Fake news and junk science

The freebie Metro, a scion of the Mail group, rehashed some fake news on 22 June this year, when it indulged the fantasies of a woman named “Karen” (not her real name) aged 60. 

Karen claims to have multiple personalities, and to have been the victim of “extreme ritual abuse” at the hands of a “paedophile ring”, alleged to be Christian.

She claims that this happened to her from the ages of 1 to 16 after which, inexplicably, the cult left her alone. But in addition, she claims, she was also abused by family members. The abuse covered all bases: “emotional, physical and sexual abuse…..from emotional manipulation and controlling behaviour to rape and beatings.” 

If true, this is an abomination. But is it?

The concept of multiple personality disorder (MPD) is a twentieth-century reworking of the pre-modern idea of demonic possession, presented in a pseudo-scientific wrapper. Karen, as we must call her, sounds a troubled soul. She calls her multiple personalities “alters”.  

Whereas in pre-modern societies, demons were seen as forces of evil to be cast out, nowadays these “alters” are seen as inner children, to be embraced and parented. 

MPD is so discredited that its cranky adherents have now repackaged it as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which is what Karen claims to have.  

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing to corroborate Karen’s claims. There are no independent witnesses to her alleged abuse, which she does not appear to have reported to the police or to any other public authority.  Not a single person from this alleged “cult” or her errant family appears to have been arrested, questioned, charged or convicted. 

In the era of “We Believe”, this is remarkable. 

The intrepid Metro journalist who claims to have interviewed Karen, in a written conversation (!), also claims to have spoken to two of her alters aka demonic possessors, Rose and Ellen. 

This is absurd, since Karen would have been writing their responses herself. Karen is obviously manipulating the journalist, who is colluding with Karen’s fantasy world of imaginary friends/ alters/ demon actors.

Karen also claims to have no recollection of her appalling childhood abuse until her forties. This is inherently implausible. As Professor Richard McNally of Harvard University has found, genuine victims of trauma have difficulty forgetting it. 

Modern memory science also tells us that the earliest age at which memories can be recalled is about the age of three. So, Karen’s claim to have been abused from one year old is demonstrable nonsense. In reality, Karen is invoking the hoary old notion of recovered memories, long since discredited.

The MPD craze was generated by a series of best-selling works of fiction in the last century, posing as factual accounts – or audacious literary hoaxes, if you prefer.  These books spawned a host of wannabe or copycat “victims” via a kind of social contagion or, as Oscar Wilde would have called it, a case of life following art. 

These best-sellers all involved therapists or psychiatrists who crossed professional boundaries. They became improperly involved with their patients, whom they shamelessly exploited. Today, such grossly irresponsible and unethical behaviour by a treating clinician would likely result in a malpractice lawsuit, and a professional misconduct referral. The condition of MPD, then, is a iatrogenic  condition, engendered by therapy.

In 1957, a book entitled “The Three Faces of Eve” was made into a film, about a woman with (allegedly) multiple personalities. The psychiatrists who authored this book did so with – surprise! – limited input from their hapless patient, Chris Sizemore. When she learnt that her shrink had sold the legal rights to her life story to  20th Century Fox, she fought back and took a court case to stop Fox making any more films about her. Good for Chris.

Next off the block was “Sybil” in 1973, ghost-written by Flora Schreiber, a journalist, for the psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur (b. 1908). Wilbur’s patient was the wretched Shirley Mason, who sought help for anxiety in the early 1950s, and soon developed a crush on Wilber. 

Wilbur told her “I will help you remember” and began giving her hypnosis, thorazine (an anti-psychotic) and sodium pentothal, an anaesthetic also used for the death penalty. This “uncovered” allegations of horrific sexual abuse by Mason’s mother, including being exposed to orgies and being buried alive. 

Mason developed 16 personalities, and became completely dependent on Wilbur, seeing her 14-18 hours a week. At one point Mason retracted her claims about her mother, but Wilbur told her she was in denial. When Mason’s flat-mate told her to stop seeing Wilber, Mason moved out. Wilbur then paid for a deposit on a new apartment for her, close to the consulting rooms, and gave her furnishings and a coat. 

Next up was “Michelle Remembers” in 1980, written by another patient together with her psychiatrist, Lawrence Padzer. In 1977, Michelle Proby sought his help for depression following a miscarriage. Padzer used regression hypnosis, a dubious technique, on her. 

Before long they were cuddling on the floor, and Proby started manifesting different personalities. Proby recalled being taken to orgies by her mother and being buried alive, as well as witnessing multiple murders, being kept in a cage, and being smeared with body parts. She claimed to have been subjected to horrific experiences by the Church of Satan in 1955, culminating in a marathon 81-day ritual – during which her school records showed that Proby was attending school!

She married Padzer, and together they made $340, 000 from the book. Padzer became a “go-to” consultant on the subject of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Proby’s father, who denied all her claims, eventually stopped the book being made into a film, by threatening to sue.

Next up is the 1991 “The Flock: The Autobiography of a Multiple Personality”, by one Joan Casey and Lynn Wilson. The authors use pseudonyms and tell the tale of a graduate student who sought counselling in 1981. Wilson was a social worker, who somehow became Casey’s therapist and rushed off to consult Cornelia Wilbur. Would you believe it, Casey then manifested 24 personalities! Wilson and her husband took Casey home, and parented her various alters. A belated review of the book in 2010 comments on the Wilsons’ “intimate therapy style”:

[Wilson] broke every treatment rule in the book 

It’s unclear exactly what therapy Karen had, though she claims to have consulted a specialist DID therapist. In my opinion, anyone peddling or promoting this dubious diagnosis should be forced to carry a very large health warning. 

Whilst I absolutely support the right of any person experiencing mental distress, or illness, to seek professional help, I think that self-referral is fraught with danger.  

I have had a number of clients with mental health problems who have self-referred to psychoanalytic psychotherapists or to DID merchants, with unhappy results. The public needs to be warned that self-referral is a risky business.