In a bustling Starbucks at the Stamford Town Center in picturesque Connecticut, a tall woman swaddled in a gray sweater and an ankle-length skirt appeared in the doorway. Her chestnut hair was pulled back, exposing moon-pale skin and saucer eyes. Nervously, she scanned the room before I waved her over. She introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Lillian.”
Lillian did not come to the Starbucks alone. Although to be fair, she’s never really alone. Along with Mia, Rebecca, Julie, Pastel, Jennifer, Katelynn, Luna and “17,” she is part of the JC Klatch, a system of individuals (don’t call them personalities) who have lived together inside the same physical body for as long as they can remember.
Lillian is missing some of her teeth, so she frequently smiles with a tight-lipped grin. When she switches to another individual—Rebecca, a lesbian obsessed with cars—her head leans right and she twitches slightly. Her eyes flutter like she’s rousing from a dream. And then a voice emerges: sometimes it sounds a lot like the voices of the other individuals, but sometimes it sounds completely different, like when 17—the only male individual inside the JC Klatch—speaks with a boy’s childlike speech impediment, rounding his R’s.
“Do you want something to drink?” I asked Luna a little bit later. “Sure, if you’re offering!” she replied. “How about one of those strawberry milkshake things, but with soy milk?”
I obliged, carrying back a medium strawberry frappucino and a bottle of water. “Oh my god, it’s good!” Luna exclaimed, sipping the drink.
Later, after Luna had switched to Mia and Mia to 17, the Klatch’s opinion of the milkshake had changed.
“This is weird,” 17 declared, pronouncing it like wee-ord. ”I’ve never had this before.”
Called a “multiple,” Lillian and the others refer to themselves in the plural, but they do not identify as having Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder. Instead, they see being multiple as akin to a lifestyle—though not by choice. Each individual (or “headmate”) within The JC Klatch has a different age, demeanor and personality. Their handwriting and medical conditions are unique: Pastel has a different eyeglasses prescription than the others, which Lillian said her optometrist still hasn’t been able to explain. Each one also has distinct interests, mannerisms and sexual orientations. They can have different significant others.
According to The JC Klatch, some multiples don’t lose time—the individuals inside them communicate internally so that they all possess the same memories and understanding of the world around them. The JC Klatch can switch between individuals voluntarily, and it’s not impolite to ask to speak to someone who isn’t “fronting,” or currently controlling the body. During our conversation at Starbucks, I spoke to five of the nine different individuals that comprise the JC Klatch, each of whom fronted when I asked to speak to them.
“Part of me was like, ‘Is she shitting me?’” the Klatch’s roommate Alan Verrier said of the first time he found out there were others. “I used to call them my one-body sorority.”
The concept of several individuals inhabiting a single body has historically been deemed Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder, but The JC Klatch and other multiples are quick to dispel any labels or diagnoses that insinuate they are disordered. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV defines someone with DID as a “person who suffers alternation of two or more distinct personality states with impaired recall among personality states of important information.” However, the multiples I spoke to argue that what differentiates them from those suffering from an identity disorder is that they simply aren’t sick. The individuals within them operate harmoniously. They are able to live relatively normal lives, with good jobs, close friends and adult responsibilities (though Mr. Verrier joked that every individual within the Klatch detests doing the dishes).
The experiences of the multiples I spoke to also diverge from the traditional psychiatric definition of DID. For one thing, they are aware of the other individuals that exist inside them, and they can voluntarily switch between them, unlike most DID sufferers.
For many multiples, the world seems curiously black and white: they are multiple, but do not have multiple personality disorder. They are different, but not sick. It’s incredibly complicated for a reporter to pick through, to discern who is telling the truth, who is lying and who sincerely believes they are telling the truth but may not be. Without speaking to their psychiatrists—a profession they largely shun—or people in their lives who disagree that they are multiple, it was nearly impossible to determine who to believe. But if they were living happy, healthy, fulfilling lives, did it really matter whether they were truly multiple or not?
Many multiples have made their home on Tumblr, nestled among the otherkin under the wide umbrella of identity politics and the social justice movement (much of which has been the target of mockery across the web). There you might find systems made up of actual historical characters—Abraham Lincoln, for instance—or even other species. Though Tumblr didn’t invent multiplicity, it has helped to popularize it, providing a largely judgment-free platform for sufferers (and those who have convinced themselves they’re sufferers) to congregate and discuss their lifestyle.
