Do You Have Multiple Personality Disorder?

Years after Sybil, the debate continues

Ross's studies have also led him to support another researcher's theory that the 1978 mass suicide of the Jonestown cult in South America was actually a CIA mind-control experiment. In 2007, the Church of Scientology bestowed upon Ross its human rights award, given to "mental health industry whistleblowers who have risked their professional careers to expose dangerous psychiatric practices."

In his research, Ross has studied populations he believed were likely to contain a high percentage of people with DID.

Based on data from a survey Ross and his colleagues conducted in Winnipeg in the late 1980s, 50 percent of strippers and five percent of prostitutes have DID. (Curiously, Ross and other leading DID researchers apparently neglected to study the incidence of DID in populations where child abuse is well-documented. There does not appear to be a study of child survivors of Nazi death camps; survivors who suffered abuse at the hands of pedophile priests; Japanese-American children forced to live in internment camps during World War II; or any of the hundreds of children the FBI and other law enforcement agencies rescued from the horrors of international child-porn rings. Psychiatrist Lenore Terr, a prominent researcher in the area of childhood trauma, has conducted numerous studies of groups of children who survived actual events, but those studies related to childhood post-traumatic stress disorder, not DID).

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.

When it comes to a patient presenting such an improbable story as her father raping her as part of a complex, supremely well-organized underground network of satanic cults, Ross says he adheres to the principle of "therapeutic neutrality."

"You don't believe the memories and you don't not believe the memories," Ross says. Whether or not the events happened as described in the aforementioned scenario is beside the point; the result is that the patient likely has unresolved conflicted emotions toward her father, he says. On one hand, the child may feel the biological impulse of love and loyalty to her parent; and on the other, she is angered and saddened by what she believes was her father's cruelty. So the goal then is to reconcile these opposing forces and work toward an emotional stability that will allow the child to reconcile with the father. Ross says he's dealt with patients who, after years of therapy, come to realize that the satanic ritual abuse never occurred, while others can be healed and still maintain it ­happened.

Ultimately, it's a win-win situation. If the old man truly did force his daughter to drink cow's blood and chop her own baby's head off to welcome the winter solstice, reconciliation is possible. And if the daughter only thinks this happened, reconciliation is still possible. (In that event, the best-case scenario would be one in which the family hasn't already been torn apart by the daughter's accusations, because in that case, Ross says, the father never even has to know what his daughter is ­thinking.)

But Ross says that, even in the event where the child has previously screamed satanic abuse from the hilltops, a loving father-daughter relationship is still ­possible.

This might be a good time to clarify that not every person diagnosed with DID has claimed satanic ritual abuse.

There does not appear to be a study that has ever tabulated the different types of claims, and such a study would be a massive undertaking, given that DID exists on a continuum of alleged maltreatment running from neglect (i.e., parents who actually do nothing to the child) to incest and cannibalism (i.e., parents who put a terrific amount of planning and creativity into the torture of their child). Skeptics point that not only does the psychiatric diagnosis manual, DSM-IV, not adequately define the "abuse" necessary to trigger DID, they argue that the manual does not give a clear explanation of just what constitutes an alternate personality. How long must this alter stick around, and what purpose(s) must it serve to be properly labeled a true separate personality?

For example, in a 2004 article in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, DID skeptic August Piper cited a study by a leading DID researcher who had a patient with an alter whose sole responsibility was to "gaily [walk] in the fields picking flowers — usually ­dandelions."

This wide net of criteria allows an amazing volume of alters to exist in one host. When DID first appeared in DSM-III in 1980, the condition allowed up to 100 alters. Yet, judging by some researchers' subsequent claims, that number seems downright paltry. Piper points to another leading researcher's study of two patients with more than 4,000 alters between them.

Piper, a psychiatrist practicing in Seattle, believes the research and logic behind DID are often flawed. For example, if alters are born from severe trauma and are charged with protecting the host from the awareness of the abuse, why is it easy to summon them in such non-stressful environments as a therapist's office?

"The fundamental question here does a scientist know things?" Piper says by phone from Seattle. "You shouldn't be asking the little questions about what [DID experts say], because they're always going to give you some kind of bullshit answer. Or I will always give you a bullshit answer. It isn't the question 'What you know,' it's how you got there."

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