Colin Wilson

Filling in the Blanks

Alter Egos: Multiple Personalities


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The strange case of the Reverend Ansel Bourne was described by William James in The Principles of Psychology. One morning in 1887, Bourne went to his bank and drew out the curious sum of $551; then he disappeared. His family were afraid he had been murdered. Two months later, in a town two hundred miles away, Bourne suddenly woke up and wondered where he was; he had no memories of how he came to be there. His neighbours thought he had gone mad, for they knew him as A J Brown, who had recently rented a newsagent’s shop in the area and was known as a good churchgoer.

Back in the bosom of his family, and with no memory of withdrawing the cash, travelling two hundred miles, or of renting a shop, Bourne allowed James to hypnotise him, hoping to find out what had happened. Under hypnosis, James was able to speak to Mr A J Brown, who claimed to be a totally different person from Bourne and insisted that he had never met him. But James never found out why Bourne had changed into another person and left home.

There were many interesting cases of ‘multiple personality’ around the beginning of this century; then, for some reason, they suddenly became almost unknown. All that suddenly changed in 1957, when two psychiatrists named Thigpen and Cleckley produced their case history The Two Faces of Eve, which became a bestseller and was made into a film. Once again, psychiatrists began to record strange cases of multiple personality, and the case described in Sybil made it clear that it was associated with childhood abuse. Yet the sheer number of cases in recent years has led sceptical psychiatrists to declare that the whole thing is a kind of fad, created by gullible doctors and suggestible patients.

Dr David Cohen is not of this opinion, and this fascinating and immensely readable casebook explains why. One of his oddest cases was a girl called Alison, who worked for an escort agency and often stole credit cards or cash from men she went to bed with. Yet she had no memory of the thefts. Hypnosis revealed a mischievous alter-ego who called herself Fanny Fagin, and who stole for the hell of it. Other personalities, including one called the Sexpot, emerged. Eventually, the therapist discovered that the root of the trouble was her father, a retired wing commander, who often beat her when she was a child. Alison now had the feeling that, after beating her, her father would have sex with her mother. Cohen encouraged Alison to confront her mother. She denied it so furiously that Alison sensed it was true. Eventually, her mother told her what had really happened. Her father was impotent, yet he often found that beating his daughter made him potent again. Her mother accepted his advances unwillingly and felt guilty about not protecting her daughter. So, Alison ‘blocked out’ the beatings, and became two people.

These, and many other such cases, make it clear why Cohen has no doubt that multiple personality disorder (MPD) exists. Yet his attempts to explain it seem only partly successful. He speaks about ‘game playing’ – children with imaginary playmates – and does his best to build a bridge back to the normality we all accept. He is also inclined to accept Dr Robert Ornstein’s theory, which argues that the brain has many control centres, or components, which makes us all ‘multiminds’. There is no ‘real self’ behind this crowd of competing selves.

Yet this flies in the face of our common experience of having a single ‘observer’ behind our eyes from birth to death. The game-playing theory also fails to explain the sheer weirdness of some of the cases. How, for example, do you explain that in some cases of MPD, one personality is short-sighted and needs glasses while another has normal sight? Or that one suffers from an illness to which the other is immune?

Cohen dynamites most of his own theories when he tells the incredible tale of a patient called Lizzie, who had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and in prison for arson. It was obvious that she had long ‘blank periods’ when she was taken over by another personality. Once she had told a policeman that her real name was Esther Faversham.

Therapy revealed that the trouble started with her grandmother’s second husband. Lizzie’s parents were very religious, but she was allowed to stay with her grandmother. Her new grandfather began abusing her when she was a child, and made her pregnant when she was in her early teens. Her parents were furious, assuming it was some local boy; but Lizzie had no memory of sex. She returned to her grandmother and had an abortion. Then she vanished to London, and spent a period there of which she had no recollection.

The psychiatrist learned that Lizzie’s alter ego was a woman called Esther, who claimed to have been burnt as a witch in Faversham in the seventeenth century. She said she had been sharing Lizzie’s body since childhood, and that during Lizzie’s ‘blanks’, she, Esther, moved in. Esther liked sex, so when she took over, she made sure she had a good time. Then Lizzie would regain her strength and gradually re-establish control over her body, forcing Esther out again. All this time, Lizzie had no idea of what happened in the ‘blanks’.

Ten years ago I wrote an introduction to Multiple Men by the psychiatrist Adam Crabtree. He was convinced that, in many cases, the patient behaves exactly as if he or she is ‘possessed’, and that by acting on this assumption, the doctor can effect a cure. Crabtree insisted that he was not making some judgement about ‘spirits’, merely taking a pragmatic stance. Another doctor called Ralph Allison reached the same conclusion in Minds in Many Pieces. I am not arguing that ‘possession’ is the answer to the problem of MPD. But I am arguing that Crabtree and Alison are facing up to the complex reality of MPD more squarely than David Cohen, and that in citing the case of Lizzie (which he does not attempt to analyse) Cohen is admitting that there is a whole aspect of his subject that he is not yet ready to discuss.

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