Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory

Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory

Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory

Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory


Twenty-five years ago one could list by name the tiny number of multiple personalities recorded in the history of Western medicine, but today hundreds of people receive treatment for dissociative disorders in every sizable town in North America. Clinicians, backed by a grassroots movement of patients and therapists, find child sexual abuse to be the primary cause of the illness, while critics accuse the MPD community of fostering false memories of childhood trauma. Here the distinguished philosopher Ian Hacking uses the MPD epidemic and its links with the contemporary concept of child abuse to scrutinize today's moral and political climate, especially our power struggles about memory and our efforts to cope with psychological injuries. In this brilliant and provocative new book, Ian Hacking fixes his searching gaze on the hot topic of multiple personality. The results are remarkable.... In Hacking's hands, multiple personality emerges as a paradigmatic case study illuminating basic questions about truth, memory, fact and fiction, about knowledge, science, and identity.... [This book] treats these impossibly difficult problems of knowability in the human sciences with grace and wisdom. DLEllen Herman, Contemporary Psychology The details of Hacking's discussion are enthralling and illuminating. He manages to avoid altogether the sensationalism usually associated with treatments of multiple personality, providing an informative history and raising deep and important philosophical issues. DLMarya Schechtman, Mind


Memory is a powerful tool in quests for understanding, justice, and knowledge. It raises consciousness. It heals some wounds, restores dignity, and prompts uprisings. What better motto for automobile license plates in Québec than Je me souviens?—I remember. Memories of the holocaust and of slavery must be passed on to new generations. Severe and repeated child abuse is said to be a cause of multiple personality disorder; the illness is to be treated through a recovery of lost memories of pain. An aging population is scared of Alzheimer's disease, which it regards as a disease of memory. In a most extraordinary venture into the mind by way of biochemistry, the central focus of research in brain science is memory. An astonishing variety of concerns are pulled in under that one heading: memory.

My curiosity is piqued exactly when something seems inevitable. Why are such diverse interests grouped under memory? One senior American philosopher, Nelson Goodman, as committed to the arts as to the sciences, has called himself skeptical, analytical, and constructionalist. I have those tendencies too. I wonder skeptically: why has it been essential to organize so many of our present projects in terms of memory? I wonder analytically: what are the dominating principles that lock us into memory as an approach to so many of the problems of life, from child rearing to patriotism, from aging to anxiety? And I wonder, what constructions underlie these principles? I am not looking for the trite wisdom that there are different kinds of memory. I wonder why there is one creature, “memory,” of which there are so many different kinds.

I do not want, now, a grand reflection on memory, or its associated horrors such as genocide and child abuse. Skeptics are unenthusiastic about systems, about theories of everything. I propose to examine an entirely specific case of memory-thinking. Multiple personality is perfect for the purpose. This illness, which seemed as nothing twenty-five years ago, is flourishing all over North America. Amnesia has been built in to the official diagnostic criteria for what has just been renamed dissociative identity disorder. Dissociation into personality fragments is caused (on current theorizing) by abuse in childhood that had long been forgotten. Multiple personality is a paradigmatic, if tiny, memory-concept.

We can get some perspective on the question of how memory came . . .

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