On Being a Proper Multiple

By Sara Lambert 

When most people think about what it means to be multiple, they go immediately to the "classic" cases of early MPD documentation - multiples like Sybil and Eve White/Black, who demonstrated extremely pronounced changes between their different personalities, accompanied by profound dissociative amnesia. For example, upon switching, they would insist on being called another name and make little or no secret of being a separate entity from the former inhabitant of the body. Their posture, speech patterns, and mannerisms would radically change. They would often have no memory of what other selves had been doing in their absence and, once they left, they would be out of the information loop until their next appearance. Unfortunately, because this highly dramatic, fascinating, and filmic image of MPD has embedded itself in our popular culture, more subtle variations on the diagnosis often go unnoticed or misdiagnosed by therapists, and many multiples are missing out on the treatment they need. The following subheadings are all generalizations or outright fictions which commonly cause multiples to question the truth of their diagnosis. 


Conservative estimates of the proliferance of MPD state that one person in every hundred is multiple. This is far from "rare". The lingering false belief that multiplicity is scarce is due to three facts.

Only in the past 20 years or so has there been widespread belief, both professionally and popularly, in the existence of dissociative disorders (and some people still don't believe in MPD). Before this time, it was hard for therapists treating multiples to get peer support for the diagnosis, let alone have their findings published. For example, Dr Wilbur, Sybil's therapist, had to ask a journalist to write a novelization of the case after she was unable to find a psychiatric journal which would publish her dissertation. This disbelief was responsible for the misdiagnosis of thousands of multiples, who were commonly labelled with depression, hysteria and schizophrenia.

The early documented cases of multiplicity, which influenced the field of study for so many years, were not explicitly linked to child abuse as the causal factor for MPD. Despite loosely associating it with a patient history of a "difficult childhood", there is very little discussion about extreme childhood trauma being the root of MPD. In fact, none of the early case studies showed the extreme abuse histories that multiples these days report, including ritual abuse. The most famous multiple of this time, Eve White/Black, was not even abused as a child and, indeed, had a happy, loving family. Furthermore, thanks to influences like Freud, with his theories of little girls fantasizing of sex with their fathers, as well as a patriarchal society which protected the reputation of men at the expense of their daughters, child abuse was not considered a serious issue in those days. Therefore it may be theorized that psychologists of the time were not looking in-depth at the very section of the population (abuse survivors) to whom are now attributed 97% of MPD diagnoses.

Although psychiatrists have been aware of multiplicity for hundreds of years, study of the condition was fairly new in the first part of this century. While the dramatic, bizarre symptoms of the overt multiple were almost impossible to miss, psychiatrists did not yet have the understanding or skills to recognise the more typical picture of multiplicity - one of obsessive secrecy, masked symptoms, terror of exposure, and intense post-traumatic stress. The increase in numbers of MPD diagnoses over the years seems to support the opinion that the only thing rare about MPD is the ostentatious variety of the condition. As therapists become more skilled at, and more open to, recognizing the subtleties and secrets of multiplicity, more true multiples are being diagnosed. 

SYBIL IS THE TYPICAL MULTIPLE: Perhaps the case which causes the most problems for multiples is that of Sybil. She is an icon of multiplicity. Most of the current diagnostic criteria for MPD can be found in her story. Even so, many multiples fear they are not "proper multiples" because they're not like Sybil. For example, they do not simply walk into their therapist's office and announce themselves as a different personality. They do not lose big chunks of time, waking up in a different city, not knowing how they got there. A comprehensive study of the differences between Sybil and modern-day multiples has yet to be done. This article is not the place to go into such depth, but there are a few basic points which can be made.

Sybil had met and bonded with Dr Wilbur years before going to her for intensive therapy, and in fact had moved cities and saved money for years so she could see Dr Wilbur again. Furthermore, a great deal of therapeutic groundwork was done before Sybil's other selves made themselves known to the doctor, a fact which is not always remembered.

Sybil's mother was her only abuser. She had a loving, although distant, father. She was not abused after leaving home and, in fact, led a quiet life populated by various friends. Her mother was dead by the time Sybil entered psycho-analysis. Perhaps for these reasons, Sybil's system was not so obsessed with maintaining their secret existence, because the threat to their lives was gone.

The influential alters in Sybil's system displayed quite borderline characteristics, with a tendency to act out internal conflicts. It is a common misconception that all multiples are borderline and likely to act out in this way. Many multiples are in fact highly concerned with controlling themselves and their circumstances. Many label themselves "perfectionist control freaks" and always keep a tight rein on their behavior. Even before they know they are multiple, they invest huge amounts of energy in acting and appearing singleton. 

My consistent experience as a researcher and supporter to many other multiples is that the typical picture of modern MPD is one of subtlety, secretiveness, and intense post-traumatic stress which complicate and mask the multiplicity.


Most of the time, multiples do not switch completely or overtly. Rather, they commonly experience internal switches where selves influence their feelings and actions rather than coming "out" to take possession of the body. This creates sensations like hearing words coming out of your mouth that don't belong to you, seeing the world as if you are taller or shorter, having someone else's feelings and thoughts overlapping your own, and so on. There is little external indication of multiplicity. Your voice doesn't change. You don't suddenly announce that you are Sue instead of Harriet. Often, this "behind-the-scenes" action is a matter of safety. Many feel being entirely present in the world is dangerous. They worry that their abusers will somehow be able to sense their presence and come to get them. More generally, others fear being seen because, in the past, that always led to being abused. As a result, their other selves tend to operate from a safe distance, behind the primary person.


