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1 Dissociation and Possession Emily Harris University of Florida Possession is a central aspect and of high importance in Haitian Vodou. Ceremonies provide a chance for specific, or for multiple lwa to visit. Possession is a display of the existence of th e lwa and a way for those who practice Vodou to communicate directly with the spirits. In some cases, a chwal (one who is riden by the spirit) will drink pepper infused rum, touch or stand on fire or broken glass, and even eat glass to prove that they ar e a lwa The phenomenon of possession has intrigued many psychologists, especially those who study dissociative disorders. Dissociation describes disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other. An example pertainin g to Vodou would be the mind being disconnected from the body during possession. Dissociation of psychological processes involve s changes in the way a person experiences living: depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, identity confusion, and identity alteration are the main ways that dissociation changes the way a person experiences reality.1 Because Vodou is a religion, and dissociation appears to be present in the practice of possession, it positions dissociation in an interesting context: it is no t completely psychological, but it is also spiritual, and a thing to be desired. In Vodou, there is a belief explaining how possession works. There is a ti bonnanj and a gwo bonnanj The ti bonnanj is the part of the mind linked to memory, awareness, an d thought.2 The counterpart gwo bonnanj is the breath of life within all humans, it is what connects us to each other; the more physical side of existence.3 During possession, it is the ti bonnanj that leaves, and the gwo bonnanj remains intact.4 For pos session to work properly, a Vodouist must master the art of releasing and retrieving the ti bonnanj Additionally, t he ti bonnanj is said to leave the b ody when one is sleeping Because this concept is part of Vodou, it is interesting to conside r this construction of the mind as an entity capable of independent wandering. In the U nited States and in the context of other religions, the mind is not necessarily considered to have the power to wander away and out of the body. Because those who practice Vodou a ccept the concept of the ti bonnanj do they have the ability to dissociate more easily? E pisodes of possession in Vodou and dissociation both feature memory loss or amnesia. Following a possession, the chwal is unable to recall what happened while they were possessed. The same thing happens when an individual dissociates. In Vodou ceremonies possession is tightly controlled by the oungan or man bo and the chwal wants to be possessed and ceremonies are held to try to invoke possession .5 When an individual with a dissociative disorder dissociates, it is not necessarily desired This can become maladaptive because one can dissociate between different personalities or aspects of the self and not remember where they are or even who they are when they come out of it.6 Most often, Vodouists remember who they are after they come out of a possession. 1 http://www.isstd.org/education/faqdissociation.htm 2 Hebblethwaite, p. 295 3 Hebblethwaite, p.242 4 Hebblethwaite, p.295 5 McCarthy Brown, p.5868 6 Dell, p. 172

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2 Dissociative disorders stem from severe abuse or neglect in very early childhood, occurring before age 5. On the other hand, possession occurs throughout the world and is a function of many religions. People who participate in religious ceremonies involving possession are able to release themselves. I n Vodou, ones ti bonnanj can dissociate, without impacting ones ability to still live a psychologically healthy li fe free from distress or impairment. This is explained by the two different types of possession. Ritual possession, referring to a temporary, generally voluntary and usually reversible form of trance exhibited in religious ceremonies7 is the kind invoke d during Vodou ceremonies. The other type of possession, considered in some cultures to be demon possession, is a relatively long term state in which the individual believes he is unwillingly possessed by one or more intruding spirits and exhibits conting ent behavioral responses which he attributes to the spirits influence.8 This possession becomes maladaptive and hinders functioning in daily life. Some studies in Ghana have shown that people who are likely to be possessed by a spirit have had more traum atic incidents happen to them, either in the recent or distant past than those who are not able to be possessed by a spirit.9 While this is an interesting observance, not much is known about the sample size of the people who were interviewed in Ghana, and if these findings generalize to other religions that involve possession. It seems that most people have the ability to access some type of dissociative experience on the continuum of dissociation, but that traumatic experiences foster the ability to dis sociate.10 A question that is important to consider here is how much of the way that people dissociate is defined by cultural context. Anthropologists have recorded children attending Vodou ceremonies dancing and mimicking the adults who are possessed.11 Ch ristian children have been observed in much the same way, mimicking parents worshipping and speaking in tongues. Recent psychological research has suggested that each type of trance or possession is an expression on a sor t of continuum of dissociation, tha t there is no single subject, that the self can fragment and that there are many different ways reality or life experiences are perceived.12 Vodou is a fascinating mechanism for studying dis sociation because possession is central to the religion. Worshi ppers who live otherwise psychologically healthy lives can still dissociate. Additionally, it is interesting to note that releasing and retrieving the ti bonnanj is a skill that one works to master This implies that it is not something that initially come s naturally to the Vodoui sts, but is a skill that they have cultivated Because dissociation is something that is known to stem from a traumatic past, the spiritual use of possession in Vodou is insightful because it indicates that more people may be able to tap into the powers of our minds than previously thought. It also indicates that dissociation does not always signal that something bad has happened or is completely uncontrollable. 7 Ward, Beaubrun, p. 201 8 Ward, Beaubrun, p.202 9 Beattie and Middleton, p.18 10 http://www.isstd.org/education/faqdissociation.htm 11 Dell, p. 173 12 Dell, p.176

