multiple personality: split personality; a mental condition in which a person experiences him/herself as two or more different people, differently named, and with major extremes in behavior and life-style, each dissociated from the other, with variable degrees of overlap and shared memory or mutual amnesia Paraphilic sex crimes are commonly committed in a fugue-like, or dual-personality state Transvestophiles have a male and a female personality. See also dissociate; fugue; personality; schizophrenia.

Dictionary of Sexology Project: Main Index

This is an essay that I wrote for my Self and Society class, with help from Kaleidoscope House.

1. Background Info

Multiple personality disorder, or "multiplicity," is aptly named: it is a concept with multiple meanings and uses. Multiple Personality Disorder was first conceived of as a medical phenomenon in the 1880s when French psychiatrist Pierre Janet studied patients with what was then termed disassociation: amnesias, fugues, and what he described as "successive existences." In 1906 this was expanded upon when a Harvard psychiatrist wrote about "an illusion of separate personalities" ( This presentation of multiplicity as illusion or the product of an active imagination has persisted in many different forms ever since, and undergoes daily battles of use and meaning between the psychiatrists applying it and the clients to whom it is applied.

MPD did not have its own entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the third edition (DSM-III), published in 1979, although the DSM-II mentioned it briefly under "Hysterical Dissociative Disorder." However, in the next version, the DSM-IV, the label "MPD" was changed to "Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)." In an article on the subject of multiplicity, journalist Jamie Talan remarks, "Doctors say this term better describes a fragmentation of personality, rather than a distinct person within a person." This perspective is the standard within the psychiatric community in the United States, where we are very invested in the idea that there can only be one mind per body. However, the International Code of Diseases (ICD), which is the standard for psychiatric diagnoses in the rest of the world, rejected the term "DID," only noting that it is sometimes a synonym for MPD. Dr. Ralph Allison, who has studied multiplicity for over thirty years, wrote an article detailing this controversial act and commenting, "So, in the world outside the USA, MPD still exists. Only in the USA have all multiples been told they have a false belief that they have alters running their bodies."

The term "multiple personality" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "an hysterical neurosis in which the personality becomes dissociated into two or more distinct but complex and socially and behaviorally integrated parts, each of which becomes dominant and controls behavior from time to time to the exclusion of the others." They date it to 1901, but do not cite a source. The reference to "hysterical neuroses" offers a clear comparison to Freud. He believed that physical and mental illnesses could indicate suppressed memories, and that the point of therapy would be to allow the client to recover these memories by talking to the unbiased and attentive psychiatrist.

2. Mainstream Psychology Today

MPD today is most commonly viewed as being almost inevitably "caused" by severe childhood sexual abuse. Many psychiatrists think that the various people or "personalities" present in a multiple system are merely fragments of the original "personality," split off somehow in order to dissociate from the pain of abuse. Freud himself did not present much work on this subject. However, a lot of his work in other areas is applied to it today. For example, he wrote that "There are cases in which parts of a person’s own body, even portions of his own mental life- his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings-, appear alien to him and as not belonging to his ego," which is a perfect description of the way MPD is viewed by many therapists.

Unfortunately, Freud leaned heavily towards blaming clients for their problems and presenting them as delusions. Much of what he wrote can easily be seen as anti-multiple statements. He said that "A further incentive to a disengagement of the ego from the general mass of sensations is provided by the frequent, manifold, and unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure," a perspective which is now used to paint multiplicity as a state of denial created by a single mind under attack. Studies of dissociation declined in the 1930s as Freud’s theories became popular, and were to remain a mere footnote in psychiatric journals for fifty years.

3. Are Multiples Making It Up?

MPD is an odd diagnosis in that it is constantly under debate by the psychiatric community, not to determine what the best treatment is, but to decide whether it is "real." Jamie Talan tells us that "in a recent article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Harrison Pope of McLean Hospital in Massachusetts reported that 65 percent of the psychiatrists and psychologists he surveyed believe in the diagnosis." These are the term’s target community, the people for and by whom it was created, and only sixty-five percent of them can agree that it is valid. Where does this debate come from?

A study published in a 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association suggested that Pierre Janet was wrong when he said multiplicity was caused by a single mind splitting into different selves, and that instead "the appearance of multiplicity may derive from an essentially unitary but nonetheless powerful set of organizing fantasies centering on the idea that one's body and mind can be taken over and controlled by persons other than oneself" ( This statement rests at the crux of the whole argument. It portrays MPD-as-fantasy: the belief that such a thing as multiple personalities is impossible, that it is a way of "getting out of something," or of "looking for attention."

A 1983 article in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis presented a few court cases in which a plea of "diminished responsibility" was filed because the defendant was a multiple, and suggested (inaccurately) that "the use of the multiple personalities as a criminal defense will become more frequent" (Abrams). This is an accusation frequently leveled at multiples by those who do not "believe" in MPD: that they are fabricating everything in order to abdicate responsibility in their lives.

