I did my first interview recently speaking out against the horrific stigma and discrimination so many people have to deal with as multiple. I’ve teamed up with SANE Australia to bust myths and show a human face to multiplicity. Yesterday they published the article: Nine things you need to know before watching Split. It’s beautifully concise and to the point, a much briefer explanation of the issues than this post. I’ve written here to elaborate on the key points and explain in more detail what is going on, why it matters, and what we can do about it.
The new movie Split has put people like me back in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. This movie speaks directly to a popular myth – that multiples like me are dangerous.
This is crap. It’s lazy writing. It’s been done a million times. And always having the multiple be the bad guy harms people who are already afraid of the huge impact being out about multiplicity can have in their relationships, jobs, housing, education, and custody arrangements. Multiples are an incredibly diverse and highly discriminated against community, so why are we still telling the serial killer story? It’s not okay to constantly present us this way. How dare people make money by exploiting the vulnerable.
I’m multiple and I’m a compassionate, hard working, animal loving poet with a very silly sense of humour. I do not murder hitchhikers. I do not kidnap people. I do not terrorise children. I take injured seagulls to the vet. I provide a safe home for friends in trouble. I weed my elderly neighbour’s garden.
You do not need to be afraid of me switching. Switching is just like someone leaving a room and another person coming in. One of us catches the seagull and figures out how to keep it safe, we switch and someone else comforts the distressed child who saw the bird get hit by a car. We tag team our life. It’s actually completely lacking in drama. In my world multiplicity and switching is just normal.
Have multiples ever been killers? Yes. It’s rare but possible. Are some multiples violent or abusive or frightening? Of course. And so are some people who eat fish. Some Mexicans. Some psychiatrists. Multiples run the full gamut of human expression from demons to angels not because of our multiplicity but because we are human. Statistically, you are far more likely to be a threat to us than we are to you.
Why does it matter?
It’s just entertainment though, right? Don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t take it seriously. No one takes this stuff seriously. It’s not real. It doesn’t make any difference in the real world.
If ‘serial killer’ or ‘violent psychopath’ were the only roles we cast people with freckles in, how would you feel about dating a freckled person? Having a child with freckles? A co-worker? How would you feel about discovering you had freckles you didn’t know about?
I’ve watched a lot of the movies or episodes and read the books that depict multiplicity. Some of them I think are great, and that includes some that are brutal or in which the person with multiplicity is scary or the bad guy. (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Fight Club, Lord of the Rings)
As an artist myself I’m not wild about censorship. I’m not saying we should police our creative content and never allow a negative portrayal. What I am saying is that stories are powerful. Stories are part of culture. It’s far past time we started telling some different ones about multiplicity because the culture that surrounds multiplicity is deeply toxic and destructive. We are aware of this culture and the impact of stories enough that we should be responsible in how we tell the ‘negative’ ones.
Just in case Split was responsible, I’ve been holding off on sharing my reaction until I could read reviews and synopsis. I still had a small hope the famous Shyamalan twist might save it, or that perhaps there were cues in the film to distance this depiction from other people with multiplicity. There were not. It would take very little to do this either in the exposition (‘he’s fundamentally different from other people with DID’) or simply by briefly depicting a different person with multiplicity who is clearly not dangerous. Or even the hero for a change. I have a similar criticism of United States of Tara.
Because we so rarely see multiplicity depicted, every time we do that example is taken to be representative. People don’t come away thinking ‘that’s one example of a diverse experience’, they come away with a vague feeling ‘that’s what multiplicity is like’. This is true of all minority or hidden experiences – as a queer person if I’m the only one someone is friends with, who I am strongly shapes how they feel about all queer people. I’m very aware of this in my advocacy work around multiplicity and I always work hard to stop my own experiences being treated as representative. I see it as my responsibility to be honest and to bring the diversity of my community with me in all my work. A lot of my work is busting myths about multiplicity that are absolutes.
I’m particularly angry about Split because they have gone to a lot of effort to use current clinical terminology and mix a lot of real information and myths together in a way that makes it hard to figure out which is which unless you are knowledgeable about the experience. So the villain has been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and is in therapy, real instances of major changes in function such as blindness between identities have been distorted to suggest this change is physical. The Facebook page for Split uses taglines such as “He’s not well“. I’m not personally impressed with the mental ‘illness’ framework for multiplicity or any other form of suffering or difference, but to see the language people use to try to explain their struggles co-opted to engender fear is disgusting. The people behind Split have done enough research to know better.