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3 In the case of Vodou, it may bring insightful news to a community or an individual and serve them beneficially

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4 Bibliography Beattie, John, and John Middleton. "Spirit Possession in Ghana ." In Spirit mediumship and society in Africa, 330. London: Routledge, 2004. Brown, K. M., & American Council of Learned Societies. (2001). Mama Lola a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Comparative studies in religion and society (Updated and expanded ed.). Berkeley: U niversity of California Press. Dell, Paul F., and John A. Neil. Dissociation and the dissociative disorders: DSM V and beyo nd. New York: Routledge, 2009. "Dissociative Disorders What you need to know FAQs." Dissociation and Trauma: Join ISSTD!. http://www.isstd.org/education/faq dissociation.htm (accessed March 12, 2012). Hebblethwaite, B. (2012). Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English = Chante Vodou an Kreyol Ayisyen Ak Angle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Ward Colleen, and Michael Beaubrun. "The Psychodynamics of Demon Possession." Jo urnal for the Scientifc Study of Religion 19, no. 2 (1980): 201207. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1386254 (accessed March 9, 2012).


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Title: Dissociation and Possession, Emily Harris
Series Title: HAI3930, ANT3930, LAS3930, REL3938
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Publisher: Hebblethwaite, Benjamin
Raitano, Megan
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General Note: This is a collection of student essays from the Haitian Vodou class offered at the Universtiy of Florida. These essays are the results of a combination of in class material and independent research on individually chosen topics. The writing styles, citation styles, and views expressed in the essays are established by the students and do not necessarily reflect those of the professor or the Archive.
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Dissociation and Possession
Emily Harris, University of Florida

Possession is a central aspect and of high importance in Haitian Vodou.
Ceremonies provide a chance for specific, or for multiple iwa to visit. Possession is a
display of the existence of the Iwa and a way for those who practice Vodou to
communicate directly with the spirits. In some cases, a chwal (one who is "riden" by the
spirit) will drink pepper infused rum, touch or stand on fire or broken glass, and even eat
glass to prove that they are a Iwa.
The phenomenon of possession has intrigued many psychologists, especially
those who study dissociative disorders. Dissociation describes disconnection or lack of
connection between things usually associated with each other. An example pertaining to
Vodou would be the mind being "disconnected" from the body during possession.
Dissociation of psychological processes involves changes in the way a person
experiences living: depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, identity confusion, and
identity alteration are the main ways that dissociation changes the way a person
experiences reality. Because Vodou is a religion, and dissociation appears to be present
in the practice of possession, it positions "dissociation" in an interesting context: it is not
completely psychological, but it is also spiritual, and a thing to be desired.
In Vodou, there is a belief explaining how possession works. There is a ti bonnanj
and a gwo bonnanj. The ti bonnanj is the part of the mind linked to memory, awareness,
and thought.2 The counterpart gwo bonnanj is the "breath of life" within all humans, it is
what connects us to each other; the more physical side of existence.3 During possession,
it is the ti bonnanj that leaves, and the gwo bonnanj remains intact.4 For possession to
work properly, a Vodouist must master the art of releasing and retrieving the ti bonnanj.
Additionally, the ti bonnanj is said to leave the body when one is sleeping.
Because this concept is part of Vodou, it is interesting to consider this construction of the
mind as an entity capable of independent wandering. In the United States and in the
context of other religions, the mind is not necessarily considered to have the power to
wander away and out of the body. Because those who practice Vodou accept the concept
of the ti bonnanj, do they have the ability to dissociate more easily?
Episodes of possession in Vodou and dissociation both feature memory loss, or
amnesia. Following a possession, the chwal is unable to recall what happened while they
were possessed. The same thing happens when an individual dissociates. In Vodou
ceremonies, possession is tightly controlled by the oungan or manbo and the chwal wants
to be possessed and ceremonies are held to try to invoke possession.5 When an individual
with a dissociative disorder dissociates, it is not necessarily desired. This can become
maladaptive because one can dissociate between different personalities or aspects of the
self and not remember where they are or even who they are when they come out of it.6
Most often, Vodouists remember who they are after they come out of a possession.

