In 1972, Wilson Van Dusen, a practicing psychiatrist, wrote a book about his patients and the eighteenth century scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. The relationship between Swedenborg and Wilson Van Dusen is founded upon the confluence of their respective researches. When Van Dusen wrote The Presence of spirits in Madness, he was Chief Psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital in California. He had spent 17 years there working among the mentally ill, and during his time at Mendocino State, he practiced standard psychiatric techniques. He was, however, a fan of Swedenborg and had read all of his writings.
Over the course of about ten years, he noticed a correlation between the hallucinations of his patients and the things that Swedenborg had written about his spiritual experiences. Thus, he began to experiment with a phenomenological approach to his patients’ hallucinations. Although he did this in his free time, and this approach was aimed more at research than at healing his patients (unlike Adam Crabtree who, eleven years later, actually used these techniques to cure his patients), he began to analyze the patients’ hallucinations and discovered that the “entities” the patients were hallucinating fit into classifications exactly like those described by Swedenborg in his best known work, Heaven and Hell, published in 1758. This work is a spiritual and experiential analysis of the spirit world that Swedenborg had been experiencing for the fifteen years before he wrote the book.
Van Dusen’s patients included chronic schizophrenics, bipolar patients, alcoholics, brain damaged and senile people. He studied the ones who were communicative and who had vivid aural hallucinations (voices in their heads.). They were all in the hospital simply because their inner thought process made it difficult or impossible for them to function outside of a protected setting. In most cases, patients experiencing hallucinations are unable to distinguish reality from their hallucinated visions and voices. However, quite a few of his patients at Mendocino State were more lucid and could distinguish their hallucinated voices from reality. These patients worked quite hard at hiding what they saw as their disability from the real world, but were not always able to do so, which is why they were living in a mental hospital.
After much prodding, Van Dusen found that his patients generally considered their hallucinated personalities to be real entities who resided in “another world.” None thought that the voices were hallucinations, but rather were actual persons living inside their minds. Van Dusen found that he could speak to the hallucinated voices as though they were separate persons who happened to be invisible. He would ask questions and the patient would then give a word-for-word account of what the voices said.
Using this technique, he discovered that these hallucinations had what seemed like real personalities, entirely independent of the personality possessed by the patient him/herself. They were often terrified of him and needed reassurance that he was not their enemy. After a while, he was able to begin treating the hallucinations themselves as real persons, and to turn an interview with a patient into a “group therapy” session in which the patient and any number of the patient’s hallucinated personalities would take part.
All of these patients described the voices as sounding and feeling like real voices. Sometimes, the voices were louder or softer than normal voices, but they sounded and felt real nevertheless. Patients referred to the voices using their own terminology. They would call them “The Other Order”, “The Eavesdroppers”, or some term that would describe them as real but somehow occupying a reality different from their own. Most of these patients came to realize they were having experiences that other people did not share and learned to keep quiet about them.
Van Dusen found that his patients experienced two distinct “orders” of voices. There was a higher order and a lower order. It was at this point in his career that Van Dusen realized that these “voices” corresponded exactly with the “angels” and the “devils” described by Swedenborg in Heaven and its Wonders and Hell published in 1758. It was also at this point that he began to contemplate writing his book on Emanuel Swedenborg. (The presence of other worlds: The psychological and spiritual findings of Emanuel Swedenborg; reissued by the Swedenborg Foundation 1991.)
Swedenborg was not referring to the angels and demons that biblical tradition says God created prior to creating the earth, but rather to the spirits of deceased persons whose habits and attitudes during their lives made them either angels or devils after their deaths. Van Dusen began to think that perhaps Swedenborg was right and that his high and low order voices could, at least in a phenomenological sense, be interpreted and treated as individual spirits who were themselves in need of psychiatric help.
Swedenborg denied that there was any immortal “Satan” who was a king of evil spirits. He saw evil spirits simply as banal and ignorant “low class” people who had passed away, but were unaware of their transition from life to an existence as spirits without physical bodies. Swedenborg believed that there are millions of these lowly “devils”, all narcissistically (selfishly) vying for superiority over each other, and longing for some way to make their presence known. Van Dussen came to believe that some of his patients’ voices were actually the thoughts of these discarnate “bums”.