Recently, The New York Times revisited the phenomenon of what was at the time called “multiple personality disorder” (MPD), focusing on the story of Sybil. There’s a good 12-minute Retro Report film to go with the piece, too. Says the article:
Pre-"Sybil,” the diagnosis was rare, with only about 100 cases ever having been reported in medical journals. Less than a decade after “Sybil” made its appearance, in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association formally recognized the disorder, and the numbers soared into the thousands.
Community of selves
“Sybil” always swore that her story was true, that she wasn’t faking it. Regardless, multiple personality phenomena are real. And to an extent, they are part of the human condition for everyone. Don’t we all have lots of “selves,” lots of disparate strands in the tapestry of our being? We can be two-faced; we are Jekyll and Hyde. We have our home self, our work self, our social self. The self who is generous, kind and loving, and the destructive, mad and bad “shadow” self that can rear its ugly head at inopportune moments. The vacation self—if only we could be that person more often! The wild, bohemian, colourful self; the nerdy, pedantic, grey self. The child self, the adult self, the parent self. The online self. The bad-air-guitar-when-no-one-is-looking self. The self who gorges on fast food and junk TV, and the higher self who, in occasional moments of serene elevated awareness, feels some kind of spiritual wisdom. They all inhabit our being in a loose confederacy. They each have different priorities and agendas; some are stronger than others. At times, some need to step up while others step back. Don’t bring your slightly tipsy, Hawaiian-shirted holiday self to a funeral. When it’s the office party, don’t entirely give your work self the night off. Don’t send your child self off to confront the noisy neighbour. Leave your parent self at the door when you go to your salsa class.
This community of fragmentary selves is like a rather rubbish football team—our selves don’t all get along or play together well, but they all wear the same kit and on a good day, in their own way, they all want what’s best for the team. We are able to “feel like one self while being many” as Philip Bromberg writes, through a process of normal, non-pathological dissociation—paying attention to one and benching another, as the need arises. That’s the job of our harried manager, what Kant called our “synthesizing self”; our ego.
Sometimes, however, different “players” become problematic. We are ashamed of one or another of them; only a few players are considered presentable—“if people really knew me, they wouldn’t like me,” says the client. Or team members fall out with each other—a common scenario is a kind of mutiny, when the team finally rebels against the “sergeant major,” the authoritarian, workaholic, bullying and highly critical team captain, and they walk off the pitch: one morning, perhaps on the day of an important work meeting, the client simply cannot get out of bed. The boundaries between the selves have become too rigid. We have lost the ability, the flexibility, to pass the ball. The result is a kind of disintegration, or what pioneering dissociation researcher Pierre Janet in 1889 called “psychological disaggregation.” The team falls apart. Common dissociative symptoms include amnesia, fragmentation of identity, and feelings of detachment and unreality about one’s self, body and environment.
Whatever your degree of dissociation, the therapy room is a place where any aspects of the self, all the shameful, bad or damaged bits, can be invited in, experienced, heard, accepted, processed, healed and encouraged to re-join the team.
“Health is not integration” of these different selves, writes Bromberg. “Health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them. This is what I believe self-acceptance means and what creativity is really all about.”
The manager looks upon his team members not with scorn, or judgment, but with an appreciation for them all, an acceptance, an understanding—not despite their imperfections but because of them. A good manager loves their team.
Possessed by spirits
Sometimes, the dissociation can be extreme, as a result of something bad happening. There is abuse or trauma of some kind. The psychic injury—the internal conflict or external shock—is simply too hard to bear. It can’t be processed; there is no room for it in our conscious mind. “Eve” attributed her fragmentation to having witnessed, within three months as a small child, two deaths and a horrifying accident. An afflicted self is split off; we attempt to lock it away. Dissociation has been described as an escape when there is no escape. It is a creative solution to a terrible problem, a way of preserving some kind of temporary stability, a frozen state of purgatory, a desperate, anxious compromise—like having one foot hard down on the accelerator and the other hard down on the brake.
At this extreme, as perhaps with Eve and Sybil, different selves become entirely self-contained, unknown to and incompatible with the others, and we enter the territory of multiple personalities, or what these days is called “dissociative identity disorder,” the defining feature of which is “two or more distinct personality states.” (The prevalence of dissociative identity disorder is about 1.5 percent, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) The symptoms are acute and may involve sudden switches from one personality state to another; physical problems with no organic cause such as seizures, paralysis or loss of sensation; hearing voices; and chronic amnesia. Sufferers may find themselves in a different part of town or even in another country with no recollection or idea of how they got there.
Some research claims there can be psychophysiological changes between different personalities within the same person. “Eve” as Eve Black, for instance had an allergic reaction when she wore nylon stockings; when she was “Eve White,” she supposedly did not. Some of the other purported differences between a person’s personalities are in handedness—one personality might be left-handed, another right-handed. Or differences in various kinds of allergies and skin reactions, heart rate, respiration, EEG patterns, speech, handwriting, visual acuity and other sensual changes, talents, skills and interests. In some cultures the afflicted person is thought of as being possessed by spirits. Some of a disordered person’s personalities can have that quality, as if they came from nowhere—as if they were players transferred in from a completely different team on a completely different, alien league, as with those bizarre stories when someone regains consciousness from a coma or a blow to the head to find themselves speaking fluently in another language (called “xenoglossy”), or transformed into a musical genius. If we believe in such things.
These claims inhabit the realm of the transpersonal, the mystical, the paranormal, and as such are derided by a certain kind of “science,” the kind that tends to miss the idea of a wood through being so busy examining the bark on the trees. Jung popularised the notion of the “collective unconscious"; before him, 19th century philosopher-psychologists like William James and Frederic Myers also believed that we are far more than our rational, conscious, individual selves. We are instead open systems, interconnected, interacting with and being influenced by each other and a field of psychic energy that extends way beyond the confines of our physical bodies. Whether we like the idea or not, we are all both in and out of our minds.