I am watching a decades-old episode of The Fifth Estate, a Canadian newsmagazine, on the subject of multiple personality disorder. The episode, titled "Mistaken Identities," first aired in November 1993.
The footage is uncanny — adult women in a hospital clinic rocking back and forth on the floor, crying, playing with blocks, sucking on their thumbs. They are acting like this, according to the voice over, because they have something called Multiple Personality Disorder, and they believe that they are currently inhabited by the personalities of young children. The diagnosis, which is known these days as Dissociative Identity Disorder, is said to be the result of extreme childhood trauma. (I'll use both terms, DID and MPD, interchangeably from here on out.)
"[M]ultiple personality disorder is ... a little child imagining that the abuse is happening to somebody else," says a man on the screen, boasting a mullet and a purple paisley tie. "It puts some distance between her and the abuse, it softens the emotional impact, and then the next step is to put a memory barrier between yourself and this new identity. And now, not only did it not happen to you, you don't even remember it."
This is the explanation of DID offered by Colin Ross, the psychiatrist profiled in the program. I am acquainted with Ross; we've spoken on the phone multiple times, and we met once at a meeting of something called the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD for short). He is a well-known personality in the field of DID research and recovery. A past president of the ISSTD, Ross is the author of dry academic titles like Multiple Personality Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features, and Treatment and Trauma Model Therapy: A Treatment Approach for Trauma, Dissociation, and Complex Comorbidity.
In many ways, Colin Ross is the living embodiment of the DID field. To all outside appearances, he is a serious researcher and clinician working to further the understanding of multiple personality disorder and its sibling, repressed memories. He currently operates multiple trauma recovery programs in the state of Texas.
When speaking, Ross delivers everything in a silky monotone that seems to ooze competence. But if you talk to him for more than five minutes, the conversation can get really weird. When we met, Ross and I discussed satanic rituals, UFO abductions, and government mind control conspiracies, all of which he believes are "real" on some level. He claims to have seen the effects of these conspiracies in his clinical practice.
Among Ross's other books is Military Mind Control, an expose of incest and satanic ritual abuse inflicted upon a young girl by the military-industrial-child pornography complex. And the ISSTD itself, a professional association for the study of dissociative identity disorder, is part of a whole network of therapists who promote these same strange, unscientific ideas. To watch Ross spewing this nonsense on that old TV show is to take a time machine to an era when people sincerely believed that the nation was beset by roving bands of lunatics who tortured and killed children at the behest of Satan. Known as The Satanic Panic, this all pretty much died down in the 1990s, although it never really stopped completely. These days, therapists like Colin Ross and his cronies at the ISSTD are helping to provide the pseudoscientific justification for QAnon and Pizzagate and anyone who thinks that America's problems are the result of a satanic Deep State.
And anyone who uncritically repeats the claims of the ISSTD and other conspiracy therapists plays into this narrative.
A story crossed my desk recently: "Inside TikTok’s booming dissociative identity disorder community" (Input Magazine, July 6). [Disclosure: Input's founder, Joshua Topolsky, is a friend who I've worked with at various publications over the years.] The author of the story, Jessica Lucas, looks at social media influencers with TikTok channels dedicated to celebrating their multiple personalities. One DID-fluencer, known as "The A System," has 29 personalities and 1.2 million followers (which works out to over 41,000 followers per personality). They are actively accepting donations on Venmo and, if you're a real fan, will sell you a Cameo video for $20. (They are also planning merch, although nothing is available on their Myshopify page yet.) Aside from The A System, several other DID-fluencers are mentioned in the piece, and they each have hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers themselves.
The idea that multiple personalities are a natural response to childhood trauma is highly controversial, to say the least. That is, there is a large body of scientific evidence showing that the notion is entirely bogus. You'd think that this important point would've come up in the Input Magazine story, but why would it? The myth of DID as a spontaneous response to childhood trauma is so pervasive that you can hardly blame someone for assuming that it's real.
Judging by the experts cited in the article, it’s not clear if Lucas understands the controversial nature of DID, or if she’s simply chosen to ignore it. She relies heavily on the expertise of Dr. Robert T. Muller, a professor of clinical psychology at York University in Toronto, the author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up, and an ISSTD Fellow. Muller’s work all seems to be above board, although if you do enough digging you’ll see hints of the conspiracist nature of the DID field: In 2015, Muller handed the keys of his blog on the Psychology Today website to a colleague who used it to warn people of the dangers of “psychic driving” and other forms of “ritual abuse.”
