Some of us have to leave the suburbs to find ourselves. Some of us leave the family business. At Elle, Sunny Sea Gold recounts how she had to leave the family religion to find what she truly believed about good and evil, right and wrong, and the supernatural elements of our world.

Gold’s southern California family embraced exorcisms as part of being Seventh-day Adventists, even though Adventists didn’t sanction exorcisms. When she got older, she had to reconcile her scientific worldview with the questionable experiences she’d had as a religious child. Sunny beaches, snarling demons — hers was an unusual California childhood. You might have seen The Exorcist, but imagine living The Exorcist at age 9.

I still believed in God and the Devil as I grew into an adult, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about exactly what I believed. Then I started a career as a health and science journalist, immersing myself in new research and studies in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology—and I began to seriously question what I’d seen as a child. I could no longer simply accept, on faith, a supernatural explanation for what had happened.

Now, after months of interviews with my family, along with several psychiatrists, neurologists, and a Catholic exorcist—none of whom claim to know exactly how possession works —I’ve started to think that these experiences may stem from a mix of neurology, culture, and social psychology. Perhaps it’s a combination of the human brain’s ability to dissociate, a mental process in which a person’s sense of identity disconnects from their thoughts and memories, and the power of suggestion.

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