A number of multiples do not lose any sense of an observing self, even when their other selves completely emerge. They always have present, at some level, their "host" (also known as the primary person, body person or the person who has the MPD.) This person may sit back and watch what the new self is doing. Some therapists call this co-consciousness and state that it is "less multiple" than the experience of those who have blank spells when their other selves emerge. I disagree with this, for three reasons.

Event amnesia, where a person loses time, is not the only type of amnesia possible. Identity amnesia, which sees a person adopts another identity, also fits the criteria for "extensive forgetting of personal details" which people must experience in order to have MPD, without necessarily losing track of time. In other words, the person becomes the other self, instead of an exchange of selves. This is sometimes known as possessiform multiplicity.

Nothing in MPD is simple. It is not necessary for selves to come out only in discrete succession. There can be more than one self present at the same time. Even if a multiple's primary person is present when her other selves emerge, she typically has little or no control over them. They do and say exactly what they want. The primary person can not necessarily anticipate anything, nor stop anything from happening. She is merely an observer. Sometimes, she may hold the body and do the speaking for the other selves, so they do not have to take physical occupation. At these times, it simply appears that she is the one talking. Very little about her may change, except perhaps her manner of speaking and something about her aura or presence. To the other person in the room, nothing "multiple" seems to be happening, unless they are experienced with multiplicity and can sense the layering of selves. But the primary person is not speaking on her own behalf, nor does she have any influence over the things she is saying. She is merely a channel, a mediator between inside and out. This talking-through phenomenon may be most common amongst those multiples who have very large systems, or systems in which there is no "person who has MPD", but where the entire system is the person - in other words, an "inside out" format.

For many people, having relatively continuous sense of time is an important defense mechanism that the system deliberately arranges and regulates. This is not something mentioned in MPD textbooks or biographies, but it has come up in my consulting work with people who have confirmed MPD diagnoses. A number had big blanks in their childhood but now lose time subtly enough that they tend to claim they just have a bad memory. The thought of losing hours or weeks is appalling to them. I theorize that some multiples stop having significant blank spells when their recurrent amnesia becomes a danger to them (perhaps at the point in childhood when they actually notice that they have been losing time, or when they realize that other people do not have the same experience.) It would not be safe, as a child living in a chronically abusive situation, to be constantly jarred and confused by missing time. Someone might notice and start asking questions that would uncover the abuse the child was trying so desperately to hide - or, worse, the abusers would not notice that the child was aware something was wrong with herself or her life. Therefore the inner system may have organised itself so the child would not have big losses of time (except of course for the hours during which the abuse occurred.) When she did lose time, the knowledge that she had was erased from her mind. Having an adult observer who is always present at some level of awareness, holding the body in an adult state, may mean that the multiple does not exhibit the pronounced physical changes that other, more explicit multiples often experience, such as changes in vision, physically regressed behavior in the child selves, and so on. When she switches, there may be little/no physical indication at all. 


Contrary to popular perception and the wishes of therapists, not all selves have names, nor does a multiple or her system always know who is speaking at any given time. For some multiples, dissociation exists on many layers inside the system. Certain selves may be extremely dissociative or multiple. Others may exist on a sliding chronological scale - in other words, one day they are five years old, the next day they are eight. Some systems have a centralized memory bank which different selves can access at different times, and which can shut down completely when required, locking everyone out. In such a system, a person may remember something one day but not the next. Also, the memory bank may hold not only memories but information about the different selves - for example, a self may be unaware at times of her own identity, because for some reason she has been cut off from the memory bank. In terms of naming, it is common for multiples to give names their other selves for the first time after the selves have come forward to tell their story and be identified. Prior to this, inner selves have had no need for an individual name, or have felt that to be named would be to expose themselves to risk.


A number of multiples do not hear voices at all. Instead, they experience "loud thoughts" or thoughts/feelings that they know are not their own. 


A major feature of MPD folklore is the mysterious appearance of items in the closets of multiples. Many of us joke about the shoes that don't fit, the 10 pots of butter we have in our fridge. But many of us never experience this phenomenon and can identify the origin of every item in our household, even if we don't necessarily approve of their presence. This is not evidence of non-multiplicity. It can actually be evidence of a number of things - being too poor to spend indiscriminately, having good selves-control, being organised, one self alone being responsible for the money, or having a continuous observer-self, whose awareness of, for example, what's already in the fridge or the painful reality that feet do not change size along with a change of selves, can help regulate spending.


Use of the plural self-indicator seems to be something that happens after the multiple has accepted her diagnosis, and often develops simply for the sake of convenience, or as a way of making it clear that the primary person does not admit responsibility for what is being said or done, although it may become increasingly comfortable or habitual over time. Some multiples feel they ought to train themselves to say "we" even though it is strange, after a lifetime of saying "I", and even though it feels like dangerous exposure of the internal reality.


Unfortunately, multiples are not necessarily any more intelligent than other non-traumatized singleton people. It is true that multiples may have more acquired skills than others, because their different selves have pursued different interests - and multiples do have extra physical and mental energy to help them with these pursuits. It is also true that multiples may be more open-minded than other people, because their self-system contains so many different perspectives; paradoxically, however, individual selves in the system are usually very close-minded and deny the beliefs of others both inside and out of the system.

It must be made clear that the diagnostic criteria for MPD are quite specific. To be a multiple, a person must have two or more alter selves who have their own ideas about themselves and their world. This is more than merely having different aspects to your personality or even different inner parts. Alters are "someone else". They can take over the person's behavior and/or body, during which time the person loses time and/or a complete sense of her personal identity. However, I believe one of the most important things to remember about MPD is that it is personality-based - a way of being, rather than a structured state. The form of multiplicity for each person reflects the uniqueness of their personality and, because of this, there are as many rich, complex and different expressions of multiplicity as there are multiples. Meeting the three diagnostic criteria makes someone multiple - the rest is just style.