Pros: Structure, clarity, distinctive voice
Cons: Painful subject matter, unfinished process, folksy vulgarity
"That's what I say when I look in the mirror."
Minutes after giving this smart-mouthed answer, businessman Cameron West splashes water on his face in the nearest restroom, then looks into the mirror above the sink and feels something go through him. His body trembles. He begins to mumble gibberish he cannot comprehend. A few minutes later, still uncomprehending, he is himself again.
Well, one of his 'selves'. Cameron West suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Mr. West is successful in his business, very happily married and the proud father of a four-year-old boy named Kyle, with whom he has a wonderful relationship. But he has been sick/infected/in and out of surgery much of the time, ever since his son was born. He has few childhood memories, and a persistent sense of being flawed in some personal way. The day before the day of his fourth sinus surgery, he gets his first clue to the effect that he may be sick in mind as well as in body.
Re-infecting almost immediately after the surgery, he finally considers alternative medicine, which literally saves his life (if nothing else, a candidiasis infection brought on by years of antibiotic use would very probably have killed him!). As his body recovers and grows stronger, he starts to feel something shifting in his mind.
He finds a good therapist, who guides him while unfamiliar voices come from his mouth and automatic writings express his fears. He has his first dream of sexual abuse by a gray-haired woman. A four-year-old personality emerges to draw a picture of itself, weeping. Then, in the therapist's office, little 'Davy' abreacts the experience of that abuse, symbolically 'cutting off the fingers' with which he was forced to penetrate the woman -- who turns out to have been his grandmother.
Cam's therapist explains his situation to his wife, who once worked with abused children. They are determined to help him. It's gonna be a long, tough trip.
What was once called Multiple Personality Disorder invariably arises from childhood trauma, usually abusive, often sexual. Cameron West, who obtained a Ph.D. in Psychology during the course of his treatment for the disorder, tells his own story of discovery, denial and acceptance in the autobiographical bestseller, FIRST PERSON PLURAL: MY LIFE AS A MULTIPLE. It is a harrowing account, with the ring of truth about it; what is particularly ironic is the fact that Cam's 'voice' is so distinctive. Never mind the writings of the alter personalities that fill his journals; I would recognize this guy's writing anywhere!
Which is not to say that he expresses himself flawlessly. Folksiness dominates, big-time, and with it a certain energetic vulgarity: Cam can feel "lower than a snake's @ss in a wheel rut"; his wife Rikki has "the buns of Navarone" (I rather like that one!); an alter starts cutting himself, and 'he' and Cameron are "the next contestants on The Slice is Right". When severely upset the author gets ruder than this -- quite understandably.
At the same time, the book is well structured with a clearly-told story. It begins with a metaphor of illusory safely soon to be followed by the disappearance of illusions and the reality of growth and change. The folksy jokes get better and warmer in tone; Doctor West's final speech, given at a conference for survivors of childhood abuse, is excellent.
And whether or not he is aware of it, Cam gives his readers all the information they need to see why his first clear symptoms emerged when they did. It seems obvious to me that Kyle's birth triggered illness-inducing anxieties designed to climax shortly before the little boy would reach the age at which his father was first molested, precisely so that Cam would realize what had been done to him in time to protect his own son from the inappropriate interest of his grandmother, Cam's own mother, who had also abused him sexually.
The wisdom of the body never ceases to astonish me.
Neither does that of young children. Kyle figures out what is wrong with his father; all of Cam's alters, whether male or female, younger or in one case older than he(!) are certain of their own experiences from the outset, while poor Cam spends the greater part of the next five years in a kind of denial rather than fully face what had been done to him. He finally agrees to a videotaping of several of his alters speaking. Twelve-year-old Dusty -- a sweet, lonely girl -- is upset to see that she 'looks like' a middle-aged man, but Cam finally accepts the fact that 'his guys' are indeed part of him -- and that all of it was real.
We never learn who the perp was in Dusty's case, and we do not meet her 'twin', Gail, who was to emerge still later. No doubt Cameron West's therapy is still ongoing. I have no doubt that it will succeed, if determination and love are the deciding factors.
Reproduced in FIRST PERSON PLURAL are excerpts and drawings from the journals in which all twenty-four alter personalities were permitted to express their thoughts and feelings; the book would be convincing without them but they do enhance it.
Sexual abuses are described as circumspectly as is consistent with making clear to the reader what actually happened. Marital sex is also featured -- only to the extent necessary to convey how Cameron's marriage was impacted by, and in return impacted upon, his condition. A touch of generalized contempt for young people -- in the text, not in the relationship with little Kyle -- is the book's only other arguable fault: full acceptance of one's younger self is perhaps a life-long process, and as with all such processes, we all have a way to go ....
I have read twenty-three other books concerned with Multiple Personality Disorder, or rather Dissociative Identity Disorder, which encompasses the other but is a somewhat broader and more inclusive category. Two of these books were overviews of the condition, and twenty were accounts of the lives of people afflicted by it. SYBIL, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, is the most smoothly written but terribly harrowing; recently some doubt has arisen as to the authenticity -- not of 'Sybil's' experiences as reported by her -- but of Schreiber's representation of them. PRISM: ANDREA'S WORLD is so horrific that I keep finding it among the horror fiction in used bookstores. Nobody would 'make up' such a story ....
My first recommendation along with FIRST PERSON PLURAL would be the one novel I have read on the subject: THE BIRD'S NEST, by Shirley Jackson. Yup, that Shirley Jackson. How do you think I got interested in the subject in the first place?!