Multiple Personality & Social Movements


A review of Know Thyselves: Theorizing Multiple Personality through Social Movements, by Jennifer Taylor.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), is one of the most controversial diagnostic categories in the history of modern psychiatry. Widely held to be caused by abuse so traumatic that survivors cannot incorporate it within coherent, conscious life narratives, the condition is characterized by disruptions in memory and identity that range from periods of “lost time” to the creation of whole alternate selves (“alters”). DID/MPD thus raises questions of moral responsibility towards survivors of the kinds of violence — sexual abuse of children, incest — that are, on many levels, unthinkable. At the same time as it poses great demands upon the moral courage of witnesses and survivors, DID/MPD raises questions about the credibility and truth of their stories. The condition unsettles the stability and consistency of self, identity, and memory that are central to contemporary epistemologies. As Jennifer Taylor formulates it: “The condition is the lack of a cohesive memory, sense of time, and linear biography; [these are] required elements for a stable singular identity expected to participate in modern capitalist societies” (p. 6). In both content and method, this dissertation resists such pressures toward standardization and singularity, while still articulating and maintaining a strong commitment to remaining present with the realities of multiplicity, including the pain of abuses that so often precede or follow it.

Woven throughout is the struggle of an anthropologist to come to terms with the experience-near and experience-distant dimensions of her own engagement with these conditions. Jennifer Taylor’s mother, as she tells us near the end of the dissertation, was diagnosed with DID/MPD, the diagnosis becoming one of many contradictory and unsatisfactory explanations Taylor was given for her mother’s disconcerting presence and then absence in her life. Her “first archival experience” (p. 192) consisted of sorting through her mother’s old notebooks and art supplies, struggling to weave together an understanding of her mother that could make room for the “rational, introspective, and caring person” (p. 192) she discovered there. In many ways, she continues that work here: reconciling the potential for rational, agentic self-knowledge with the discontinuities and disruptions that characterize DID/MPD.

While Taylor’s stated goal is to “unsilence marginalized voices” and “peel back layers of discourse and cover-up to show… hidden histories” (p. 1), she acknowledges that this process is no straightforward excavation of a fixed object. What she peels — and reveals — are neither monolithic hegemonies nor singular truths, but complex interactions between affectively charged agendas. As she astutely observes, “‘medicine’ represents not one bounded system, but instead a vast, intricate scheme of sociocultural, political, economic, and religious networks that facilitate and shape the healer/patient relationship” (p. 16). In particular, Taylor’s dissertation explores “the significance of hypnotic, psychoanalytic, writing and ‘talk therapies’ in the treatment of DID/MPD and in their relation to claims of scientific/medical legitimacy” (p. 11) as countercurrents within an increasingly biomedicalized psychiatry.

Rather than being limited by a singularly located field site, Taylor investigates these questions through a multiplicity of methods. She attended and participated in a women’s writing group for trauma survivors, observed annual meetings of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD), and conducted fieldwork and informal interviews at sites ranging from chat rooms for multiples to hospital programs treating trauma-related dissociative disorders. She also conducted extensive archival research around two of the most well-known and influential case-studies of multiple personality: Chris Costner Sizemore (1927- ) and Shirley Ardell Mason (1923-1998), whose stories were popularized in books and film as “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sibyl” respectively. Comparing these cases allows Taylor to raise provocative questions about how “Sibyl” became a lightning rod for moral and ethical debates around psychiatric knowledge and childhood abuse, catalyzing both a groundswell of women’s writing about trauma and skepticism towards these accounts.

The dissertation begins, in Chapter 1, with an exploration of a tricky methodological and epistemological point endemic to such projects. How is a researcher to locate a phenomenon (such as DID/MPD) as an object of study while simultaneously challenging the discourses (whether these be nation-state boundaries, diagnostic manuals, or collusions between the two) that stabilize it? Taylor sketches out a concept of DID/MPD that is delineated not only according to the classification systems of a government-sponsored psychiatric hegemony, but also as a network of relationships, alliances, and disruptions within a field of stakeholders. This network includes the anthropologist herself, as she simultaneously resists and inevitably colludes with biomedical framings of lived experience.

