Richard J. McNally


On the roots of mental pathologies

Cover Interview of November 03, 2011

Finally, some syndromes appear to be almost entirely a product of historical and cultural circumstances, as multiple personality disorder (MPD) illustrates.  An epidemic of MPD swept through North America during the 1980s following the immense success of the book and movie about Sybil, a woman whose MPD allegedly arose as a consequence of having suffered horrific childhood abuse at the hands of her psychotic mother.  A theory inspired by this case held that MPD patients develop alternate personalities to serve as repositories for traumatic memories too intolerable for their “host” personality to entertain consciously.

At it turns out, most cases of MPD arose within the context of psychotherapy itself, apparently a product of hypnotic memory recovery sessions, plus media portrayals of the disorder.  When patients began recalling bizarre, implausible traumatic “memories” of satanic ritual abuse, cannibalism, and infant sacrifice, only to retract them later, MPD therapists became the target of malpractice suits.  The cultural niche supporting MPD as an idiom of distress dried up, and the epidemic ended.  In an ironic coda to this strange episode, recent scholarship has shown that Sybil was an artistic, imaginative, only child who had not suffered abuse at the hands of a psychotic mother.