Karen Overhill is a documented case of MPD by Dr Richard Baer, a top Chicago psychiatrist. In 1990, Overhill began treatment with Baer for depression. She was married to a physically abusive husband and had a verbally abusive mother-in-law. She told Baer she often “lost time.” It was two frightening incidents that prompted her to get professional help. Once she awoke to find a knife beneath her pillow. After supposedly visiting a casino, Overhill won $25,000.00, with no knowledge of having been in the establishment. She gave birth to her first child and when her family arrived in the hospital she didn’t recognize her mother-in-law or her husband. Excerpts from her therapist’s text about her case are included in italics.
During the C-section birth, she began to scream in pain. The doctor barked orders at a nurse and Overhill was sent under general anesthetic. When she awoke she had no idea that she’d given birth or why she was in the hospital. She discovered that during the C-section she had vomited and the bile had run back down into her throat and reached her lungs. For that reason, she was kept in hospital until she was well.
Sometimes I’d pick up a novel and discover the bookmark had moved – yet I couldn’t remember reading the chapter. Once, I found a knife under my pillow that I couldn’t explain. After the birth of my second child, I began to lose more time and the occurrences left me almost suicidal. Crazy as it must sound, I could not remember marrying or making love to my husband. Nor could I remember anything about my life between the ages of six and 10.
Overhill’s story sounds like many other people’s who have MPD. She was routinely molested and physically abused by her father, grandfather and others from an early age. During this time, Overhill developed alters to take over her life during the abuse, and eventually during non-abusive experiences. As a baby, she was choked and thrown against a wall by her father. When she was a schoolgirl, her dad and grandfather would stick pins in her legs. Where was her mother during these incidents? Presumably she looked the other way. Baer found that the personalities living inside Overhill were male and female, black and white, and ranged in age from two to 34. Baer told Karen about his suspicions in November 1993, after receiving a letter that bore a scrawled note: “My name is Claire. I am seven years old. I live inside Karen.”
After one Friday night I wrote: “It’s 2am and I don’t know where I am or how I got here. I don’t know what city I’m in. There are no homes; it seems deserted. I don’t know what to do. Should I ask for help, or just keep driving until something seems familiar? “I can’t call my husband. He wouldn’t understand. I am alone and scared. I’m at a petrol station and there’s a lady inside. I’ll ask her. The lady was very helpful and now I know where I am. We will get home OK.”
The above account sounds suspiciously like the opening chapter in Sybil. Sybil finds herself in a “non-place” with “snow clinging to her legs.” She doesn’t know how she arrived at her location. it is nightfall and she has wandered away from her car in a quest to discover her whereabouts. She happens upon a gas station with a male attendant. She attempts to get help from him but he shakes his head and turns away from her. Perhaps dissociative fugues are common with MPDs and upon awakening, the core personality does seek help at gas stations. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not these accounts are truthful.
Overhill’s family subjected her to horrific rituals where she’d be shut into a coffin or strapped to a table and sexually assaulted. If memory serves (pun) I read some of Overhill’s account in Baer’s biography: A Life in Pieces: the Harrowing True Story of a Woman with Multiple Personality Disorder. I believe her father was an undertaker and hence the access to a coffin and a funeral home. I recall a memory where her father and a friend of his forced Overhill to touch a corpse that had died with an erection. “I had some awareness of it at the time,” she stated in an interview with a magazine called The Mirror. “I’d see bruises and cuts. I had bits and pieces of memories, but you don’t want to ask too many questions for fear of it leading to more abuse. Later, I asked questions of my mother and brothers in a round about way to try and confirm what had gone on. Sometimes I remembered horrible things, but I couldn’t remember feeling pain – the alters had taken it away. It wasn’t like today, where you mention abuse and everyone comes running. In those days people beat their children. I went to a Catholic school. If the teachers saw welts, they thought it was discipline. And I thought I was bad and deserved punishment, so I didn’t complain. My father and grandfather said that if I told anyone they’d kill me. So I put make-up over the wounds or wore long pants if I had bruises.
Overhill claimed she was taken to a funeral parlour in the night and made to lie naked on an embalming table. While strange men molested her, her father stabbed her repeatedly in the abdomen with needles. She also claimed she was taken to a factory and used as the centrepiece of an obscene religious ritual. Personally, that whole satanic cult accusation has never impressed me. I am not convinced that satanic cults even exist. If they do, why are there not more headlines about them? Why are they so “underground” as to be almost impossible to locate? Cults don’t tend to shy aware from public exposure They believe fully in their own purpose and usually recruit more members over time. Even Baer held serious doubts about Overhill’s claims of satanic abuse.
In 1993, the year Overhill sent the letter claiming to be Claire to Baer, her dad was convicted of 19 counts of sexually abusing her niece. The conviction was probably the catalyst that gave Overhill the courage to reveal her past to the doctor. It took 19 years of therapy before Overhill was fully integrated.
I began trying to identify the different voices I could hear, and came up with a list that I gave to Dr Baer.They included four children under ten (three girls and a boy), two teenage girls (Julie and Sandy), a 21-year-old woman, myself, a man and a woman aged 34 (Holdon and Katherine) and another very angry man.
Baer and Overhill agreed on integration as a solution. “Each integration was so exhausting. I was receiving all their memories. And there were physical issues, too. One alter would do things left-handed and the others right-handed. Lots of the alters had different walks. After integrating one of the child alters I didn’t know how to drive. That wasn’t a good day. I sideswiped a car coming out of the parking lot.”
