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The harrowing, insightful, and courageous account of a prominent man's struggle with multiple personalities
Robert Oxnam was a high-profile, successful man: A renowned scholar and president of the Asia Society, he appeared frequently on television and traveled the world as a sought-after expert. But what the millions of people who'd seen him didn't know—what even those closest to him didn't know—was that Oxnam suffered from multiple personality disorder. It was only after an ...
The harrowing, insightful, and courageous account of a prominent man's struggle with multiple personalities
Robert Oxnam was a high-profile, successful man: A renowned scholar and president of the Asia Society, he appeared frequently on television and traveled the world as a sought-after expert. But what the millions of people who'd seen him didn't know—what even those closest to him didn't know—was that Oxnam suffered from multiple personality disorder. It was only after an intervention staged by family and friends, in response to frequent blackouts and episodic rages assumed to be alcohol-driven, that he sought treatment with Dr. Jeffery Smith; the first of his eleven personalities emerged in a session in 1990. After years of treatment, he has integrated them into three: Robert, Wanda, and Bobby, who take turns narrating this remarkable, unprecedented chronicle.
On a cold, cloudy afternoon in March 1990, driving my black Honda through the spiderweb of highways north of New York City, I had no idea that this day would change my life forever. I was in a funk of a mood, dark and irritable, loathing the meeting with my psychiatrist that lay ahead. Seven months earlier, when I first met Dr. Jeffery Smith, I had real hope that he could cure my spiraling depression and anger. But now, after enduring extensive therapy sessions and a month in a rehabilitation clinic, I felt worse than ever. It was time to break from Dr. Smith.
But I realized that cutting off relations with Dr. Smith would be a challenge. He seemed like a genuinely concerned colleague, professional but approachable, a very hard man to dislike. Working from a simple office in an unpretentious modern building, he certainly was not the sort of shrink who siphons off patients' money to pay huge overhead. He dressed in a casually professional way-button-down shirt, plain tie, sport jacket-never offering an imposing image. And, unlike any other therapist I had encountered, he conducted our meetings in an easy but attentive style: listening carefully with sharply focused eyes, letting me talk without interrupting, then offering cogent insights rather than "psychobabble."
I resolved to come right to the point. "Hello," I said as coldly as possible, "we've got to talk."
"Yes, Bob," he said quietly, "what's on your mind?"
I shut my eyes for a moment, letting the raging frustration well up inside, then stared angrily at the psychiatrist. "Look, I've been religious about this recovery business. I go to AA meetings daily and to your sessions twice a week. I know it's good that I've stopped drinking. But every other aspect of my life feels the same as it did before. No, it's worse. I hate my life. I hate myself."
Suddenly I felt a slight warmth in my face, blinked my eyes a bit, and then stared at him.
"Bob, I'm afraid our time's up," Smith said in a matter-of-fact style.
"Time's up?" I exclaimed. "I just got here."
"No." He shook his head, glancing at his clock. "It's been fifty minutes. You don't remember anything?"
"I remember everything. I was just telling you that these sessions don't seem to be working for me."
Smith paused to choose his words very carefully. "Do you know a very angry boy named 'Tommy'?"
"No," I said in bewilderment, "except for my cousin Tommy whom I haven't seen in twenty years ..."
"No." He stopped me short. "This Tommy's not your cousin. I spent this last fifty minutes talking with another Tommy. He's full of anger. And he's inside of you."
"No, I'm not. Look. I want to take a little time to think over what happened today. And don't worry about this. I'll set up an emergency session with you tomorrow. We'll deal with it then."
* * *
This is Robert speaking. Today I'm the only personality who is strongly visible inside and outside. My own term for such an MPD role is dominant personality. Fifteen years ago, I rarely appeared on the outside, though I had considerable influence on the inside; back then, I was what one might call a "recessive personality." My passage from "recessive" to "dominant" is a key part of our story; be patient, you'll learn lots more about me later on.
Indeed, since you will meet all eleven personalities who once roamed about, it gets a bit complex in the first half of this book; but don't worry, you don't have to remember them all, and it gets sorted out in the last half of the book. You may be wondering-if not "Robert," who, then, was the dominant MPD personality back in the 1980s and earlier? His name was "Bob," and his dominance amounted to a long reign, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. Since "Robert B. Oxnam" was born in 1942, you can see that "Bob" was in command from early to middle adulthood.
Although he was the dominant MPD personality for thirty years, Bob did not have a clue that he was afflicted by multiple personality disorder until 1990, the very last year of his dominance. That was the fateful moment when Bob first heard that he had an "angry boy named Tommy" inside of him. How, you might ask, can someone have MPD for half a lifetime without knowing it? And even if he didn't know it, didn't others around him spot it?
