Why I Wrote a Character with DID (Dissociative Identity/Multiple Personality Disorder)

I started writing Whatever Happened to Maxwell, Charlie? in 2012. That’s what the timestamp of my first manuscript says. I finished writing it in 2016, finished editing it in 2019 and that is when I began querying. Novel-writing is a very slow process. When I started this novel, it was a couple of short stories. I fell in love with the main characters in those stories and I felt like they could live on if I kept going with them. I wasn’t ready to let them go.

The stories, I will admit, are based on true events from my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. However, I have never formally met, nor did I ever intimately know anyone diagnosed with DID. But still I wanted to tell a story where the love interest of the main character had to be divided mentally somehow, have a source/reason behind frequent memory loss, change immensely over a short period of time, in multiple ways over the course of his life with little explanation for these changes. In short, I wanted to write three different men inside of one individual. I wanted the main character to lament his “multiple personality”.

So, in 2012, when I had the idea for the novel, I began researching the validity of multiple personality disorder, where we were with the illness, how it was being diagnosed, how it was or if it was no longer stigmatized. Like most, the only understanding I had of the illness came from movies like Sybil (who had later come out as having faked the illness) and other stories where the person did not appear to be a genuine human being but rather, a monster.

Before I wrote the novel, I was watching a show called United States of Tara. A Showtime comedy-drama about a woman diagnosed with DID, with a heart, and a real life. A high-functioning wife and mother, who still had immense difficulty controlling the actions of her alters. It was refreshing and might have been the ultimate push to write that novel.

It also inspired me to find people who suffered from the illness and strike up a dialogue with them. For the sake of their privacy I will only say that there are certain online forums where people can go to share their stories and talk either with other survivors or if they are feeling generous people curious about the disease.

I found this information invaluable, and it reinforced the idea that I would be writing about a person with an illness they had very little control over. I would be writing about the trials they encounter, the actions that may or may not villainize them, and even attempt to discover the motivations, if any, behind these actions. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

Some of these individuals shared an issue that comes up quite frequently in the movie Split, that while they require and insist on a need for therapy, it can be next to impossible to see any real progress. The therapist character in Split and the therapist character in Whatever Happened to Maxwell, Charlie are quite different. While one is earnestly trying to help her patient, even to her own detriment, the other is flippant, accusatory and distrusting. And to not disclose the ending of either, I will not explain why.

But more often, those individuals I talked to experience the latter. They couldn’t even get to the point of confusion before they hit the barrier of stigma. In fact, many therapists refuse to work with patients with DID because it’s seen as wasted time. The work that has been done for these patients, reveals that the illness is the result of trauma. The disease itself acts as a coping mechanism, to hide the individual who suffered the trauma behind other individuals more capable of handling it. The trauma these individuals experience usually occurs in childhood. So, it stands to reason that inside of most DID patients is a terrified and traumatized kid.

Getting to that child in order to heal them can be difficult, depending on how protective the other alters are of him. It is alluded to the fact that the character from Split does in fact have this child personality, and if paid close enough attention parental figures who protect him. It stands to reason also that the more personalities an individual expose, the more barriers there are to treat the actual person with the disease.

Portraying individuals with DID in the media often leans on the active personalities who tend to make poor decisions. Actions that the central personality would not dare commit. This can be exciting, albeit terrifying to watch, and unfortunately is only one side of the coin.

In Whatever Happened to Maxwell, Charlie the desire for the alter ego to exist supersedes any willingness the original personality must exist.  Again, to not spoil the book, I will just say that the idea behind why someone would choose to become someone else and not who they are can be an intellectual and emotional struggle that lives in all of us. Therefore, it is something we can see ourselves doing if need be. How often do we put on a facade in certain professional situations in order to be successful? How diligently did we work in adolescence to shed our awkward teen years before we became the adult, we dreamed of one day becoming?

What if we did have the “power” to become anyone of our choosing? Especially on those days we don’t feel so hot about who we are? Obviously, a mental illness isn’t that simplistic. But it doesn’t hurt to explore the idea that identity crises we face could easily get out of hand if not tempered. And even so, should we temper them?

Much of Whatever Happened to Maxwell, Charlie focuses on the troubled interpersonal relationships that exist between those with the illness and those without who struggle to understand or even become intimate with them. It addresses the anxiety and depression that can be the result of the trauma that can come to those individuals as a result of interacting with the DID patient. It points to the types of a relationships that would force an individual to feel tied to the patient emotionally, rather than to leave them in the dust.

Ultimately, the patient in Maxwell, Charlie is never violent and never has the desire to be. But can still irrevocably damage the emotional and mental state of the person they are closest to. In that way, they can appear to be a villain, even if they are not intentionally trying to cause harm. We might even at some point find ourselves rooting for someone with DID, if we can relate to who they are as people, and the choices they make. What if they even begin to see some progress?

I think the movie Split teases you with the idea that it is going to address this condition with sensitivity. I don’t think saying this will spoil the movie, but it does not. Nevertheless, this article is tagged with spoilers for those who had not yet seen the movie.