A Multiple Choice Examination

Sheila Martin Berry

You're having a conversation with Mandie, a slender, attractive young woman. It's a casual chat about nothing in particular between friends. You take out a package of cigarettes and immediately sense a change, as if the atoms in the oxygen around you were slowing slightly. Perhaps you hear an electrical snap, the kind of sound you hear when the air is charged with static electricity and you flip on a light switch. Your friend's body twitches slightly and her demeanor changes. Shoulders square, she puts her feet flat on the floor and assumes an instinctively masculine pose. Bracing her hands on her knees, she leans toward you, and says in a voice that has dropped two octaves, "Excuse me, ma'am. I really favor those cigarettes you got there. Mind if I have one? I'd be most beholdin' to you." Mandie is gone. Brent has popped in, literally. Perhaps you and Mandie are walking from your car to the grocery store. As you cross the parking lot her gait abruptly changes. Her steps are smaller, slower, clumsier. She grabs your hand and says, "This is a really big street with cars on it. We got to hold hands and look both ways." Little Emily has bumped Mandie.

Mind bending experiences, unless you live with someone who has multiple personalities, in which case they are everyday occurrences. For half a year I shared my home with Mandie, who in turn shared one body with forty-five "others" that she called the Insiders. Mandie herself was in her late twenties, single, of Amerasian heritage, while the Insiders ran the gamut from a crayon eating six year old girl named Emily to a rugged cowboy, Brent, who strove at all times to be gentlemanly. There was hard drinking Fayette, a true honky tonk woman, and Bull, with big muscles, a small brain and a heart of gold. Vera was a white witch who made "inside magic", a sweet natured woman who was all thumbs when dealing with the material world. Sam began as some type of indeterminate animal, then blossomed into a full human being, naming himself the acronym of my maiden name. Living with them forced me to re-examine my easy acceptance of psychiatric dogma and challenged my concepts about Self and Soul.

Modern psychiatry categorizes multiple personality disorder (MPD) as a "hysterical neurosis". It is often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia because auditory hallucinations -- such as hearing voices -- are common to both conditions. One psychiatric authority cites certain types of auditory hallucinations, for example, hearing a running commentary on the patient's actions or of voices talking about the person, which are strongly suggestive of schizophrenia. At the same time, DSM-III-R, the psychiatric trade manual that lists and describes all recognized mental and psychological disorders, says of MPD: "One or more of the personalities may be aware of hearing or having heard the voices of the other personalities." Another symptom common to both is failure to coordinate internal drives. Certainly several personalities in one body disagreeing with one another would appear to be a failure to coordinate internal drives. A key differentiating factor between MPD and schizophrenia, at least in terms of initial diagnosis, is losing time, having no memory of things that occur while an alter personality is in charge of the body. MPD is also associated with severe trauma during childhood, usually sexual and physical abuse; to cope with abuse, the child withdraws and allows another consciousness to absorb the pain. With repeated trauma, the integrated personality becomes splintered and the protective consciousnesses take on lives of their own.

So goes the orthodox theory. The problem is that this answer raises more questions. Why don't all victims of child abuse develop MPD? And how do we explain MPD in people who were not abused or otherwise traumatized as children? Is this truly a mental illness, or is it a condition that is brought to the attention of mental health professionals because one or more of the alter personalities is dysfunctional or psychotic, prompting inappropriate generalizations to be applied to an entire group? I think of this as the Neanderthal error. The first remains of a Neanderthal found by anthropologists were those of a man who had been crippled by arthritis. His hunched back and bent arms and legs were presumed to be the norm for all Neanderthals for many years, a misconception that persists to this day in our images of "cavemen". DSM-III-R notes that, "[r]ecent reports suggest that this disorder is not nearly so rare as it has commonly been thought to be." Could it be that there are actually many people with multiple personalities living productive lives, with no history of abuse and no psychotic alter egos? And if that is the case, how did they get to be the way they are? What is the true nature of Self, and what is its relationship to Soul?

One of the greatest sources of spiritual understanding was Edgar Cayce, the Sleeping Prophet of Virginia Beach. In his readings Cayce did not directly address the issue of multiple personalities, though he spoke of discarnate entities who can possess the body of a living person, and discussed as well the impact of past lives on the life currently being lived. These encompass the primary spiritual theories regarding MPD. One theory holds that MPD is caused by spirits -- not necessarily benevolent ones at that -- taking over a person's body. (The currently used term for this is spirit attachment.) The Bible recounts several stories of people possessed by demons, and Jesus healed such a man, who when asked his name replied, "My name is Legion, for we are many." The other MPD theory is that past life personalities usually merged within the sum total of who we each are have splintered and re-established themselves as individuals. This theory suggests a physical predisposition as the cause of the splintering; in other words, some people are just born that way.

Of the forty-five Insiders, one stood discordantly apart and made a strong case for spirit attachment. Phantom was the embodiment of rage and self-hate. Mandie, and for that matter any of the Insiders who might be out at the time, could sense his coming the way we can feel a powerful summer storm building on the horizon. They feared Phantom, with good reason, and seemed powerless to stop him. Phantom came at weak moments and launched attacks on the body, muttering that it was "dead meat", burning it with cigarettes or lighters, or hacking at Mandie's wrists with kitchen knives or broken glass. During these attacks he was absolutely focused on harming the body, and although he never attacked anyone else, physically subduing him in these situations was dangerous. Several Insiders tried to set up defenses against Phantom, particularly Brent, Bull and another who called himself Gatekeeper, but they were rarely successful. While those Insiders who discussed the subject had confidence that each of them had a soul, they were equally certain that Phantom did not. (This is a measure of the distance and difference they felt toward Phantom.) They described him as a shadow, a reflection of something substantial that no longer had substance but regained terrible power whenever he overtook the body. Donna was an Insider who embodied all that is maternal and nurturing and who practiced the philosophy that it is better to say nothing than to speak ill of someone else. Even she complained about Phantom, noting that it was bad enough that they all had to share one body and then had to contend with him trying to kill it. To his credit, I suppose, once subdued, Phantom would leave when told to do so. The problem was that he kept coming back. He was an outsider among the Insiders.

