By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The idea that several separate personalities can exist in one person's mind has always intrigued the public and psychiatrists. Most people are familiar with the concept of MPD through the books and movies The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil -- each based on women who exhibited more than one distinct personality.
MPD is a severe psychiatric disorder, thought to be the result of a childhood trauma that causes a child to splinter her personality into fragments to cope with horrible pain. But MPD is considered just the extreme on a continuum of what are known as dissociative disorders. On the other end is normal, everyday dissociation, such as the "highway hypnosis" a driver experiences when spacing out on a familiar road, then suddenly coming to and having no memory of the drive. Somewhere in the middle are serious dissociative disorders resulting from childhood trauma that land people in treatment.
Until the last decade, a diagnosis of MPD was extremely rare. But interest in the disorder suddenly mushroomed in the 1980s, as societies, journals and newsletters devoted to its study began to appear. A core group of psychiatrists emerged as experts, with Chicago psychiatrist Bennett Braun being among the most notable.
The increase in diagnoses of MPD was met with much skepticism in psychiatric circles, and the skeptics had a few questions: Were there enough MPD cases around for the burgeoning force of experts to treat? Why were there no more than 200 possible cases of the disorder documented in the United States prior to 1980, but at least 5,000 cases diagnosed since then? And why weren't there any documented cases in Europe?
In fact, to this day most mental health professionals still consider multiple personality disorder a very, very rare disorder.
"I've been treating patients for 25 years, and maybe I've seen one case," says Houston psychologist Joan Anderson, the former chairman of the ethics committee for the Texas Psychological Association.
Judith Peterson, according to her resume, was born in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1966 with a bachelor of arts in psychology. She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Ohio State University in 1972.
In an interview with author Mark Pendergrast for his 1995 book Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Peterson said she had always considered herself a caring, idealistic person and had begun her career helping migrant workers and Head Start children. Her resume states that she worked with the mentally retarded in Ohio and had a practice in New York state before moving to Houston with her husband and family in the early 1980s. She established a private practice here, and by all accounts it was a successful one. Two mental health professionals who know Peterson but requested anonymity say the psychologist could be considered, in the words of one, "brilliant."
In 1987, Peterson joined a local "dissociative disorders study group" made up of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. At the time, there was little literature available on the effects of traumas and abuse, and the group was formed to help the members educate themselves on the phenomena. It also gave them a forum to discuss their difficult, emotionally draining cases and offer one another consultation.
During the mid-'80s, according to one member of the study group, therapists across the nation had started hearing stories of satanic ritual abuse from patients. Similar stories were being told in Houston. Group members disagreed over whether the stories were real, with some believing the patients' memories were grounded in fact and others contending that they were merely metaphors the patients had constructed to deal with some terrible trauma they had suffered.
Judith Peterson shared that she had heard these stories from patients, too, according to one member of the group.
Even before Peterson arrived at Spring Shadows Glen, she was beginning to acquire a reputation as an expert on recovering memories of childhood abuse from her 1988 MPD diagnosis of Kathryn Schwiderski.
It was around the time of her diagnosis of Schwiderski that Peterson -- who had been certified in clinical hypnosis in 1988 -- began regular phone consultations with Bennett Braun on MPD. In a deposition for the Schwiderski family's lawsuit, Peterson says part of her education in MPD came from Braun's recommended readings.
In 1990, Peterson and a co-worker presented a paper about a "cult" family to the seventh International Conference on Multiple Personality/Dissociative States in Chicago. The family bore a strong resemblance to the Schwiderskis, or at least Peterson's view of them. "The mother was born into the cult and the involvement can be traced back two generations," according to the summary of Peterson's paper. "The major memories as documented nationally by other cult victims were found in this family, including details about human sacrifice, cannibalism, black hole, shock to create alters, marriage to Satan, buried alive, birth of Satan's child, internal booby traps, forced impregnation and sacrifice of own child."
A colleague from the dissociative disorder study group says Peterson, in exploring MPD and alleged satanic ritual abuse, saw herself as a pioneer on a new frontier of psychology. She wasn't motivated by money, but she "has an ego," the colleague notes.