFS community was a bunch of normal, respectable therapists, trying to practice normal therapy. But every so often, one of their patients’ Parts would admit, unprompted, to being a demon. Or, in the words of one such entity:

No, I’m not a part of her - I’m a much more powerful and beautiful being, and I’m going to crush her like a worm, the same way I’m going to crush you.

If the story about Sabby is a typical IFS session, here’s an atypical one. Another patient comes to you, once again asking for help because they’re sabotaging their relationship. You ask them to go into a trance and find the part of them involved. They meet a dragon named Damien. So far, so good. You ask Damien why he’s sabotaging the patient’s relationships, expecting to hear a beautiful story about how the patient’s mother was a doormat and this made the patient unconsciously charge a part of herself with protecting her own independence (or something). Instead, Damien says he’s sabotaging them because fuck you. This isn’t unheard of - some of these traumatized Parts are really touchy. But the therapist persists and keeps getting the same answer. On further questioning, Damien admits he’s not part of the patient’s unconscious at all. He’s an external spiritual entity that entered the patient.

(again, this is atypical. Falconer doesn’t give numbers, but I get the impression that fewer than 1% of IFS sessions go this direction.)

With enough questioning, the entities will reveal more information. Some of them are the spirits of the unquiet dead - in one case, a victim describes how she was in a hospital, the patient next to her died, she developed sudden onset anxiety, and in her IFS trance she realized that the anxiety took the form of the dead patient. Others have always been demons, as long as they remember. Still others are “legacy burdens”, who were passed down from the patient’s parents or ancestors.

(Falconer tries to give this last one a “scientific” grounding by talking about epigenetics, which broke my suspension of disbelief - talk about demons and I’ll listen, but intergenerational epigenetic inheritance of behavioral traits is a step too far)

The demons often enter the victim during moments of unbearable trauma. The patient, bent to the breaking point, has a moment of weakness when they will take help from any corner, let in anything that offers temporary relief, no matter how unconvincingly. Mostly these are the situations you’d expect - child abuse and rape - but a surprising number of them say they got in during a childhood surgery. Falconer is appropriately puzzled, and wonders if maybe the disembodiment of anesthesia provides an opening. But if I were to take this seriously - and remember, our only source here is self-report by demons - I would wonder if this might corresponds to the occasional anesthesia failures when a patient ends up awake but paralyzed during surgery. This must be one of the most traumatic experiences possible!

Once inside, the demons “feed on energy”, usually in the form of negative emotions. They “farm” the energy by causing extra negative emotion, either by directly engaging in negative self-talk with the victim, or by tricking them into making bad decisions. Many demons feed on lust and sexual violence, and tempt patients into risky sexual behavior (is this victim-blaming? I can’t even tell at this point). Falconer moots this as one reason that some people float from one abuser/rapist to another despite seemingly being smart and motivated enough to avoid this. He also reports that the demons claim (again, self-reported data from demons is questionable for at least two reasons) to be able to lend their victims extra sexual energy, giving them the “crazy girls are hot” effect.

The first N times they ran into this kind of thing, the IFS therapists said that surely this was some good-albeit-traumatized Part of the patient’s unconscious, which had spun some crazy metaphorical story and needed to be bargained with and brought back to the Self. But it kept happening. The demons’ stories were surprisingly consistent. Finally, some of the IFS therapists would tell their therapist friends - look, this sounds crazy, but sometimes it seems like some of our patients have demons.

And the therapist friends would answer: “Oh, you too?”

Falconer says that “Many therapists know that this is part of their work. They know this stuff is real, but they hide it.” Every so often, one of them goes public, occasionally starting a new therapy branch or re-working older ones. Falconer surveys some of these traditions.

Dr. William Baldwin started out as a dentist, started practicing hypnotherapy for pain control, but his patients started saying such weird things during their trances that he retrained as a therapist and invented a mixed psychology-exorcism practice called Spirit Releasement Therapy - now its own therapy school with journal articles and conferences and everything.

