All That Glitters Isn’t Gold-
Part Two: Where Is My Mind?


The Pixies once sang, “Where is my mind? Way out in the water see it swimming.” Black Francis and Kim Deal always implied that the lyrics were open to interpretation. Maybe it could be as simple and ordinary as scuba diving in the Caribbean. However I always thought it was far more esoteric than that: Disassociation. In the real world we have all experienced some aspect of disassociation in our lives, whether it be taking our morning vitamins, then wondering if we have indeed taken them, or missing the exit off the freeway because it’s on a familiar route and our thoughts have happened to go elsewhere. Is it so peculiar that this type of dissociation happens everyday in our lives? Why shouldn’t it happen in the traumatic aspects of painful suppressed memories? Especially if it’s something you want to forget?

The subject of Disassociation Disorders includes Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which used to be known as MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder). By modern standards it has been deemed that diagnosis is incorrect. This is because whilst under another identity, the sufferer doesn’t  know they have transferred into an altered state. Therefore, it’s now called Dissociative Identity Disorder because this transference is often used as a coping mechanism for profound physical, mental, and sexual abuse which often occurs in childhood.

One of the first portrayals of DID was by Sally Fields. She got an Emmy for the film ‘Sybil.’ The premise was a woman going through therapy to beat this disorder caused by childhood abuse and trauma. Like the previous example of Ed Gein, Field’s character was based on a real person. However, Shirley Mason (Sybil) did not have DID or 16 personality disorders like she did in the book and movie. Mason did experience some childhood abuse and trauma, anorexia, anxiety, and depression, and didn’t find other therapists helpful. When she saw Dr. Cornelia Wilbur both women experienced some sort of connection. Wilbur had specialized in hysteria and personality disorders so Mason started saying she was experiencing fugue states and displaying multiple personalities. Wilbur began giving Mason stronger and stronger medications and more drastic treatments. Wilbur eventually gave Mason numerous treatment sessions with Sodium Barbital—otherwise known as truth serum—that can be also used to implant false memories, which was exactly what Wilbur started to do with Mason. Then the novelist Flora Schreiber found a transcript of Mason and Wilbur’s sessions at John Jay College. She became transfixed and published a novel in 1973 giving Mason the alias of ‘Sybil.’ 

In the nineties, analysts, researchers, and Dr. Robert Rieber, another psychologist from John Jay College, found out the source material had been fabricated, not from the transcripts like Schreiber had found but from the actual, unedited taping of both Mason and Wilbur’s sessions to the American Psychological Association. These exhibited in Rieber’s words a “fraudulent construction of a multiple personality…It is clear from Wilbur’s own words that she was not exploring the truth but rather planting the truth as she wanted it to be.” At the end of the day, Mason did not want to lose Wilbur as a psychiatrist and vice versa. Both women crossed the line between doctor and patient and became friends. Whilst we all want our medical health professionals, especially psychiatric, to empathize and to hear us, we don’t want them to make our conditions worse or to use unethical practices. 

Now the depiction of DID has become progressively more artistic and esoteric, like the films from the critically acclaimed, award-winning director, Darren Aronofsky. For example, ‘Fight Club’ exhibits the duality of Edward Norton’s DID and Schizophrenic disorder. This takes the form of the charismatic Brad Pitt and his character, the confident leader, Tyler Durden.

Then there’s the mind-fuckery (literally and figuratively) of ‘Black Swan.’ Or M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ which ends in a far from realistic way but what do you expect from the master of the far fetched, dramatic plot twist (although rudimentary; characters are either demonically possessed, or aliens allergic to water, or have been dead all along)? 

In reality the conditions of MPD and DID are highly contested by psychologists as to whether these are real when it comes to criminality. Some view the diagnosis as just an excuse to get sequestered to a mental institution and avoid life in prison or the death penalty. A recent  documentary from the truly amazing Alex Gibney, ‘Crazy, Not Insane,’ is about the controversial and renowned psychologist, Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis. Her life's work demonstrated several diagnoses for children and adults who have been abused to such an extent that they developed DID disorders. She was supposed to be one of the inspirations for Clarice Starling. She was also a consultant for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro when they made ‘Cape Fear’ which earned De Niro his best actor Golden Globe and Oscar. Scorsese wanted Robert to see what rage was and how it could be a different embodiment to somebody’s personality. The person Lewis interviewed with Robert De Niro was a patient with DID called ‘Max,’ the mild mannered, non-violent, primary personality who had neither heard of the infamous actor or his amazing movies. However, the personality who embodied the aggressive and murderous ‘Kalki’ greeted the actor with “Oh my god! Mr. De Niro, I loved you in Taxi Driver!” So in this particular instance one of the personalities exhibited memories and knowledge the other did not. It’s not uncommon to have people with DID have separate interests and mannerisms.

Lewis also testified on the stand for inmates who supposedly had this disorder, some of whom you can believe, and others you can’t. In some cases her judgement and her sentimental nature can come off as naïveté. Her use of hypnotism in the Arthur Shawcross case can be seen as a hack rather than a professional psychologist’s modality. She doesn’t use that technique anymore. 

The naïveté is especially explicit in Lewis’ interviews with Ted Bundy. He would change his handwriting sometimes and sign his letters as ‘Sam,’ the name of his grandfather who was abusive and ruled the household with an iron fist. Also, for the longest time Bundy thought his grandparents were his parents. However, his real mother was actually the woman he thought of as his sister. She wanted to have him adopted because she had him so young but her father made her bring him home and keep up the charade for decades; talk about family drama. This isn’t an excuse for Bundy’s macabre and murderous behavior towards his poor victims. Lewis thought ‘Sam’ was evidence of Bundy’s DID. But he probably knew Lewis was going to see the  letters and try to figure out a stay of execution. However, even she knew it was hopeless. She couldn’t file a stay. Everyone wanted to see Bundy die for what he did.

