Do You Have Multiple Personality Disorder?

Years after Sybil, the debate continues

Sadie sits on the therapist's couch, ­whimpering.

She's somewhere between two and three years old, and already the most horrible things have happened to her. That finger twisting through her hair is a tell-tale sign of sexual abuse, according to her therapist, Richard Hodgin.

"Hey kiddo," Hodgin says gently. "Need help?"

Rachel claims her grandfather was the leader of a satanic cult.
Illustration by Craig LaRotonda
Rachel claims her grandfather was the leader of a satanic cult.
Jennifer and her husband both claim to have DID.
Illustration by Craig LaRotonda
Jennifer and her husband both claim to have DID.

Sadie looks like she's about to cry, and she bows her head.

Hodgin understands. He asks Sadie to summon Rachel.

Sadie exhales and retreats into the fractured mind of a woman in her mid-­twenties whom Hodgin is treating for multiple personality disorder. Sadie exists only in Rachel's head, among more than a dozen other personalities, or "alters." Rachel sits beside her husband in Hodgin's Woodlands office. It's after hours; the building is deserted and Hodgin reclines comfortably in his chair, sans shoes.

"She just has that little-bitty baby way of seeking comfort," Rachel [not her real name] says of Sadie. Rachel says her abuse started around the time she was two or three; hence Sadie, the youngest alter.

Rachel says she grew up in a satanic cult, where she was molested and forced to participate in animal sacrifice. When she was about 16, she says, the cult got her pregnant in order to offer the child to the devil. She says her own grandfather and father are important members of this cult, which operates mostly out of the grand­father's house north of ­Houston.

Now Hodgin says, "Pick a teenager, please."

"Tabitha's 12," Rachel says. "Is that teenager enough?"

Enter Tabitha, a detail-oriented alter whose age marks the time Rachel's parents separated. Tabitha says her mother didn't know about the abuse, and Tabitha never told.

"They had my sisters," Tabitha says of the cult. "They had my cousin."

Hodgin says he's seen many cult cases, and that's how it works. They scare the kids into silence. So even as Rachel says she was raped over a 15-year span, her mother never knew. Apparently there was no physical evidence that sounded an alarm to Rachel's mother and doctors.

Multiple personality disorder, clinically labeled "dissociative identity disorder," entered popular culture with The Three Faces of Eve, a 1957 book and movie about a woman who claimed to have two alternate personalities (besides the host, or "real," personality). Enormously popular, the movie netted an Academy Award for Joanne Woodward, in the title role. Woodward turned up about 20 years later in another popular movie based on a book about DID, Sybil. A story about a woman whose mother's abuse allegedly split her into 16 alters, Sybil revived the popular interest of DID sparked by Eve.

Although numbers vary, data indicates that there were only a handful of reported cases of DID worldwide prior to Sybil, and an explosion in the United States alone afterwards.

It was greeted with considerable skepticism in the psychiatric community. But it's been in the DSM, the psychiatric diagnosis manual, for nearly 30 years, and renowned physicians at prestigious institutions have conducted studies and treated thousands of patients diagnosed with DID. Each year, hundreds of mental health professionals come to the Houston-Galveston Trauma Institute for a conference devoted to DID treatment.

In 2007, Switching Time, a Chicago psychologist's account of treating a woman with 17 alters, attracted national attention and was seen as another validation by those who felt shunned by doctors who had dismissed their claims of DID. This year, former Dallas Cowboy Herschel Walker's memoirs hit the shelves, revealing his struggle with the condition. (Walker recently discussed his battle with the condition on Good Morning America, and was scheduled to appear on Nightline.) Unfortunately, professionals treating DID disagree on what level of trauma can cause a person to split into dozens — in some cases, thousands — of alters, including those of different ­species.

Whether you grew up with parents who neglected you or had cow's blood forcibly injected into an orifice as part of a demonic ritual, you can wind up with DID. Hodgin says there are thousands of undiagnosed cases in Houston alone. So the resurgence of interest in DID could be a good thing if it spreads awareness and shows people there is a solution.

Or, it could mean a whole new generation of delusional people will be diagnosed with a disorder that doesn't exist, and they won't get the help they need.

Here's one scenario:

A patient walks into a therapist's office for the first time. She says she's been traumatized by years of ritualistic abuse by men in red and black robes who held secret ceremonies where animals were slaughtered and young girls were raped with the mission of producing a sacrificial lamb for Lucifer.

Should the therapist accept that as the patient's reality and work toward the goal of making the person well again, or should she explore the possibility that the incidents described might not be entirely accurate?

If you're Jean Goodwin, co-founder of the Houston-Galveston Trauma Institute and professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, you accept the story at face value. Whether or not it happened is an issue for law enforcement, not for a mental health expert.

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