Dr. Charles Tramont started out as a surgeon, also started hypnotherapy for pain control, and followed basically the same path as Dr. Baldwin. Falconer quotes him approvingly as saying that “there are three basic varieties of foreign energies [in a person]: dark forces who never were human, earthbounds who are the souls of dead humans, and extraterrestrials . . . when asked if he believed in this stuff, he said absolutely because it has cured so many people.”

Dr. Jerry Marzinsky, after 35 years of working with psychotic patients, determined that “the voices [in patients’ heads] were real and that they were conscious parasitic entities that feed on people’s energies, especially distress.”

Dr. Scott Peck a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, after confronting too many possessed patients to deny, “was converted to a belief in the existence of Satan.” He added exorcism to the rest of his practice, with good effect.

Dr. Ralph Allison, a psychiatric expert on multiple personality disorder, came to believe that only some of the alters were psychogenic, but others were the result of “a spirit who has never had a life of its own and who often identifies as an agent of evil”.

And so on and so forth. To hear Falconer tell it, one of psychotherapy’s big crises is that veteran therapists and psychiatrists keep noticing the demons, keep talking about it in their isolated silos, but nobody’s ever blown the lid off the whole thing and made it public.

(And it’s not just therapists. One of my favorite stories in the book was that of Reverend John Nevius, a sober-minded Protestant missionary in early late 1800s China. He learned that the Chinese mostly appreciated Christianity for its ability to cast out demons, and that they expected his help with this task. After great reluctance, he agreed, and was surprised to find himself effecting miracle cures and winning converts. “After experiencing casting out demons himself, he sent circular letters to all the other missionaries in China, almost all of whom had similar experiences. Seventy percent of them had come to believe in possession and re-evaluate their faith.”)

So the IFS therapists humbly asked some of these people for advice, combining it with their own knowledge of the inner landscape. This brings us to the core of the book: the manual for IFS exorcism.

Step One: CONFIRM IT’S REALLY A DEMON. This is important. Most Parts - even most hostile Parts that tell you on a loop to kill yourself or whatever - really are just traumatized pieces of your own mind. Trying to exorcising them will only make them angry and delay your healing process. This is a pillar of the original IFS formulation - one of Dr. Schwartz’s original books was called No Bad Parts. Luckily, demons apparently have to tell the truth about this? If you ask them point-blank whether they’re a demon, they’ll try to stall and dither. But if you really press the question they almost always admit it.

Step two: Try to learn more about the demon and how it entered the patient. Partly this is just to keep it talking, but it will also help you get a sense of the patient’s overall psychiatric history and what role it might play in their internal ecology.

Step three: Figure out which Parts of the patient want to keep the demon. Usually there are some Parts that are too scared to go against it, or think they still need its help, or fear the change of having it gone. If you leave these allies around, it provides an opening for the demon to come back. Send the dubious Parts warm compassionate energy from your Self, tell them there’s no reason to be scared, and that you will take care of them once the demon is gone.

Step four: Confirm that the patient isn’t afraid. This should be a natural result of placating their various Parts. Demons are (Falconer assures us) powerless against anyone who doesn’t fear them. If the patient is still afraid, remind them to be in Self, and do more Parts work until this is easy for them.

Step five: Try to convince the demon to leave of its own volition. Falconer has several tricks for this. You can tell it “You’ve been lied to. You were told that the light will burn you. But actually, the light is loving and accepting and where you belong.” If the demon doesn’t believe you, challenge it to touch the light. When it refuses, mock its cowardice (demons are very proud, and hate to be mocked). Eventually it will give in and touch the light and find that the light feels good. Then tell it “Look inside yourself. You’ll find there’s a spark of this same light. You are potentially good and redeemable, you’re just stuck here out of fear and need to move on. If you move on to the healing realms, everyone there will welcome you and you’ll get all the food you could possibly want and be much happier.” If the demon is still doubtful, tell it to look up towards the healing realms, where it might see the hands of people it trusts reaching out for it. Most demons will grudgingly agree that you’re right and leave voluntarily.

