The Myth of Sanity by Martha Stout
I was really impressed with this book for the majority of the 12 days it took me to read it. Despite it being published in 2001 and some bits of it being quite obviously out-dated, I was willing to overlook those flaws. It was only in the last two days that my opinion of it dropped quite severely. In this post I am going to discuss the bits of the book that I found good, even fascinating. I am then going to discuss the bits I found incredibly disappointing at the end, which is where they were placed in the book.
What I like about the whole concept behind the book is that it doesn’t make you feel, as a DID’er, like you have two heads. You could be mistaken when reading other books focusing on DID that dissociation is a concept that is really ‘out-there’ and ‘hippy-esque’. Actually, what this book helps you to realise is that mild to moderate dissociation is NORMAL in EVERYONE when faced with stressful situations. Severe dissociation, like DID when faced with severe psychological trauma, therefore isn’t that bizarre a concept. There are “switchers” (her word) everywhere, is what Martha Stout is stating. Some diagnosed, some not.
I really appreciated the neuropsychology portions of the book. For example, the extremely clear explanation as to how trauma memories get stored in the brain and just exactly how trauma can change the brain forever. I have read countless books with countless explanations of this and each and every time I find it fascinating and really validating – because you know, between books I forget it all! The way this book presented it was really effective to me. In particular where it states that Broca’s area (part of the brain in the left hemisphere that deals with language) can be shut down in traumatic situations. After reading this, the denial that creeps around me on a daily basis completely and utterly lifted. The “excuse” that my adult “observing ego” carries around to deny there is any truth behind the traumatic flashbacks within the system was obliterated in one single statement. It is through language that we as humans make sense of things, and without this, well it’s understandable that I’m being bombarded with things from the past in my senses with no understanding or meaning of where they have come from.
Quite courageously the author doesn’t shy away at all from the concept of ‘false memory syndrome’. In fact she introduces us to the concept of historical truth (actual facts) versus narrative truth (may include representations, metaphors, gaps). The argument is that realistically, no one who has been through trauma is ever going to be able to recollect historical truth alone. But this does not mean we should abandon our quest to process what happened to us altogether because memory work is still vital in trauma recovery EVEN IF the memories are perhaps tainted by imagination (ours or someone elses). I spent years putting a LOT of pressure on myself to find out ‘the truth’ because the thought of mentally incriminating someone for something that they didn’t do was crippling. I couldn’t escape from the fact that perhaps some of the things my alters were remembering didn’t actually happen in the way they were expressing. (Here I feel I need to intrude on my own thinking and state that none of my parts have EVER told a story of an abusive experience. Their “expressing” comes from more raw arenas of body memories, flashbacks, and emotions.) What I am realising is that I am never going to have a narrative to my childhood. Ever. At least not in the way you read in books. My amnesia has shown itself to be far too strong, for starters, and I am far too aware of mixing up representations with facts, to the point where none of it is factual in my eyes.
I loved the portion of the book that discussed what sanity is to society, and how dissociation, especially DID, can be so far removed from what society feels is “sanity” (consistency, predictability…) that we can’t help but compartmentalise those who “aren’t sane” in that way and give it a label. It’s a matter of protection to ourselves. A way of decreasing our fear around difference. This all seemed somewhat fitting given the discussions I have been having online, and offline, with regards to compartmentalising DID into even more separate labels depending on its presentation present day and make-up in the past. It helps me to understand why there is this fever around putting people into categories and why even the most intelligent/professional of people can get caught up in it.
Now we are getting close to the bits of the book that started to make my face muscles crinkle. Firstly, the treading of dangerous waters in introducing the concept that perhaps individuals with a more dramatic/acting type personality will unconsciously develop flamboyant alters rife with differences between them. Martha believes very much that covert DID is the base state of the disorder – alters without severe differences in postures, voices, ways of being. The more overt DID presentations are simply the acting talents of the individual shining through, UNCONSCIOUSLY. Like I said, dangerous waters and something I am willing to discuss in the therapy room and nowhere else!
And finally, the great let down of the entire book. Martha, presumably because she doesn’t have DID, seems to be able to relate very well to people who are partners or children to someone with DID. She was ever so quick to state how difficult it must be to be around, and rely on someone with DID on a daily basis. How it is understandable we get called pathological liars, manipulative, purposefully regressing. How violent crime can be understood down to our levels of changeability. To add further insult to injury, how easy it would be to see how someone with DID can go on to abuse their own children, without the adult observing ego being aware. I felt this was particularly distasteful considering she didn’t seem to counter it at all with any POSITIVES around being in partnership with someone with DID, or even just a recognition that we aren’t that different from your average partner. In that segment of the book I felt she was talking very low of people with DID and I leave the book feeling judged, and even misunderstood, despite everything else I have said above. It is a shame it has left such a nasty taste in my mouth because up until then I was open to recommending it to anyone and everyone living in society today. Now, with that bit that comes across as scare-mongering, I am full of hesitancy.