In Chapter 2, Taylor provides a history of the various theories and controversies that have swirled around DID/MPD throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, connecting debates over DID/MPD with the dramatic rise and fall of culture and personality studies in anthropology. Both were battles over credibility; both were characterized by struggles to integrate psychological and sociocultural truths about those in positions of social marginality. Chapter 3 continues to situate debates over personality and multiplicity in their cultural and historical context, by analyzing the case study of “Sibyl” and its many meanings as a “transfiguring, contradictory symbol” (p. 125) within the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Taylor examines how “Sibyl” provided inspiration for women writers to generate alternative “herstories” (a theme she develops further in Chapter 5) that allow them to both “to put the pieces of their personal and social histories together… into a cohesive narrative” (p. 128) and articulate “the larger truth of the many women and children abused in the U.S.” (p. 129).

Chapter 4 critiques the ways in which “vocal opponents of DID/MPD” (p. 154) question the capacity for self-knowledge of people living under these descriptions, by “question[ing] their consciousness, memories, self-knowledge —  perception of reality and truth — their histories.” (p. 153) However, the capacity of multiples to actively and strategically reflect upon their own experience is amply displayed in Taylor’s subsequent exploration of forums on the internet where multiples debate, discuss and seek help from each other around the realities of their lives. In such spaces, they seize the power to create and control discourse away from therapists and other professional experts. Some of the dissertation’s most compelling moments come here, as Taylor tours us through not only the theoretical but also the quotidian challenges of multiplicity: how to keep track of time spent by an alter; how to account for mysterious bodily pains; how to handle conflict between alters who do not like each other, do not get along with the “core” personality’s boyfriend, or are attempting to seduce each other. The importance of so articulating one’s own experience, free from constraints upon what can and cannot be considered as truth, is at the heart of Chapter 5, in which the author describes her participation in a writing group for women trauma survivors. In this group, the members agree to treat every narrative as fiction; in doing so, they open up a space to reconstruct previously unspeakable stories. The dissertation concludes by examining the placement of Dissociative Identity Disorder in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), between “Trauma-and Stressor- Related Disorders” and “Somatic Symptoms Disorders,” a position “reflecting the liminal status of this diagnosis and the struggle to grant medical legitimacy to the associated traumas of child abuse” (p. 209). Ending on a hopeful note, the conclusion predicts “a shift in psychiatry towards shifting the canon of expert knowledge of disorder towards the lay personal” (p. 219).

Jennifer Taylor’s project is a powerful demonstration of why it is important to understand psychiatric diagnoses within their cultural and historical contexts. As scholars such as Jonathan Metzl, Emily Martin, and Natasha Dow Schüll have recently and productively explored, complex sociopolitical agendas often find their way into seemingly objective biomedical categories. This process leads to the entrenchment of behavioral patterns on the part of both patients and practitioners that may serve agendas other than their own. Furthermore, the dissertation contributes to an important body of work on the lived experience of psychiatric diagnosis, exploring the ways in which individuals “living under the description” of a diagnosis (c.f. Emily Martin) transform its meanings through the prism of their own life and work. The dissertation illustrates how medical categorizations of experience travel into arenas not dominated by biomedicine — creative writing groups, internet forums, discussions about television shows — and the kind of transformative possibilities these spaces provide. At the same time, Taylor recognizes how pre-existing agendas continue to shape and co-opt these processes, arguing that “women’s embodied and disembodied ‘voices’ speak through the DSM to support ulterior social causes, lifestyles, and political systems that contribute to their stigmatization” (p. ix). Taylor’s “hidden history” thus also provides context for understanding the complexities of identity formation and maintenance, all the way up to our contemporary postmodern moment.

Elizabeth Fein
Department of Comparative Human Development
University of Chicago


Fieldwork at sites including the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) Annual Meetings (2009–2011); at the Writing Ourselves Whole Trauma Writing Group, San Francisco; and “cybersites”: websites and internet forums related to DID/MPD.

Archival research at: The Flora Rheta Schreiber Papers, Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York; Collections of Dr Hervey Cleckley, Robert Greenblatt Library, Medical College of Georgia, Augusta GA; and the Chris Costner Sizemore Papers, Special Collections, Duke University, Durham NC.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Santa Barbara. 2013. 276 pp. Primary Advisor: Laury Oaks.

Image: “Trees,” by Shirley Ardell Mason (1923-1998). From Vanderbilt University Medical Center website.

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