Step six: If the demon doesn’t leave voluntarily, tell it that you’ll give it one last chance, and then you’ll be forced to send it back to the darkness, which will be much worse. If it still refuses, ask your patient to visualize casting the demon out of themselves and engulfing it in light.

Step seven: Investigate to make sure there are no remaining sub-demons or super-demons. Many demons, once they get into a person, will summon sub-demons to tighten their hold. You have to get rid of all the demons in a hierarchy, or the patient is still infected and they’ll all eventually come back. Hopefully you talked with the demon and your other Parts enough that you know what to expect here. If not, check whether there are any astral strings still linking the patient to the demon you just exorcised. Don’t worry, you can just ask the patient to count how many astral strings there are, and they’ll always be able to do this.

Step eight: Return back to the Parts of the patient that were dubious about the exorcism. Make sure they’re all convinced and satisfied now.

Step nine: Accept the adulation of your now-cured patient. For example, here’s Falconer describing the aftermath of his first exorcism:

As the workshop ended, I started getting long emails from the woman in the client role who’d had this thing removed from her. The emails scared me because she seemed to almost be having a manic episode. She was saying things like “Oh, the light in the airport is so beautiful - I haven’t seen colors like this before” and “I can feel deep love for all the people in the airport.” I was starting to get quite worried. Then she sent an email that dramatically increased my fear level. She said “Bob, I didn’t tell you or any other people in the workshop this, but when I was a young woman, I tried to kill myself many times and was institutionalized many times.” Now I was really scared Visions of malpractice danced in my head. Then she wrote something that changed my life. She wrote, “Bob, you’re the first person to ever take me seriously when I talked about the nonhuman inside of me, and you have changed my life. Back then, if I tried to talk about this, they gave me electroshock and a lot of drugs. I have not talked about this to anyone for decades. Thank you.”…I have folloed this woman since then, for over nine years now. She has continued to feel that the experience was very liberating and life-changing. The outward signs in her life indicate that she is flowering and growing and enjoying new depth and richness.

And here’s another (UB, for “unattached burden”, is the technical IFS term for the demons):

Hi Bob…I have felt profoundly healed since our session. It has been truly life-changing for me and my parts…Also, I thought you might like to know that I did my first UB unburdening today with a client of mine. It was magic, and I felt I could really understand what might be going on for the client…Since I was a very young child, I have lived with this UB. While I count myself a very lucky and fortune person generally, what was happening on the inside was crushing me. When I first heard about UBs I got it immediately, and the thought that there might be a solution for my internal suffering was nearly too good to comprehend. Trust me, internally it was putting up an enormous fight last week, but your confidence and your willingness to sacrifice yourself for me and my system still makes me emotional. I had met it before through therapy with my therapist, but she was no match for him. I am happy to stand behind you in any way I can, and if you need me to support you with any testimonials or in any way bringing forward how important this work is and how unbelievably life-changing it has been for me, I am certainly happy to do this. I believe people have a lot more UBs than the IFS Institute is willing to admit and it saddens me that we cannot be more open about this. [I will not be asking for more sessions] as I can’t imagine feeling much better than I do right now.


I appreciated this window into an aspect of psychotherapy I’d heard about before. And I appreciate Robert Falconer’s immense hands-on experience. Still, I’m not sure he was the right person to write this book.

At the beginning, he says that all of this may seem crazy, but we should put aside theorizing in favor of observation. We should listen to what our patients say, treat them as the experts in their own internal experience, and focus on finding treatments that empirically seem to help them - rather than getting bogged down in the metaphysics.

Then he immediately breaks his own rule and focuses on the metaphysics. He really wants to convince the reader that the demons are real spiritual entities and not just a useful psychotherapeutic metaphor. To think otherwise (he fulminates) is to buy into the Eurocentric colonialist “citadel theory of mind” where everyone has to be a perfect atomic individual and nobody can be influenced by anything outside of their own head in any way.

