Review of The Flock

I’ve just finished reading a book that was recently donated to the Mifsa library, called The Flock by Joan Francis Casey with Lynn Wilson. I will definitely be adding the book to my own library, it was an excellent read. I was expecting another really dated, sensational, riddled with graphic abuse accounts biography but instead found a really lovely depiction of the challenges and joys of multiplicity and integration. I’ve read so much about this topic now that it is really difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who is new to it all. I’ve been trying to think about the book from that perspective to work out if it is one I would recommend as a place to start reading. At the moment my suggestions are First Person Plural by Cameron West, The DID Sourcebook, Got Parts, and Trauma and Recovery for those who can get something out a fairly dense book that is fantastic but written in more clinical language. These all have good descriptions of multiplicity and dissociation and, aside from the last, are reasonably easy to read. Some of the books out there are painfully technical and difficult to read, some have clearly been written by and for clinicians and are filled with terms like ‘dissociated identity is a failure to achieve crucial developmental goals’ which is a perfectly valid and interesting perspective but worded in a way that makes my teeth ache. I don’t think we need to throw around terms like failure when there’s less painful ways of describing the same process.

The biographies, particularly the early ones, are very interesting to read and I’ve found them very useful to inform and provide background to the current understandings of trauma and dissociation but can be pretty hard going. A couple of them have such graphic accounts of abuse that I nearly vomited reading them. Most are sensational, and rely on the severity of the abuse to try to help a disbelieving public wrap their minds around the idea of multiplicity – I know it sounds way out there but look what I’ve come through, it was so extreme that multiplicity makes sense really. I have a certain sympathy for this approach and it certainly does make sense but it also leaves people with the unfortunate idea that multiplicity is only ever the result of the most extreme and sadistic child abuse imaginable.

When I started reading and gathering information, it was incredibly hard work. Everything had problems. Most of the information was overly simplistic, most of it contradicted everything else I read, some of it contradicted itself, the rest of it was so dense and clinical it was like being beaten to death with a brick. There are squabbles about how to tell ‘real multiples’ from ‘fakers’, horror stories about therapists coercing suggestible people into becoming multiples, things that say hypnosis is useful, things that say hypnosis is incredibly dangerous and totally contraindicated, books that list the ‘types’ of parts every multiple must have (the protector, the inner self-helper, the abused child), sensational descriptions of multiples that seemed to reduce them to circus freaks (not that I have anything against circus freaks!) and ego-massaging depictions of therapists intelligent, courageous, dedicated, and gifted enough to save them. It was a minefield, very difficult to work my through and start to piece together my own framework. Often the books and research left me really drained and depleted, it would take a few days to process them and start to get my head back to (my version of) normal. Fortunately, I’m persistent, and I’m good at working out the underlying principles and themes of books, and linking together information from different books or even different areas of life to build theories and develop frameworks. There’s nothing quite like living a highly dissociative life to make you good at linking up disconnected concepts people don’t usually put together. 🙂

I think I would recommend The Flock, with a couple of caveats. There are some descriptions of abuse – not many, but they are there. They tend to be very contained, you can skip the paragraph and jump past them without too much trouble. The same thing goes for First Person Plural. It is very interesting in that the book is composed of Renee’s memories (one member of the Flock) and the journal entries of her therapist Lynn. It’s great to get an insight into both processes. The most obvious concern I can see that people might have is that the type of therapy that is depicted in it, called re-parenting, is extremely time intensive and not very common. Considering that most of the literature out there subscribes to the idea that multiplicity is always an extremely dysfunctional state and requires many years of intensive therapy, most multiples and their families are already very anxious about their prospects when they can’t find a therapist or afford one. I’ll write more about the role – and limitations – of therapy in my experience shortly, (edit: What’s the point of therapy?) but the short version is that the therapy depicted in The Flock is certainly helpful for them but that doesn’t make it the only way forwards. 🙂

The Flock is essentially focused on the ‘recovery journey’ which is refreshing, and also depicts integration very sensitively. There’s a number of books out there that describe integration as getting rid of all the parts except one. The Flock has an approach I feel is far more ethical – the description of integration as all the dissociative barriers coming down so that all the parts are united – “from that moment on, all of the personalities had all the time, all of the time.” The other biography I’ve read that depicts this understanding of integration is Leah Peah’s Not otherwise specified. Lynn describes herself as “surprised at how comfortable I am with seeing ‘only’ Joan. I don’t miss the separate personalities. Joan’s right. In some miraculous way, they are all there.” Having said that, many multiples feel under a lot of pressure to integrate, often from overzealous therapists who make integration rather than improved quality of life the goal. It’s perfectly possible to create (or at least, simulate) integration without improving quality of life at all. I see no value whatsoever in swapping the diagnosis of multiplicity for diagnoses of bipolar, depression, borderline personality disorder, and so on.

When talking to folks who come for the first time to Sound Minds, the voice hearers group I help facilitate, I often talk about how individual and unique recovery is. Not only is what helps unique to each individual, but what ‘well’ looks like is different too. Some people have no voices when they are well. Some people’s wellness looks like voices with whom they have a positive relationship. Some people still have dreadfully abusive voices even on their best days, but they have learned excellent strategies and coping skills and are not limited by them. There’s not one road out, or one end goal in mind. Sometimes working towards a specific end goal isn’t even all that helpful, just putting one foot in front of the next working to reduce suffering, improve your functioning, find hope, and create a life you can love will take you to goals you could never have imagined or anticipated that are truly wonderful. That’s certainly how I feel about my peer work. 🙂 The same lack of obsessed focus is probably useful when it comes to thinking about ideas like integration.

