Podcast: Robert Oxnam and His Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder
From the outside, Robert Oxnam (19:51) had it all. He was successful in high school and college, earned a PhD, had a thriving career, and was married with two children. What was completely hidden from everyone was the inner torment he was experiencing.
In 1990, Robert was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), a condition associated with post-traumatic stress due to severe physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during early childhood.
Robert and Trevor discuss his initial denial of his diagnosis and how over time, Robert came to realize that his eleven identity states could interact to overcome the painful memories of his childhood abuse—from being held over a pot of boiling water to being locked in an ice box.
Robert turned to art-making as a creative outlet and now is a successful sculptor, painter, photographer, and author. Robert also speaks openly about his illness and the abuse that caused it, hoping to inspire others to feel as if they are not alone.
Trevor: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you. I wasn’t paying attention. Hi. What? Two weeks? It’s been two weeks already? Oh my gosh. That flew by. God. I need more sleep. I’m in my new apartment. I have my cat back with me. I can’t tell you, even though I’m about to tell you, I’m about to tell you how great it is to finally have a place of one’s own after a year. I mean, the effects are immediate, was feeling better. I didn’t have money right away to get my meds, so it was a little rough over the weekend. But I managed to pick them up the other day and I’m already feeling better. But yeah, just being in the home, recreational cannabis use, down; eating like crap, down. That is the thing that I’m looking forward to the most is cooking again. It’s going to be great.
On today’s episode, we have a gentleman named Robert Oxnam. This was very moving interview for me. I didn’t know much about Mr. Oxnam. Other than that, he was a really big deal. This is from Wikipedia. Let me give you a little background on him.
Robert Oxnam was the president of the Asia Society for over a decade, from ‘81 to ‘92. The Asia Society, America’s leading public education institution on all aspects of the Asia Pacific Region, grew rapidly under his direction to encompass corporate, contemporary and cultural programs concerning over 30 Asian countries with a New York headquarters and offices in D.C., Los Angeles, Houston, and Hong Kong.
Since the 1990s, Oxnam has often acted as a lecturer for prominent Americans seeking in-depth knowledge of China, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and former president George H. W. Bush and Mrs. Barbara Bush.
In 2005, he published his unusual ... Ugh, I have such a problem with that and you’ll hear that in the interview, unusual. In 2005, he published his unusual memoir, A Fractured Mind. In recent years, Oxnam has embarked on an artistic career making weathered wood sculptures and doing macro lens photography of glacial rocks. That is really cool, in my opinion. That is not Wikipedia saying that. That is me saying that.
One of the main reasons, Oxnam was here for the interview is that he suffers from DID. We go into that in detail. I want to let you guys know about halfway through his interview, there is a pretty brutal description of child abuse. I think out of all the interviews that I’ve done so far, it was this moment that I think has bothered me the most. It’s brutal. For those of you out there who have triggers when hearing details about child abuse, I’m giving you a warning. You know what? I’m giving anybody a warning. That section of the interview is rough.
The next thing I’m going to talk about, I’m going to apologize in advance if I get pretty emotional over this because this news pushed me to my limit regarding the topic of suicide and I want to talk about it.
Keith Charles Flint, September 17, 1969 to March 4th, 2019 was an English vocalist, dancer and motorcycle racer. He was a founding member of the electronic dance act, The Prodigy. Starting out as a dancer, he became the front man of the group and performed on the group’s two UK number one singles, Firestarter and Breathe, both released in 1996. Flint was born in Redbridge, London, to Clive and Yvonne Flint. His childhood was described as unhappy and he feuded with his parents who parted when he was young.
Flint was described as being a bright boy with dyslexia and was disruptive in class. He was expelled from school at the age of 15. Flint then worked as a roofer and later enthusiastically embraced the acid house scene of the late 1980s.
Ugh, this is where it starts to get ugly. Flint had a tattoo across his stomach of the word inflicted, a reference to a lyric in Firestarter. Flint was notoriously difficult on transatlantic flights. On one occasion, he had to be restrained from kicking down the door of the cockpit. Prior to his marriage, Flint suffered from an addiction to prescription painkillers. On March 4th, 2019, just after 8:10am, Essex police were called to Flint’s home in the North End, near Great Dunmow, Essex. I’m sorry if I pronounced that incorrectly. They showed up in response to concerns for his welfare. Flint was pronounced dead at the scene and the police did not treat the death as suspicious. It was later confirmed at an inquest into his death that he had died as a result of hanging.
Those that know me well know that I really love music. I love all kinds of music. But my first love is electronic music. Most people, a lot of ... not most people. A lot of people, they like to dance to it. Me, I just love listening to it. It calms my brain. Sometimes the 4/4 beat or the break beat, it brings order to my thoughts and my brain. It gives me a rhythm that I can think to because my own rhythm, my brain is, it’s like an Ornette Coleman album. If anybody has ever heard Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman, you’ll understand what I mean. Nothing against that album, but it’s insanity.
It was in the mid-’90s when my good friend Chris, who later become my DJ partner, he introduced me to Left Field and Global Communications. From there, it was just all downhill. Then I got into Underworld and Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin and then it’s been off to the races.
Once I graduated college, I actually became a club DJ. I did that on and off for about 13, 14 years. Nowhere big, small little dance clubs and house parties in the New Hampshire, Maine area. One gig down in Boston. The club was really cool. It’s now closed. For a short period, we had a little following and we’re lucky, management most of the time let us play what we wanted. It was really fun. Electronic music, it just means a lot to me. Where my film career never took off, my hobby deejaying, I did well at and I always try to make sure it was a hobby. I needed a hobby that I can just enjoy, and that was deejaying electronic music to me.
The Prodigy, I liked the prodigy. I owned a couple of their albums. I have a couple of 12-inch remixes of them. I wasn’t really into them, but I will admit that they were a gateway to other electronic acts. For that, I appreciate that. I mean, I’m sure, they might not appreciate being referred to as a gateway, but I hold them in very, very high regard. Then there’s a couple of songs by them that I will always, always love.
