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Friday, September 13, 2013

Dear Jeannie: Emotional Trauma and Dissociation

Dear Jeannie,

Callie was raised by humans in San Francisco during the California gold rush. Callie's father spent his days panning for gold and her mother was a very cautious laundry woman who spent a lot of time teaching her children the basics of self defense. Callie's family (including her three younger brothers) were killed by gunslingers when she was six. She, in a moment of terrified panic, killed said gunslingers with a hatchet, leaving Callie the only survivor. She was informally adopted by Alfred and is moved to New York City, where she learned that she had an older brother in Texas. Callie and her brother eventually got in touch through letters and became good friends before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Her brother  joined the Confederate army and Callie was ordered to enlist in the Union army alongside Alfred no matter what she had to do. Despite this, Callie and her brother make an effort to keep writing to each other throughout the war. What kind of emotional baggage might she be carrying?

Stressing in the States

Dear Stressing,

By far the most traumatic thing mentioned is that her family was killed by gunslingers and that she then killed them with a hatchet. Hel-lo, Lizzie Borden. Major trauma. And at 6 years old, too. Very impressionable age. She might well have to mentally repress this in order to continue to function. I can only imagine the amount of blood she saw. So insert her into a war, and this could bring flashbacks. Also learning that she still has family left, even if she never has met her brother...this could be something she latches on to...some semblance of belonging, however meager or thin. Anyway...hope this helps. Thanks for writing in.

Dear Jeannie,

I have some further questions about Dissociative Disorders. Can my character Charlie be aware of other identities he has, but not know them other than what the doctors have observed and reported? Then, his true identity - Brian, married to Susan with four daughters across the Atlantic - is just buried so deep that it hasn't found a trigger? As an undercover he'd want to bury it, right? What about Mary/Susan? Is it possible she could remember her actual childhood, but be stuck in the adult cover of childless Mary and Nick, and not remember Brian's name, or their daughters?

Splitting Hairs in Alaska 

Dear Splitting Hairs,

People's experience with dissociation is as varied as people are. I've worked with several individuals over the years, and they all have different stories. One woman had other personalities within her that she was unaware of until she would read journal entries she wrote while in that altered state (incidentally, in a completely different penmanship). One woman knew exactly how many alters she had, and they communicated "within" her, for lack of better words. People who have split personalities (as it used to be called and I find actually rather an apt description) may well remember their childhood as in tact (meaning all the personalities have the same memories of the same childhood). You're adding an additional fictional later of the undercover agent storyline, which would further complicate things in a reader's mind, I feel sure (b/c I'm a bit fuzzy on it), but it also opens up possibilities to you that may well could suspend reader disbelief. I wish you the best on this intriguing idea!

Got questions of your own? Leave them in the comment section, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle, and I will post my answers in next week's column.