One of the major proponents of such accusations is the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. They focus not on abdication of responsibility, but on false accusations of rape and incest, going to far as to create FMS (which is not recognized by most psychiatrists) as a condition to replace MPD. They cite an H. Merskey as arguing in the British Journal of Psychiatry that FMS is a psychiatric syndrome in the traditional sense which "frequently includes a person with a problem, a set of ideas for which there is no independent evidence, complaints based upon so-called recovered memories, and the propagation of hate and hostility." FMS is, in this and most cases, used more or less as a synonym for “accusing someone of incest or rape," an action which the FMS Foundation considers to be always false until proven otherwise. Interestingly, one of the main supporting points in their manifesto is that "The concept of false memories is not new to the therapeutic community, and the issues surrounding false memories of incest are at least as old as Freud." They go on to say,

In the recovered-memory/MPD literature, enthusiasts repeatedly state (based not on scientific evidence but rather on belief) that MPD results from childhood sexual mistreatment. Even if a patient denies being sexually maltreated as a child, enthusiasts have a ready explanation: the memory was "repressed." And so the cruel chain of illogic is forged... a therapist "diagnoses" a person as having MPD. The patient must, therefore, unquestionably have been traumatized as a child. Healing requires memories. If no memories bubble to the surface, the therapist stirs the pot ever more vigorously, thus setting in motion the never-ending search for abuse memories. (FMS Foundation)
It is true that many therapists and psychologists focus solely on child abuse as "proof" of MPD, and some even tell their clients that if they are multiple they must have been abused, as the above statement insists. However the main effect of this practice is not false self-identification or false accusations, but a fear of self-awareness – a fear that if one might be multiple, one must somehow be making everything up without knowing it, that if one was abused, one must be just imagining it to get attention or revenge in some way.

4. Popular Culture

In popular culture in the United States, there is a sense of casual familiarity with MPD. It is a common theme of cartoons in the New Yorker; one can buy stickers and shirts that say "All my personalities hate you;" people undergoing mood swings are often the subject of jokes about Sybil, the multiple whose story was novelized and made into a movie sometime in the 1960's. This is largely the extent of mainstream awareness of multiplicity, much as most people’s awareness of transsexuality is limited to jokes about sex workers or Dennis Rodman. Sybil’s story, as it spawned a long-lived movie, is one of the few accounts of multiplicity that is widely available, and it is an extreme case in some ways; many multiples has gone through long years of denial because they could not identify with Sybil. She never had co-consciousness, meaning she never remembered what her other personalities did when they are out. For many multiples, this is not the case: they experience only slight amounts of "lost time", or occasionally none at all.

Why is multiplicity so widespread in popular culture when it is still so misunderstood? People are attracted to and repelled by the horror of the story, and its crucial difference from how they experience the mind. It keeps getting written up in sensationalized autobiographies or discussed in supposedly shocking talk shows, always as a freak element. It’s like the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only this time people want to watch the beast instead of run away from it. What's forbidden to their own minds is attractive to them as a freak show. It's all about what's forbidden, about proving how normal they are and how freakish the other element is. Portraying multiples only in extreme and antagonistic roles, as if they were all Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is a way of distancing "normal people" from multiplicity. Certainly to a lot of the multiples today it's not strange: it's simply reality. This viewpoint probably does much to keep people who are not "classic multiples" that resemble Sybil from considering the variousness of their own self in any serious way.

5. Alternative Perspectives

In other cultures, too, multiplicity is often much more accepted and "normal." For example, a member of one multiple system currently studying the ancient Norse religion of Asatru maintains that the god Odin "is, I believe, a multiple. Some say that Odin, Vili and Ve are brothers. Others say that the three are aspects of the same God. I think that he has a system of his own. I have similar thoughts about Frigga" (Clarissa of the Anachronic Army). The idea of many souls in one body is common in stories of possession by gods or spirits; many religions worldwide, such as Wicca, Santeria, the Kemetic Orthodoxy, and the Society of Friends (Quakers), focus on letting Deity speak through their worshippers. The Christian religion often conceptualized their God as a trinity, three people and one at the same time.

We have, then, a number of different groups using "MPD." Psychiatrists use it to mean patients are fractured and must be integrated into one whole person; many talk show hosts, journalists, and members of the FMS foundation use it to mean a delusion created to get attention; many authors of horror stories and lurid true-crime novels use it to mean a nightmarish loss of control connected to terrifying abuse. But how do multiples themselves use the term?

6. Empowered Multiplicity

In an online debate about the practice of integrating everyone in a multiple system and whether people with MPD are all unhappy and obsessed with abuse, one participant exclaimed,
I'm looking around me right now (listwise, not at the ugly half-cubicles surrounding me offline) and I'm seeing a HUGE variety of multiples. I'm seeing people who love being multiple and people who never self-injured and people who self-injure for totally unrelated reasons and people who became multiple because of abuse and people who were born multiple and people who were born multiple and (later) abused and people who have a tremendously complex combination of these and more, and people who have alters who are multiple and multiples who have multiple insiders who became multiple on purpose and who reintegrated or split apart completely and people who are NOT controlled by their past OR their abusers and who are functioning marvelously, charmingly, creatively, and beautifully! (Dani of Kaleidoscope House)
This is an expression of a new subculture of "empowered multiplicity." Another participant commented, "Really, it's a societal pull: you must conform to be like 99% of the population because we do not know what to do with you. We don't know what it's like to be many, so we condemn it. Come be like us. Come be normal. Come conform." (Matt of the Myriad) Empowered multiples generally reject the term MPD itself, because they do not perceive their multiplicity as a "disorder." They suggest that most of the "disorders" attributed to multiplicity stem from the experiences of those multiples – and anyone else – who has been abused. In the view of empowered multiples, multiplicity may be experienced as disorderly to the outside life, if a system has bad communication between its members or people aren’t getting along, but the solution for this is not to attempt to kill everyone or compress them somehow into one person, as most integration-oriented therapists do. The term itself is the source of much amusement within the multiple community; it was made up by two multiple systems chatting at the Laundromat while waiting for the dryers to finish, and has made it into several major websites including that of the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance. Although it is mostly encountered only on the internet, this viewpoint of multiplicity is gaining ground.

Feminists like Helene Cixous embraced Freud’s teachings and challenged others to decide who was truly mad: "the hysterical woman who finds her life under male oppression intolerable, or the psychiatrists who aim to reconcile her with that life." This could be rewritten today as a much-needed criticism of the clinical model of MPD. As multiples become increasingly self- (or selves-) aware and form growing networks, the term will continue to evolve. How do you conceive of your self(ves)?

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