“Sybil” lived in Lexington, KY

Listening to the On the Media show this morning I learned that “Sybil” the key figure in the dissociative identity disorder (DID, previously known as multiple personality disorder) lived for many years in Lexington. Her psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur, was a prof at the UK Med School. Apparently Sybil lived on Henry Clay Boulevard and ran an art gallery at her home.

Now you may know that this case is controversial as people debate back and forth over whether DID is a media creation or is a “real” disease. (See the comments under the OTM story panning the author of a new book called Sybil Exposed, who was interviewed by OTM.)

I like Ian Hacking on this. Hacking is the Canadian philosopher and author of Historical Ontology, who was a prof. at the College de France for many years. HO is a collection of essays and therefore very easy to read. A good one here is “Making up people“:

Around 1970, there arose a few paradigm cases of strange behaviour similar to phenomena discussed a century earlier and largely forgotten. A few psychiatrists began to diagnose multiple personality. It was rather sensational. More and more unhappy people started manifesting these symptoms. At first they had the symptoms they were expected to have, but then they became more and more bizarre. First, a person had two or three personalities. Within a decade the mean number was 17. This fed back into the diagnoses, and became part of the standard set of symptoms. It became part of the therapy to elicit more and more alters. Psychiatrists cast around for causes, and created a primitive, easily understood pseudo-Freudian aetiology of early sexual abuse, coupled with repressed memories. Knowing this was the cause, the patients obligingly retrieved the memories. More than that, this became a way to be a person. In 1986, I wrote that there could never be ‘split’ bars, analogous to gay bars. In 1991 I went to my first split bar.

This story can be placed in a five-part framework. We have (a) a classification, multiple personality, associated with what at the time was called a ‘disorder’. This kind of person is now a moving target. We have (b) the people, those I call ‘unhappy’, ‘unable to cope’, or whatever relatively non-judgmental term you might prefer. There are (c) institutions, which include clinics, annual meetings of the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation, afternoon talkshows on television (Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera made a big thing of multiples, once upon a time), and weekend training programmes for therapists, some of which I attended. There is (d) the knowledge: not justified true belief, once the mantra of analytic philosophers, but knowledge in Popper’s sense of conjectural knowledge, and, more specifically, the presumptions that are taught, disseminated and refined within the context of the institutions. Especially the basic facts (not ‘so-called facts’, or ‘facts’ in scare-quotes): for example, that multiple personality is caused by early sexual abuse, that 5 per cent of the population suffer from it, and the like. There is expert knowledge, the knowledge of the professionals, and there is popular knowledge, shared by a significant part of the interested population. There was a time, partly thanks to those talkshows and other media, when ‘everyone’ believed that multiple personality was caused by early sexual abuse. Finally, there are (e) the experts or professionals who generate (d) the knowledge, judge its validity, and use it in their practice. They work within (c) institutions that guarantee their legitimacy, authenticity and status as experts. They study, try to help, or advise on the control of (b) the people who are (a) classified as of a given kind.

This of course is very Foucauldian, and there’s a nice symmetry that Hacking worked at the College de France.


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