The last thing I noticed that I’d disagree with or feel concerned about leaving unchallenged is an assertion in the book that DID is always and only ever caused by abuse. Abuse is highly implicated in the formation of DID, but so is neglect, chronic pain, and all kinds of trauma. There’s a lot of people who are afraid that what they went through wasn’t bad enough for them to be DID, or that a diagnosis of DID means some other terrible things must have happened that they are going to remember later. These fears add a lot of unnecessary stress to the situation.

Caveats aside, I’d recommend this book. I found it a beautiful depiction of the Flock’s experience of multiplicity and Lynn’s love and exasperation throughout a challenging but profoundly healing relationship.

9 thoughts on “Review of The Flock

  1. Hi Jane,
    Absolutely, you've put your finger on a really important point with trauma. As a community even within mental health we do tend to focus on obvious traumas that are the presence of something that should not be there – such as abuse. Culturally we pay very little attention to the suffering caused by the lack of something. Loneliness, grief, neglect are less spectacular and attention grabbing but they kill people. Anyone who has grieved infertility knows just how powerful an absence in one's life can be. Trauma doesn't always leave scars we can see or even scary stories we could tell because nothing happened, no one thing can we point to easily, but still we were starving inside, still we were dying. The lack of someone trusted to talk to and share with is crucial in the development of trauma-related distress.

    The example of 'failure to reach developmental goals' was by an author who did clearly consider that this was due to an inadequate environment rather than a failure on the part of the child. However in clinical texts often far too little consideration is given to wording things in such a way that is respectful. The same concept can be written differently, which is partly why I love Trauma and Recovery so much, because Judith Herman does an amazing job of explaining complex psychological processes – and deficits – in such a respectful way.
    Thanks for your comments, I always appreciate your thoughts. 🙂

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  2. Hi Sarah,

    Yes, mainly it does, thank you.

    I have found even the word trauma can have as many limiltations as abuse does for many people – particularly those who I would have hoped would have known better – the mental health professionals…. counsellors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists etc. Being disempowered, having choices taken away, can be very disabling and therefore traumatic and I would imagine that this happens in childhood more than is realised. Trauma can be very insidiuos and covert.

    The other thing I wanted to comment on was the technical/clinical language. You gave an example 'dissociated identity is a failure to achieve crucial developmental goals'. I wonder if even those who are learning really understand. A statement such as this could imply failure of the child to reach deveopmental stages, as though it was the fault of the child, something wrong with the child. How many people understand it as the failure of the child's environment/family/community to provide adequate care for developmental stages to take place – eg trust, autonomy, age appropriate initiative, industry and identity (from Erikson's stages of development) Therefore dissociation, in whatever form it takes, is the child's adaptive ability to compensate and survive what the environment/family/community offers.

    Thanks for the always interesting blogs.
    Jane

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  3. Hi Jane,
    Good question! The research so far is that DID has a very high correlation with childhood trauma, most studies I've come across are higher than 90%. Having said that, I have spoken with people who have DID who do not believe they experienced childhood trauma. Considering the issues around memory, denial, and fragmented experience, it's a difficult situation and certainly some multiples later learn that someone in their system does clearly remember traumatic experiences that were crucial in the formation of multiplicity. Research so far as suggests that DID is almost always the result of childhood trauma – trauma later in life tends to have different effects. There is a fair amount of disparity between the idea of what the 'cut-off' age is – I've read between 4 and 10 yrs of age.

    However! I think it's very disrespectful and harmful to tell someone who is DID that if they don't think they experienced childhood trauma, they must be mistaken or in denial. I firmly believe that people have the right to understand their experiences in their own way, and I know just how diverse people can be. So, as some people with DID are saying they do not believe it was traumatic in origin, I never say that all DID is caused by trauma. Considering that DID is very high levels of dissociation in both identity and memory, I have certainly observed that as you head back down those spectrums, you start to find people who are experiencing dissociation as a result of things other then childhood trauma, such as adulthood trauma or severe grief for example. This is partly why I'm frustrated by DID being used as shorthand for multiplicity, because there are a lot of folks with 'parts' that don't fit the classic DID presentation either in experience or origin.

    Personally while I try to be respectful to those who consider their multiplicity not to have been traumatic in origin, my focus in building resources is those who are struggling with trauma histories partly because I can identify with the chronic pain and distress and want to share what I've found helpful, and partly because these folks are at high risk of things like suicide, self-harm, isolation, and abusive relationships. There's a certain tension between wanting to be inclusive, and trying to focus efforts where there is the greatest need. Of course, identifying as having a trauma history is not required to access any resources such as Bridges, merely that some conversations and supports geared for that may not be as applicable.

    Hope that answers your question!
    Cheers, Sarah

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  4. Hi Sarah,

    Great post. Can I just clarify something with you? You have indicated that The Flock asserts that DID is always and only ever caused by abuse and that you challenge that assumption. I don't like the word abuse at all – it is far too limiting because as you say it does not adequately cover experiences of neglect, pain, loss, disempowerment, fear etc etc. The word trauma is far more all encompassing of these experiences and covers abuse too. So would you say that DID is always caused by trauma? I believe that to be the case, but would be intersted to hear what you think.

    Jane

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  5. I've just found out it's on the web: just google 'M J Hyland + The Trial' ansd it will come up: it's from The Financial Times magazine and its \a revelatory piece of reporting; if hyou get a chance and time — it will only take fiftenn minutes — give it a go

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  6. it is a good to find a book that is totally engrossing that you can recoomend to others; what can I offer? I know: 'The Best Australian Essays 2011' in particular M J Hyland's 'The Trial of Mary Bale' about the online hate campaign against a distraught woman who had placed a cat in a wheelie bin where it lay undiscovered for 24 hours

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