1 http://www.isst-d.org/education/faq-dissociation.htm
2 Hebblethwaite, p. 295
3 Hebblethwaite, p.242
4 Hebblethwaite, p.295
5 McCarthy Brown, p.58-68
6 Dell, p. 172









Dissociative disorders stem from severe abuse or neglect in very early childhood,
occurring before age 5. On the other hand, possession occurs throughout the world and is
a function of many religions. People who participate in religious ceremonies involving
possession are able to release themselves. In Vodou, one's ti bonnanj can "dissociate,"
without impacting one's ability to still live a psychologically healthy life free from
distress or impairment. This is explained by the two different types of possession.
Ritual possession, referring to a "temporary, generally voluntary and usually
reversible form of trance exhibited in religious ceremonies"7 is the kind invoked during
Vodou ceremonies. The other type of possession, considered in some cultures to be
demon possession, is a relatively long term state in which the "individual believes he is
unwillingly possessed by one or more intruding spirits and exhibits contingent behavioral
responses which he attributes to the spirit's influence".8 This possession becomes
maladaptive and hinders functioning in daily life. Some studies in Ghana have shown that
people who are likely to be possessed by a spirit have had more traumatic incidents
happen to them, either in the recent or distant past than those who are not able to be
possessed by a spirit.9 While this is an interesting observance, not much is known about
the sample size of the people who were interviewed in Ghana, and if these findings
generalize to other religions that involve possession. It seems that most people have the
ability to access some type of dissociative experience on the "continuum of dissociation",
but that traumatic experiences foster the ability to dissociate.10
A question that is important to consider here is how much of the way that people
dissociate is defined by cultural context. Anthropologists have recorded children
attending Vodou ceremonies dancing and mimicking the adults who are possessed."
Christian children have been observed in much the same way, mimicking parents
worshipping and speaking in tongues. Recent psychological research has suggested that
each type of trance or possession is an expression on a sort of continuum of dissociation,
that there is no single "subject," that the self can fragment, and that there are many
different ways reality or life experiences are perceived.12
Vodou is a fascinating mechanism for studying dissociation because possession is
central to the religion. Worshippers who live otherwise psychologically healthy lives can
still dissociate. Additionally, it is interesting to note that releasing and retrieving the ti
bonnanj is a skill that one works to master. This implies that it is not something that
initially comes naturally to the Vodouists, but is a skill that they have cultivated. Because
dissociation is something that is known to stem from a traumatic past, the spiritual use of
possession in Vodou is insightful because it indicates that more people may be able to tap
into the powers of our minds than previously thought. It also indicates that dissociation
does not always signal that something bad has happened or is completely uncontrollable.


Ward, Beaubrun, p. 201
8 Ward, Beaubrun, p.202
9 Beattie and Middleton, p. 18
10 http://www.isst-d.org/education/faq-dissociation.htm
11 Dell, p. 173

12 Dell, p.176









In the case of Vodou, it may bring insightful news to a community or an individual and
serve them beneficially.










Bibliography


Beattie, John, and John Middleton. "Spirit Possession in Ghana ." In Spirit mediumship
and society in Africa, 3-30. London: Routledge, 2004.

Brown, K. M., & American Council of Learned Societies. (2001). Mama Lola a Vodou
Priestess in Brooklyn. Comparative studies in religion and society (Updated and
expanded ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dell, Paul F., and John A. Neil. Dissociation and the dissociative disorders: DSM-V and
beyond. New York: Routledge, 2009.

"Dissociative Disorders-What you need to know-FAQs." Dissociation and Trauma: Join
ISSTD!. http://www.isst-d.org/education/faq-dissociation.htm (accessed March
12,2012).

Hebblethwaite, B. (2012). Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English = Chante Vodou
an Kreyol Ayisyen Ak Angle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ward, Colleen, and Michael Beaubrun. "The Psychodynamics of Demon Possession."
Journal for the Scientifc Study of Religion 19, no. 2 (1980): 201-207.
http://www.j stor.org/stable/1386254 (accessed March 9, 2012).