- Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
Flamingo, 496 pp, £12.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 00 716423 8
With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.
So wrote Henry Jekyll in Stevenson’s novel. Unlike 19th-century duality, however, modern multiple personality hasn’t been much dealt with in literary fiction. It has flourished on talk shows, in movies and soaps, but in print its main vehicle has been the dramatic case history or autobiography, usually ‘as told to’ a professional writer. These books take some pains to distance themselves from imaginative literature, and the most influential ‘multobiography’, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil (1973), is particularly uncompromising about this. When Sybil Isabel Dorsett, the patient-heroine, asks if she’s ‘like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, her therapist, Cornelia Wilbur, gets tough: ‘Dr Wilbur slapped her hand in her fist. "That’s not a true story,” she said. "It’s pure fiction. You are not at all like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson wasn’t a psychoanalyst. He created those two characters out of his literary imagination. As a writer he was concerned only with spinning a good yarn."’
Earlier psychiatrists weren’t always so stern. In The Dissociation of a Personality (1906), Morton Prince described his patient ‘Christine Beauchamp’ as ‘an example in actual life of the imaginative creation of Stevenson’. Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley took a similar line in their famous case history, The Three Faces of Eve (1957): they deplored Dr Jekyll’s ‘gross and impossible bodily alterations’ but added that ‘running through this vivid and poetic extravagance we find a texture of plausibility, a thread of reality that cannot be dismissed forthwith as mere supernatural moonshine.’ Cornelia Wilbur was the only one who believed she had found a clear-cut explanation for multiplicity. After listening to the horrific stories told by the 16 ‘alters’ elicited in the course of Sybil’s analysis, Wilbur concluded that it was caused by repeated sexual abuse during childhood.
In the US, Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) – or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), as psychiatrists now call it – became therapeutic big business during the 1980s, and despite frequent and vigorous attacks on both the notion of the illness and the practices of the psychiatrists treating it, a large number of people have come to identify themselves as multiples. Thanks to the popularity of Sybil and its successors, and later to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera, the condition is also well known to the public. This has been good news for thriller writers, and for Hollywood, which has weighed in with a dire sequence of multiple personality pictures: Femme Fatale (1991), Colour of Night (1994), Primal Fear (1996) and Identity (2003).
Pulp novelists and screenwriters have generally thought it best to reimagine the syndrome to their own specifications, but in his new novel, Set This House in Order, Matt Ruff has tried to make his story consistent with non-fiction accounts. His descriptions of rival alters in control of different body parts probably wouldn’t pass muster with the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, but he has been largely faithful to the spirit of the MPD movement, and as a result his novel will infuriate those who believe that the disorder is largely created or learned during therapy. Ruff acknowledges this line of thinking, but quickly disposes of it by having his narrator give a sarcastic sketch of the flakes he’s encountered in the mental health system:
There was Dr Minor, who believed that most MPD cases were the result, not of ordinary child abuse, but of ritual abuse perpetrated by a nationwide conspiracy of satanic cults. There was Dr Bruno, who was into past-life regression. There was Dr Whitney, who as a sideline to his regular practice ran a support group for people who had been sexually assaulted by extraterrestrials. And then there was Dr Leopold, who recommended litigation as an adjunct to psychotherapy. ‘Sue your parents,’ he advised.
Fortunately for the narrator – or rather for his fellow alters, since the narrator, at this point, hasn’t been ‘called out’ – a more sensible psychotherapist soon turns up, and treatment proceeds without reference to extraterrestrials. However, sceptics would retort that MPD therapists’ reliance on recovered memories is no less faith-based than a belief in past-life regression. And, they might add, the views attributed to Dr Minor aren’t confined to a few West Coast fruitcakes, as Ruff implies. Bennett Braun, a leading figure from the early days of MPD, had his licence suspended when a patient claimed he’d convinced her she had 300 alters – one of them a busy cannibal, another a satanic priestess. In the fundamentalist hinterland, some therapists have apparently operated according to the theory that devil-worshippers abuse children in order to make them dissociate. The cultists are then said to implant their victims with alters programmed to feed false information to righteous psychotherapists.
Still, it’s not Ruff’s job to deal with every aspect of the psychiatric controversy, and the MPD literature has furnished him with some wonderful material. Andrew Gage, his narrator, is one of many ‘souls’ inhabiting the body of Andy Gage, who was abused so severely by a cruel stepfather during childhood that florid multiplicity offered the only way out. Being, in his own opinion, fairly well-adjusted, Andrew is now in charge of Andy Gage’s body, and his co-souls are largely content to stay put in a house by a lake inside Andy Gage’s head. This house, and the wooded landscape surrounding it, was built by Andrew’s ‘father’, Aaron, who was the first of the many souls to work out what was going on. With the help of a kindly therapist, Aaron tamed the chaotic inner landscape, imposing order and building a life in the outside world. Then, exhausted by his hard mental labour, he summoned Andrew to run the body and retreated for ever inside – or so he says.