He also falls into a trap I would describe as “has never read a pseudoscience book before, doesn’t realize what the red flags for pseudoscience are, and so collects the whole set”. We go from discussion on how the same doctors who laughed at Ignatz Semmelweiss will no doubt laugh at him, to quotes about science progressing funeral by funeral, to that one story about how the Native Americans couldn’t even see Columbus’ ships because they were so far out of their accepted categorization schemes. These are all prima facie reasonable things to mention if you have a revolutionary theory that you expect the establishment to reject. But it’s analogous to how, if you’ve __ just been accused of racism, it prima facie seems reasonable to object that you have lots of black friends. Along with prima facie reasonableness, you also need to have some familiarity with the discourse and avoid using the exact phrases that will make doubters maximally skeptical.

This is admittedly an aesthetic objection, not a substantial one - but it’s something I would have done differently.

Also, I would not have used this publishing company, or at least I would have displayed its logo less prominently.

Falconer does a great job surveying the world’s many demonological traditions. But he seems to count all of them as equal evidence for his theory of “demons exist”, when in fact many of them are contradictory or at least confusing. For example, he is against “hostile” exorcisms - ones where you you might yell at/beat/starve the patient for days, or scream at the demon to begone to the filth from which it came - in favor of an hour-long IFS session where you promise the demon healing and it leaves of its own accord. But the majority of the world’s traditions have pretty hostile exorcisms, or at least are more involved than an hour in a comfy chair. Is IFS just an outright advance in exorcism technology? Isn’t that the same “western knowledge beats primitive people” perspective he’s criticizing, albeit on a different level?

He admits that none of the demons he’s worked with have ever had magic powers. None of his patients start speaking Latin with no previous exposure, or levitate, or shoot fire out of their eyes. But this is a classic feature of some demonological traditions.

Falconer suggests that maybe he’s dealing with low-grade possession cases, and the more traditional exorcisms with Latin and incense and days-long epic battles are the more serious ones. But it’s hard not to notice the alternative explanation: that demons and exorcisms look like whatever your culture tells you they look like (with a side of “Falconer reports his experiences honestly, but other people exaggerate”).

So I want to try the task Falconer avoids, and try to provide a boring materialistic explanation of all of this. This won’t be surprising to people who have read other essays of mine, especially my reviews of Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, Crazy Like Us, and especially The Geography Of Madness.

Theory of mind is non-obvious and culture-dependent. The modern West has a materialistic unitary theory of mind, where the brain produces the mind and 1 brain = 1 mind. If you hear a voice in your head saying “You’re terrible and should kill yourself”, this is part of you - it’s some kind of brain lobe mis-firing - and you should do cognitive therapy on it and become less anxious, or whatever.

The objective scientific truth/falsehood of this theory of mind is orthogonal to its felt experience. Even if it’s objectively true, you don’t experience your mind this way directly because it’s objectively true. You experience your mind this way because it’s our culture’s stock metaphor, it’s how you were taught to experience your mind, and your experience of your mind will tend to fit whatever framework you put it into.

If, as Julian Jaynes posits, the ancients thought demons were talking to them all the time, this was a different, equally-experientially-valid (though not necessarily equally-objectively-scientifically-valid) theory of mind. They would hear a voice saying “You’re terrible and kill yourself” and viscerally perceive it as the whisperings of a demon. Or they would get a great idea for a new epic poem, and viscerally perceive it as the Muse talking to them. I don’t know if they literally hallucinated or not - maybe they did - it was just a different way of binning the experiences that came into their consciousness.

Although culture has a big effect here, there’s also variation within a culture. Socrates apparently heard daemons in a sense that his contemporaries didn’t. My impression is that women, traumatized people, borderlines, and especially traumatized borderline women, are towards the more fragmented end of the scale in every culture, such that even in our own materialist-unified paradigm they barely hold things together.