The website splitmoviehurts.com has a full run down of the movie (behind trigger warnings) and criticism from the perspectives of people with multiplicity, I highly recommend having a look.
The impact of these stories and issues is called culture. It’s ‘the water in which we swim’ – difficult to see or quantify, but ever present and extremely powerful. We keep telling the serial killer multiplicity story precisely because it is part of our culture and we recognise it. It has a pull. Each time we tell it we re-enforce the links between danger and multiplicity.
Multiplicity is surprisingly common but mostly kept hidden. Activists and advocates like me are certainly out making noise, but comparatively we are rare. There are a lot of reasons for this lack of advocacy and visibility. Culture is one of the powerful ones.
In all the time I have been working and living in this field, I have only just encountered my first instance of someone who is publicly out as being multiple being employed in a non-mental health setting. The culture is that negative, and acceptance is that rare.
Not something we tend to mention to mental health peer workers who out themselves as multiple.
The Toxic Triad
The ‘multiples are dangerous’ stories feed the toxic triad of fear, fascination, and disbelief. These are extremely common reactions to multiplicity. They are profoundly dehumanising and destructive. They do us great harm both when we receive them from others and when we internalise them and express them towards ourselves and each other. These are the foundations of the toxic culture around multiplicity that causes so much harm.
The story of Split might not be real, but the fear definitely is. When I was diagnosed with DID in 2007 I was terrified of both other people’s reactions, and of myself. I was so afraid that no one would ever trust me again, that I would not be allowed to work with children or finish my psychology degree and support vulnerable people. I was also terrified of my other selves, afraid they might have totally different values from me and be outside of my control. Afraid I might not be safe. Afraid I might hurt someone. I had never seen or heard of multiplicity portrayed in a positive way, as a regular person, or as a moral, safe, and caring person. These are not the stories we are told. I felt bottomless fear that I might be dangerous and not even know it. On bad days I wondered if it would be better to kill myself than risk that possibility.
This terror made examining the possibility I was multiple a year long nightmare in therapy where I attempted to convince the psychologist I might have borderline personality disorder instead – because I perceived that the stigma about that was lesser. Anyone who knows the intense stigma surrounding BPD should shudder at that. This terror made accepting my multiplicity feel like leaping from a cliff into the unknown. It took courage and desperation and it made me feel alone and afraid for my life. It should not be this way and it doesn’t have to be. I did not know then that I had already been switching all my life and actually had a sense of who we were and our values. I did not know that the dynamic between us was like any group or family with its own values and personality. I didn’t know that a system could self regulate and change who was out if something bad was about to happen, or that some identities could override others for safety. I hadn’t yet read that violence is difficult to predict but one of the few useful indicators is past behaviour – which was good news for my system as we have never been the instigators of violence. I hadn’t yet got to know the rest of us and realised they are just like me.
Other people also expect us to be similar to the stories of multiplicity they have seen. I’ve had a psychiatrist tell me to switch in my first session with them to prove my multiplicity, and support workers tell me in disappointment they couldn’t tell I had switched. I’ve also had a PHaMs worker report they did not feel safe with me when I was open that they were meeting a different part that day – and I didn’t even switch in front of them. At the time this absolutely devastated me. To be considered unsafe touched profound fears in me. I cried like the world had ended. I never went back to the PHaMs program. I was heartbroken.
There’s an obsession with fakers and fraud, caused by the very limited ideas of what is ‘real multiplicity’ and the perceived gain available to those of us who are public – to be treated as rare and interesting. When I outed myself as having DID to the Disability Worker at Tafe she told me I was fascinating. I told her “those are just my problems. You haven’t seen my art yet”. This is not what I wanted to be known for.
People like me are accused of narcissism and attention seeking. We just want to be ‘special’. Perhaps to have money opportunities or fame- how often are people with plain old garden variety anxiety asked to go on Oprah or given book deals? What other experience is described as ‘the holy grail of psychiatry’? Are we building an insanity defence to get away with murder?
When basic resources and access needs are seen as favours or special treatment we are treated with deep suspicion. Competition for the limited roles of ‘real multiplicity’ is steep and harsh. Instead of supporting self awareness, compassion for uncertainty, and equality we struggle in a toxic environment that lavishes limited resources on a special few and withholds basic opportunities for support, employment, and dignity from everyone. If you can’t get a job then an Oprah presentation or a book deal are essential for income. We get stuck in the culture of sensationalism for the same reasons people with physical deformities used to join freak shows – because it’s the only role we are given and the only way to survive.