It’s universally known that Bundy was a master manipulator. He was his own lawyer and masterminded his own defense, intimidating the surviving victims, and he married his fiancee in the court. As a cherry on top of this weird-ass cake the judge even complimented him and basically said if he had gone down a different life’s path he would have made a fantastic lawyer. 

Never mind that all of this was just cruel, indifferent, and biased against the women involved. If you remember, Bundy even turned to Evangelical Christianity and blamed porn for his penchant for rape and murder. The fundamentalist Christians took this and ran with it, blaming pornography for Bundy’s choices. If that’s the case, everyone would be a cold-blooded killer. 

The most recent piece of media on Depersonalization Disorder did not portray it as DID or MPD. Instead, it shows how the disorder is most typically experienced. The award-winning limited series ’Unbelievable,’ stars the tremendously talented Toni Collette and Merritt (no complementary word-play needed) Weaver. The whole show is based on the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book/ Expose “The Unbelievable Story of Rape,” and the true case story of a rapist who was finally captured by two female detectives. Furthermore, the story touches on the historical, judicial, and socio-economic aspect of rape and how it’s investigated or judged. 

However, the real star of the show is the person who embodies the Dissociation disorder: the delightful Kaitlyn Dever. Her character, Marie, is again based on a real girl who had experienced severe mental, physical, and sexual abuse as a child. She was placed in the foster care system from a young age. When she was raped again, she was in a transitional program from foster care to self-sustained independence. As a consequence of her harsh childhood, Marie had already developed the Disassociation technique without even knowing it. This occurs when, in the midst of trauma, your brain recedes into a survival mode of concentrating on anything but what you’re experiencing. Akin to MPD or DID, instead of dividing into personalities that can handle the situation, your mind just goes to another place.

When Marie is later interviewed, because she didn’t remember every little detail that occurred during the rape, she is then pressured to confess that she was lying to the police. It turns out few people do fully remember their rapes, especially if it’s a repetitive incident. The details are too painful or harrowing to remember. As a consequence of her false confession, Marie is abandoned by her friends, her former foster parents, the media, vilified by the world wide web, and ostracized by the community at large. Years later, she’s finally exonerated and her name is cleared. By then she’s so numb and disillusioned by the police and the process she’s not in a good place. When the attorney says that they could sue the police and city for more money, she just wants to settle at the amount they’ve offered and move on. She thanks the lady detectives through a letter for actually investigating the case. She wasn’t the lone victim of this serial rapist, yet only they had connected the dots. 

Overall, I think the media doesn’t get the complexity of this particular disorder. They make it fantastical or dramatic. In ‘Crazy, Not Insane,’ Psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis is ridiculed by some for her theorem on DID, but this prognosis didn’t come out of thin air. She started out trying to rehabilitate children at Bellevue Hospital who had recently been taken into foster care or had been adopted, a lot of whom had suffered terrible physical and/or mental abuse. Some had very active imaginations which they would express through drawings or by playing with dolls. Most of the children routinely depicted violence and upsetting situations within their art. Other times it would be the contrary; they’d imagine nice places that they had never been to, or things they had never seen and that piqued Dr. Lewis’ interest. 

Her work with children coincided with her analysis of inmates in prisons and high security mental institutions. You remember ‘Max,’ the guy who didn’t know who Robert Di Niro was but his alter ego did. As a child he’d suffered incomprehensible abuse at the hands of his mother. He went on to stab two of his lovers and because of his condition was sequestered in a high  security mental institution.

One day Lewis asked Max about this conundrum: why were the children drawing a nice place or depicting a pleasant situation that they had never been in? He said, “ask them when the horrible things were happening, was there a special place you go to? A place just for you?” All the children responded “yes” and gave the description of the places they went.  

Therefore, DID ultimately happens when you need a protective shell. The identities become a manifestation of your aggression, the need for protection, and the solace you require to survive.

Overall, Disassociation can be seen as a type of PTSD, a coping mechanism, going into one’s imagination to a nice place you can reside where nothing bad can happen. Evidence wise, ‘Marie’ from ‘Unbelievable’ pictures herself on a beach holiday with her friends, gallivanting in the water. A practiced tactic she developed as a child and used to take her out of the horrific rape she was actually experiencing. 

But how do you pick up the pieces when you have something like PTSD, or a dissociation disorder? Or even a lifelong mental illness? How do you turn your life around? Maybe the recovery begins in a place that has been depicted by the media as horrendous and tragic. The bottom of the barrel. Known colloquially as many things; ‘rehab’ (in a statement released from your LA publicist if you’re famous), or ’the looney bin,’ ‘funny farm,’ or ‘the nuthouse,’ if you’re not. Mental Insititutions have never been pleasant, even by current day standards, from the pallid and confining environment, to the rudimentary and sometimes primative treatments that have yet to be abolished. The stated chief objective of these mental health hospitals, clinics, institutions and such is to help people with mental illnesses. This has become such an oxymoron and that’s exactly where the intrigue lies. So the stories emerging from these places come mostly from the people who have been in--and out, then in again--of mental institutions, who haven’t got better or have become worse as a concequence. So what’s to be done?

Stay tuned for the final installment of this semi riveting/horrifying series of think pieces.
©Betsy’s Bell Jar 2022