Of multiple gods and men
Today I was giving my usual spiel to a DID* client, about how the things “Ed” and “Frank” were doing were actually the products of the same brain, albeit along different neural pathways. The thousand yard stare ensued.
“What’s happening?” I asked him.
“I’m having trouble hanging on to what you just said.”
This is a common reaction among people who dissociate, to information or views which throw their sense of reality out of kilter. It was not surprising, since my suggestion that this young man’s many states of mind were actually just different phases of a single person’s ongoing experience flew in the face of his daily experience of being, like Legion in the Gospel, “many.”
“Ed,” the host personality**, shares with his alters, and myself, a taste for metaphysics which gave a new twist to the familiar conversation about alters.
I repeated what I’d said, and now a look that could be anger or merely cunning possessed his twenty-something features. He said he felt like “Aiden,” and apart from his having dropped his former characteristic pose, with the fingertips lightly touching like a B-movie evil genius, he looked like “Aiden.”
“I find what you just said intellectually stimulating,” he began, all bemused smile and crisp diction. “I have never thought of this as connected with the brain before. The soul as like a machine,” he pondered, “working by wiring. I think we all see the spirit as somehow descended into the body.”
This was my cue to furrow the brow. I have been dismissive of what I would call “the client’s magical thinking,” and thought we had reached an agreement that this was merely delusional on his part. Last session, however, they (the “others”) informed me that they’ve been humoring me. Ed is simply far more literal about the world of magic than I can be; but unless (for the sake of conversation) I suspend disbelief a bit and immerse myself in his world, I will be of no use to him.
Go to your bosom; / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault, urges Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. She is trying to evoke a judge’s empathy for her brother, who has been condemned to die for fornication. Unfortunately, her plea puts the judge in touch with his own lust, and mayhem follows– empathy is two-edged. Who wants to understand too deeply the feelings of a Ted Bundy? But we’re just talking a philosophical difference here … so I start rooting around inside like a badger for long since discarded thoughts that bear a resemblance to Ed’s.
“I know there’s a big divide between, say, Plato or Augustine, who see the realm of the spiritual as superior to the physical and so necessarily acting on it, whereas Aristotle and Aquinas would see the human soul as something that relies on the body for input ….”
“Yes,” says Aiden, “I’ve– at least some of us– have always seen the soul and the spiritual world as something greater than the physical, though it can take on the physical in order to manifest itself. It’s sort of Hindu or Buddhist, I guess …. Like with reincarnation, a soul could live in lots of bodies, until it’s learned something, or achieved something….”
“See, that’s the problem I have with reincarnation– how can you be the same self with a different brain?” I round off my comments by indulging myself in a couple of lines’ performance of the Indigo Girls’ Galileo.
“Yeah, I see the spirit as coming into the body…”
“… whereas I see it arising from the physical processes.”
The Aiden-esque detachment has receded now, replaced by eagerness, and now poignancy.
“I think…. I think I even have a memory of coming into the body …. Like a stream of light.”
Pause on both sides. “I can see how, if you see the soul that way, it affects how you would view being multiple …”
“Right”– learning forward– “there could be more than one soul in here. That’s why we see Angel as real, not just a part of us. She’s my literal …. She’s what Alister Crowley would call a ‘Guiding Guardian Angel.’ And I think … I know that other people have seen her, too. She’s physical to us, but mostly invisible … my invisible friend.”
“Who has seen her, besides you?”
“Well, my mother … of course, that was in the days when she was seeing rocking chairs move on their own, and seeing her dead grandmother.”
“But what happened,” he adds, “to shatter us into many? …. Trauma, I guess ….”
“Then you do feel, in some way, shattered …?”
“You could see being multiple as something involving ‘neural pathways’ (with a roll of the eyes), or early trauma, or just more than one person coming into the same body– and different ones of us believe all three.”
“It makes me wonder if the question of one self or many is tied to the question of one God versus many ….”
“… oh, it is …!”
And our hour was up.
I remember my own dismay when, in a Christian seminary (where I got my counseling degree), a teacher said something to the effect that we don’t need a “metaphysical something-or-other” to explain the workings of the mind. I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that my materialist philosophy of mind has troubling corollaries for Ed. It’s just that few other clients make the connection between my clinical statements and any particular worldview, so I haven’t, as they say, had to “go there.”
I don’t think like Ed. I believe he is a single organism unable to experience himself as a single person, because of developmental and traumatic obstacles to consolidating a sense of self. And if I want to skirt the whole subject, it’s easy enough to write off a chaos magician’s thinking as delusional. But then what do I say to the conventional (but Augustinian) Christian who believes that the soul is placed in the body at conception? How do I counter the notion that their multiplicity is intentional and God given, rather than a derailment– something to be repaired?
And is it my business to do so?
I’ve tended to take the view that psychological “symptoms” (or in other words, inconvenient defenses) are only worth going after if they really are causing problems. I don’t quarrel with hallucinations that are benign or supportive (as long as they don‘t urge harm to anyone else). And in fact, the DSM is behind me on this, since most mental diagnoses require “clinically significant distress or impairment.” You can’t, for instance, diagnose someone as dissociative if they go into shamanic trances as part of their cultural practice (and yes, that opens a can of worms in itself– what of the shamanic trance practiced by a solitary in a community that thinks it’s crazy?).
There is no conclusion coming at the end of this essay. I need to understand better what it feels like to be Ed, and that will be a work of time. And the madwoman within notes, with satisfaction, that a fox greeted us in the inside-world of post-colonial, amateur-shamanic journeying, indicating that I will need to be able to shapeshift– to wear Ed’s mind for awhile.
* DID is what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.
** The “host” is the term we use for the alter personality who bears the legal name. This alter is usually depressed, and may or may not be aware of the “others,” or of the traumas that led to his or her fragmentation.