Demonic Pigs and Hearing Voices

About a month ago I wrote about a strange story that appears in the New Testament books of Mark and Luke. The story of Jesus casting a large number of demons out of a man who calls himself “Legion” and into a herd of pigs. The miracle gets less focus than walking on water or turning water into wine.  Most of us moderns don’t believe in demonic possession.  In any case, Jesus was known as a healer an exorcist and he did something to relieve the suffering of people who the community considered to be possessed.  In my article, I spelled out some of the things I wondered about this episode.

What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out?…The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that? Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill… Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is?  Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?

I first started thinking about these questions a couple of years ago. I have sought out books on the cultural aspects and context of mental illness such as Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman.  Cushman is a historian and psychologist  and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”

“Vast historical changes in the last 500 years in the West have slowly created a world in which the individual is commonly understood to be a container of a ‘mind’ and more recently a ‘self’ that needs to be ‘therapied,’ rather than, say, a carrier of a divine soul that needs to be saved, or simply an element of the communal unit that must cooperate for the common good…As a matter of fact, nothing has cured the human race, and nothing is about to. Mental ills don’t work that way; they are not universal, they are local. Every era has a particular configuration of self, illness, healer, technology; they are a kind of cultural package. They are interrelated, intertwined, inter­penetrating. So when we study a particular illness, we are also studying the conditions that shape and define that illness, and the sociopolitical impact of those who are responsible for healing it..”

I just finished reading Learning from the Voices in My Head by Eleanor Longden.  This is her TED Talk:

Longden, who is now a psychiatrist, hears voices and was diagnosed as schizophrenic in her youth. She challenges many of the assumptions the mental health profession and society in general make about mental illness.  Her book gave me a bit more insight into the whole demons into pigs incident.

We live in an individualistic culture. We believe in an independent bounded, self and we believe we have a great deal of control over our destinies.  We think of ourselves more as consumers with choice than as citizens with responsibilities. On the whole we look to science, technology and experts to solve our problems.

In some cultures, past and present, what we see as mental disorders are interpreted as gifts of communication with the spirit world.  (I recommend The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman for a harrowing account of what happened when two healing cultures collided when a Hmong refugee family and U.S. medical professionals failed to communicate their underlying assumptions about the meaning and treatment of seizures.  )

Longden also advocates treating the voices people hear in their heads as messengers. “The psychiatrist Marius Romme, co-founder of the International Hearing Voices Movement, describes voices as ‘messengers’ that communicate compelling information about previous threats and conflicts that the person has faced. The British mental health journalist Adam James likewise characterizes them as ‘mirrors of the [hearer’s] social world.’”

In more collective cultures visions, voices, spells were thought to be messages to everyone.  In an individualistic society they are messages but personal to the individual. In an individualistic culture we value independence– insist upon it.  We use words like “self-reliance” to highlight the virtue of being independent. Its opposite, relying on others, is laziness and sloth.

In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes the authors say that individualist cultures tend to be right/wrong cultures where collective cultures are more honor/shame cultures. That is to say that Western people tend to think of moral behavior as based on an internal sense of right and wrong whereas more collective cultures are motivated to stay in others’ good graces, to retain honor and to avoid shame.

I am not entirely sure this is true.  People who face a job loss, lose their homes or find themselves in financial difficulty do not have a sense that it is morally wrong for them to be poor.  They feel ashamed.  A couple of days ago I wrote about the tone of some of the comments on blogs related to people’s financial struggles. The tone of the comments is shaming.  Here is an example from Vitae.  The article by Stacey Patton, described the way certain members of the public reacted to an article about a PhD who was making so little that she had to supplement her income with food stamps.

Said one reader: “This woman should consider a full-time job instead of relying on handouts. Despite her degree, it appears she lacks any common sense or personal accountability. Quit leaching off the tax-payers.”

Another: “Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in history as of 2002 should have known better than to expect a tenure-track job. If you are pursuing a Ph.D. in a humanities field right now, it’s your responsibility to know the risks.”

As the discussion moved beyond The Chronicle, the invective intensified. On his radio show, Neal Boortz, a right-wing political commentator, took some shots. “The money this lady is using to buy food came either from you, through taxes you paid, or your children,” Boortz said. “That money was taken from you by force. It was seized. Stolen.”…

“They denigrated my choice to get a Ph.D.,” she says. “They denigrated my field of study. They harped on the fact that I’m a single mom even though my child was born in marriage. They commented on the fact that I was buying sugary cereal for my kid. Those were personal attacks that said everything about me is wrong. Those pissed me off and made me cry.”