When I talk about fascination I don’t mean curiosity. Fascination has an ‘othering’ aspect where the subject is treated as less human. There’s a voyeuristic element to it. It’s intrusive, sensational, and hungry for the bizarre, tragic, or humiliating. Curiosity or interest are respectful and compassionate. Questions are only asked if invited, and from a basis of shared humanity. I love curiosity and I’m intensely curious about multiplicity myself. Fascination is repellent.
Sensational, creepy, dramatic portrayals of multiplicity also feeds the idea that multiplicity isn’t real. That it’s just a plot device used in Hollywood. So people like me are deluded or faking. There’s a lot of disbelief about multiplicity in the general community and the mental health sector. Ironically, I didn’t used to believe in it myself.
I turned myself into pretzel shapes trying to figure out if multiplicity was real or caused by doctors, if maybe I just wanted to be special, if I really was multiple, and if I should be afraid of myself. I doubted everything and examined my feelings and motivations ruthlessly. I was relentless and brutal in my attempt to be sure that I was considering this possibility for the ‘right’ reasons. At a point in my life when I felt so alone and so afraid, the toxic culture about multiplicity was making me treat myself with suspicion and disbelief instead of acceptance and self compassion. This was for me, life threatening. I might not have made it through the process of becoming aware I was multiple. It’s often a time of extreme vulnerability for people.
Films like Split also feed the idea that this is what multiplicity usually looks like: florid obvious switches between dramatically different identities who always change clothing and are completely separate and unrelated. For some people this is pretty accurate. But for most it’s far from our reality. Switches that are subtle, blurring or blending between parts with unclear divisions from each other and a lot of overlap in characteristics, even close friends only noticing what seem to be changes in mood rather than different identities – these are common experiences of multiplicity.
There’s an idea that multiplicity must be obvious to be real. There’s another one that it must be subtle and hidden to be real. Like most of these myths we are stuck whatever we do. Someone will try to take credibility from us.
What other process of diagnosis or identity develops this way? It’s incredibly common for people with multiplicity to doubt themselves and fear the diagnosis in ways I do not encounter anywhere else. It’s common for people to be terrified they are multiple and also terrified they are not. We did not create this culture. It is not our fault. But we inherit it and are pinned by the contradictions and trapped between the myths. We pay a steep price for it. Fear, denial, isolation, years of secrecy, torment and suffering. It costs us years, dreams, relationships, and consumes our energy and resources just to survive. Sometimes we pay with our lives.
We need a profound culture shift!
That’s what I’m trying to be part of with my art, this blog, and my creation of the Dissociative Initiative. I work from values of diversity, acceptance, respect, safety, and dignity. These are the key changes we need:
- Diversity is a normal part of the human experience across a great many domains. People with multiplicity are not special, or at least not more special than anyone else. We are people. We do not deserve to be vilified or idolised.
- A large aspect of the suffering and anguish around multiplicity is to do with the toxic culture and experiences of trauma. We deserve access to resources and information to help us with these experiences.
- People with multiplicity run the usual gamut of decent to awful. We are not a homogeneous group but a highly diverse one. Having multiplicity in itself tells you nothing about whether we are safe, trustworthy, or good parents. It only tells you we have more than one self. We are no more likely to be dangerous, deceptive, or unfit parents than anyone else.
- It is normal for multiplicity to be expressed, experienced and understood by those with it and our friends and family in a wide variety of ways. This doesn’t make some more real, valid, or worthy of acceptance or support than others. DID is not ‘more real’ than experiences of multiplicity as part of OSDD (Other Specified Dissociative Disorder), for example. ‘Healthy multiplicity’ is not more or less valid than people who suffer from multiplicity as a mental illness. It’s also normal for people’s experiences and understandings to change over time. We should not be pitted at war with each other to fight for credibility.
- Diversity in responses to multiplicity is also normal. Some people hate it and want to integrate. Some people celebrate it. Many of us have complex mixed feelings. People have the right to engage it however they wish and do what works best for them. There is no one path to recovery from distress and no single recipe for an authentic life.
We can do this together. We can support diversity, speak out against myths, and work to get stories of multiplicity where we don’t kill people out there. Change is possible when we treat each other with respect. We need to campaign for resources for those who are vulnerable and to care for and hold to account those who share the stories (creative or personal) and shape the culture. Things are changing and we are all part of that.
For more information see a list of my other articles in Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.