What Colin Ross Really Thinks of Multiples

(or, at least, thought at the time this was written)

Originally appeared in his book, Dissociative Identity Disorder:
Diagnosis, Clinical Features, and Treatment.
Wiley, 1997.

Ross once had a much different take on multiple personality to the point of being one of the worst offenders in the MPD overdiagnosis scandals of the 1980s. Now he has gone right round the bend and believes in eye beams.

". . . What is MPD? MPD is a little girl [1] imagining that the abuse is happening to someone else. This is the core of the disorder, to which all other features are secondary. The imagining is so intense, subjectively compelling, and adaptive, that the abused child experiences dissociated aspects of herself as other people. It is the core characteristic of MPD that makes it a treatable disorder, because the imagining can be unlearned, and the past confronted and mastered....

"MPD is not a fantastic curiosity in which there is more than one person in the same body. There is only one person, an abuse victim who has imagined that there are other people inside her in order to survive. This is an adaptive use of the human imagination that, at least in its rudiments, appears to be available to a large segment of the population. Because childhood sexual and physical abuse are common and the ability to create alters is common, MPD should be far from rare, both in its full classical form and in partial forms."

" . . The most important thing to understand is that alter personalities are not people. They are not even personalities. That might seem obvious, but it is a truth one can lose sight of during therapy. It is probably impossible to construct a satisfactory definition of an alter personality, as Stephen Braude (1995) has pointed out in compelling detail. Alter personalities are highly stylized enactments of inner conflicts, drives, memories, and feelings. At the same time, they are dissociated packets of behavior developed for transaction with the outside world. There is only one person. The patient's conviction that there is more than one person in her is a dissociative delusion, and should not be compounded by a folie a deux on the part of the therapist.

"There is often a lot of drama in DID. [2] This does not invalidate the diagnosis. It is a fact about a serious and treatable form of human suffering. The second thing to remember about the personality system is that it is driven by pain. Despite the color, complexity, and fascinating theater of the personalities, their wars, love affairs, and internal friendships, they are not people, and they exist to help the patient cope with pain. There is no need to be wistful or regretful about the disappearance of an alter on integration, because that is a step toward healing the pain. The patient may mourn the loss of the alter, but the therapist shouldn't.

"DID is an elaborate pretending. The patient pretends that she is more than one person, in a very convincing manner. She actually believes it herself. [3] Some DID patients enter therapy aware that the different parts are all parts of one person, but most don't. Someone asked me at a workshop once if integration results in a loss of richness and creativity for the patient. Isn't the patient more interesting as a multiple than as a unified person with problems? My answer was to say that the personality system is driven by pain. DID isn't pleasant entertainment. Part of the problem with the iatrogenesis and social-role explanations (which are really dismissals) of DID is that they imply that patient and therapist are having an interesting tea party together, making up mutually satisfying illusions. Therapy is hard work for both parties.

"The alters, put another way, are devices. Like any theater, the personality system is based on certain conventions and structural rules. Part of the therapy involves mapping and dismantling these, replacing them with normal, happier, and more functional rules and structure. The patient is acting as if she is more than one person, but she isn't. This is different from Hollywood acting because the patient is so absorbed in the different roles that she believes in their reality. When I discussed this point with a drama professor, he said that acting students who are too absorbed in their roles become poorer actors. DID is not acting in the sense that Hollywood actors perform a role.

"It only takes a moment's reflection on the film industry to realize this. [4] An actor has to do many takes, jump from scene to scene numerous times in a day, start and stop acting instantaneously, make minute adjustments in posture, tone, and facial expression, and carry out numerous other highly controlled actions. If the actor really felt like a cowboy or science fiction hero, he wouldn't be motivated to act and would probably be perplexed as to where he was and what was going on.[5] The actor who became too absorbed in his role would be disoriented and dysfunctional, like the DID personality who comes out of a blank spell in a bar, surrounded by strangers."[6]


[1] Because boys are never abused, of course. (back)

[2] Because the doctors put it there, much of the time. (back)

[3] Again with the "she". (back)

[4] What about theater, you dope? (back)

[5] Ask a director who works with method actors how she or he speaks to the cowboys and SF heroes. Perhaps tell them it's a re-enactment of some of their adventures. They may even have ideas that will help with the filming. (back)

[6] Tell that to Glenn Close, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ann Hathaway, Viggo Mortensen, or any other method actor.... Even non-method actors.

I have never been a Method actor... Normally, when Im offstage during a Broadway play, I chat to the stage manager about how the Mets are doing or whatever, but with this play, the tension is such that I did not want to go out of character, even for a minute, when I was offstage. I would go to the darkest corner at the back of the stage and just stay with my thoughts and wait. When I was required, the stage manager had to come over to me and say, 'Mr. President, you are needed onstage.'" Frank Langella speaking to David Frost about playing Richard Nixon in the stage version of Frost/Nixon. (back)

Oh, and get this. Funnily enough, Colin Ross has written (in a 2002 article for Criminal Defense Weekly) that:

"DID is treatable to stable integration with psychotherapy. If there really were separate people living inside one body, the condition would be untreatable. It is the fact that the DID is a subjective illusion that makes it a treatable disorder."

Uh. What he's just said is that the fact that the "condition" is curable means that it doesn't exist.

From Ross, Colin A. (1997). Dissociative Identity Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features, and Treatment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 144.

Colin Ross' paper on hospitalization and integration of multiples was debunked by two other psychiatrists who showed that he hadn't used a control group or other proper scientific methods.

See also Alters in dissociative identity disorder - Metaphors or genuine entities? in Clinical Psychology Review - Volume 22, Issue 4, May 2002, Pages 481-497.

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