In the “multiple personalities panic” of the 1980s, some psychologists started thinking multiple personality disorder was a big thing and suggesting to all their traumatized borderline female patients that they might have it. Sure enough, lots of these people developed multiple personalities. This didn’t seem fake , just weird. Eventually the American Psychiatric Association sent out a statement saying “STOP DOING THIS”, therapists stopped talking about multiple personalities with their traumatized borderline female patients, and these people mostly stopped getting multiple personality disorder (although the occasional new case crops up here and there).

Now here comes IFS, saying “hey maybe you have multiple Parts in your mind, have you considered looking for them?” This is much better, as theory-of-mind paradigms go, than multiple personality disorder. IFS Parts are (after some work) beneficent and subordinate to the wise compassionate angelic Self. A person who’s been therapy-ed into iatrogenic multiple personality disorder is a total mess; a person who’s been therapy-ed into relating to their IFS Parts is functional and - if you believe the reports - better off than they started.

(I’m not arguing that the mind is truly unitary but evil therapists are convincing vulnerable borderlines that the mind is multiple. The mind is what it is. It’s unitary in some ways and multiple in some ways. Even the most materialist Westerner will admit that they’re sometimes “of two minds”, or “have weakness of will”, or “my brain keeps telling me to X, but I know that’s not true”. People vary in how independently these different parts of their brain act, with Bryan Caplan on one side and traumatized borderline women on another. And over that native variation, we overlay a second pattern of variation in how their culture and local authority figures - including therapists - tell them to think about all this. In the end, you can go from someone who never perceives any mental divisions at all to someone with frank multiple personality disorder. IFS therapists are focusing on and playing one side of this spectrum of variation, but neither they nor unitary mind proponents are wrong.)

So IFS therapists are telling patients about all their Parts. And they say “all of these Parts are beautiful facets of your variegated Self”, and most patients believe them. But occasionally if there’s some sort of really repressed ego dystonic thing, then their lucid-dream-trance mind will say “No, that one isn’t part of my Self, it’s an evil invader that I hate”. IFS is prepared for this and walks them through how no, really, it’s a beautiful facet of your variegated Self that you’ve just really repressed and which you consider ego dystonic - I don’t want to accuse them of not doing this, The Others Within Us is very clear that they push this line as hard as they can. Still, some patients just really don’t buy it. Some patients have some perverse part of them that they can’t identify with in any way, at all, something with no redeeming value according to the moral system of their dominant personality, and no matter how hard their IFS therapist tells them it’s a part of them, they’ll insist it’s not. And if they’re in a lucid-dream-trance, they’ll say that they can sense it as some form of foreign dark energy, and that it entered them from the outside during an abuse episode - which is as decent a metaphor from trauma as any other that I’ve heard.

People see the inside of their mind the way their culture tells them to see it. Did I mention that a suspicious number of the possession victims in the book were veteran IFS therapists (that’s why the testimonials above include people saying that now they can try this on their own patients)? Or that Robert Falconer, who thinks about demons all the time, seems to have had dozens of them? Yes, okay, he describes having an incredibly traumatic background that I don’t even want to talk about on a non-trigger-warning-ed blog post - but also, he keeps getting new demons, one after another, and this seems common for the IFS therapists who deal with demons most frequently.

That just leaves the apparently-successful exorcisms. Part of the story must be placebo effects. Our culture’s scientific materialist paradigm helps us get effectively placebo-ed by medicine (even medications that work have associated placebo effects stronger than the real chemical effect). Cultures with a spiritual paradigm can probably be effectively placebo-ed by exorcism. But I know that I, with my medication experience, can’t match some of the cures that Falconer claims to have effected, so something else must be going on. Here I can only say that most good trauma therapies seem to be telling the person that the trauma and its associated compensatory behavior are no longer adaptive, plus some strategy to really dig into the traumatized part of the brain and make it sink in on an emotional level. In hypnotherapy the strategy is hypnosis. In EMDR it’s eye movements. In coherence therapy it’s visualizing the contradictory beliefs really hard. In IFS, it’s interacting with symbolic Parts of yourself in a lucid-dream-like trance state. Seems like a potentially good strategy! In all the exorcisms Falconer describes, I’m struck by his careful preparatory work where he tries to find the beliefs and experiences associated with the demon and unwind the associated emotions. Do that in a hypnosis-like state and add the wow factor of a dramatic exorcism, and maybe something good happens.3


Why read this book?