The Tumblr subculture is a somewhat warped extension of the long-standing presence of multiples on the Internet, dating back to bulletin board systems like WWIVnet from the late ’80s and ’90s. Nearly all of these groups were initially dedicated to sharing abuse experiences and ways of coping with DID, with few resources for people looking to live a healthy multiple lifestyle.
The Astraea system, which lives in a body in its mid-50s on the West Coast, has been an active member of plural groups on the web since 1992. They began posting stories about healthy multiplicity online in 1995, and their website morphed into a repository for links and articles about being a multiple. “Many people seem to think this is some kind of relatively new phenomenon—self-recognized plurality, plural groups talking about themselves online,” said Iris, a 57-year-old African-American individual in the Astraea group. “This actually goes back before the Internet to the earliest computer bulletin boards.” Like many fringe groups, the Internet has allowed those who believe they are multiple to find people like them and share their experiences.
Of course, there are always the wannabes.
“Oh yes, we have certainly met fake multiples,” Rebecca, the car-obsessed lesbian, confirmed.
“All of us have known we were multiple for as long as we can remember,” Lillian said once we’d settled down across from each other in Starbucks, her eyes growing wide. “As we grew up, we found out pretty quickly that people weren’t multiple. And our mother would always correct us if we used the terms ‘we’ or mention any of the others.”
When referring to the person they were born as—the name on their birth certificate, which they declined to tell me—The JC Klatch uses the term “the body.” “The body is 29.” These differentiations are crucial for The JC Klatch: the body is simply a vehicle driven by the nine individuals that live inside of it. The name the body was given at birth is almost irrelevant now.
Despite maintaining a nontraditional lifestyle, The JC Klatch have a relatively normal life: they live with Mr. Verrier, a pharmacy technician and “singlet,” the slang term for someone who is not multiple. The Klatch work as a field technician at a computer company. “It does come in handy, because if one [individual] wakes up sick, we can send another to work,” Luna told me.
Mr. Verrier believes that The JC Klatch is multiple—or at least that they truly believe they are—but he doubts they were born that way. “They’re all slobs. They share the same insecurities and the same idiosyncrasies,” he said. “That’s where I kind of question whether they were born or split later.”
Friends and family are frequently skeptical of the Klatch and often ask Mr. Verrier if they’re faking it. “I never thought they were faking it,” he said. “Nobody can act that well for that long.”
Further convoluting the distinction between a healthy multiple and a disordered one is the complex history behind identity disorders. Diagnoses of MPD rose to prominence in the wake of the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve. MPD (which later became DID) is a fraught term, having later been exposed as being widely overdiagnosed. Studies found that psychiatrists may have projected the disorder by using hypnosis to draw memories and personalities from those with fragile mental states, causing many patients to come to believe they were multiple when they weren’t. Published in 1973, Sybil was also seen as a nexus of the multiple personality movement, although its truthfulness was later widely contested.
“The whole issue of multiple personality is overdiagnosed,” explained Dr. Richard K. Baer, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association who wrote a book called Switching Time, about his treatment of a patient with multiple personality disorder. “There are a lot of people—both therapists and patients—who seek out the diagnosis of multiple personality.” The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation estimates that DID occurs in 1 to 3 percent of the population.
There are several factors that differentiate the experiences of the multiples I spoke to from someone officially diagnosed with DID. For one, The JC Klatch and other systems can switch voluntarily, which Dr. Baer told me is not possible for sufferers of DID. “If she can call upon these parts voluntarily, there’s no dissociation,” Dr. Baer explained. “Multiple personalities is a dissociative disorder, and if you’re not dissociating, you don’t have it.”
“Multiplicity is not typically an alternative lifestyle,” he added. “It’s a pathology that has a protective function.”
Furthermore, all three systems I spoke with are well aware that there are other individuals living inside of them, which is typically not the case for someone with a DID diagnosis. “If she’s aware of all the personalities and all of their thoughts, she’s not dissociating,” Dr. Baer repeated. “She doesn’t have a dissociative disorder and she’s not a multiple, but she thinks of herself this way.”
Mr. Verrier claims that The JC Klatch visited a psychiatrist in New Haven who confirmed that they were multiple, but that, because they are aware of each other, they “don’t fit the model for DID.”
Debbie was in her late 20s when she was in a car accident that left her unable to use her legs. She’d broken her back, leaving her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for much of her life. Then, one day, Debbie mysteriously stood up and began to walk.
“I found out she was multiple when she was in a wheelchair for 20 years and then she started walking at the hospital,” said Jan, Debbie’s longtime partner. The doctors couldn’t explain it.