When the prodigy started, Keith Flint was hired as a dancer. Unfortunately, when you need to break into the American markets, at least in the ‘80s or ‘90s, rock and roll still ruled. The concept of needing a front man was necessary and having a face to your band. Well, that’s not what electronic music was all about. The Europeans and the Japanese, they seem to be okay with it, but America, the business behind, or at least it was then, I think it’s changed a lot now, is that you need somebody to front the group, you need a face.
Eventually, Keith moved up to vocalist and did those tracks, Firestarter and Breathe, which were big hits for them. I don’t know if you knew they were going to go back out on tour this year. They were going to play the Glastonbury Festival and then Keith killed himself a couple of weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my head. I just can’t. I don’t know why. I mean, there have been other artists who I love, maybe that were even closer to me that have killed themselves, but there’s something about Keith Flint. Maybe it just crossed the line for me, but I am so broken over this.
Listen, I’m getting tired of hearing people in the news, people even around me that say that suicide is a selfish act. I’m getting really sick of it. First of all, I’m going to placate your ego. You’re correct. It is. It is. I am not going to deny that. Suicide is a selfish act, okay? But what a lot of people refuse to understand is that when you’re going to commit suicide, imagine you’re underwater and you’re drowning, okay? If you’re drowning, what are you going to do? You’re going to struggle to get back above the water so you can breathe.
What leads people to suicide is that they’re underwater. They’re at the point, they’ve struggled enough, they’ve thrashed, they’ve tried to get above the surface, and they can’t, and you’re about to drown and it hurts. It hurts a lot. If anybody has held their breath underwater for a really long time, you know that there’s a point where you got to get up and breathe. Okay? When you’re about to commit suicide, you can’t get up and breathe, you can’t. It’s not won’t, you can’t, okay? You have three options.
Number one is the rare one. Number one is that you grab on to a helping hand. That’s if you’re lucky enough to have a helping hand. You have people that love you and people that are there for you. That’s number one and that’s rare. Number two is that you get out by yourself. You somehow managed to do it. You pull yourself out of it, and that is hard. That is so hard. I’m talking from experience, it’s really difficult. The third one is, I don’t have a helping hand, I can’t get to the surface on my own, this hurts so, so much. What can I do to get the pain to go away? What can I do to stop it?
You’re right. I’m not thinking about the effect it’s going to have on my family. I’m not thinking about the effect that it’s going to ... Well, that’s not true. One thing that pulled me out of it was I was like, “Who’s going to feed my cat?” Really, I mean, really. Oh, that stupid cat has saved my life more than once. But I get it, part of me wishes I didn’t get it because to understand it, to have been there, to know it, I don’t know. Part of you goes away and you’re never going to get it back. I’m so heartbroken over this.
Folks, there are options. You might not think there are options, but there are. About a year and a half ago, before I moved back from San Diego to the Boston area, I was broke. I mean, poor. All I could do was get enough money to pay my rent, feed my cat, and feed myself. I didn’t have money for anything else, nothing. I couldn’t even afford my meds. I was in a very, very dark place. I couldn’t afford therapy.
With the recommendation of a friend, I called the crisis hotline. Now it was hard to do that. It’s embarrassing. You’re desperate and you’re going to call this person and they’re going to save my life. I don’t know. There are probably a few more instances in my life where I should have called a crisis hotline but I had too much pride, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s just embarrassing. Then the process is very difficult. If you’re trying to get meds, and understandably so like I had to go downtown and I had to sit in a room with a lot of people who are in a lot of pain and are in a lot of trouble and aren’t ... they’ve been dealt a real shit hand. You go into a room and you get grilled on ... Yeah, it does feel like a grilling, but I do get it. They’re going to give me meds for free. I get it. I got my meds and it was what I needed to finish the process of packing up and coming home.
I get it, folks. There’s a lot of you, there might be some of you listening right now that are suicidal and you don’t have any options. You feel like you don’t have any options. You hear the words crisis hotline and you just turn your back to it. I get it. I totally get it, it sucks. It’s terrible process, but it’s one of the only ones and I promise you it works. It works. I’m living proof of it. It works. Listen to the information I’m about to give you.
One group you could call or text are the Samaritans and that’s at 877.870.HOPE or 877.870.4673. Now you can call or text that number for help. There’s also the National Suicide Prevention lifeline. That number is 800.273.8255. That’s 800.273.8255. There’s a special National Suicide Prevention lifeline that’s in Spanish. That number is 888.628.9454. Again, 888.628.9454. For the deaf and hard of hearing, 800.799.4889. Again, 800.799.4889. Veterans Crisis Line, 800.273.8255. Again, 800.273.8255 or you can text them at 838255 again, text them at 838255 and finally, Disaster Distress Hotline.
Hey, you lose a house in a storm. Not just a house. Maybe you lost a family member and your house burned down. There’s a fire. Maybe you lost a pet, that can push people a pretty far distance. The Disaster Distress Hotline, 800.985.5990. 800.985.5990.
I am just torn up about the death of Keith Flint. He wasn’t well known but he did something for me, in my life, that at the time I needed. I needed this music. This music, it does more than bring me joy. It does more than make me want to move my legs and dance and makes me ... It does more than just sit ... just calms me down. It helped me discover this whole new art form that I love so dearly. I mean I love it all. Chillwave, ambient, trance, house, progressive house, like all of it. It just means so much to me. To hear that one of its pioneers killed himself at 49 just before they are going to embark on a huge worldwide tour. Huge.
I mean I saw the ads on my social media of the people commenting, people were excited. They were going to play Glastonbury. Like that’s no joke. Now Keith Flint is dead and I’m so angry about this and I’m so angry about people talking about how selfish it is because it’s so much more than that. Please, can you just allow it to be complicated? Can you do that? Yeah, you’re right. It’s selfish and you’re hurting people in the process and maybe you’re leaving a kid to fend for themselves. I know it’s terrible. It’s not good. But people commit suicide. They don’t deserve the damnation for their choice. I’m not asking you to agree with me. I’m just asking you to accept that it’s just more complex than any of us know. Until you know, you don’t. You don’t.