I think we still have an honor/shame culture. It is just that our honor/shame axis has entirely shifted. Honor/shame in ancient cultures operated like this:

It is honorable to perform your role in society.
It is shameful to put your self-interest above your duty.

In our culture it goes like this:

It is honorable to be independent.
It is shameful to be dependent.

Although she did not use these words, writer and social commentator Sarah Kendzior noted in her article “The American Dream: Survival is not an Aspiration” that young people chose their career paths based on an honor/shame dynamic.  Kids out of school are facing a difficult market place with options that offer little pay or security.

Young Americans seeking full-time employment tend to find their options limited to two paths: one of low-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of wealth. America is not only a nation of temporary employees – the Walmart worker on a fixed-day contract, the immigrant struggling for a day’s pay in a makeshift “temp town” – but of temporary jobs: intern , adjunct , fellow.

Like their counterparts in the service industry, these short-term prestige positions frequently offer no benefits, no health care, and in the case of the intern, no salary. They require that you have the money to move to switch jobs year after year – impossible for many, but easy for those with cash to spare. In the end, college graduates who trained for white-collar professions often cannot afford to take them, and end up, instead, working at a place like McDonald’s.

In her book, Longden advocates for a less medicalized approach to hearing voices and other forms of mental illness.

“…if we are told that Jane hears voices that are linked to distressing life events or difficult emotions,” Longden wrote,  “we are more likely to empathize with her than if we are told she hears voices because of her schizophrenia. We ascribe her humanity, and we are less inclined to see her as fundamentally different from us. Furthermore, we may feel empowered to try to support her ourselves; we don’t view her distress as something ineffable that only a trained professional can attend…”

The idea that the community has a role to play, and that we do no need to consult experts to deal with people with mental distress is an uphill climb for a number of reasons. Longden outlines many in her book. Here is one more: The shame of “dependence.”

Many articles note that when people have financial difficulties, they often isolate themselves socially.  (If you do not encounter other people you do not have to worry about shame.)  Social isolation plays a major factor in depression.  It becomes a vicious cycle.  This may be why depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States and demon possession, well, I couldn’t find any reliable stats on that.

Asking your friends to help you when you can’t help yourself is dependence.  Whereas consulting, and paying for, an expert to provide a service is a consumer choice.  Seeking professional help instead of leaning on friends and family preserves the honor of independence.  The result is a lot of prescriptions for zoloft.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against the mental health profession or anti-depressants.  What I am interested in is what kind of cultural assumptions we make about mental illness and mental health.  I realized, reading Longden’s book, how reliance on experts can be a way to limit our own sphere of responsibility.   Instead of having the community at large care for its members (extended family, tribes), we shrink the sphere of responsibility to immediate family and our families are not very big.  That is a lot of responsibility for one or two people.  When you’re dealing with someone in serious distress, professionals have to bridge the gap.

Longden argues that we, as a society, need to address the underlying social causes of distress instead of just treating individual’s symptoms.

We need to accept collective responsibility for the suffering and injustice we inflict on one another, and rebranding and camouflaging the effects of trauma, loss, and stress as mental disease directs attention and resources away from creating a safer, fairer, and more just society — a society in which more individuals are able to flourish and thrive, in which the most vulnerable are protected, in which perpetrators are held fully accountable for the impact of their actions, where survivors are not pathologized, and where those who have been shattered by devastating events are greeted with compassion, empathy, respect, and hope for their healing.

So here is where I get to the pigs.

I asked whether there might be relevance in the Biblical story to the fact that the unclean spirits are driven into unclean animals.  Being unclean in Jewish culture, the pigs have to belong to the Gentiles.  They’re Roman’s pigs. They belong to the occupiers.  A farm full of pigs back then had great economic value. They are livestock– they are also wealth. Mark says the herd is about 2,000 in number.  It had to be valuable. They are not wild pigs. Both accounts say that there were people tending the pigs.  (Workers, not owners, I presume, because they don’t say, “Hey! What did you do to my pigs!” I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation they had with their boss later. If the workers tending to the pigs were Jewish he might have spared the laborers from a life of being considered unclean as well.)

All of the Jews were marginalized in the system the Romans brought with them.  The mad man was an outcast among outcasts.  He was shunned by polite society and considered unclean.  Luke describes him as naked and in chains and when Jesus approaches he is afraid he is going to torture him.

Jesus is not afraid of Legion’s voices. He speaks to them and listens to what they have to say.   Then Jesus, who insists that his followers have the power to heal as he does, removes Legion’s suffering by turning those demons back on the society that “owns” them, that is responsible for them.

I’m still not sure what to make of the demons begging to be put into the pigs but maybe that will become clear to me some day.

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