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.

What is it like to be a multiple today? Karl Miller wrote of Sybil: ‘Every life is made up, put on, imagined – including, hypocrite lecteur, yours. Sybil’s life was made up by Sybil, by her doctor, when she became a case, and again, when she became a book, by her author. Sixteen selves were imagined, but it is not even entirely certain that there were as many as two.’ There is much truth in the saying that a life, in both recollection and writing, is made up. Miller was also right to point to the remarkable continuity between 19th century fictions and a new genre of multibiographies. The pace quickened after Sybil, with titles like The Five of Me (1977), Tell me who I am before I die (1977), The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981). Perhaps the most recent instance is The Flock (1991). One way in which these stories differ from the old romantic tradition of doubles is that they are all doctrinaire. They present in novelesque form a current theory of what it is to be a multiple. The Flock, for example, could be read as an exquisite pastiche of the clinical literature, although I have no doubt that it is entirely serious.

An analysis of these books, as writings, could tell a lot about the multiple movement and its place in American culture, but it would leave us some distance from living multiples. What does it feel like to be multiple? That is partly a matter of constructing a life in collaboration with a therapist. It is also a matter of living with what one has, keeping body and souls together, getting on with the day’s chores. I do not mean to suggest that there is some natural way to be multiple, inherent in the human psyche. Quite the contrary: the disconcerting experiences are thoroughly imbued with contemporary social practices, medical intervention and media folklore. They are nevertheless not felt as if they were cultural by-products. They are perfectly ‘real’ for the afflicted.

Periods of lost time are a standard warning sign of multiplicity – the main public personality is replaced by an alter, whose activities are forgotten later – although remembered, of course, by the alter ego as part of its life. Some alters like to go shopping for clothes to express themselves, so a multiple will have distinct wardrobes, containing clothes that she has no memory of, and indeed finds offensive. There are commonly vicious, cruel alters, evil even to the point that they will threaten suicide in outer to murder other selves. There are also helpful selves who know a lot about the others and are called in the trade ‘Internal Self-Helpers’. Child alters are common; now that child sexual abuse is the known cause of multiplicity, they have become standard. Until very recently most alters were elicited in therapy, where every alter was given its own name. I say until recently – with so much media discussion of the topic, people have begun to discover their alters on their own. The alters of a single individual vary in age, sex and race. Multiples often report, in private, hearing other alters talk from within the head. They argue with each other, snarl, console and sometimes leave for ‘another place’ where they cannot be heard. It is essential not to say this in a hospital or to a standard psychiatrist; if you must say it, insist the voices are inside you. Otherwise you will automatically be diagnosed as schizophrenic and given mind-destroying drugs. The two conditions are entirely distinct: as one psychiatrist in the multiple movement has said, the voices of schizophrenics are crazy, but the alters of a multiple are not mad.

At work, alters are a nuisance, for one will burst in and take over when you’re talking to your boss or a client. Diagnosed multiples who can hold down a job typically work in service industries – including teaching and nursing – and are better educated than average. Multiples (a bit like maintenance alcoholics) develop strategies to cover up the gross gaffes committed by misbehaving alters. Older multiples who wear glasses – a great many do – find they need different prescription glasses for different personalities and will carry several pairs around with them. Multiples who are well aware of their condition now commonly say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, at least in the company of other multiples and friends. And to conclude this litany of behaviour fitting into a civilisation surviving on service industries, the really severe, uncontrolled multiples switch personalities very rapidly, each time assuming a different bizarre and often caricature character. The effect is very similar to switching TV channels by remote control. It is a fact that remote controls became widely used for the very large number of channels available in America just about the time today’s florid multiple multiples became abundant. Names of characters in sitcom and crime series are not uncommon for patients with a great many alters.

There’s a lot of fuzzy discussion about whether multiple personality is a ‘real’ condition or not. Sceptics jeer that it is the UFO of psychiatry; they never see it in their clinics. There’s a lot of confusion about the reality of disease in general, and not only of mental illness: a glance at tables of national diagnosis and treatment rates will show that the incidence of many supposedly ‘organic’ problems is greatly affected by national medical theory, practice and tradition. Multiple personality is extreme: it had its quarter-century in France (1875-1900) and is certainly having a quarter-century in North America. At present it is virtually unknown anywhere else. Stephen Braude very carefully and very rightly distances himself from questions of reality. He does believe that multiple personality is, in any practical sense of the word, a ‘real’ enough condition, but he says he is concerned with what the very idea of the condition shows about the nature of the mind. This is disingenuous, for his book attracts interest only because of that epidemic of multiples all around him.