Okay. Robert Oxnam, really good interview. I got a lot out of it. Again, halfway through, kind of a dark area, proceed with caution. But other than that, I hope you enjoy.
I see from your artwork and unfortunately, the listeners can’t see this, but I see a lot of Asian influence. Are you consciously working that into your artwork?
Robert: You know, consciously, it’s a ... and the funny thing, the more I found out about art making and it’s only been a few years that I’ve been doing it. I’ve been a sculptor for about 15, 20 years, but works on paper, it’s been only in the last two or three years.
Trevor: I see it in the color palette. I see it in your choice of colors.
Robert: What you’re looking at is also Chinese calligraphic paper which is, an ancient thing. The Chinese making of paint and grinding of ink and so that tradition, yes, that’s part of it.
Trevor: Do the colors soak and therefore ... Do they take a different kind of tint when they hit that paper?
Robert: Yeah. It’s interesting. If you take ink onto a dry calligraphic paper, it will begin to make a little pattern. But if you wet the area, it will go off and make all kinds of patterns on its own. It’s almost like the calligraphic paper, you’re going to go, “Go ahead. Make me a beautiful work of art.” It does take some work from the artist, but it’s a remarkable thing.
Trevor: Does that give you anxiety when the color goes on in its own direction?
Robert: One thing I found out about becoming an artist, it’s true probably of every enterprise, but that you have to learn to accept your place in all of this.
Trevor: Absolutely not. I refuse to accept. Absolutely not—
Robert: There are geniuses who have been there forever—
Trevor: No. No.
Robert: But there are a few people that we—
Trevor: My way or the highway.
Robert: Oh my God. What I find is you see the finished works here. For each one of them, it’s probably 1 of 10 that I’m even a little satisfied with. So, it’s a—
Robert: Yeah, and if you really got satisfied and arrogant, then you produce bad work. That’s what I tell myself.
Robert: But it’s been a trip and I’ve worked with an Australian artist for the last year and a half and his name’s David Rankin, now lives in New York. But he saw some of my sculpting work and he said, “Why don’t you do works on paper?” and so I began to study with him. He is an abstract artist and he really set me on a path and taught me a lot about inks and how to grind inks, but also how to mix inks with water, the right amounts and all of that. It’s great to have a ... Look, we both met, actually, we both had been separately in accidents and we were in a therapy place and we were right next to each other.
A nurse came in and said, “Well, the guy next to you is an artist.” We got talking there of aches and pains and all that stuff. Suddenly, it ... He loves Chinese art, loves Japanese art so we had the same thing in mind and it just came alive.
Trevor: What was your responsibility for Asia and America? What were your responsibilities between those two?
Robert: In terms of relationship between Asian countries—
Robert: Americans, certainly, back in that period and when ... The Asia Society was founded by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956. He was someone with a real vision of what the future ought to be. Because he had gone to Asia a lot and he was flabbergasted that most Americans knew nothing about it and if they knew something about it, it had to do with war like Vietnam. He gave an impetus for getting underway with Asian art, different places from performing arts of Asia. Then over time into programs of contemporary interest for a larger public on relations between United States and China or United States and Japan or the emergence of a Pacific community, all of that.
My responsibility was to oversee that or continue the legacy of Mr. Rockefeller and to bring together a really top-flight staff, which we were able to do in the 1980s and 1990s, and begin having programs not just in New York but around the U.S., but more and more programs in Asia itself.
Trevor: How did that translate? Because there’s one thing that I learned is that there’s looking at China through a Western point of view, which not always the best way to look at it. You have to adapt to what their point of view is culturally, which is something that you have to communicate as well. Were you able to do that?
Robert: I think so for a lot of people. Some people just came for a program or two and the transformation of their thinking was minimal. But for a lot of people, they began in the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, began thinking about, okay, let’s go on vacation to Asia.
Robert: Or let’s start collecting Asian art if you had that kind of money, or let us set up new business practices around Asia. In many ways, the personal linkage between Asians and Americans began to flourish in that period. Now, it wasn’t the majority of the population but for a significant minority, it was and I think we played a role in that.
Trevor: I want to move on to something. I want to bring in your diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. Do you remember what year it was when you were diagnosed?
Trevor: What year was that?
Trevor: 1990. In retrospect, could you see it in yourself? Could other people see it in you leading up to 1990 when you were specifically diagnosed? Can you see that it was always a part of you?
Robert: Actually, I didn’t see it until 1990 in any kind of precise way. I knew that on the outside, things looked like they were going very well. The Asia Society, I was president until 1991 from 1979 on. In that period of time, I got involved in all of the programs that I just reported to you. But in that same period, it’s when I began drinking a lot. It’s a period of time in which I would work hard and then leave the workday and go to places like Grand Central Station and go off in a corner and just shake in the corner for an hour or two.
Trevor: Would you drink, because I know you can drink in Grand Central?—
Trevor: They put it in a brown paper bag and you can sit there and drink.
Robert: How do you know this so well?
Trevor: Because you see it all over Grand Central—
Robert: Okay, anyway. Yeah—
Trevor: I’ve done it once.
Robert: There are little corners of Grand Central Station where you can sit with a bag but you’re there with a bunch of other guys who are bag men who live there.
Trevor: I mean this may be reaching, but there’s all sorts of corners of life where you can go and hide into. I mean, I’ve done it myself—
Robert: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Trevor: We’ve talked about I told you I have borderline personality disorder, severe depression. I mean I can’t tell you how many places I’ve hid and numbed myself with alcohol and drugs and stuff like that. I understand.
Robert: The only thing I add into that was cigarettes.