After treatment ceased and Overhill was fully integrated she divorced her husband and moved to the mid-west. A review of Baer’s text offers an interesting insight into a comment Baer included in the foreword: “As a practical matter for therapy,” [Baer] writes, “it matters less what actually happened… These are the images in Karen’s mind, and they, and the feelings associated with them, are real to her… I don’t have to decide exactly what happened; I just need to understand what Karen thinks and feels.”
The critic’s response was: This is a curious intellectual stance to adopt in a memoir with the subtitle a “harrowing true story”. Even from a purely therapeutic perspective, not all mental images are created equal. When a woman claims, for example, to have been the victim of a Satanic paedophile cult, I’d say it’s the facts and not just her feelings that matter.
I’m of a mind (pun) to agree with the critic. If a person is going to bring a lawsuit against an abuser, or even to allege abuse against a person, than “images” and “feelings” have to hold up to actual facts. I’m not stating Overhill lied to her doctor. What I am stating is that alleged abuse against a person is very serious and has long-term legal and social implications.The drawback for victims is that there are issues with determining proof. However a thorough, long-term police investigation usually reveals the truthfulness of allegations of abuse.
There was Jensen, for example, an 11-year-old boy, who was “born” in 1971 when I was 12 years old and was raped by my grandmother’s brother. I’d never told anyone about the abuse that I’d suffered for fear that my father would kill me – as he had threatened. Jensen fought back against the abuse and tried to bind my breasts flat to help me appear more masculine. He especially hated older men.
Recalling the Shirley Ardell Mason case (Sybil), Dr. Cornelia Wilbur is believed to have manufactured most of Mason’s personalities and memories, using sodium pentothal. Mason once stated to a psychiatrist who treated her when Wilbur was out-of-town that Wilbur preferred her to be a particular alter during their sessions. Mason also stated that Wilbur told her if she wasn’t a multiple, she wouldn’t treat Mason, since this was the disorder that interested the good doctor. This type of information, along with suggesting that it is the patient’s feelings and not whether or not the accounts of abuse are truthful, that are the most significant factor in treating MPD, that seriously detract from the validity of MPD and DID..
A college friend of Mason’s, Jean Lane, recalled studying art with Mason. She claimed that Mason was very thin and often very sick. She frequently blacked out throughout the day. Occasionally she went out “drinking and carousing” at bars. During the day “she would just simply become comatose.” Mason and Lane argued one evening and a child’s voice emerged.Lane recalled that Mason’s mother was very protective and caring. Mason eventually took over her mother’s life as she was dying. Mattie was tall, very thin, pleasant, and discouraged Mason from keeping pet rats. Her father was “more distant.” When Mattie passed and the father got a girlfriend, Mason became unhinged and began seeking a mother figure. Lane was careful not to fill that role. Mason “demanded a great deal of care. She didn’t have the concept that there was more than one person, you see.”
Unless someone loaned Mason money, she went hungry. Mason seemed to find a way to get people to take care of her. Lane believed Mason wasn’t abused. If anything she was too sheltered and taken care of too well by her mother. Lane commented that “overly protective homes….where [people will] do your decisions keep you out of trouble give you support and tell you how wonderful you are…. that is a very comforting thing to have.” Lane did believe Mason had more than one personality.
It may seem bizarre that a human being can be organised in this way. It’s an alternative way of thinking and functioning, but it uses the same mental tools – the same brain – that we all have. If we all grew up under the same abusive circumstances as me, maybe we’d all operate in the way I did then.
The late Truddi Chase a striking blonde woman, was another extraordinary MPD case about a woman with 92 separate personalities. The first text she wrote “When Rabbit Howls” was written by her many alters, a major breakthrough in documenting DID at the time.The text revealed Chase’s extreme sexual and physical abuse by both her stepfather and her biological mother. I found several discrepancies in the text that prevented me from fully accepting all of her recollections.
For one, I felt the composite character who interacted with “Stanley,” (the nickname she coined for her doctor), was questionable. Why would she use a fictional character who supposedly assists Stanley in her treatment in an autobiography? The concept was to edit the text in length, since Stanley must have conferenced with many people, but the character detracts from the text’s authenticity.
She also included a strange delusion from an alter named Ean, who supposedly was as old as time and had existed long before Chase was born. He offered his odd depiction of a story whereby he rides upon a horse and collects a beautiful dark-haired woman en route to leave with him. Leave where, I don’t know.
On the plus side, the “Troops” as the alters called themselves, spoke continually to one another throughout the text and the conversations are detailed and appear to support each other’s account of abuse. Although the abuse seems too extraordinary to believe, it is probably possible that there are people so evil as to abuse a child in this severe a manner. In Chase’s case she refused integration as a form of therapy.
The “integration” felt like I’d gone through major surgery, and it left me with serious doubts about ever doing it again. At home, my mind raced as if I were watching a movie in fast forward. As the memories of what had happened to me poured into me, I felt every pain associated with them – and even though each pain lasted only a few seconds, I just wanted these memories to stop. During the next week, I worked through all the memories the Julie character had, and gradually I started functioning again. I realised that having Julie had always been a form of protection from what had happened to me as a child – and now I was going to have to deal with the memories of the degradation myself.
The musician Quincy Jones, once stated it was important to “leave room for God to walk in the door“ when living life, contemplating possibilities, judging situations. Perhaps that’s key in determining the validity of MPD.