Book Review - Anatomy of a Life Possessed

Cultic Studies Review, 1(3), 2002

Book Review - Anatomy of a Life Possessed

Maria Ferrara Pema. New York, NY: Winner Episode Press (P.O. Box 1530), 2002, 342 pages. $19.95. ISBN 0-97 19221-5-2; LOC 200-21-04852.

Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart

Maria Ferrara Pema, born in 1933 and raised in Poland, believes that for decades a Catholic monk telepathically and hypnotically possessed her. Throughout her book, Pema calls this monk “Friar G.” She describes Friar G. as a stigmatic (who bleeds with the wounds of Jesus), with a cult following in Italy. Friar G., she says, knew Padre Pio, the newly canonized saint, and apparently “inherited” Pio’s stigmatic condition. Anatomy of a Life Possessed is the author’s autobiographical testament about her origins, self-proclaimed possession experience, struggle to maintain her sanity, and reactionary stance against the Roman Catholic Church.

Pema begins with her origins in Poland, where she was raised in privileged circumstances with her twin brother. Stalinism and communism were her first belief systems. At age 16 she became an accomplished ballet dancer in Warsaw, and later she pursued an acting career in Italy. Her father was a Tibetan aristocrat and a physician with Buddhist principles. He was at one time a doctor to the Russian czar and his family when Rasputin was on the scene. Pema describes her mother as an elegant, overbearing woman who was more concerned with appearances than with nurturing her children.

As a young actress, Pema worked in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (if you are a Fellini fan, you will like some of the author’s insights into this innovative filmmaker). She later married a famous entertainment lawyer, Max, who was 30 years her elder. During this period, the proverbial “sixties,” Pema hung out with the hip elite, experimented with drugs, and sought contact with prominent gurus, including the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose Transcendental Meditation movement attracted many celebrities worldwide. She also turned to Catholicism and various Christian sects at this time in her search for truth.

Most of Pema’s story is about what happened after she met Friar G. Upon meeting the enigmatic monk at his church in 1972, Pema felt a palpable connection with his “energy,” and instantly she received telepathic messages indicating that the monk would use her for a miracle. At that time in the early 1970s a paralyzed man was coming to Friar G. for healing, with no success. Pema reports that Friar G. entranced her to use her body as a vehicle to heal the paralytic man. According to Pema, Friar G. needed a bona fide miracle to achieve recognition as a living saint. Pema began to feel the man’s paralysis as she felt Friar G. directing her to nod her head back and forth in a motion that would somehow trigger the spine of the paralytic to heal, as if by sympathetic magic.

Pema’s possession eventually strained her marriage to the point that she lived apart from her husband and later moved to New York. Still, she claims that Friar G. telepathically managed to influence her across the Atlantic Ocean. As examples, she explains that he caused her to engage in a sexual relationship with a younger man and continued to use her to sympathetically heal the paralytic. Pema suffered bouts of immobility and pain. During one of her excursions to seek relief and spiritual insight, Pema went to see Gurumayi (a.k.a. Swami Chidvilasananda) at her South Fallsburg, New York ashram. While there, Pema got no relief, and she claims that this guru, a protégé of the controversial Swami Muktananda, who died in 1982, is a paranoid and manipulative cult leader.

In Part 2 of her book, fully two-thirds of the text, Pema expands upon her “letter to the Pope,” in which she complains about Friar G.’s use of “mind control” on her. After having consulted some books critical of church dogma and tradition, Pema rants on and on about how the Holy See managed to hide the truth about the real Jesus. In her view, Jesus was also possessed, as were most saints, including Padre Pio. Pema utilizes published criticism about Pio in her denunciation of the Church, which she says colludes to blind the faithful to the truth. On page 139, Pema cites Marija Gimbutas and other sources who claim that the Church executed 8 or 9 million women during the “witch hunts” of the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The latter is an unsupported exaggeration, as research indicates, and this is not to minimize the horrible events, that less than 100,000 men and women were executed.* Of course, Pema, who aligns with many New Age writers, neglects to mention criticism of Gimbutas, whose circuitous logic does not convince non-feminist scholars in her field of archeology.**

Part 2 of the book also contains the writer’s speculation about cosmic reality and the meaning of life. In a chapter titled “The Physiology of Manipulation” (pages 265-66), Pema attempts to explain in medical terms how her possession worked: frequent outbursts and lack of any sense of shame were because my hypothalamus was thrown out of balance. I was forced to surrender control over my actions. Because it exerts such influence over the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamus basically serves as the higher nervous center governing the lower. By stimulating the lower, Friar G. was able to make it prevail over the higher, controlling center.

To me, this rationalization parallels the theosophical speculation of New Age favorites such as Rudolf Steiner, not the medical knowledge of science.

Oddly, Pema attempts to educate the reader about the dangers of cults and mind control, possession and religion. Her quest for the big answer leads her to accept Confucianism and non-religious Buddhism, as well as secular humanism. In her mind, the latter is exemplified in the work of Paul Kurtz, a skeptic, and founder of Free Inquiry magazine. Ironically, she finds Kurtz’s atheistic philosophy to be the bedrock of reality, but she misses completely that Kurtz the skeptic would never support her belief in telepathic possession. Pema expounds on quantum theory and recites the New Age belief that modern physics has proved that the brain, being of the same stuff as the universe, can affect the physical and social environment through thought alone. This perspective also explains why Pema holds the bizarre notion that mind control is accomplished through telepathic thought transference. On page 273 she states, “We already know that our cells make very good transmitters and receptors; we can send our thoughts and wills to influence people far away.”

We have no idea whether Friar G. ever knew anything about Pema’s irrational compliance. She does report that in a rare, personal talk with the monk, Friar G. urged her to see a psychiatrist. Many others in her life told her to do the same. Pema insists throughout her story that she was possessed, not mentally ill. She denies specifically and elaborately (page 105) that she had manifestations of schizophrenia. (At the time of this book’s writing, Pema tells us she is managing to stay stable or “un-possessed” with the help of “medicines,” but she does not specify what these medicines are.)

Pema’s intent in publishing her story is mentioned in the back page: “The author plans to create a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect innocent people, particularly children, from the dangers of religious cults by proposing to create new legislation.” If after reading my review anyone is still interested, Pema currently resides in New York City.

This book fails as a didactic tool, but it does present the personal mythology of a woman bent on reconstructing reality to sustain her denial of what may be a mental illness.

* From Richard Smoley, an editor of Gnosis Magazine, who, in 1998, cited Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 8. “The commonly cited figure of nine million victims, by the way, is generally thought to be ridiculously inflated; more sober estimates say that the witch hunts claimed 40,000-50,000 lives over three centuries, about 75% women.”

** “In 1982 Gimbutas reissued her book as The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, and she began seeing representations of the Goddess, and of female reproductive apparatus (wombs, Fallopian tubes, amniotic fluid), in a huge array of Stone Age artifacts, even in abstractions such as spirals and dots.” Charlotte Allen. “The Scholars and The Goddess: Historically speaking, the `ancient’ rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk” (The Atlantic Monthly/January 2001)