Trevor: Oh yeah, I’m sorry, boss. I’m back smoking again after eight years. Yeah.
Robert: Get off it.
Trevor: I know.
Robert: Get off.
Trevor: It never goes away.
Robert: The one thing about it is yes, it does.
Trevor: It does?
Robert: It just goes away faster for people who smoke.
Robert: That is a how many ... My father died of lung cancer, so I watched it happen.
Trevor: Somebody I’m very, very close with actually just found out last night that her father is diagnosed with lung cancer and went home to him today. It’s rough.
Robert: Well, back to your question about when did I know, I didn’t know until I went to a very good therapist.
Trevor: Did you think you were misdiagnosed at first?
Robert: At first, I went into ... It was kind of hard to be president of the Asia Society and then go off for a month and a half to a place called Edge Hill.
Trevor: I worked for the (bleep) for six years and when they found out I was mentally ill, I was considered a problem. Did that happen to you?
Robert: Well, it happened that I was actually stepping down from the Asia Society at the time that the diagnosis had occurred, which will be much, much harder to have gone through therapy on a two or three times a week and keep running an organization that big. But I did not know though until I was diagnosed and I didn’t even believe it at first. I went running out trying to find books on multiple personality. That’s what we called it back then.
I found some and I read Sybil for the first time and then I started to see parallels in it. The only way I could kind of keep things together was instead of having one single job, I had a bunch of jobs and that allowed me ... Sometimes I had to work very high pace. Other times I got open periods and it was in that period of time that I could begin to think about what was really going on. I had blackouts. There were periods of time, which I can’t remember anything had happened.
One time in China, I got drunk and I didn’t apparently get up for 24 hours. When I got up, I can’t remember what happened and who was there and why. I was even at that particular hotel, I was just losing things from my own memory.
Trevor: Are you a passionate person? Are you generally a passionate person?
Robert: I am, yeah. For me to just kind of back and be isolated, it’s almost unthinkable. But then I recognized that there were other things that were going on but I’d never fully believed the diagnosis for about two or three years. Then, at that point, it was evident that this was full scale DID. By about the same time, it became dissociative identity disorder.
Trevor: Feel free to not answer this if you don’t feel comfortable, but growing up when you were younger, did you feel misunderstood by your parents or people around or teachers or friends? Did you feel that people just didn’t get you?
Robert: I think there were a number in the 1990s, but growing up I didn’t. I didn’t feel that sense of loneliness. I was a kind of super student and wanted to always be number one and all of that. Being a super student doesn’t require brilliance. What it requires is just enormous amounts of memorization and I turned out that—
Trevor: And dedication.
Robert: And dedication and all of that. I took it to an extreme. I mean—
Trevor: Give me an example.
Robert: Okay, here’s an extreme.
Robert: Here’s an extreme.
Trevor: Here we go.
Robert: Do you know anybody else in college who typed all of their notes?
Robert: Every one of them. If you typed all—
Trevor: You wrote your notes—
Robert: If you typed all your notes and pick the key themes from books and put them all together and wait until four years go by at a college, you’ll come out with highest honors. That’s a mnemonic issue. But people, that is strange, don’t you think?
Trevor: Hold on. Maybe I would have thought that was strange in college, but now that I’m older, if that was your process to yield the best grade? No, I don’t find that strange at all. I really don’t.
Robert: But the question is, are you loving the subject or are you loving the grade?
Trevor: Oh, I could have told you, you were loving the grade.
Trevor: Yeah, absolutely. So you wrote down your notes, you went home and then you went through your notes, you figured out what was the best stuff or what’s most likely what’s going to be on the exam, okay. Then you type that up and you filed it in a book for you to look at when you were studying for that exam. Well, I don’t know. Sound smart to me.
Robert: Yeah. It’s kind of wonderfully whacko, don’t you think?
Trevor: I don’t know. I wish I’d done it. I always didn’t take notes and just kind of winged it. But if it was anything besides a film class, I did not care—
Robert: I’ll tell you where that began to thaw was in my graduate school experience because I actually did get to really enjoy Chinese studies and have wonderful professors. This wonderful woman who was 33, no 37, when I first went to Yale and studied Chinese language, my very first language teacher, is now 93. She and I talk almost every weekend in Chinese. She’s now living in the West Coast. I enjoyed that experience enormously. It’s left a whole lifetime of wonderment.
Trevor: When you say Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese?
Robert: Mandarin, I don’t speak Cantonese.
Trevor: I think I found the quote I was looking for. “The DSM-5 elaborates on cultural background as an influence for some presentations of DID.” This is what they have to say. “Many features of dissociative identity disorder can be influenced by an individual’s cultural background. Individuals with this disorder may present with prominent, medically unexplained neurological symptoms such as non-epileptic seizures, paralysis or sensory loss in cultural settings where such symptoms are common. Similarly, in settings where normative possession is common, rural areas in the developing world, among certain religious groups in the United States and Europe, the fragmented identities may take the form of possessing spirits, deities, demons, animals or mythical figures.
“Acculturation ...” Help me.
Trevor: “Acculturation or prolonged inter-culture contact may shape the characteristics of other identities. Possession-form dissociative identity disorder can be distinguished from one culturally accepted possession states in that the former is involuntary, distressing, uncontrollable, or often recurring or persistent.”
Robert: I think one could get overstated with whole cultural approach to it—
Trevor: Yeah, I think that’s a bit overstated.
Robert: Yes, of course. Obviously, this continuum that you have in generation to generation, things passed down. It wasn’t that which really kicked off DID in my experience. I had to wait almost 50 years to find out what had actually happened in the first five years of my life. But it became apparent through sessions with my psychiatrist that indeed, there had been a huge amount of violence aimed at me during the early years. And that’s not cultural, that is physical violence.
Trevor: What years specifically?
Robert: Between ages one and five, but the memory comes back. It was the driving force, I think in much of what you were talking about earlier. The Grand Central Station stuff has its roots in a period in which there was enormous violence. I grew up and I’d found out that there are many others or some others that come from the World war II generation that is, they were born during the war, fathers were actually away.