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In Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters explain how MPD is diagnosed and uncovered, and in doing so reveal how multiple personalities are created in an unwitting individual:
One of the most troubling and telling facts of the disorder is that patients develop their most dramatic and debilitating symptoms only in the course of treatment. Therapists readily admit that at the beginning of treatment patients do not switch between child and adult personalities in front of them. Nor do they howl, growl. scream uncontrollably, talk in the persona of the Devil, or speak in strange voices that tell of a desire to kill the host personalities. One can see the remarkable disparity between the symptoms the client presents and the ones they later learn to display by juxtaposing the beginning and ending to the books that purport to help clinicians diagnose and treat the problem. Eugene Bliss, author of Multiple Personality, Allied Disorders, and Hypnosis, informs his readers at one point that the MPD symptoms can often go unnoticed by the patient or those close to the patient because the signs can often be subtle. But at another point in the same book he describes MPD patients as "literally living in another world," where fantasy and reality cannot be distinguished. "The Devil terrifies them; suicidal personalities frighten them: homicidal personalities are hidden or imprisoned; they sit in the lap of Mother Mary for protection. A rape at age seven is relived with all the anguish, anger and physical pain of the original event. One personality steals, another starts fires, a third solicits men as a prostitute, another slashes the patient's wrists…. A constant struggle is being waged with the patient between preservative forces and destructive ones..."
Why doesn't the clinician look for the severe symptoms ... at the beginning of the treatment? The simple answer that everyone in the debate seems to agree on is that these symptoms, along with the alter personalities, are not present in the patient's behavior during the beginning of the treatment.
The reality is that people don't go to therapy because they're experiencing multiple personalities — they go to therapy because they're depressed, or eating too much, or have inexplicable bouts of road rage. If they're lucky, they find a competent therapist, and maybe even, after some time, start to feel a little better. If they're unlucky (and this was a big problem in the 1980s, and it's still a big problem) they find themselves in a room with a conspiracy therapist and spend years of painful soul-searching before uncovering 10, 20, 30, or more personalities.
DID is real. Multiple personalities are created by mental health malpractice, and the result is misery on the part of the patient/victim. Years of scientific research have shown this to be the case, yet the myth of the human mind spontaneously creating multiple personalities somehow persists in the general public and in the mental health community. And on TikTok, and in publications that should know better.
"I have been noticing this rising trend of people identifying with dissociative identity disorder on social media. And honestly, I have no idea what direction that's going to go, because it seems to upend the old model of dissociative identity disorder."
That’s Lucien Greaves, the co-founder of the Satanic Temple. I met him at an ISSTD conference in 2018, where the Satanists were protesting the kind of conspiracy therapy that results in bizarre diagnoses like multiple personalities and repressed memories.
The new DID-fluencers, the Social Media Multiples, seem to be at odds with the conspiracy therapists. Repressed memories of childhood abuse are deemphasized. The kids on TikTok almost make DID seem like more of a cool lifestyle choice than an actual diagnosis.
"My only issue with dissociative identity disorder and its treatment has been this idea that it's entirely dependent upon repressed memories of abuse," Greaves continues. The creation of "false memories," thoughts that get misconstrued as repressed memories, is inherently traumatic and damaging to the patient. "But if you're talking about somebody mapping themselves as being DID, if they're more comfortable feeling like they're in the skin of somebody else—or, you know, thinking of themselves by different names due to different circumstances, different times a day, different mood states they're in, I really don't have anything to say about that. Unless it somehow conflicts with them being constructive and happy."
Once you take the actual nature of DID into account, the real story behind the Input Mag article emerges — that of a TikTok community that’s come to wrest their diagnoses and their own mental states from the hands of the conspiracy therapists and transform them into something more workable, more compatible with their own lives. Will this blow up in everybody’s faces? There’s a pretty good chance that it will (ignoring science tends to have that effect). Regardless, it’s another example of the growing irrelevance of the professionals who traumatize their patients in the name of DID "therapy," and I imagine that could only be a good thing.
FURTHER READING (AND LISTENING)
My book Satan Goes to the Mind Control Convention deals with conspiracy theories, repressed memories, DID, and the Satanic Temple. You can purchase the paperback or listen to the audiobook on Audible.