Rare old historical cases are, however, integral to Braude’s own unusual interests. I have not yet mentioned another aspect of late 19th and early 20th-century multiplicity – spiritualism. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, with a membership drawn from Cambridge and London, in order to study psychic phenomena scientifically. Multiples had just become famous in France, and some members were fascinated by the possibility that alters might be dead souls, sharing a body with a living person. The same notion was strong in the Institut de Métempsychose in Paris and in the American Society for Psychic Research, founded in Boston in 1884. Many cases of multiples were published in the journals or proceedings of the psychical research societies. They include the longest psychological case-history that I have ever found in a journal: 1396 consecutive pages on Doris, plus 216 pages on her mother. A thing of the past? No. Braude’s first publications on multiple personality have recently appeared in the journals of the American and British societies for psychical research.

Parapsychology is not a new interest of Braude’s. His 1986 The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science asserts that the scientific and the learned are dishonest because they ignore the ample evidence for those cases that are reported of the human ability to move objects just by thinking and willing. (It turns out he means 19th-century evidence.) Braude is well-versed in the tortuous interconnections between psychics and multiples. He devotes the last chapter of his new book to mediums. He wonders if they, too, are multiples. Since the mediums profess to manifest dead spirits, he must then consider whether the alters of multiple mediums are dead spirits. He is more cautious about this than about psychokinesis. He thinks poorly of the evidence for transmigration of souls, but does suspect that mediums have multiple personalities. He tells us that in the past two decades there has been a resurgence of mediums – keeping pace with the incidence of multiple personality disorder in the clinics.

Mediums are kept for the final chapter of the book; elsewhere the author reins in his fascination with the occult. Whatever we think of that, for the bulk of the work we have to ask: can the philosopher Braude teach us anything about multiple personality? And, do the phenomena of multiple personality teach anything to the philosopher of mind, Braude? I’d answer a cautious yes to the first question, and an impolite no to the second.

The affirmative answer has to do with a certain natural picture of the multiple. The aim, surely, is to integrate the alters, producing one whole person with one range of clothes in the closet, no lost time, and no embarrassing or destructive behaviour from other alters. One way to do that is to find the ‘real’ personality, and to merge all the other alters into that. In earlier days, experts spoke glibly about ‘killing off’ the nuisance alters. There is now complete consensus that that would be disastrous – partly on the psychological ground that the patient feels the pain, and partly on the metaphysical ground that the alters are real people, and that’s murder. So one is led to the idea of an original person who has to be uncovered, an original that split. Braude has a cumbersome argument to the effect that there need be no original person that split and who is to be reclaimed. Moreover it is quite wrong to suppose that we can learn something about the process by which an ordinary whole personality is formed by studying the way in which a person splits.

Few members of the multiple movement would quarrel with these conclusions. I’ve not noticed any recent expression of the idea of what Braude calls ‘reversal’ – that splitting reenacts unification, backwards. As for the idea of finding the true real person behind the alters, current practice favours helping alters to become ‘co-conscious’. Then they are encouraged to form contracts with each other. Many therapists are quite open to the idea that integration is not a necessary goal, so long as there is co-operation. Some multiples say that they don’t want to lose parts of themselves that help them live with their painful past.

What about the philosophy of mind? At first glance it looks as if multiple personality must show something very deep about the mind, the self, the very essence of a person. Braude is not the only one to think so. Daniel Dennett, whose major book was reviewed in these pages last November, has written about multiples, and has interviewed members of the movement at one of their conferences. Since he believes in a social model of the mind, with a lot of interacting parts with distinct tasks, he comments that, if anything, one might have expected multiplicity to be more common than it is. I protest that the reported experiences of multiple personality are very different from what one would infer from his model of the mind. Braude is far less sympathetic than that. He calls Dennett’s type of view ‘colonialist’, a view according to which ‘there is no ultimate psychological unity, only a deep and initial multiplicity of subjects, “selves”, or, for those smitten with recent work in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, “modules” or subsystems within a person.’ Since Braude is keen on ultimate unity, and pays too little attention to the contemporary reported experiences of multiplicity, he has to resort to heavy irony instead of making the benign observation that the square pegs of cognitive modules simply don’t fit into the round holes of multiple experience.