Aaron, Andrew and the rest constitute what’s known in online support groups as an ‘empowered multiple’: someone for whom inner household management – rather than ‘reintegration’, as Ruff calls it – is the (unorthodox) therapeutic goal. Andrew doesn’t see himself as suffering from a disorder, and at one point is surprised when someone looks at him ‘as if I were displaying signs of mental illness’. He has a job at a high-tech start-up in a small town outside Seattle, where he nurses a guilty passion for his boss. One day, the boss – Julie Sivik, an impractical type – hires Penny Driver, an undiagnosed multiple. Penny has frequent fugue episodes and amnesias; she often wakes up in unfamiliar places, and gets through life by following lists of instructions that she can’t remember writing. This is ‘textbook MPD’, as the boss puts it, and here Ruff follows the textbook faithfully: Penny’s snobbish, deranged, abusive mother is closely modelled on Sibyl’s. Against his better judgment, Andrew tries to help Penny understand her condition and get treatment. At this point, however, events conspire to discombobulate his placid inner household, and soon he’s dissociating all over the place. He and Penny, accompanied by their fractious alters, embark on a road trip in search of long-buried secrets, and – as Ruff likes to put it in interviews – much ‘wackiness ensues.’
Wackiness has always been very important to Matt Ruff: his last novel, Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997), was a deeply whimsical, cod-Vonnegut satire on Ayn Rand. Thomas Pynchon, who was frequently guyed in it, described the book as ‘dizzyingly readable’, and his words have been borrowed to puff the new novel, too. On the whole, they still hold good: Set This House in Order is pretty hard to put down. As with the Tourettic compulsions of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, multiple personality allows Ruff to devise a beguilingly unusual stunt-narrator. It also allows the characters to dissociate through the boring parts of their lives. Ruff works up an impressive pace by juggling points of view. He’s less interested in using multiple personality to investigate notions of selfhood or identity, although one of Andrew’s less sympathetic co-pilots thinks of the others as ‘delusions with egos’. Andrew is also preoccupied with questions of responsibility: he disapproves of Billy Milligan, ‘the O.J. Simpson of the MPD community’, who in 1977 evaded multiple rape charges by blaming the crimes on an evil alter.
The problem with the novel is that Ruff has been too diligent in his use of mult0biographies as source material. For a start, the protagonists’ alters are thinly characterised: Penny has a timid one, a sexy one, a sober one, a violent one and one who says ‘fuck’ a lot, while Andrew shares his body with, among others, an inner self-helper, a frightened little boy, a kindly maiden aunt and a grimly competent ‘protector’. Seferis, the protector, is a nine-foot-tall student of martial arts; he speaks only in Greek and, like the Incredible Hulk, can perform improbable feats when he’s in charge of Andy Gage’s body. He seems to be based on an alter described in Daniel Keyes’s The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981): ‘Ragen Vadascovinich, 23 . . . Yugoslavian, he speaks English with a noticeable Slavic accent, and reads, writes and speaks Serbo-Croatian. A weapons and munitions authority as well as a karate expert, he displays extraordinary strength, stemming from the ability to control his adrenaline flow.’ In fact, most of the book’s alters are stock characters, which is both appropriate – the alters manifested by real-life multiples are usually stereotypes – and uninteresting. Unfortunately, everyone else in the book is just as thinly characterised, and you soon start to wonder if they’ll turn out to be alters, too – especially since Andrew’s workplace is nudgingly called the Reality Factory.
The limitations of MPD as material for fiction are most apparent, however, in Ruff’s attempts to contrive an appropriately dramatic ending. In Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (1995), Ian Hacking suggests that the 1970s model of multiple personality succeeded in part because it ‘provides the best available narrative frame for recovered memory’: ‘The multiple comes to understand that she is as she is now because of the way she developed coping mechanisms in the past. A narrative structure is available that can then be filled in with the appropriate scenes.’ MPD, in other words, comes with its own set of narrative pay-offs: the revelation of multiplicity, the revelation of its cause (child sex abuse) and, if the patient is lucky, a positive therapeutic outcome. But Set This House in Order begins by revealing that its protagonists are multiple because of abuse, which doesn’t leave Ruff much room for manoeuvre. He overcompensates for this by throwing in a deeply implausible jumbo plot-twist halfway through, and then resorting to subsidiary revelations of past villainy. By the time we get to the final chase, we might as well be in Hollywood – which can’t have been where Ruff intended to take us. Still, his faith in his research has had its own rewards. ‘Since the day the novel came out,’ Ruff has written, ‘I’ve been getting emails – sometimes two or three from the same address – complimenting me on the accuracy of my portrayal.’