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Response to Book Review in May 2005 issue of Inside Out: A Note on Dissociation

by John Rowan

On reading the review of Philip Mollon’s (1996) book on dissociation by Mary de Courcy (No.44) I was struck by the way in which the emphasis was always on the abnormal nature of the condition.  The author of the review writes all the time only about Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder, which are of course psychiatric classifications, and goes on to mention “working with dissociative disorders”.

This very powerfully suggests that dissociation is abnormal.  The author tells us that it always comes from trauma. The emphasis is on the strangeness, the abnormality, the difference from the everyday experience of people like us.

There is no acknowledgement in any of this that subpersonalities are quite normal features of the psychological landscape, and that most of us (certainly including me) have them.  Nor is there any link with the other common features of dissociation – dreams, moods, absorption in a book or TV programme, hypnosis and other altered states of consciousness.

In 1990 appeared my own book on subpersonalities, and since there there have been many others from many different sources all saying that subpersonalities are quite normal and expectable.  The latest thinking (Hermans & Dimaggio 2004) even says that the whole normal personality is dialogical in nature, and obviously there has to be more than one person to have a dialogue!

It obviously makes a difference to our whole conception of the human  psyche whether we think of it as usually single or usually plural.  The book I co–edited with Mick Cooper, and which appeared in 1999, is entitled The Plural Self, and in it a number of different authors, from psychiatry, psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology, family therapy and so forth, all concur in the basic thought that multiplicity is normal.

It seems to me a pity that people writing about dissociation should be so dissociated from all this.  Of course I am not saying that dissociation at the psychiatric level is a light matter or not to be taken seriously: all I am contending for is that we recognise the truth that we are naturally many, and that psychiatric dissociation is only one distorted manifestation of this.  It is not strange or bizarre – it is just an exaggeration of something most of us are familiar with.  Herman Hesse (1975) has written a very fine literary account of how this works in many of us, and literature abounds with stories in which multiplicity features as an essential part of the narrative.

And in therapy the idea is well known, whether we look at the subpersonalities of Assagioli (1975), the ego states of Berne (1972), the internal persons of Perls (1975), the personifications of Hillman (1975), the potentials of Mahrer (1989), or any other of the many approaches which have a place for that.  All these approaches deal with people who are as normal as you or me.  There is nothing that weird about dissociation as such, and I believe it is wrong to suggest that it is grossly abnormal, and is only to be found in the psychiatric ward.  Perhaps we could handle it better if we admitted that we have a bit of that in us, too.

These thoughts are intensified when we hear that in Mollon’s book the final chapter is entitled “Reflections on evil: The mystery of deep perversion”.  This apparently links dissociation with “pornography, child sexual abuse and satanic rituals”.  It really does seem that people who go into the field of dissociation tend to dissociate themselves from the rest of us who are dealing with a wider range of distress.  Another recent example is the article by Maggie Senior (2004), which deals with the subject at much greater length, but still comes up with the same disconnection from the normal range of things.

John Rowan is an international figure i the field of humanistic and integrative psychotherapy. His publications are widely acclaimed. He continues to work in private practice together with his international consultancy work.


Assagioli, Roberto (1975) Psychosynthesis   London: Turnstone Press

Baumgartner, P & Perls, F S (1975) Gifts from Lake Cowichan and Legacy from Perls  Palo Alto: Science and Behaviour

Berne, Eric (1972) What do you say after you say hello?   New York: Grove Press

Hermans, Hubert J M & Dimaggio, Giancarlo (2004) The dialogical self in psychotherapy  Hove: Brunner–Routledge

Hesse H & Bradac J (1975) Treatise on the Steppenwolf   London: Wildwood House

Hillman, James (1975) Re-visioning psychology   New York: Harper & Row

Mahrer, Alvin R (1989) Experiencing   Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press

Mollon, Phil (1996) Multiple selves, multiple voices: Working with trauma, violation and dissociation  Chichester: Wiley

Rowan, John (1990) Subpersonalities: The people inside us  London: Routledge

Rowan, John & Cooper, Mick (1999) The plural self: Multiplicity in everyday life  London: Sage

Senior, Maggie (2004) ‘Dissociation: Concepts and practice issues’  The British Journal of Psychotherapy Integration  1/2  22–33

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