Severals

Ian Hacking

  • First Person Plural: Multiple Personality and the Philosophy of Mind by Stephen Braude
    Routledge, 283 pp, £35.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 415 03591 0

Stephen Braude is a philosopher who thinks that the phenomenon of multiple personality teaches something about the human mind. Until recently he would not have had much of a phenomenon: a thin diet of 19th-century anecdotes, a little flurry of cases in France after 1875, and a few more described at greater length in America after the turn of the century. Or he could have resorted to the Doppelgänger of romantic literature, well enough covered in past issues of the London Review, and analysed in that amazingly many-layered book Doubles by its co-editor, Karl Miller. But something new and strange has been happening in North America – a veritable epidemic of multiple personalities. It began about 1972. It was called an epidemic by one psychiatrist in an essay published in 1982. By 1992 the disorder is flourishing. Not that there is any consensus that there ‘is’ such a condition. There is what can only be called a multiple personality movement built roughly as a pyramid. At the top is a relatively small number of dedicated psychiatrists who diagnose literally hundreds of patients. Then there is a larger number of clinical psychologists who recognise some of their clients as multiples. Next, at least in some regions, there is a very substantial number of social workers who find the condition in their case work. And finally there are the multiples themselves, some of whom organise themselves into self-help groups, publish newsletters and the like.

What is multiple personality disorder? During the 19th century British doctors wrote of ‘double consciousness’. Typically a patient had two states, one vivacious, one inhibited. There was one-way amnesia, the cautious, proper person having no memory of the gay and merry one. One famous early case had two-way amnesia, and in the second state the young woman had to relearn all her skills – writing, piano. Most of the patients were young women, although older men were also reported. Men more commonly had what came to be called fugues: a man about to be married or in mid-life crisis would disappear and take up a new personality in another town, with no memory of his previous existence. The switch between states occurred suddenly, with a brief spasm and short trance-like condition intervening. Occasionally a third ‘alter’ personality manifested itself. Alters not only had different memories, mannerisms and skills, but also they somehow looked different, especially in the cast of the eyes. One famous multiple, who was a seamstress, could tell when she was about to have a switch and wrote notes to her other self so she could pick up her work without interruption – for when she woke up she would have no memory of what she had been doing.

That’s the old story, to which I’ll return, for it matters to Braude’s book. During the 1970s multiples began to live in another world. In the clinics of the therapists who believe in multiple personality, the alters are never two in number. A dozen personalities are common; in some samples 25 per individual is the mean. People with over a hundred alters are reported, although in these cases, fewer than twenty will regularly assume ‘executive control’. There is a standard theory on the cause of the trouble. The splitting of persons is a response to childhood trauma, nearly always childhood sexual abuse.

It is to be remembered that what we now call child abuse came to the fore exactly in 1962, with widespread publicity about battered baby syndrome. Only about 1975 did physical abuse become integrated with incest, and then with a very extended concept of incest including fondling. The standard form of multiple therapy today encourages the patient to recall the details of the (taken for granted) incidents of child sexual abuse, and tries to elicit a great many alters, each of which will be connected to yet another repressed memory of trauma.

Freud is anathema to members of the multiple movement, as to many others who are preoccupied by sexual abuse, because of his rejection of his own early seduction theory. But the theory and practice is evidently a strangely simplistic version of early Freud. One founding member of the present multiple movement is a self-described ‘maverick psychoanalyst’, Cornelia Wilbur, whose patient was described in a book Sybil published in 1974 (it then became a very long movie). The case had all the modern paraphernalia of sexual abuse, and 16 personalities. Many people think of The Three Faces of Eve (1957, and also a film) as a literary precedent, but it is no part of the modern movement. The two doctors who treated Eve found for her a classic three personalities. One of these doctors was to denounce the subsequent multiple movement. He denied that the host of present patients suffer from multiple personality at all. Eve herself joined the movement, rejected her doctors, developed 22 personalities, memories of child abuse, and went on the lecture circuit.

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