POP INTERVIEW: Thomas Smith Discusses Living with a Loved One’s Multiple Personalities

Multiple Personality Disorder, sometimes called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is often a soap opera plot line but little understood in reality. Journalist and author Thomas Smith explained the life few have experienced with his partner Darrell’s many personalities, the subject of the book they co-wrote together, Which One Am I?

which one am i

Some people don’t want to date someone because he or she comes from a different social upbringing. Or it could be like the time I once read online, a man saw a woman was using a Blackberry instead of an iPhone. People run away from dating for any reason! Why did you want to stay with Darrell when you learned of his disorder?
Someone won’t date a woman because she owns the wrong brand of phone? I find that pathetic, shallow and somewhat vulgar. Stories like that make up one of the reasons I choose to no longer work in Hollywood.

Ironically, it’s my entertainment business background that made it easier to accept and deal with Darrell’s DID. Back in the late Seventies when I was first beginning to perform, I met Monkee Micky Dolenz. When we were talking he was the most intelligent, soft-spoken man you’d ever hope to meet. Give him an audience, though, and suddenly he turned into wild and crazy Micky Monkee. “Ah!,” I thought to myself. “That’s how it’s done.” That was only my first experience with the phenomenon of people switching personalities because there is hardly an artist I’ve ever met – and I’ve met more than my share – who isn’t different on stage than off. I do the same thing whether I’m reading from “Which One Am I?,” singing a song, teaching a class or just speaking in front of a group.

This willful switching isn’t confined to Hollywood, by the way. To become someone different is common among educators, politicians and whoever puts themselves in front of other people. I’d already accepted that this is a phenomenon that happens all the time since I do it as well. There isn’t much of a jump from the perspective I already possessed to accepting someone who switched inadvertently.

What are the challenges of dating or marrying someone with DID?
For me, not many as I’ve already laid out. I did get lucky in some respects in that he has no destructive or self-destructive personalities. We have been in contact with many other multiples and their caregivers where we try to help out those who aren’t as lucky as we are. There is one example of such a multiple in “Which One Am I?” in the “Bee” chapter. One of the people Darrell knew in Long Beach was another multiple, a gay man who had an uncontrolled alter he called “Sexual Maniac.” Not being able to control the sexual impulses of the alter who may or may not have been practicing safe sex may well have led to the death of Darrell’s friend.

A really common problem is the defiant teen alter personality. Sometimes that teen inside may not like the caregiver and that causes all sorts of problems in a relationship as you might imagine. While many of Darrell’s people inside are teen-aged (J.D., James, Steve, Billy Bill, Carol, Star, Diane), none of them have been defiant towards me.

Saying that, this is the root of a caregiver’s role: The caregiver has to find and establish his or her role in the pantheon of people inside as well as with the person they are with. We liken it to being the step-parent in a large family. It’s the same dynamic, though the grocery bill is lower.

When he changes into another personality, is it quick?
Sometimes the change is quite quick. We were just looking at pictures taken at our first reading of “Which One Am I?” Both Billy and Jimmie came out. There’s also one picture of James. One poor lady had Darrell autograph her copy of the book and the kids inside were all fighting to get in on the action. She’ll never be able to read his inscription. It was done in four or five different styles, some of them pre-school.

Does he change clothing and accents?
Darrell used to change clothing, especially when the girls wanted out, but when his late husband Robert Dann was alive, Robert put an end to that. The kids do have different tastes, though. The older kids are much better at matching than are the younger ones.

He does change accents a bit. Star, the mulatta, is pretty Urban in her slang. Billy Bill is, for God knows what reason, Welsh. There is also an Italian and a Frenchman. Neither has a name because neither Darrell nor I speak either of those languages so we can’t communicate. Darrell did tell me, though, that the day before yesterday one of the kids behind the counter at our local coffee house said something in French and the Frenchman answered back. If that one keeps talking, maybe we’ll be able to get a name for him.

Do you have to start over with the conversation or change it because the other personality won’t have the same humor?
Everybody inside can hear what’s going on unless the dominant personality inside, 2-year-old Billy, doesn’t want them to or doesn’t think they are ready. For a long time, 10-year-old Dot didn’t know that Robert Dann had died because Billy didn’t think he was capable of handling the news. I’m told that now Dot has been brought up to speed.

If one doesn’t have the answer to a question, someone else who has the knowledge may take over. There are a couple of stories in “Which One Am I?” that Darrell himself doesn’t know. They were told to me by one or another of the kids inside.

Multiple personalities are a huge part of the entertainment world. Nicki Minaj has her own city of personalities she uses as a performer. Does this ever make you upset, or do you not mind people getting into character through their alter egos?
We haven’t had the pleasure of catching Nicki Minaj, though now that you bring her to our attention, we certainly will do so. People getting into character isn’t a problem as I believe I laid out a couple questions back. What upsets us is misrepresentation. That was our problem with, for instance, “The United States of Tara.” Having grown up in and around entertainment, I certainly realize there have to be short-cuts taken in any narrative because you only have so many minutes on the screen (23 per ½ hour show, if I remember correctly) and there is a format that must be followed. That doesn’t mean writers and producers have to lie, which is what we felt “Tara” was doing. During research for “Which One Am I?” we did talk to both the multiple and the psychiatrist who advised the series, both of whom are referenced (and I believe quoted) in “Which One Am I?” Their explanations always boiled down to: “You have to understand this is how Hollywood works.” After 40 years in the industry, I certainly understand how Hollywood works but that doesn’t mean the way it works is right.