Other parts of the family became involved in taking care of the kid. If there was anybody who was absolutely cruel in that group, it could be visited upon the child. And it happened to me. With the things that came back through therapy, these had all been kind of scrambled memories and then a therapist can help put it into shapes and boxes that make sense. The original thing was a horror house. I have vowed that I won’t express the names of those who did it and I didn’t even in the book, but—
Trevor: Which we’ll get to, we’ll get to the book.
Robert: The violence, it’s even hard to talk about now. The violence, began with beatings and beatings that occurred fairly regularly, and it was my job to go out and cut the bush. That was going to be me—
Trevor: You had to cut the switch.
Robert: I had to cut the switch. What I didn’t know then to be but it was obvious later was penetration sex when I was probably two and three years old. I remember at least once or twice being held up over boiling water and told that I was going to be dropped in the water and I went screaming. One that actually is the most memorable and gives me enormous claustrophobia is that it was exactly that period in the early ‘40s when people were shifting from old ice boxes to electric refrigerators. Everybody put the old icebox out on the street. Icebox was big enough and it had doors in it. I was put in the ice box. It wasn’t cold, it was just no air and shut. I don’t know how long I was in there.
I screamed and yelled and all of that. And finally, somebody opened it. I don’t remember the person who did, but this is just bloody torture. And torture happens in a lot of societies and it’s not just our own, but it’s kind of rampant and it’s often hidden. In some ways, DID is a very creative response to this. My sense about the origin of DID in my own sense is that it begins very early in life and is often children who have fairly high intellectual attainment, but more than that, who have a kind of resilience who say, “Okay, you’re told that this is going to happen, that this has happened to you because you’re a bad boy.” That’s drilled into you and one part of you just gets crushed. There’s another part that says, “I’m not going to put up with this. That I’m not all bad.” You create a personality that is a good person who you can believe in, who has hope, and the two of them have to work their way through life.
But it begins right there in childhood and it continues out of that. The whole tree of different identities that is DID, I think, emerges from those very early moments and how you respond to it before the child can even say the word respond. But the child recognizes that to stay alive mentally, they’re going to have to create someone else. You bifurcate it and you’ve had the first step towards dissociative identity disorder.
That’s what happened to me. I know that when I read books about DID or people whose suffered from it over years, that’s always a theme in it. That they’re, “When did it actually happen? Why did it actually happen?” I know why it happened.
Trevor: Robert, this isn’t meant to be hyperbole but that might be one of the most self-aware things I’ve ever heard anybody say. I mean, how long did it take you to realize all of that?
Robert: 50 years, 50 years. It was all bubbling down under the surface and the drive was to try to prove myself. That’s why I memorized all that ... I was about to say a bad word, but all that stuff.
Trevor: Oh, you can say it, it’s fine. I say he can say it, it’s fine.
Robert: Okay. But the other side of it is the desire to excel has been just so all-consuming. I wanted to prove I’m not that. So what do I do? My father said ... He used to teach firearms during the war. He said he didn’t want to get near a firearm again, but introduced me to archery. Of course, I couldn’t be happy with archery so I won the club contest. I won the state contest. I became national archery champion, and all of this had to happen. Not because I loved it but because I had to prove it. That’s not the way one should approach academic work or sports in my mind.
Trevor: So with all the accomplishments you’ve had, and you have quite a few, how do you reckon with those accomplishments? How do you not write them off as byproducts of your disorder instead of accomplishments? That’s something that I’m going through right now. I’m going through all my life accomplishments. Right now, I’m in a really strange place where all my accomplishments, what accomplishments I’ve had, they’re all tainted by, this is a byproduct of my mental illness. Obviously, I’m not giving myself any credit.
Robert: You’re right not to give yourself credit and then you’re wrong not to give yourself credit, and both are right. That obviously you have the skills there to do that and you should be proud of it. But if it occurs for you as it did for me, then it’s a kind of lonely way of going off into a place and saying, “I’m going to prove myself so that other people know.”—
Trevor: It’s definitely came from a negative place. Absolutely.
Trevor: And yours did too is what I’m hearing.
Robert: Absolutely, the darkness of all of it. I mean, I remember one time, of course, I got a Phi Beta Kappa key. Of course, my grandfather had a Phi Beta Kappa key that he gave to me and one night I got drunk and I throw both of them in the ocean. That’s how I feel. I still feel that was the right thing to do because ... Maybe my grandfather didn’t deserve that but I did because I was only there because it was a kind of stamp of approval.
Trevor: Did you do any self-harming, cutting, anything like that?
Robert: Not really cutting. I did a lot of banging my head on the wall, beating myself up physically.—
Trevor: Choking yourself?
Robert: Not choking. Some reason I was choking was off limits. I don’t know why but physical pain that I went through that I caused myself was sort of a daily practice in the 1980s. The other side of it was coming back from the Asia Society then get drunk then engage in these things.
Trevor: Did drinking numb it or does drinking make you feel it more? For me, I drank to make myself feel worse, to make myself feel the pain even more. Alcohol makes me more emotional, which is a nightmare. That’s why I don’t drink that much anymore, but that’s why I did it. I drank just to make it feel so much worse.
Robert: I didn’t do it to make myself feel so much worse. I did it as a kind of anesthesia. That I would start drinking after dinner and then drink till 11:00 or 12:00 or whenever I passed out.
Trevor: Did it ever start before dinner?
Robert: Very seldom, very seldom because I had that whole other side of me. Another personality—
Trevor: You had a schedule.
Robert: Yeah, yeah. Oh absolutely.
Trevor: And you stuck to it.
Robert: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Trevor: You got your responsibilities done—
Robert: I joined the Century Club at New York, the Century Club because it made the biggest drinks in town. I mean, so it’s probably three times the average drink, which I’d had three of and that would take care of it.
