We’ve mentioned before how much we appreciate the messages of support and information that come in every day on our “Contact Us” inbox. A couple of weeks ago, we heard from a long-time reader who offered us some fascinating insight into how the Satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s swept through the mental health community. With permission, we’re sharing her story here.
In 1989, I started working as a clinical social worker in the northeastern USA. I worked with a mental health team in a large inner-city hospital, and my job was to offer counselling and support on an outpatient basis. That is, my clients weren’t hospitalized, but had been referred to our Outpatient Psychiatry department.
At that time, the diagnosis of “multiple personality disorder,” which would later be called “dissociative identity disorder,” was new on the scene and quite controversial. The theory was that people who had undergone very severe emotional and physical trauma in childhood had somehow learned to “self-hypnotize,” and their personalities would split up, because it was the only way they could deal with the trauma they’d experienced. Not all mental health professionals believed that this was possible, but enough did that the theory began to take hold and spread. In the clinic where I worked, it was assumed that the theory was correct. The head social worker in our clinic promoted the idea of MPD (later DID) with evangelical zeal.
One of my early clients at that clinic was a young woman I’ll call Jane. I was not Jane’s first therapist. She had been seeing an unlicensed counselor for about a year, who had discovered that Jane had MPD, and that she had been a victim of ritualistic abuse by her grandfather and a number of people he associated with. When I first met Jane she seemed quite withdrawn and hesitant.
As I worked with Jane, she would periodically “switch” personalities, especially when we touched on subjects that were difficult for her. Whenever she switched, it would be preceded by her breathing growing shallow. She would roll her eyes, shudder briefly, and then start talking as a different “alter.” There was a very young girl who seemed to constantly seek approval; an older pre-teen girl who swore like a sailor; a sullen teen-aged boy who would often refuse to speak to me, lapsing into long, awkward silences. Then the alter would start breathing shallowly, roll their eyes, and Jane would reappear, seeming dazed.
Over time, Jane told me about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her grandfather, who she said was the leader of a Satanic cult in the suburbs of our city. She described the cult as a small group of men and women who chanted, sang, danced, and raped children. She said she had only very fragmented memories of the group’s activities, but her “young girl” alter cheerfully filled in the details: she said that all the cult members had mastered the art of flying, but that they never did it in public, only when they were in private at their rituals. They held barefoot rituals in a local cemetery, even in winter. (This struck me as odd, because winters in that city were notoriously brutal, with temperatures well below freezing and heavy snowfalls that left the ground permanently blanketed with snow from early December until March.
Things grew odder still: Jane told me she had never reported her abuse to the police, as she felt they wouldn’t believe her. I began to wonder: who was Jane’s grandfather? I began to make enquiries. This was in the days before the internet, so I asked a friend who was a police officer in the Sexual Assault unit to help me identify Jane’s grandfather. A few days later, she came back to me with some surprising news: no such person existed.
At around this time, Jane began to reveal some disturbing facts about her previous counsellor. She talked about how hard it had been when she first started to recover her traumatic memories, and how her previous counsellor had “helped” her by making suggestions, to which Jane could nod yes or no. Whenever Jane would reveal a particularly painful detail, such as being raped with the end of a broomstick, the counsellor would smile and nod encouragingly. It was during this time that Jane first began to experience “switching” into her alter personalities.
She said her counselor had been fascinated with her MPD symptoms, and would sometimes call others into her office to observe Jane’s “alters” in action. Jane said she felt like a trained seal, but that she didn’t feel she could object because the counselor was “helping her so much.” When I asked her how she’d been helped, Jane said that she’d uncovered many deeply buried memories. However, during the year she’d spent with that counsellor, Jane felt that her problems in coping had grown worse, not better.
During the two years we spent in counselling, I deliberately adopted an approach that was the direct opposite of what Jane had experienced with her previous counsellor. When she switched into an alter personality, I would pay little attention, and continue talking about the subject we’d been discussing. While I didn’t discourage her from talking about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her grandfather’s cult, nor did I encourage it. I let her lead the conversation. By the time Jane felt ready to leave our sessions, she had completely stopped manifesting her alter personalities. She said she no longer had intrusive memories of having been sexually abused, and she thought that perhaps she’d dreamed about some aspects, such as cult members’ ability to fly, or their dead-of-winter graveyard rituals.
This experience led me to wonder about the phenomenon of MPD/DID: how much of it was really iatrogenic (induced by treatment), and how much occurred naturally? I began to look at the field more critically, and noticed that many of my colleagues who believed in MPD seemed to have an unusually large number of clients who exhibited MPD traits. I began to feel concerned about the almost religious zeal with which those colleagues seemed to promote the MPD/SRA agenda. If I raised even the mildest of objections, I was accused of failing my clients by not validating their abuse experiences. It felt just a bit too much like the accusations of apostasy that were hurled at those who dared to speak out against witch-hunts.
Gradually, though, I found that many of my colleagues who had adopted the MPD/SRA belief system holus bolus in the late 1980s seemed less interested in it as time went on. Cases like the McMartin Preschool debacle left many people feeling embarrassed that they’d supported what amounted to latter-day witch-hunts. By the end of the 1990s, the vast majority of practitioners that I knew had stopped diagnosing MPD. Interestingly, this coincided with an upswing in diagnoses of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. By the time I left the field in 2005, most of the clinical social workers I knew had completely turned their backs on the MPD/SRA model.
I am still slightly agnostic about DID as a diagnosis. I cannot prove that it doesn’t exist…but I can certainly say that in my 20 years of clinical experience I don’t believe I ever encountered a true case. While Jane’s first counsellor did her a massive disservice, leaving her more damaged than when she started, I feel that if I hadn’t seen Jane and understood how she’d been led to believe she had multiple personalities as a result of extreme sexual abuse by a Satanic cult, I might have missed the opportunity to take a hard, critical look at my own profession’s gullibility and short-sightedness.