Pavilion: Voices of Plurality in Action



















Dealing With the Nightmare
of Containing Multitudes

From The New York Times: Interview with Robert Oxnam,
Author of A Fractured Mind

See also

By BRUCE WEBER Published: October 1, 2005

In his late 40's, Robert B. Oxnam had a résumé bespeaking rare achievement. A leading China scholar and former college professor, he was president of the Asia Society and a frequent television commentator. He was an accomplished sailor. He was the father of two grown children. He had even published a novel.

Robert B. Oxnam writes of housing as many as 11 personalities. Bob Nichols

Mr. Oxnam as Bobby, shown skating in Central Park in 2000. "It can get really noisy in there, a din," Mr. Oxnam said.

As only he understood, however, all of this was barely held in place by a severely damaged emotional infrastructure. He knew something was wrong with him, but he didn't know what. A harrowing and ever-widening array of symptoms - including bulimia, intermittent rages, memory blackouts and depression - led him, in 1989, to the office of a psychiatrist named Jeffery Smith, who sent him into rehab for alcoholism.

By the following March, however, Mr. Oxnam had become impatient with therapy. But during the session in which he planned to withdraw, the persona of Bob Oxnam suddenly fell away and Dr. Smith was confronted with someone he'd never met, an angry boy named Tommy who lived, he would inform Dr. Smith, in a castle.

So begins, in sum, the narrative of "A Fractured Mind: My Life With Multiple Personality Disorder" (Hyperion), Mr. Oxnam's startling and unusual new memoir of the discovery and treatment of his illness. The disorder, an awful if credibility-defying condition, is an extreme form of dissociation brought on by severe childhood trauma, most often abuse.

Some experts may find Mr. Oxnam's claims dubious, because psychiatrists are at odds about the condition's very existence. But in any case, "A Fractured Mind" traces a vivid narrative path into the recesses of one man's mind, where a whole world - literally a castle with rooms, dungeons, walkways, ramparts and a library behind iron-locked doors - had come into being. The book is written, like some novels, with different first-person narrators, a seeming contradiction for an autobiography. In the end, the search for the awful source of Mr. Oxnam's disturbance emerges almost as an adventure story akin to the archaeological quests of Indiana Jones.

"Archaeology is the right metaphor," Mr. Oxnam said during one of two interviews this week in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one in the company of Dr. Smith, the other with his wife, Veshakha Desai. "Because you're going back in reverse history."

Therapy ultimately uncovered 11 different personalities inhabiting the castle of Mr. Oxnam's psyche, including Baby, who revealed what seems to have been long and habitual abuse of Mr. Oxnam as a toddler. Each had a name and identifiable qualities, a community of the shy and the obstreperous, the diligent and the indulgent, the cruel and the kind, the athletic and the retiring, the erudite and the hopelessly uninformed.

"It can get really noisy in there, a din," Mr. Oxnam said, adding that a particular type of headache accompanies the inner clamor.

Now 62 and working as an independent consultant on China, Mr. Oxnam is a soft-spoken man, tall and bearded, a hearty physical specimen who still looks weary and a little haunted in the eyes. The noise inside is somewhat reduced these days. Therapy has, in the lexicon of psychiatry, merged many of his personalities - three remain active - and in conversation he includes them, speaking of "we" as often as "I." Writing the book, he said, was a group effort, with one of his personalities writing a chapter and the rest examining it.

"It was enormously useful not only to revisit the therapy, but to allow each part of me that is now merged into larger entities to have their hour on the stage," he said. "It also informed me, Robert, about a lot of history that I had not, in fact, experienced myself."

In addition to Robert, the dominant personality, the one he presents to the world, his other two active selves are Bobby, an attention-needing and affection-starved child who has grown into a quizzical young adult; and Wanda, a quiet Buddhist-like presence who was once submerged in the viciously cruel personality known only as the Witch.

If this sounds like the character list for the next Harry Potter novel, the evidence that these personalities are real is substantial. For instance, Bobby is an avid inline skater, a fixture in Central Park, where he is a famous figure known as Bottleman, inwardly a teenager but outwardly a graybeard known for his signature trick of skating with bottles balanced on his head.

"Bobby had one of his skating marathons yesterday," Mr. Oxnam said. "And that means four or five hours of skating. Now he's what? Nineteen or 20 years old? I'm 62, so I pay for that the next day."

Bobby also had a love affair with a young woman he met in the park, which came as a stunning revelation, not only to Ms. Desai, but to Robert.

"What's really interesting is just as Veshakha had trouble with Bobby, I also had trouble with Bobby," Mr. Oxnam said. "It was embarrassing to me when people I knew in other contexts watched me skate around with bottles on my head."

"One of the messages of the book has to do with not only the abuse I suffered, but also that I inflicted," added Mr. Oxnam, whose shame was palpable. "That part of it deserves to be told."

Talking about his condition in the presence of Ms. Desai, whom he married in 1993, brought both to the edge of tears. Very early on in their relationship, "he said to me, 'I have to tell you something,' " she said, adding: "When I heard about the M.P.D., I didn't know what to think. You don't know what to make of that. But I knew that I loved this guy."

Ms. Desai, who is the current president of the Asia Society, has known many of her husband's personalities, she said, including Bobby, whom she has forgiven for the affair, and the Witch, whom she described as "very scary, someone whose negativity is so, so palpable."

The last time Ms. Desai encountered the Witch was last summer. Bobby had grown despondent, Mr. Oxnam said, after returning from an extended sojourn in China, where he had been especially happy. His stress level rose and one afternoon he argued with Ms. Desai, an occurrence that, as Dr. Smith explained, catalyzed a re-emergence of Tommy and the Witch, who in the castle before therapy were his chief tormentors.

A week later, still agonized and in an advanced state of agitation, Mr. Oxnam took sleeping pills. Fortunately, returning from work and discovering her husband passed out on the floor, Ms. Desai was able to get him to a hospital.

It was a reminder of the fragility of Mr. Oxnam's inner balance, the reason he begins his book, "All my life, now more than 60 years, I've felt a kinship with Humpty Dumpty."

Multiple personality disorder may seem bizarre or incredible, but both Dr. Smith and Mr. Oxnam speculate that it is simply an extreme version of the complex shadings of character that are thought of as normal. Who has not, after all, had the sense of taking on different roles in life at different times, of being one kind of person in one context, another in another?

Indeed, Dr. Smith likened a patient's separate personalities to the rooms in a house. Just as it takes walls to create rooms, he said, so it is the divisions between the personalities that most distinguishes the illness. Therapy, he said, is directed at these divisions, allowing the personalities to begin communicating, making merger possible.

When minds split, Dr. Smith said, they are adapting, protecting themselves from unbearable pain. In fact, he said, childhood trauma victims who don't have split personalities are generally worse off than those who do.

The most fantastic twist of all, in other words, is that multiple personality disorder may have saved Mr. Oxnam's life.

"Absolutely," Mr. Oxnam said. "It wrecked my life. But without it I'd be long gone."

The good thing about it is, now that this award-winning scholar, professor, familiar face on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour is out of the closet, the next step might be for the next prestigious dude to be out plural and *not* fractured, nightmarish, in need of therapy & integration, etc. -- someone who can tell the public what being a healthy multiple is like.

This review was written by Bruce Weber of the New York Times. We are not in direct touch with Mr. Weber.

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