Trevor: Do you feel like the level that you were operating, the society that you were around, do you feel that that behavior was enabled?
Robert: You know what I felt was the pressure. That’s what I always say. It’s the pressure that I got to let off. But I think in a deeper sense, it was before I even knew that I had all of these different parts it was feeding a dark side and a light side and trying at least to stay stable, which you can’t. Ultimately, you either take your own life, which I tried twice.
Trevor: So you’ve made suicide attempts.
Robert: I’ve made suicide attempts, one of which was the serious one.
Trevor: Yeah. How serious?
Robert: Serious enough to have my wife come home and I was unconscious because I’d taken a whole bunch of pills and had to rush me to the hospital and cleared my stomach and then I was okay. This by the way occurred in the 1970s. I mean, in the 1990s, well after I’d been diagnosed, so that was one. Others, I thought of jumping out the window but I decided not to. Got the foot halfway across.
Trevor: I’m sorry. Where’s your wife again? Is she?
Adriana: She’s not here—
Trevor: She’s not here—
Robert: She’s not here—
Trevor: She’s not here—
Adriana: I should have—
Robert: It’s fine. My wife is also my savior in all this—
Trevor: I thought she was here, I’m sorry.
Robert: No, she’s not. I should mention something since you said—
Trevor: Sure, go ahead—
Robert: Vishakha Desai who was actually on the staff of the Asia Society so we didn’t start dating until I left the position in the early 1990s.
Trevor: She became president eventually of the Asia Society.
Robert: She did become the president of the Asia Society. She is the ultimate answer in my recovery.
Trevor: How so?
Robert: I’ve looked at so many DIDs that the other person doesn’t get enough credit because if you have a partner where it really works, it’s an extraordinarily helpful pattern and understands what you’re going through.
Trevor: Do you feel that you deserve her in your life or no?
Robert: I lucked out, I’m going to put it that way—
Trevor: You lucked out. Yeah, but do you ever feel like—
Robert: Sometimes I’d feel like the burden I place on her is too much.
Trevor: Do you specifically feel undeserving of it?
Robert: Yeah, sometimes, sometimes. She’s a very successful person. She’s the chief advisor to Lee Bollinger at Columbia University, president on all of the global program. She goes around the world all the time. Good news is she collects a lot of extra flight ticket time.
Trevor: That’s nice.
Robert: I fly with her sometimes doggone, yay—
Trevor: Very nice—
Robert: We had to go to Greece this year, that kind of thing. But her name is Vishakha Desai. She’s Indian. That’s the other thing that’s great. I didn’t know that you could have really large families that loved each other. That didn’t hate each other. I’d grown up with that. Her family, she’s one of seven, and it’s such a treat to go off to India with them and they embraced me from the very beginning. It’s an extended family where, yeah, they go through all kinds of troubles but the hatred and the nastiness, I couldn’t believe it. Not there. Zilch.
Trevor: In your a Wikipedia page, there’s a sentence here that I find so strange and indicative of the problem that we have discussing mental illness in general. This line stood out for me. It says, “In 2005, he published his unusual memoir, A Fractured Mind.”
Robert: About the book—
Trevor: Why would it be described as unusual?
Robert: I think that still is in the public imagination. It’s a public way of looking at DID. Anybody who has the DID knows that ... Curious, what was the word?
Robert: Unusual. It’s, in fact, we’re used to being looked at in a way that people may smile in front of you but sometimes make comments behind your back.
Trevor: They couldn’t use the word honest or compassionate. They had to use unusual.
Robert: And it can also be that a male person with DID going public, there haven’t been a lot of books. They’re more female, from Sybil on and I think maybe it was partly that.
Trevor: Did you—
Robert: It may have been that it was professional suicide in the China studies world. I knew that, but I’ve had friends who we did books together and all sorts who won’t talk to me again.
Trevor: Do you feel that releasing A Fractured Mind, by putting that out there, because there seems to be a gender disparity, at least at that time discussing DID, did you feel that it was a threat to your masculinity or your manhood?
Robert: I did it in a very thoughtful way. Vishakha and I approached it in a very ... We knew we were going to take some hits in it, but I thought that it was important to have someone who had this particular kind of background but suffered from DID to just tell the story. In the course of it, I had a very good friend, passed away a few years ago.
Trevor: I’m sorry.
Robert: He as I was writing the book said, “You ought to let each of the identities speak for themselves.” It was a game changer in that most books about DID have been told somewhat objectively or told as if the narrator was always the same person. By letting Bobby and Tommy and Wanda and all have their own voices in it made it much more like, at least how I’ve experienced DID in my own mind. You could take a trip almost literally along with me by reading the book. That’s why I think it may have been described as unusual, partly as a compliment. I’d like to take it that way.
Trevor: You’ve lost, since coming out with your diagnosis, you’ve said you’ve lost friends or?
Robert: Yeah, I have lost friends. The interesting thing is nobody really close to me or my wife or her family has backed away. But there are people who were on the exterior of my life with whom I’ve written articles or that sort of, attended conferences together and thought we were friends. Some of them just closed down altogether. Won’t talk. I’ve seen them in rooms that I walked through. I say hi, there’s no response. I think it’s—
Trevor: No response.
Robert: No response, just looking away, which is by the way a hard thing to put up with when you’ve spent so much time together but I do understand it. I think that a lot of people live in a very old world in which DID is still thought of as MPD, multiple personality disorder, which is seen as a horrible thing. How can anybody be successful if you’ve gone through all of this?
My own story is why you can do that but they didn’t obviously get into the story itself. The former president of the Asia Society, late president of the Asia Society, one day he and I took a subway ride. The book had just come out and he said, “I don’t believe any of it. I never saw any of it.” I think, “Wait a minute. You think everybody with DID walks into every professional association, says, ‘Hi, I have DID’?”—
Trevor: I’ve had people very close to me when I finally tell them that I have BPD, they say no. I’ve had somebody say, “No, you don’t.” Okay.