Because we felt so defiant against the misrepresentation of DID portrayed in “Tara,” in “Which One Am I?” we chose to map out the historical representation and misrepresentation of minorities in Hollywood in order to give the reader and researcher a sense of where DID representation may be headed in the future. In “Which One Am I?” readers can follow Blacks from “Amos & Andy” to the present day; gays from “The Boys in the Band”; and multiples from “The Three Faces of Eve.” As we said in the book “Before there are characters there are caricatures.”

Do you really believe anyone is to blame for his DID? I was thinking he might have just been born with the disorder like people are born with any disease outside their control. Nothing to be ashamed of either but a fact of life.

This is a question that interests me because you hit on a couple of the assumptions and theories posited by psychiatrists. My journalistic training doesn’t allow me to question previous findings, so I have to go with the science.

Historically, most DID cases have been traced back to severe emotional, physical and usually sexual abuse occurring before the age of 6. After that age, the human brain has developed enough so that it processes fear in a “normal” way, which is to say differently than does the brain of someone with DID. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however. Chris Costner Sizemore, the subject of “The Three Faces of Eve,” reportedly became a multiple at a much later age after viewing a deceased relative at a funeral. We can choose to take this with the proverbial grain of salt. Though Sizemore’s later autobiographies don’t point to the marker of earlier abuse, she may well have someone inside who doesn’t think she is ready for the story and perhaps never will be. Also, at the point in time when Sizemore was diagnosed, the study of DID was very much in its infancy. Her doctors may well have missed it.

It is also posited that the trauma of the birthing process may cause the brain to split personalities. There doesn’t seem to have been much research on that aspect yet. Given all that, our suspicion is that it was the beating R.D. administered to Carolyn in order to abort Darrell’s birth that may have caused his split because Billy claims he has always existed. Given where the science is right now, that explanation seems plausible to us.

You said in one interview you have a quiet side and then an outgoing personality for partaking in the business world. Myself, I can be very shy or outgoing depending on the situation. No single person is going to be one way all the time unless he or she might have a specific mental illness, like severe depression, for example, being withdrawn, quiet and feeling down all the time. So in a way, does everyone have a bit of DID in them?
Yes. Every person’s brain has the ability to dissociate to one extent of another. We may see this phenomenon in the stories of accident survivors who often report experiencing the sensation of seeing time move in slow motion. The same can be said of those in battle. Dissociation is one of the human brain’s mechanisms for helping keep us safe and sane. In your situation, you are most likely just reading your audience and using what parts of your personality make it easiest either to fit in or to get what you want out of the situation.

You said you’re interested in working on a book about gifted adults. By that, do you mean working children with talents, Mensa eligible children, savants or simply children who are considered wildly intelligent?
I’m using the psychological definition of gifted, though it’s a slippery diagnosis because it keeps changing. Basically we’re talking those in the upper 1-2 percent of the intelligence range by test. The modern definition does stretch that to include working children with talents, the artistic, the creative and, of course, potential Mensa members.

As it turns out, quite a few of my school mates ended up in Mensa. Surprisingly, we have also encountered several Mensa-belonging DID patients. I say surprising because generally the intelligence of someone with DID gets spread between the personalities. That’s what happened in Darrell’s case. He always tested very low on intelligence tests yet he’s one of the brightest men I’ve ever met.

Ok, super wordy question. 🙂 You talked about how you are interviewing people you went to school with. As an observer, and I don’t mean to disregard your opinions of your classmates in any way, I noticed the kids considered hyper intelligent when I went to school were typically not so but people who slaved away studying. It seemed anyone who, in addition to their parents’ demands of joining every club, extracurricular activity and sport known to American families? All they did was memorize material and spit it out like a computer demand.
Ah! Memorization! How schools have changed since I was a kid. I certainly did my time slavishly studying. I was thrust into the Gifted Students Program as it was then called during its infancy. The idea was to keep us from being bored. The only way the administration knew how to do that was to pile us up with work, much more than the average student received. Still, during the Sixties and Seventies when I was in school, we were given the concepts and allowed to work things out for ourselves.

This need for rote memorization is on the Japanese model of education. Sounds like something schools would need to do to “teach to the test” and is likely run-off from G.W. Bush’s discredited “No Child Left Behind” program. It saddens me that our education process has come to that.

