One of the most contentious and provocative mental health issues is that of multiple personality disorder. As I ponder the changing understanding of what a human identity is -- moving from the “animal plus soul” unified being to an “emergent process produced by interacting sub-systems” (which probably makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t been reading the research and which is only a provisional hypothesis anyway) -- the implications spread out in circles like ripples in a pond where a stone has been thrown.
On “Oz” (“Is that woman NEVER going to leave that series alone???”) the man retarded by trauma to his brain was given a sock puppet by Sister Pete to help with two things: his difficulty in understanding what was happening to him and his loneliness. He talked to it and it talked to others on his behalf. It was truly just a sock with two button eyes, but it even said things that the guy with his arm up its “butt” couldn’t or wouldn’t be well-advised to say. It had a separate personality. This is the basic model for “multiple personality disorder.”
The phenomenon as it presents to the ordinary people who don’t have it is that a person seems to change personalities, maybe even posture and gestures or abilities. (Yeah, “Sybil” or “Eve”) If spouses or bosses find out about such a thing, even if it seems benign, it means the end. It’s too scary. Kids often can handle it, but they think all grownups are weird anyway.
From the inside, some of these sub-personalities know about each other, some of them don’t, and selective amnesia about events is one of the clues that they exist for the person who includes them -- time is just missing. Or someone will remark on the difference among the various personalities.
From a theory standpoint, the idea is that children who are traumatized will create a dissociated, distant and protected identity that can “leave” until the pain and damage is over. If authorities discover a child has this kind of internal identity, it can point at an abuser, usually a family member. Secrecy is a high and enforced priority. It is related to the idea that parents “own” children and can use them as they please. Abusers will make a big fuss over the American right to raise one’s own children in one’s own way. Interference will cause explosive resistance.
Since children love their parents (in terms of attachment, bonding, emotional needs, dependence, identification and so on) they are motivated to keep abuse secret. It’s a protection in the child’s mind. No one outside the family can be sure that a kid who spaces out or seems different sometimes is abused or has some other issue. The consequences of accusing parents, or maybe only one out of the pair or some peripheral or floating family member (the notorious boy friends) are so catastrophic that authorities want to be sure. So they find reasons to do nothing.
Once the splitting of one identity into several begins, the severality of persons are also motivated to keep it secret, partly because of feeling like a freak and partly because it works. We all present different parts and sides in different contexts. We are to some extent what we do and what those present call out of us. There has never been a time when ordinary people have been exposed to so many shifting, vivid, seductive, admired personalities as we are today. We see actors in many roles -- an ability that is praised -- we see them age over their lifetimes. We hear different languages. The Walmart homogeneity that seems to dominate us is in fact often scattered by other sources. Some of the roles we take on exist in dream worlds, but still influence our political beliefs.
Going back, I just read “I Am More than One” by Jane Wegscheider Hyman who has also written “Women Living with Self-Injury.” This is a genre of self-help book not unlike Nancy Friday’s compilations of sexual experiences. On the one hand, people (esp. women) read them to figure themselves out for purposes of self-improvement, but on the other hand they provide scripts for the inner puppet-shows that go on in everyone, though not usually as vividly as multiple personality: more like debating whether to buy something or accept a new job. I suppose some of this gets displaced to social networking on the Internet now, which explains a lot.
Aside from trying to understand what a human identity is (beyond Antonio Damasio’s idea of electrochemical brain action, moving into his idea of including the realm of interaction among people which seems to be the growing edge of the evolution of human beings) I’m sayng we should fight against stigmas that impose avoidance as a solution. The “keep your distance” strategy. The old quarantine method.
Maybe if you’re a nineteenth century African chief trying to save your village from ebola, it makes sense to isolate sick people and let them die. But if you are in modern society with many reasons to understand multiplicities of people and their conditions, it makes a lot more sense to try to find out what it’s all about and how it works. Not that you have to go around hugging sociopaths and lepers. And yet we stimatize (with bad and unconfirmed criteria), isolate, and let die millions of people (including children and babies) who have something like HIV-AIDS or mental illness, as though we had no other choice. True enough, some are found, treated and kept alive. The fact that we CAN makes it worse when we DON’T.
A virus can be “scientifically” identified. Multiple Personality Disorder cannot, though Hyman claims that it can be seen in brain blood-flow studies that assume increased blood-flow in a brain part means it is doing something and that when people switch from one personality to another, the blood-flow pattern changes. It’s all pretty new. Even if someone sat down with a video of the actual blood flow events, the interpretation would depend on what that person thought a human being was.
I see identity as a moving, dancing, process, partly because my own introspection “feels” mood changes, attitudes, personas forming and dispersing as I “act” in different capacities. Some people CAN not and WILL not give up the idea of a soul, something entirely apart from anything physical and more than any possible electrochemical phenomenon. Because they draw comfort, hope and sanity from this belief, I would not want to discourage it. For the same reason I would not want to discourage someone who thinks they truly are enough people to populate a puppet show.
Damasio says that an identity is the physical brain (which includes the whole body) + the emotional and metaphorical mind + the internalized knowledge and interaction of other people whether in memory or reality -- one sliding back and forth into the other. Limiting that last vital process by stigma-enforced isolation/exclusion seems wrong to me. I wouldn’t quite say evil. I think the right reaction is always “tell me more.” All of you puppets in there, speak up!