Robert: You just have to put up with that.
Trevor: I have to put up with it for the rest of my life?—
Robert: You have to. You know what you have to do for the rest of your life is find other people who have shared the same experience and then you can just sort of collectively say, forget it.
Trevor: Robert, what if I don’t like people?
Robert: You’ve got to work on that part.
Trevor: You got to work on that part.
Robert: That’s another show.
Trevor: Ugh, I’ll have you back for that show. How do I learn to like people?
Robert: I actually think a lot of people with DID could be therapists if they wanted to because we’ve all gone through an experience, which is, that’s why we bond with our ... That’s why McLean is so great. It’s because we can all be on the same wavelength.
Trevor: Yeah. I could be a therapist if I wasn’t too busy being my own therapist 24 hours a day. I have one client and it’s me.
Robert: You know you can do both.
Trevor: I can?
Robert: Yeah, you can.
Trevor: That sounds exhausting.
Robert: It’s exhausting but I know a lot of people who are in that business.
Trevor: Let’s talk about art now. When did you make the transition into artist?
Robert: You know, it’s funny. I made the transition into sculptor in the 1990s after I’d left the Asia Society. It was simply because of the fact that we have a place on the north fork of Long Island and it’s on the water that went down after a storm had come through. I saw this nice little piece of wood down there and so I took it back and I like to fiddle with things. I smoothed it out and all of this. And then I went to the hardware store and said, “What kind of paint should I use on this?” The guy looked at me, he said, “You know about milk paint?” I said, “I didn’t know anything about milk paint.”
He taught me that this paint actually is what ... when you go to any place in New England and you see the red barns, milk paint. It’s what the farmers used to use, milk, lime and a pigment. They now package that. I did that in black and I shined it up and then I used natural beeswax and rubbed it all up. Shined even more. People started coming in and saying, “Oh, you’re an artist.” I said, “No, I just did this piece.” But it got me on a track where I did a several, I must’ve done 110 sculptures over the next 10 years.
I ended up saying to myself that, but it’s only a sculptor. I haven’t really become an artist. If you only have ... It’s kind of like Johnny One Note, that that ... I decided with my Australian friend to go into actually trying to be a multifaceted artist and it’s been a wonderful experience because now I can kind of feel I own it. I’ve had a number of exhibitions and it’s always wonderful to have all these people come together and nobody says anything negative about your art right to your face. It’s a kind of warm family thing.
Trevor: I’ll send you a few people that will say negative things about your art to your face.
Robert: Right to my face.
Trevor: Yeah, they’re out there.
Robert: If you could hold them back. It would wreck my whole self-image—
Trevor: Yeah, they’re not good for your self-esteem, let me tell you.
Robert: But anyway, it came out of that. And, but more deeply, I think that the arts are perhaps one of the most important dimensions in handling dissociative identity disorder. I think a problem with a lot of other disorders as well, but what it demands if you’re going to do it right, is that you go through an inner process in which you’re not literally saying but figuratively saying, let me draw on the fact that I have five figures operating on the inside of me. How can we collaborate and do something and actually be able to utilize that in a creative way? It’s a miracle. The beautiful thing about it is I’ve come up, by the way, I found out that shrinks just love long words. I developed long words to impress people in the field.
Trevor: Hit me.
Robert: Okay. People talk about multiplicity, right? So, but I have collaborative multiplicity is ... I mean that was back about 10 years ago in my evolution.
Trevor: How polysyllabic of you.
Robert: Thank you so much. It is very polysyllabic and you meant that.
Robert: Oh, I got it ... Then I found out that collaborative’s kind of good but it’s like sort of sitting around a fire or something and one person has an idea. He goes, it’s very slow. I found out that art is something, you don’t do art slow. You don’t go, “Okay, let me do black here and let me use the large brush here and then ...” You don’t, that’s not going to produce a good piece. You have to find a way in which that flow comes together.
In that sense, I came up, okay, you’re ready for the next one, right? Cohesive multiplicity, now I think that is what? How many different ... That’s eight, right?
Robert: Okay. But I found that once you try to think of putting a brush to paper, you need an idea. You need to have worked your way into that and then you need to let it flow. You need every one of those cylinders firing in order to make it work really well.
Trevor: So what I’m hearing, what I like to hear, is that it doesn’t sound like to me your message or the statement that you need to make is the burning reason behind your art. I find that there are so-called artists out there who have something to say and they use an art form as an avenue to say it. While that’s legitimate art, I feel like the craft or the process of the art gets neglected. It sounds like you’re more caught up in your process as an artist. That’s what I heard. I heard process right there.
Robert: I agree with everything you said except one thing.
Robert: It’s our process. It’s not my process.
Trevor: Explain that.
Robert: You have to open it up and say that you are multiple. You have all of these elements. You have that history. The multiplicity became understandable later on. But the question is, how can you take all of these figures, not all of whom are easy characters to deal with and find a way in which has a common cause. If you can do that and on a very good day, maybe once a month, two times a month, you hit one of those days where risk happens and you’re not thinking about DID, you’re not thinking about trying to show off to somebody else. You’re not overthinking the way in which you use various colors in the palette. What you’re doing is just letting it roll. When that happens, it means all of the cylinders are firing.
It’s our recognition that ... and I’m not alone. There may have been a lot of people I know who are DIDs who have found those ways, lots of different things that they can do but often in creative arts. I think that’s a lesson that maybe is good for people who see themselves as what we pompously with DID has pompously called them singletons and with a little sneer. There’s a lesson we have here that for people who see themselves not as multiples actually have multiple potential within them if indeed they know how to tap it.
Trevor: I’m going to be awake all night thinking about this.
Robert: Which is key. I mean, it’s a thought for anybody who believes that we’re all singular or that if you have three manifestations of God, if you have only that kind of surface way of putting things together that people who go through life and say, “I’m not going to explore the inside of my mind because I know what I’m doing.” Every year I’m invited up to ... I am, by the way, a really mediocre musician. Never listen to my work. It’s awful. Even never listen to all of our work together, we’re awful.