When I actually spoke to some of these students or more generally, witnessed other students or teachers talking to them, they could barely hold a conversation. That is, if they spoke, because the only hung out with each other talking nonsense. In fact, they often said really dumb or ignorant things. Therefore, with this overload of truly dumb or mediocre people being classified as smart and possibly, some genuinely brainy kids being tossed into the “slow learners” classes – not my case, but I saw this happen a lot with kids who spoke and wrote with wisdom beyond their years – don’t you think a lot of the problems you mention being within the “intellectual” crowd as teens and later adults, such as anti social tendencies, is really due to our society’s dumb ideals?
This is a hard one because you don’t really provide me with examples of what you consider “dumb” or “ignorant.”

If intelligent students have a hard time keeping up their end of a conversation, I could easily point to our media-saturated world as one reason. When you measure your success by the number of friends you have on Facebook, how will you ever learn to converse? It could also be that Gifted Students are often anti-social. When I went to the 10th reunion of my highschool class, I was at first surprised that no one else from my pod of friends had chosen to attend. I can’t tell you what it was like at my 20th, but can say that I had the same experience at my 30th reunion. After that experience and after doing a bit of research, I found that it’s a common trait that Gifted people shy away from others, hence my working title, “Tribe of Loners.”

Is this due to our society’s “dumb” ideals? Yes. This is very similar to what DID patients experience. Society tells us that “normal” is one thing, but your brain tells you that there’s a different, better way. In my own case, I’ve always been told by my family that things I want to do have never been done and so therefore it is impossible that they be done at all. “Which One Am I?” is just the latest example. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told people are surprised that I finished it. They were surprised when I published it. They are shocked that we’ve taken it on the road. In order to protect myself from implanting nay-saying voices into my subconscious, I just told tell people what I’m doing until I’ve done it.

That we often wrongfully declare some patch of kids these super beings so they grow up thinking they’re better than everyone else and live the remainder of their personal and professional lives with sickening elitism, so this in turn promotes sticking to themselves because no one else is good to hang out with? And not saying this applies to you at all but the others you mention, as 90 percent of the “intellectuals” really aren’t, in my experiences.

It’s not at all that others aren’t good enough to hang out with. Really it’s just about seeking out your own tribe. This is most visible amongst adolescents. You know as well as I do that teens always need a group, a pod or a tribe of like-minded individuals. As was Darrell’s experience, the loner is never alone because he or she wants to be.

We even do this in adulthood. Think of the phenomenon that is Fox News. Have you been around these people? Have you watched the channel? The network is constantly telling it’s viewers that their prejudices are fears are correct. “Is the President a Muslim?” Yes! “Is the government coming to take away my guns?” You betcha! “Is it okay to be a beer-swilling know-nothing who protests government intervention while holding up a sign that says ‘Keep Your Government hands off my (government-funded) Medicare’?” Absolutely! Fox Viewers are a tribe unto their own. They are called The Tea Party.

What have people been telling you, good and bad, about the book you co-wrote with Darrell? Is it constructive criticism? When people love the book, what do they love most in the story?
We were never shy about sharing our book from the earliest versions to the published work. As you might imagine, we’ve received a whole lot of criticism, both good and bad. Some of it didn’t surprise me. “Which One Am I?” was never intended to be a best-seller. I discovered early on that the average American reads at an 8th Grade level. After that I looked at the New York Times Best-Seller list and found authors I would never want to emulate: Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele. I’ve read them – or at least tried to – and always end up feeling the author is insulting my intelligence. “Which One Am I?” is intended for those DID caregivers like me and for new students coming up who have only “Sybil” as reference. While “Sybil” was fine for its time, we felt an obligation to bring its 50-year-old science up to date.

A few Beta readers wanted me to take out all the science and psychological history and just tell Darrell’s story. That would have been the easy way to write it, but it really wasn’t what we wanted to do. We needed to put Darrell’s life into historical perspective. We were really intent on explaining not just what it was like to live with DID but also both how his DID came about in the first place and, most importantly of all, why. The answer to “why” was something missing from every other DID memoir we read.

As a journalist by training and trade, I tried my best to stay out of the story. It because evident about half way through that that wasn’t going to be the case. In order to give readers what they would want – which was to see the kids inside in action – we had to give them something of the present and Darrell’s present life includes me.

Towards the end of “Which One Am I?”, I admit to giving up trying to be the objective journalist. Besides, Darrell’s experiences and what we were discovering about his family history had made me re-think my own experiences and history. If Darrell’s life story had that impact on me, what impact could it have on others? People seem to be liking most the story of Darrell and me. “This is a love story,” our friend Mary Barnick wrote in her introduction. That’s the first time I’d heard anyone say that and, though I’ve been told that several times since, I’m still embarrassed by it. It seems that I’ve failed in my quest to tell Darrell’s story objectively, but I’ve succeeded in something I never saw coming.

One Comment

  1. Hi Nicole,

    Just a quick update to your question about Darrell changing accents. The Italian got identified during the last few days. She turns out to be a very young girl who calls herself Piatro (pronounced Pee-Ah-Tro with with accent on the second syllable. Piatro doesn’t know how old she is, but from her actions I’d say she’s a preschooler.