To outsiders, this is one of the most perplexing aspects of MPD. Multiple personality is an extreme disorder, and yet it can go undetected for decades, by the patient, by family and close friends, even by trained therapists. Part of the explanation is the very nature of the disorder itself: MPD thrives on secrecy because the dissociative individual is repressing a terrible inner secret. The MPD individual becomes so skilled in hiding from himself that he becomes a specialist, often unknowingly, in hiding from others. Part of the explanation is rooted in outside observers: MPD often manifests itself in other behaviors, frequently addiction and emotional outbursts, which are wrongly seen as the "real problem."
The fact of the matter is that Bob did not see himself as the dominant personality inside Robert B. Oxnam. Instead, he saw himself as a whole person. In his mind, Bob was merely a nickname for Bob Oxnam, Robert Oxnam, Dr. Robert B. Oxnam, PhD.
* * *
This feels so strange. It's the first time in more than a decade that I'm speaking directly to outsiders. I feel awkward and tongue-tied. I used to find it easy to speak in public; the bigger the audience, the better. I thrived on television work. I once hosted a TV series called Asia: Half the Human Race. You see, I was an Asia expert with a specialization on Chinese history and contemporary affairs. So when China news was hot, I was often a TV guest for the Today show with Jane Pauley, and ...
Oh, sorry, I used to be quite a name-dropper, too. But I was making a point. I'm really nervous talking to you. I'm out of practice. And now Robert introduces me? I used to be the one who made introductions. I was making introductions before anyone ever heard of Robert.
In the old days, when I was outside and he was inside, Robert was constantly criticizing me. You can't believe what he said about me. He was really nasty. Let's see if I can remember. "Mr. Rolodex and Mr. Resume." "Willing to suspend a mile of values to achieve an inch of ambition." Then later, in 1990, as you will discover, Robert changed his tune and began saying nice things.
Know why I'm really anxious? Want to guess who was the egg who took the "great fall"? You got it. I'm Bob, your Humpty-Dumpty. For the longest time, I saw myself as the whole egg. By the time I found out about MPD, the egg was splattered all over the sidewalk.
During much of my early life, from the 1950s to the 1970s, I was on a pretty good roll. It wasn't until the late 1970s, and even more in the 1980s, that the dark clouds moved in. Look, I'll try to give you a balanced picture, both the upside and the downside. Bottom line-though I didn't know it at the time-both sides were directly related to multiple personality disorder.
My memories of childhood are very hazy, though I always had a rather rosy view of my early years in the 1940s. During World War II, I lived with my mother and her parents in a modest, comfortable house in southern California. My memory bank contains a few shards from those very early years-an upright piano that my grandfather played, sunshine streaming into the backyard, hummingbirds darting around flowering plants, a gum tree that put sticky sap on your hands, a view of a white-capped mountain from the breakfast nook. My grandfather worked as a Con Edison lineman, and my grandmother was, among other things, an early Tupperware salesperson.
My mother always described my relationship with her parents as "warm and loving," but I remember them with a mixture of sun and clouds. Both my grandparents were into fishing, and it was fun to accompany them and watch them use home-tied lures to catch trout by the dozen. They taught me to fish, and though I was better at splashing in the stream, one time I did catch a pretty rainbow trout. I remember that my grandparents had a small house trailer in the driveway, a great place to find a safe cubbyhole when playing hide-and-seek or just hiding from adults.
But one day, my grandparents took me to a chicken farm and I remember with horror watching chickens run around with their hems cut off; my grandmother had grabbed a chicken by the neck, killing it instantly with an expert ropelike snap of the wrist. I can't remember exactly when I started finding my grandparents' humor rather odd-my grandmother once said, "Wee, wee, wee ... that's what the French say when they take a piss," only to be matched by my grandfather's question, "What's the longest thing on a giraffe? ... Answer: it ain't his neck."
My father's side of the family couldn't have been more different. His father was Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, the leader of the American Methodist Church and the first president of the World Council of Churches. Granddaddy Oxnam was well known as a supporter of many liberal causes. He achieved national attention in the McCarthy era when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After grueling testimony, he was cleared of any "Communist leanings," but in the minds of some American conservatives, he was always seen as the "Red bishop."
I told Granddaddy I thought it was "cool" that he was on the cover of Time magazine. His response stays with me-"Yes, Robbey, I suppose it's 'cool.' But you see Time magazine every week at your house. Who was on the cover of last week's Time magazine?" I couldn't remember. He just smiled knowingly. I had learned an important lesson about the fleeting importance of fame.
My dad was prominent in his own right as a university administrator-a dean at Syracuse University, vice president of Boston University, president of Pratt Institute, and finally president of Drew University. Although I often sensed he was frustrated that he didn't match fully Granddaddy's achievements, Dad was always heroic in my eyes. He was my role model as a professor and an intellectual leader; I desperately sought to follow his example. Dad also had a genial laugh and inner warmth that drew others to him; in my eyes, he was both a "hero" and very "real" at the same time.
Dad also had a wild side. One time, when my grandfather was proudly sitting at a homecoming football game at Depauw University, where he was president, his son buzzed the field in his biplane, causing the players to scatter for cover during a play. With that bizarre sense of humor, Dad was a hard man to dislike, even when he resorted to strict discipline, such as whipping me with a thick leather belt when I had been "sassy" or had "broken the rules."