I enjoyed learning more about hot new psychotherapies, and even this book’s discussion of classical IFS gave me a lot to think about. I think I’m more likely interpret discussion of archetypes and mystical visions literally, given how easily IFS therapists seem to be able to get people into a trance/lucid-dream state. And I sometimes find the idea of Self - the part of your mind which is always calm and wise and good, no matter what’s going on around it - reassuring, for reasons sort of like what Sarah Constantin discusses here.

As for the demons - despite what Falconer would call my individualist Eurocentric biases, I’m pretty sympathetic to some of his thought processes. I like what he preaches, if not practices - figure out what helps the patient, then do it, no matter how weird it might seem.

Falconer, and apparently many other IFS therapists, report that these exorcisms help patients, in a repeatable and long-term way. We should slightly discount their experience for the usual “all therapies sound good when they’re new and being described by their advocates” bias, then discount it more for the “this sounds crazy” factor. But even after these discounts, the results sound impressive.

So the question - which I don’t see anyone on either side asking in a really curious way - is: which works better? Telling patients to think of their mental problems as misfiring brain circuits, then reprogramming/medicating those circuits? Or telling patients to think of their mental problems as demons, then exorcising those demons4?

You might, starting from a Western scientific point of view, object that the patient’s problems really are misfiring brain circuits, so surely that perspective would work better. Even granting that you’re objectively scientifically right, I’m not sure I buy the syllogism. At the very least it seems like the sort of thing you could test.

All declarations from medical authorities about the nature of mental problems cause iatrogenic mental problems. If anyone - including even just random therapists like Falconer - start saying that mental problems are demons, they will definitely cause iatrogenic demons. Is this better or worse than iatrogenic multiple personality disorder or anxiety disorder or whatever? I don’t know, except that in my professional opinion “iatrogenic demons” sounds pretty bad

All therapies start out practiced by smart good-instincted veteran practitioners like Robert Falconer, and end being practiced by people like the therapist in this story (source)

And in my non-professional, purely personal opinion, I know iatrogenic demons are bad. A Bay Area self-help human potential psychological research institute (pronounced “cult”) tangentially connected to my social circles did some experiments with therapy around psychological constructs. I won’t replay the whole story, but the whole group collapsed in a severe and avoidable iatrogenic possession epidemic - you can read about some of it here:

I personally went through many months of near constant terror at being mentally invaded. My only source of help for this became the leaders of my own subgroup, who unfortunately were also completely caught up in the mania and had their own goals and desires me for that were mostly definitely not in my interest. I personally prayed for hours most nights for months to rid myself of specific “demons” I felt I’d picked up from other members of Leverage.

If this sounds insane, it’s because it was. It was a crazy experience unlike any I’ve ever had. And there are many more weird anecdotes where that came from.

In addition, I’ll be honest — I experienced real effects of these “demons.” A huge part of my healing has involved recovering from an ongoing state of terror around mental invasion. I now believe these phenomena are the type of thing often described in normal conversation with un-sensationalized language (i.e. “she has good energy” “that place gave me the willies” “intuition” “he’s got stage presence” “reality distortion fields”). I think the narrative framing around “demons” and “objects” led us to build these kind of “abstract alternative reality palaces” around these phenomena, leading to hyper-reification and thus greater paranoia and hysteria.

The way these concepts got out of control and exploded the group is the aspect of Leverage I’ve heard discussed the least publicly. I suspect many people still half-consciously believe “intention reading,” “objects,” and their impact on the ensuing events is highly significant secret knowledge and should not be talked about. I think keeping this secret and significant encourages an ongoing elitism and separatism narrative in ex-members, and hinders smooth integration of these experiences into the rest of life.