Trevor: What kind of music is it?
Robert: We suck. It’s classical music. I’ve had some of the greatest teachers in the world. They all love talking to me. None of them enjoyed hearing from me. So anyway, I’ve always aspired to this, but if one sees himself or herself as a Singleton and you start saying to yourself, “I can explore these other areas. There’s dynamite out there.”
So I am invited back every year to a retreat in Medomak, Maine. Two-week trip and I’m invited to come and talk to all these great musicians who were learning from Ken Kiesler who’s a just dynamite conducting—
Trevor: I know that name.
Robert: You know Ken?
Robert: He’s a dear friend of mine. He read my book and he said, “You’ve got to come up and talk to my aspiring conductors.” And so I went up and I’ve been going up for the last 10 years and I talk about the creativity that comes from acknowledging your own multiplicity. You don’t have to have DID to recognize that you have separate talents, that you have separate identity spots in your ... but you don’t always deal the same way with your mother that you do with professionals in the ...
I mean, we have different ways of conveying things and yet, we block out the notion that we might have different parts that you could let go. I think most artists that I know that really make it big, one way or another, have had that moment in which they let it go. That letting go, it means you don’t have to have total control in one place over your brain, over your body. The energy that comes out of that is just fantastic.
Trevor: Have you let go?
Robert: I’m better at writing about letting go actually. After I came up with that notion of cohesive multiplicity, I realized that it wasn’t just a lot of different identities up here. It was a question of sharpening the pencil that is saying that they all had a place to fit in that one point. You think of it like a comb. You have these different identities here and they can all focus on one thing and they can all contribute to it. That’s a very humane thing to do to your own brain but it’s also a very creative way to think about the arts in general.
Trevor: Well, I was thinking while you were explaining cohesive multiplicity how it would be hard, but just try to integrate that outlook into my own life if only that that would help me see myself as a complex person. Because a lot of my problem is, is that if I see myself in a singular way or as a simpleton, and that makes it really—
Robert: I said singleton, not simpleton—
Robert: Yes, singleton is different than simpleton.
Trevor: Singleton. It’s really easy for me to write myself off that way or to have a negative outlook on myself. However, if I see myself in multiple ways, I can maybe see that I’m more of a complex person than what I’m dismissing myself as. Does that make any sense?—
Robert: You have the same look that I get from all of these rising conductors? What the hell this has to do with cohesive multiplicity? But by the end of a talk or two what happens is that many of them go back in one way or another. One did it by creating a mapping experiment and said, “I never thought that maybe these different parts of me, all had, were sort of potential identities. What would it mean if I actually tried to do my practice on the clarinet or my practice on the cello in a different way of looking at it?”
And Ken Kiesler said, “You guys here want to be conductors. You want to conduct the whole orchestra. Your job is to almost become people with DID. You’ve got all of those forces, except your job is to make it work and you make it work in a way that produces energy and beauty and actually makes ...” Everybody has heard Beethoven’s Fifth. It becomes boring unless you bring something new, a new kind of energy, a new kind of insight and so forth. I just think that there are ways in which we, who have DIDs, have something to offer people who are singletons.
Trevor: Before we wrap up, Robert, is there anything that you want to promote or plug or anything? Anything new that you have out or?
Robert: No. I’ve gotten to the point ... Yes, if anybody wants to buy my paintings, you can give me a call but ... No, it’s not that at all. What I would like to plug is that there is here at McLean just enormous wealth of information and research that’s going on about dissociative identity disorder among many, many other things. But this is the premier place in the country. I hear it not just when I’m on the campus here, I hear it elsewhere. “Oh, you’re going to McLean, huh.” I think that there are ways in which one can either come here or come with guidance from people here or simply to look for the best psychiatrist and recognize that the problem we’re talking about here is so much more widespread than one would think.
The incidence according to the America Psychiatric Association is incidence of DID is someplace between 1 and 3% of the United States of America. Take the median there and you would have a ... if you had all the people in the country in Maryland, there would be only DIDs or Wisconsin. They’re both roughly the same size. We have to learn a lot about opening ourselves to the problems that have occurred in modern society and of which, identity disorders is a major part. We need to learn that children are sometimes not performing well enough because of things that have happened to them or because of problems they’ve had with family, and that ought to be a much more open part of life.
It’s the hardest part to open but once you do open it, you’re doing one of the most humane things you could imagine. How many years do we have on the planet? How do you use that time best? Partly, it is understanding yourself.
Trevor: Robert, this was an amazing talk. It was really emotional for me too. I learned a lot.
Robert: I enjoyed it.
Trevor: Me too. I want to do it again.
Robert: Oh my God.
Trevor: If you ever come back.
Robert: Yeah, I’d be glad to come back.
Trevor: That’ll be great.
Robert: Anytime. We’ll do the 201 course.
Trevor: Yeah, that’d be great. Robert, thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate it.
Robert: Thank you, my pleasure.
Trevor: Thank you.
All right. What’d you think of that, huh? Google Robert. Check out his artwork. It’s really good. It really is. I’m not just saying that because I had the guy in here and we’re going to be best friends forever. I don’t know. I’d like to be friends with him. He’s a really cool guy.
I love his artwork and take a moment to check it out. I’m going to wrap it up real quick. Kind of had a long intro and spare you guys but we’ll be back in two weeks, two weeks. I hope to see you all, hear you all, see you all, I don’t know. Just come back. Love you guys. Bye.
Oh, and you know what? I mean that. I don’t know you, but I love you. There’s nothing wrong with saying that. Some people don’t have love. Here, take some of mine. Take some. If it’s going to help you get through another crappy day, here. When I say that I love you guys, I mean it. I really do. Take care of yourselves, please. Okay, two weeks.
Thank you for listening to Mindful Things, the official podcast of McLean Hospital. Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. And don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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