“I thought she had conversion disorder—that’s where you can have paralysis caused just by your mind,” Jan told me by phone. “A therapist I’d been going to suggested Dissociative Identity Disorder, so I decided the next time she would act different from normal I’d try talking to her like she was a different person. And when I did, it was a little girl named Ana.” The reason Debbie could walk now, Jan explained, is because Debbie didn’t exist anymore, but had instead given way to the countless other individuals of all different ages that inhabited her body and could control it in ways that Debbie wasn’t capable of. The system is called Oure Gaiya.
Jazz, who is one of the primary fronters of the Oure Gaiya system, calls Jan her sister, though they’re not actually related. Jazz and Jan have co-adopted three mentally and physically disabled children, just in case the state ever deems Jazz unfit to be a parent. They both consider themselves full-time mothers, but Jan cares for Oure Gaiya, which has several children that comprise it, like they’re her own brood.
“I’m a mom of over 50 kids,” Jan said. “When they come forward, I parent them. It’s great—I always wanted a huge family.”
Jazz is one of the most vocal supporters of “healthy multiplicity,” which she defines as “people who share the same body who interact with their family, friends and the public in general on the same level as most people.” Her website is a trove of helpful information for multiples and those who care for them. She maintains the Plural Activism Yahoo Group, which boasts 540 members, though there are countless other multiples on platforms like Livejournal and Ivory Garden, a members-only DID support group. She helped to create a logo for plural activism (a series of circles that intersect, with the words “Many minds, one body”), established a Wikipedia for multiplicity, and maintains a Plural Pride CafePress store where users can purchase T-shirts with slogans like “Living multiple and loving it.”
“Society has all these bad images of a person who is multiple: they’re mass murderers or they’re child abusers,” Jazz told me. “That’s partly why plural activism exists. We want to change that.”
Jazz also says she has successfully convinced the American Psychiatric Association to amend its definition of multiple personality disorder in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, to be published in May 2013. “We got them to actually change their diagnosis of what it means to be multiple,” Jazz told me. In order to be diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder, Jazz said, the DSM V “now says [being multiple] has to interfere with your daily life. So if you’re unhealthy, of course it’s going to interfere, but that’s because you’re unhealthy, not because you’re multiple.”
For healthy multiples that embrace the numerous people living inside them, “integration” is a dirty word. Many do not seek psychiatric help for fear of being integrated—that is, having a therapist work to try to convince them to combine all of their individuals into one primary individual, the way most people live.
“We’re never lonely,” Jazz told me. “Why would someone want to be something that they are not? To us, integration is a form of murder.”
Dr. Baer said that perhaps healthy multiples simply encourage themselves to develop different sides of their personality into fully fledged people. Each of us has numerous sides: who we are at work is different from who we are with friends is different from who we are with partners. But we traditionally don’t view these as separate people within our body; they’re simply personality traits. “Clearly something’s going on with [The JC Klatch] where she’s having these different parts of herself that don’t seem very integrated,” he said. “She’s encouraging them to be separate. I have all these parts inside of me and they talk to me in different ways. How is that different from what she’s doing?”
“If someone characterizes themselves as a multiple, but they don’t dissociate, it’s kind of like saying you’re Buddhist,” Dr. Baer went on. “People really strive to find a way to understand themselves, so it’s an easy thing to glom onto.”
Throughout the course of reporting this story, it became impossible to ignore the fact that someone who had officially been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder might take issue with people who didn’t undergo the type of systemic abuse that causes alters to blossom, and yet still claim to be multiple. (Each of the systems experienced abuse as children, but The JC Klatch and Astraea don’t believe it’s the source of their multiplicity. “We had severe abuse and it took work to get where we are, but we did evolve from an unhealthy system to one that is healthy,” Jazz said.) Did it make them angry? Did they feel like their experiences were being somehow trivialized or unfairly appropriated?
“When I first read your email, that was my first thought, yes,” Olga Trujillo, a survivor of DID, told me by phone. Ms. Trujillo has written extensively about grappling with her DID diagnosis following persistent sexual and physical abuse as a child, and now travels around the country giving presentations about child abuse and domestic violence issues. She said that the descriptions of multiplicity laid out by Oure Gaiya, The JC Klatch and Astraea greatly differed from her experience. But because of the controversial history surrounding DID, and the fact that some have questioned the authenticity of the condition, Ms. Trujillo is not quick to jump to conclusions.
“I don’t want people to tell me that what I have doesn’t exist, so I don’t want to be doing that for anybody else,” Ms. Trujillo said, adding that she questions whether there isn’t a spectrum of DID. “It’s impossible to determine what’s behind it. But this is their lived experience, so what does it matter?”