readings> multiple personalities

A killer claims he is innocent because his ‘alter ’ did it. A woman tells a psychiatric conference she is inhabited by more than 180 personalities. Can the human mind really play host to multiple selves?

‘Julia’ presents a classic case of multiple personality disorder. She describes how she has been’losing time’ since she was a child. She once came round in  an unfamiliar classroom to discover that a chunk of nearly two years had gone missing. Another time she found herself in a scummy bar talking to a guy who seemed to know her an awful lot better than she knew him.

In therapy, her alternate personalities began to emerge. Elizabeth was the administrator who kept some order among the Inside People . George was the burly protector who came out in moments of danger. Joanne was the playful 12-year-old. Sandi was the terrified four-year-old, trapped at the moment of abuse. In all, Julia had nearly 100 selves, although many were not much more than fragments, having merely labels like Noise or no names at all.

As therapy began to reveal these others to her, it appeared the splitting had been caused by a childhood of extreme physical and sexual abuse involving her mother, father and brother. Julia had contained these experiences by dividing them up among a cast of characters. Now she needed to break down the barriers of amnesia and make herself whole once more.

Psychiatrists are furiously divided over whether cases like Julia are genuine or fake. Can the self really disintegrate under pressure? Or is multiple personality just a product of therapy itself, patients responding to the suggestions of their counsellors?

It is certainly a fact that reports of multiple personality hardly existed until the publication of Sybil   in 1973.  After this account of a woman cracking into 16 alters due to abuse by her schizophrenic mother, diagnosis rocketed. Doubters say this is proof it is an imagined syndrome – a modern fad. But believers say it only proves therapists now know what to look for.

It is also a fact that there is a consistent pattern to the disorder. Sufferers tend to have a high IQ – Sybil was said to be in the genius class . As with Julia, there are usually recognisable types among the alters, such as administrators , protectors and frightened children. The average number of alters is 13, but super-multiples can claim many more. At the First International Conference on Multiple Personality, a woman called Cassandra set some sort of record by claiming over 180. And behind practically every case there lies a tale of extreme and prolonged childhood abuse. Importantly, the abuse has to happen during early childhood – trauma even in teenage years does not produce the disorder.

Believers point out that children have still growing brains and not fully-integrated personalities so could be prone to a deep rooted splitting where alternative selves with their own memories and attitudes grab a share of the same brain. Doubters agree that most sufferers have probably been abused, this fact leading them to the therapist’s door. But their unstable mental health would simply make them vulnerable to suggestions they may be repressing memories of still worse crimes – memories perhaps known only to some hidden personality. 

Believers have tried to demonstrate that the alters are real personalities taking over the patient’s body. Given eye tests, some alters need glasses. They can switch their handedness. They can have their own allergies. One person had alters that spoke different languages like Arabic and Serbo-Croatian.

Such difference appear hard to fake. But the doubters counter with what seems like a clinching fact - people with multiple personalities almost always score exceptionally highly for hypnotisabilty. This would make them perfect fodder for any therapist with a theory. As with recovered memories, tales of satanic abuse, regressions to past lives, and other controversies of modern psychotherapy, it could simply be that the hypnosis routinely used to’get at’ the symptoms is in fact producing the symptoms. Under hypnosis, imagined happenings – and alternative personalities – become so vivid as to seem real.

It is probably going too far to say all cases of multiple personality are manufactured on the therapist’s couch. To turn the argument around, a person who is highly hypnotisable and thus has an unusual ability to dissociate  would be expected to use this skill to escape genuine abuse during childhood. As with hypnosis itself, multiple personality disorder seems to exist in some grey area between genuine and fake. No one can say how much therapy contributes to elaboration of the personalities, giving them names and concrete identities. But the initial splitting – the act of dissociation – probably does take place at the moment of abuse as the sufferers report.

court room stories

The question ‘is it faked or is real?’ certainly matters in the courtroom. In the 1970s, Billy Milligan was arrested for a series of rapes and robberies in Ohio and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Milligan blamed the crimes on 20 or more alter egos. Arthur, an erudite Englishman fluent in Arabic, planned the rapes. Ragen, a giant colour-blind Yugoslavian, started the attacks. But the actual assaults were carried out by Adalana, an introverted lesbian. Milligan, since freed as an out-patient, says most other cases of multiple personality are obvious fakes.

In 1979, Kenneth Bianchi – the Hillside Strangler – was charged with the rape and murder of two girls in Los Angeles. Bianchi claimed to have blanked out during the attack. In therapy, Steve emerged to say he had ‘fixed Ken good’. But when another more dubious psychiatrist examined Bianchi and suggested it was unusual to have just one alter, swiftly further personalities began to appear. It was concluded he was faking. Bianchi eventually confessed to committing the crimes with his cousin and was sentenced to life imprisonment. 

In a further twist on court appearances, in 1995 two women with multiple personality disorders had their various alters sworn in separately to give evidence in a civil suit against their psychiatrist, Dr William Routt. They won a multi-million dollar judgement from Minnesota courts because of claims Routt had sexually abused their alters during therapy, swearing them to secrecy.

famous multiples

Christine Beauchamp (real name: Clara Fowler) – A Boston professor, Morton Prince, gave the first book-length account of a case of multiple personality in 1906. Christine, an introverted young Radcliffe student came to him with a list of neurotic symptoms. Under hypnosis, first emerged Sally, a flirtatious alter ego who would strip naked or play tricks like sending her other half a box of spiders. Later came an angry child-like figure dubbed the Devil or sometimes the Idiot.

Eve White (real name: Christine Sizemore) – In the 1950s, a demure 25-year-old telephonist was referred to Dr Corbett Thigpen complaining of headaches and blackouts. She also heard voices. Hypnosis revealed Eve Black, a provocative and wayward alter ego. Later came Jane, a calm and mature personality. The case led to the celebrated book and film, The Three Faces of Eve. In fact 19 more personalities emerged in the decades following Eve’s   initial treatment with Thigpen.

 Sybil Dorsett (real name: Shirley Mason) – Also in the 1950s, a young Columbia University student began therapy with Dr Cornelia Wilbur. Gradually over 11 years emerged a tale of abuse by her schizophrenic mother. Sybil reported having fantasy playmates as a child. Under hypnosis, these became 16 personalities inhabiting her own mind. Sybil’s story was turned into a best-seller by a journalist and continues to cause controversy over the extent to which the personalities pre-existed the therapy.

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