My personal read is that there’s a real thing here, underneath the paranoia, hyper-reification, heavy narrativization, witch hunting and adversarial weaponization, and that the real skill is simply a form of soft, focused attunement to another person which can allow you to learn a lot about (and from) them. There’s a lot more I could say here. At the end of the day, these phenomena were narrativized, exploited, and used to induce panic, terror, opportunities for control, and eventually led to the self-cannibalization of a community.

Falconer treats our Eurocentric individualistic citadel mind as a terrible historical mistake, in which a whole continent foolishly amputated its capacity for spiritual experiences. I think of it as more of a triumph: realizing on some level that belief in demons made them real, we eradicated that belief with the same fervor that we used in eradicating smallpox, polio, and all the other causative agents for dangerous medical conditions.

The Others Within Us tries to argue that this had negative effects. We might avoid outright demonic encounters, but we have worse versions of everything else, and lots of demon-shaped trauma knots that we can’t acknowledge or do anything about and fruitlessly try to hit with our “some brain circuit is overactive” hammer, hoping they will one day reveal themselves as nails. Falconer also cites research that we have worse outcomes from schizophrenia than other cultures (although I think some of that has been challenged by claims about diagnostic variability), and makes the common alt-psychiatry point that maybe schizophrenia is a shamanic crisis, of the sort that other cultures would resolve by becoming shamans5. He thinks that opening ourselves up to spiritual ideas would help our trauma, our schizophrenia, and maybe our anxiety and depression to boot6.

I’m happy that the people who really need help and naturally think in the “language” of IFS can go to Falconer and people like him. But I’m also happy we’re not holding Demon Awareness Campaigns in random middle schools full of impressionable kids. I appreciate this book as a guide for people who need it, but won’t be handing it to any policymakers.

  1. Some people object to me calling it “new” - it was developed in the 1980s, and has been popular since the early 2010s. Still, the therapy landscape shifts slowly, and even an exponentially-growing therapy takes a long time to get anywhere.

  2. Schwartz was born in 1949, so he probably went to therapy school in the 70s and got trained in Freudian analysis. Imagine being a Freudian analyst, in a school full of Freudian analysts, with the name “Dick Schwartz”. At that point your only real option is to invent a new form of therapy on a totally different foundation.

  3. I also remember from How The Body Keeps The Score that Bessel van der Kock seemed to think that everything was great for trauma as long as it’s not an evidence-based therapy performed by real doctors. At the time I kind of made fun of him and assumed he was just being contrarian. But what if he’s right? What if doing something exotic and special is an important ingredient? One thing Falconer talks about again and again is that trauma patients - or the Parts of their mind, or the spirits inside them, or whatever - just want to be witnessed and validated. Getting an exorcism seems like the strongest way possible to say “yes, you’re completely right, all of your pain is 100% real, but now you’re allowed to stop having it without it invalidating how traumatized you were”.

  4. Realistically, holding the broader culture constant, the average therapist won’t be able to convince the average patient that they have demons. So either they’ll have to stick with especially weird patients and therapists, they’ll have to stress that it’s just a useful metaphor, or they’ll have to try to change the broader culture. Falconer seems to be trying the last option with this book. I am confident he will fail. I find the second option - tell patients to suspend their disbelief and use it as a metaphor - more interesting.

  5. This might be somewhat contradicted by genetic evidence, which shows that evolution has been selecting against schizophrenia genes for at least 40,000 years - whatever primitive cultures existed during this timescale had bad outcomes for schizophrenia. I suppose you could rescue the hypothesis by saying most of these cultures hadn’t discovered shamanism yet. Or you could say that shamans were often celibate, and evolutionarily selected against on that basis. I tried to figure out whether this was true, and it seems to vary by culture.

  6. I have skipped over some of his discussion of “guides”, ie benevolent spirits that can sometimes be encouraged/summoned to help the patient.