Possession, Multiple-Personality Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder

26 Jan 2022 20:35

Certain rash people have asserted that, just as there are no mice where there are no cats, so no one is possessed where there are no exorcists.
---Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Aphorisms F 134

Old entry, last edited 26 March 1995

Multiple-personality disorder is just what it sounds like: a clinical psychiatric condition whose sufferers exhibit more than one apparent personality in a single body. Some therapists claim over a hundred personalities in one body, which may present themselves as differing from the body in age, appearance, sex, language and even species. (Some therapists claim to have uncovered vegetable and even inanimate personalities.) I have tried to use language as neutral about this as possible, since there is a great deal of controversy about what, exactly, is going on in these lunatics, and even what they should be called. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that judicious compromise between clinical knowledge, professional politics and random social prejudice, in the new fourth edition has eliminated "multiple personality disorder" and put "dissociative identity disorder" in its place. The popular name is still "schizophrenia," but that properly belongs to another mental disorder altogether, and one with, ironically, a much firmer grip in reality. William Calvin has suggested that these states be called "chimeric," which would make the patients chimerae (sing. chimera). I like this, and will try using it here.

Chimerism seems obviously linked to demon or spirit possession, a condition which was once very common in Europe, and still to be observed among, e.g., Pentecostals and Haitian voodooists; and to shamanistic trances, in which the shaman's personal spirits speak and act through his body. (Those societies which have both shamans and demoniacs distinguish between the two; see Eliade.) Alternate personalities can be evoked under hypnosis from normal people (see William James, Principles of Psychology, chapters on the Self and Hypnosis, and the references cited therein.) The possible connections to split-brain patients and actors are unclear, possibly unexplored.

One obvious hypothesis this suggests is that chimerae are created by trance-suggestion, and that spontaneous chimerae are simply people with an innate or acquired ease of slipping into trances. When they and others expect other personalities to appear during these trances, they will. (The distinction between demoniacs and shamans would follow from the fact that the "symptoms" which precede becoming either are quite distinct, so that the suggestion of what kind of alters to develop would also be distinct.) The obvious question is whether chimerism ever develops without trances. The answer, apparently, is no; see Ofshe and Watters, Making Monsters (micro-review under "Memory".) They find no cases which did not begin with hypnotic or related trances, and present compelling evidence that our current epidemic is entirely iatrogenic, i.e. caused by hypno-therapists attempting to discover and treat it. The supposed link to abuse in early childhood collapses for want of independent confirmation of the abuse.

(Though it might still exist, if children can induce trances in themselves, and abuse (for whatever reason) makes trances more likely. Ofshe and Watters appear not to consider this possibility, or look very much at the ethnographic literature; but I can't blame them. (See the review, or better yet the book.) )

A few pieces of rather hostile mail (one gem wanted to know how many children I'd molested) prompt a clarification. I'm not saying that no children are abused, or that all memories of childhood abuse are false; they are, alas, and there are altogether too many memories of it which are all too real. The dispute is about supposedly repressed memories, and the supposed connection between abuse, repressed memories, and multiple personalities.

Reflections, 4 August 2021

I mostly still agree with this, though I'd certainly write it differently today ("lunatics"!). In the meanwhile, I've come to think of this as an example of an important bundle of issues about how one distinguishes between iatrogenic mental illness, culture-bound syndromes and emerging forms of identity, and how all this connects to social contagion. This is a tangle I'd love to unwind, if only for my own satisfaction, but, realistically, probably never will.

See also: The "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s and Recovered Memories