But what of the rest of the Insiders? Were they a cluster of essentially benevolent spirits taking turns possessing Mandie's body or were they more deeply rooted within Mandie? Did they have individual souls, or did they and Mandie share the same Oversoul? Although many of the Insiders were fragmentary personalities with limited memory and ability to interact with the outside world, some were full, well rounded and yes, well balanced individuals. I found myself relating to them individually, finding a greater sense of familiarity with some than with others, the feeling that I had known certain Insiders before. My own experiences with past life recall served as a frame of reference, even though I did not consciously set out in that direction. The personalities of those I have been are an integral part of who I am now; those whose experiences lie at the heart of lessons I am learning (or re-learning) in this life have been spilling into my consciousness since childhood.

Sarah comes first to mind because her memories came first to consciousness in this life. She was a slave in antebellum Virginia who escaped to the north via the Underground Railroad, gaining her freedom but at the cost of leaving behind her children. During my earliest years, Sarah would look for them through my eyes, jolting both of us when we would catch a glimpse of the body in the mirror. Expecting black skin, brown eyes, black hair, we saw instead the opposite, fair skin, blue eyes, blond hair. I would stare at the image and repeat my name aloud until I felt that I came back together. Perhaps that sounds strange, but it worked. Gradually Sarah found her own place as a part of me, though one from which I draw in meeting today's challenges. Gaius is another past life personality within me whom I deeply feel. A lawyer during the demise of the Roman Republic, he saw what was happening and did nothing. Gaius' inaction was rooted in a desire to protect his personal status quo, and by the time Julius Caesar was assassinated it was too little, too late. The sense of sadness that descends over me every March 15 originates in Gaius. It is unlikely that he could have changed the course of history and saved the Roman Republic, but he never even tried, and that is the lesson brought into this life. There are others as well, ranging from resonant tones of remembrance reverberating through the core of being to wispy, fleeting fragments prompted by a breeze, a sunset, a scent that stirs memory.

What sets apart my past life personalities from Mandie's Insiders (with the notable exception of Phantom, of course) is the integration of these former expressions of my soul. I can sense them, draw as needed on what they learned and apply it to situations in the here and now. When the Insiders began to assert themselves, Mandie was pushed aside to what she called "the dark place," a place where there is no light, no sound and no time. That could have happened to me early in childhood when Sarah began to spill into my consciousness and to a degree, take it over. Fortunately it did not happen, though I have no idea why I was able to integrate these alter egos and Mandie was not. There was no trauma in Mandie's childhood to set off such a splintering. She -- and they -- seem simply to have been born that way.

So which answer is correct, which explanation true? Is MPD (a) the result of spirit attachment or (b) the expression of unintegrated past life personalities? I choose (c) all of the above. Moreover, at least in Mandie's case, I think the two are interrelated. The splintering of past life personalities into separate identities created a vulnerability that enables other entities such as Phantom to enter and take over.

More pressing is the question of how to address the situation. While the stated treatment goal for MPD is to reintegrate the disparate personalities into one, host personality, practitioners who specialize in the disorder have found that while some of the alter egos would merge, three to five well developed, highly individualized personalities would remain for life. The practical approach then becomes teaching cooperation among the strong personalities and with the host, in order to achieve maximum function within society. Mandie began this process in treatment, reintegrating fragmentary personalities and fostering cooperation among those who were highly individualized. Bumping Mandie aside into the dark place was not allowed; Insiders had to ask her permission before coming out, and created the cabin a safe place in the mind where any of them could go as needed. They learned how to co-presence with Mandie and each other, allowing several Insiders to be out and interacting with the material world at the same time. This further encouraged cooperation, the keystone to their success.

And what of Phantom, the angry spirit bent on destroying the body he took over? He was included in the integrative efforts. Phantom was called out in a calm and supportive atmosphere and encouraged to express himself in a positive way. He had a great deal of difficulty at first. His speech was flat and monotonous, and he had little to say on any subject. Phantom gradually disclosed that his sense of separation from everyone and everything else was at the root of his rage. Both in treatment and at home, the message sent consistently to Phantom was positive and affirming: You are a reflection of God from whose Mind you sprang, a power for good. Phantom began to respond. He worked hard at speaking with inflection as a first step toward restoring a range of feeling instead of only rage. The anger began to drain away. The fear felt by Mandie and the Insiders ebbed as well. Phantom came less often and more gently, until he stopped coming at all.

The full answers to the questions surrounding MPD may not come in this dimension. The best responses to it, however, are found when Science joins with Spirit to meet the needs of the Soul.

Newsline interviews Dr. Nancy Perry, "MPD expert"

Articles on the trial

Commentary on the trial and its consequences

Violation and Virtuality By Sandy Stone. Another look at the Sarah case; and an online persona, invented by a singlet, taking on a life of its own.

Click here to buy "My Name Is Legion" Fictionalized account of the trial and its aftermath by Sheila Martin Berry.

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