Kathleen Wilkes, in her book Real People: Personal Identity without Thought Experiments (1988), is also impressed by multiples, and with the (unsubstantiated) evidence that there may be neurological correlates of the condition. Like many other people today, she wants to emphasise variety as opposed to the old shibboleth of unity – and that goes for the unity of the self, too, Braude takes her to put multiples at the end of a range of milder kinds of dissociation or separation of parts of the mental life. For example, at the other end of a continuum will be driving a car while listening to the radio. I’m not so sure that this is Wilkes’s opinion: she urges that our very concept of being a person is ill able to describe multiple personality. Braude more strongly insists that multiples are different from anyone else. They have distinct ‘centres of apperception’. That means that they have several ‘me’s’. Each me has a fairly ordinary collection of beliefs, memories, hopes, angers and so forth; each me ascribes these beliefs itself to its own ‘I’ in the first person: the beliefs are what Braude calls ‘indexical’. Car radios and driving are not like that, nor, says Braude (who has much of interest to say about hypnotism), is that a good description of what happens in hypnosis. He is particularly keen to characterise multiples so as to transcend the medical category of ‘multiple personality disorder’. He wants it to include mediums, who do not suffer from a disorder but who do apply beliefs, memories, in a thoroughly indexical way to the different voices that speak through them, the voice of your great-grandmother, Zoroaster etc.

Thus far, Braude is using his own new terminology for quite old-fashioned descriptions of multiples. His use of philosophical terminology (e.g. ‘indexicality’) makes one focus on a logical rather than a practical point. What helps keep all those ‘me’s’ going for a patient in a clinic is not the indexical use of ‘I’ to refer to distinct centres of apperception: it is instead the practice of assigning proper names to numerous personalities that are elicited. And it is interesting that the mediums have long been using voices with names of dead people. I do think that Braude’s importation of technical semantics should be replaced by some down-home reflections on names.

There is, however, one fascinating twist to Braude’s philosophy. Between 1875 and 1900 French philosopher-psychologists of a positivist and republican stripe were much taken with multiple personality. Pierre Janet wrote that without the most famous French multiple there would be no chair of psychology at the Collège de France. Janet’s predecessor in the chair, Théodule Ribot, argued that the traditional, conservative neo-Kantian French school of philosophy insisted upon a transcendental ego, whose existence was proven by theology or metaphysics. The wave of multiples that struck France proved there need be no one transcendental ego. There need only be an empirically-formed self built from memory, experience and an evolving sense of self-awareness. And multiples, they argued, proved that one individual could have more than one of those selves – hence there could not be one a-priori ego. ‘Members of the old school,’ wrote Ribot, ‘accuse us of filching their moi.’

More than a century later Braude has come to make restitution – although Ribot himself is mentioned only in passing in another connection. Braude is little concerned with the niceties of modern multiples. He says virtually nothing about the currently supposed cause of the condition – namely, child sexual abuse. His terms of reference are a century old. From almost exactly the same suppositions as Ribot, he concludes that there must be a transcendental ego. There must be something that holds the alters together, that enables them to interact when they become co-conscious. There is some prior unified self in which this mental theatre is engaged.

I shall not pursue his argument. What is true is that the alters of one individual share a lot of skills. They usually speak the same language (there have been some European multiples whose alters really did speak different languages). They can walk and cross the street and tie their shoelaces. Even those rare multiples who’ve had to do a lot of relearning for each of their states retained nearly all ordinary skills and ostentatiously relearned only what would be seen to be learnt, such as penmanship, typing or piano. Braude is right to emphasise this fact, but after that. I note how loose his argument is at the joints. From the same data, you wiggle your way to his conclusion, that there is a fundamental, prior and perhaps transcendental ego, or else to Ribot’s conclusion, that there is no such thing.

This ambiguity is typical, I believe, of connections between multiple personality and theories of ‘the mind’. We should focus on the fact that the behaviours called multiple personality are extraordinarily various. Why should we say that those modest victims of 19th-century Double Consciousness suffered from late 20th-century Multiple Personality Disorder? I do not speak of other candidates for multiplicity favoured by some movement members: spirit possession or shamanism, which is found in so many societies around the globe, not to mention the devil closer to home. It is not as if there were some known organic dysfunction shared by all these deviations from our norms. What we do see from time to time in European and American milieux are some very troubled people interacting with their cultural and medical surroundings. They cast, perhaps, a distorting image of what their communities think it is to be a person. I believe we can learn something, perhaps a lot, about how a group at a time represents the self. That would be a philosophical lesson to draw from the varieties of multiple personality. But it is not a lesson about ‘the mind’. If it is a lesson for the philosophy of mind, it is a lesson about what we in the European tradition have called the mind. That mind is not so much a concomitant of the brain as of our social arrangements.