In his early twenties, Dad went off to Hollywood and studied to be an actor. According to my mother's reports, he was "too studied" to be a good actor, but he had the looks, with a Clark Gable mustache and a Rudy Valentino dark complexion and flowing jet-black hair. It was there he met my mother, Dalys Houts, blond and beautiful (so it appears in her publicity photos).
They were married in 1939 and I arrived in 1942. In the late 1930s, my mother pursued her undergraduate degree (courtesy of support from my dad's grandmother) and my father began his graduate studies, both at the University of Southern California. It was the end of their acting careers and the beginning of a more successful life in the academic world.
Mom, who died in the summer of 2004 during the editing of this book, was a complicated lady who had her share of supporters and critics. By the end of her long life, especially in the thirty years after my father died in 1974, I think the supporters outweighed the critics (surely spearheaded by two true gentlemen who were by her side in the later years: her genteel second husband, Harry Jaecker, and later, the lovable Ralph McVain, both of whom predeceased her). At Heritage Village in Southbury, Connecticut, where she lived after Dad's death, Mom finally fulfilled her acting dream by starring in several amateur productions and in a one-woman show where she took on various roles as defined by their hats.
But it was her acting penchant that also prompted her critics; back when Dad was alive, she frequently described herself as "the first lady of Drew University" or as the "hostess with the mostest." For some in Dad's family as well, her posturing prompted irritation, almost as if there was a family feud between the Oxnam cosmopolitan clan and the Houtses' earthier roots.
I actually felt closest to my mother when she was too weak and too needy to resort to acting. When Dad died, she needed my help sorting out the finances and establishing her new widowed life in Connecticut. I was touched when she vowed to always eat in the dining room, setting another place just so that she could sense Dad's presence. In the 1990s, when she had a near-fatal illness, I rushed to her hospital bedside. She grasped my hands and said, "Thanks so much for being here. I love you." I was so happy to connect that I ran out to the drugstore and bought balloons and a stuffed animal as presents. Finally, she had shown the genuine mother-son love that I had longed for all my life.
Looking back on her life, I feel grateful for those loving moments, but also sorry for a mother who seemed so much better at promoting her "ideal family" than she was at dealing with her own feelings. Once, late in her life, after I was married, when I had pushed her hard on this "always acting" matter, she stood up and pointed to where she had been sitting. Her voice changed into a deep rasping, and she said, "I hate that person. I hate everything she does." Then, realizing that it was a very odd revelation, she quickly sat back down and pretended nothing had happened. My wife and I simply stared in astonishment.
Early on, I became aware that Mom and Dad had very high expectations for my success. When Mom talked with family or friends, she would often tell them, "There's Robbey. He reads books when other kids are playing. He's such a good student, you know." I sometimes thought that Mom, along with Dad, wanted me to prove something to my father's family-was it that their son might also be a superstar? After all, I had my father's first name, "Robert"-and "Bromley" was my grandfather's middle name that he always used. It wasn't that the pressure was overt, at least not most of the time, but rather that the notion of a high-achieving son was built into an understated WASP family ethic. Successes produced smiles and failures prompted frowns. That was enough for me. I bought into the system with unquestioning passion.
I was always obsessed with success, feeling fleeting glee when I achieved it, then on to the next challenge. But failure, even partial failure or even almost-success, filled me with searing guilt and self-loathing. The successes never stayed with me. I harbored agonizing memories of every single mistake or shortcoming. To this day, I can reconstruct those ghastly moments in perfect detail.
Throughout my life-beginning as a teenager and later as an adult-perceived failures prompted severe self-punishments. Hiding in an attic or a secluded forest, I would scream at myself: "You're stupid! A stupid idiot! I hate you!" I pummeled myself with clenched fists slamming against body and arms, and then hammered my forehead against a tree or a wall. For days, I would sit sullenly, recalling the terrible episode, often writing the words You're stupid! on a notepad or whatever scrap of paper was at hand.
So, given the inner penalties for failure, my outer pressure to succeed was pretty strong. An early test was the sport of target archery. Dad, worried that I was going to maim someone with my homemade bow and arrow, declared solemnly: "Boy, if you're going to use a weapon, let's use it right." A firearms instructor in the war who almost lost his life when another soldier accidentally discharged a sidearm in the barracks, Dad was adamant about doing things safely and methodically. So, after buying archery books and making a couple of lovely, if rather hefty, bows, he joined the Newton Archers just outside of Boston. Inventing his own modified military system of teaching archery "by the numbers," Dad became a very competent archer himself, and I, not yet a teenager, was his pupil. His approach to archery taught me many lessons: disciplined practice was the key to success (so I began practicing several hours a day); quality equipment was essential to quality performance (my father bought the very best bows and aluminum arrows); and success in competition made my father happy.
Excerpted from A FRACTURED MIND by Robert B. Oxnam Copyright © 2005 by Robert B. Oxnam. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 9, 2009
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