Violation and Virtuality: Two cases of physical and psychological boundary transgression and their implications

Allucquere Rosanne Stone Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory Department of Radio-TV-Film The University of Texas at Austin CMA6.118 Austin Texas 78712-1091 Internet:

Copyright (c) 1993 by Allucquere Rosanne Stone. This version may be freely distributed electronically, but may not be reproduced in hardcopy form without permission.


Instructions and Caution

This paper consists of a series of narratives, disconnected and interwoven. I don’t want to simplify the task of keeping them separate, because that goes against the grain of my intent in mashing them together. However, because some readers may find the style too jarring to follow, in this version I have provided some landmarks in the form of horizontal dashed lines (——–). These indicate that a shift in the narrative is just ahead. You’ll find that the shifts obey a simple rule set. Ready?


From a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle:

On July 23, 1990, a 27-year-old woman filed a complaint in Oshkosh, Wisconsin charging that Mark Peterson, an acquaintance, raped her in her car. The woman had been previously diagnosed as having Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). She claimed that Peterson raped her after deliberately drawing out one of her personalities, a naive young woman who he thought would be willing to have sex with him.

Cut to: The municipal building complex in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Outside the courthouse, gleaming white media vans line the street, nose to tail like a pod of refrigerators in rut. A forest of bristling antennas reaches skyward, and teenagers in brightly colored fast-food livery come and go bearing boxes and bags; the local pizza joints are doing a land-office business keeping the crews supplied. The sun is very bright, and we blink as we emerge from the shadows of the courthouse. “Jim Clifford would have loved this,” I comment. “I wonder what the Mashpee courthouse looked like during the trial he was researching.”

“Where’s Mashpee?” my friend asks.

“In New England. The town of Mashpee was originally an Indian village. The Mashpee Indians deeded some land to the settlers, and the settlers eventually took over everything. A few years ago the surviving Mashpee families sued the town of Mashpee to get their land back, claiming that it had been taken from them illegally. When it finally came to trial, the government argued that the case revolved around the issue of whether the Mashpee now were the same Mashpee as the Mashpee then. In other words, were these Mashpee direct descendants of the original Mashpee in an uninterrupted progression.

“So the issue really being argued was, just what in hell is cultural continuity, anyway? Is it bloodline, like the government wanted it to be, or is it the transmission of shared symbols and values, like the view that the Mashpee themselves seemed to hold?

“That’s why I find this trial so interesting, because what they’re arguing here is both similar and different, and what’s happening here both resonates and clashes with the Mashpee case in important ways.”

While we stood in line there were a million and one other things I wanted to add. For example, the idea that personal identity is so refractory is a culturally specific one. Changing your name to signify an important change in your life was common in many North American cultures. Names themselves weren’t codified as personal descriptors until the Domesday book. The idea behind taking a name appropriate to one’s current circumstance was that identity is not static. Rather, the concept of one’s public and private self, separately or together, changes with age and experience (as do the definitions of the categories public and private); and the name or the label tor the identity package is an expression of that. The child is mother to the adult, but the adult is not merely the child a bit later in time.

Retaining the same name throughout life is part of an evolving strategy of producing particular kinds of subjects. In order to stabilize a name in such a way that it becomes a permanent descriptor, its function must either be split off from the self, or else the self must acquire a species of obduracy and permanence to match that of the name. In this manner a permanent name facilitates control; enhances interchangeability…if you can’t have a symbolic identity (name) that coincides with your actual state at the time, then your institutionally maintained or fiduciary identity speaks you; you become the generic identity that the institutional descriptors allow.

Here in Oshkosh, instead of asking what is a culture, the unspoken question is what is a person. We all say “I’m not the person now that I was then,” but as far as not only the government but everyone else is concerned, that’s a figure of speech. In Mashpee exactly the opposite was being argued: whether the disparate lived experiences of individual members of a continually negotiated cultural system or an imagined cultural “unit” converged, through a legal apparatus transculturally imposed, on a unitary fiction, the fiduciary entity called the Mashpee tribe. In this trial, we have disparate experiences of individual social identities having at their focus a physical “unit”, a fiduciary entity called the person, whose varying modes of existence both support and problematize the obduracy of individual identity and its refractoriness to deconstruction.

On this particular day, the first day of what by anybody’s definition could be called the spectacle of multiplicity, everyone is getting their fifteen seconds’ worth, their own little niche in the spectacle as multiplicity and violence get processed through the great engine of commodification just like everything else. Reporters from media all over the world are interviewing everything that moves. There are only so many people available in Oshkosh, and after exhausting whatever possibilities present themselves in the broad vicinity of the municipal complex, in a typical paparrazi feeding frenzy the media begin to devour each other. On the lawn not far from the courthouse doors Mark Blitstein, a reporter for the Oshkosh Herald, a small local newspaper, is grinning broadly. “I was just interviewed by the BBC,” he says.


Cut to New York, 1982. The multiple user social environments written for the large, corporate-owned, for-pay systems betray none of their origins in low culture. They do not contain objects, nor can objects be constructed within them. They are thoroughly sanitized, consisting merely of bare spaces within which interactions can take place. They are the Motel 6 of virtual systems. Such an environment is the CB chat line on CompuServe. It was on the CB chat line on CompuServe that a New York psychiatrist named Sanford Lewin opened an account.

In the conversation channels, particularly the realtime chat conferences such as “CB”, it is customary to choose an online name or “handle” that may have no relationship to one’s “real” name, which CompuServe does not reveal. Frequently, however, participants in virtual conversations choose handles that express some part of their personalities, real or imagined. Lewin, with his profession in mind, chose the handle “Shrink, Inc.”

It does not appear to have dawned on him that the term was gender-neutral until a day not long after he first signed on. He had been involved in a general chat in public virtual space, had started an interesting conversation with a woman, and they had decided to drop into private mode for a few minutes. In private mode two people who have chosen to converse can only “hear” each other, and the rest of the people in the vicinity cannot “hear” them. The private conversation was actually under way for a few minutes before Lewin realized it was profoundly different from any conversation he’d been in before. Somehow the woman to whom he was talking had mistaken him for a woman psychiatrist. He had always felt that even in his most personal conversations with women there was always something missing, some essential connection. Suddenly he understood why, because the conversation he was now having was deeper and more open than anything he’d experienced. “I was stunned,” he said later, “at the conversational mode. I hadn’t known that women talked among themselves that way. There was so much more vulnerability, so much more depth and complexity. And then I thought to myself, Here’s a terrific opportunity to help people.”

Lewin reasoned, or claimed to have reasoned, that if women were willing to let down their conversational barriers with other women in the chat system, then as a psychiatrist he could use the chat system to do good. The obvious strategy of continuing to use the gender-neutral “Shrink, Inc.” handle didn’t seem like the right approach. It appears that he became deeply intrigued with the idea of interacting with women as a woman, rather than using a female persona as a masquerade; rather with becoming a female persona to the extent that he could feel what it was like to be a woman in some deep and essential way. And at this point his idea of helping women by becoming an online woman psychiatrist took a different turn.

He opened a second account with CompuServe under the name of Joan Greene. He spent considerable time working out Joan’s persona. He needed someone who would be fully functioning online, but largely unavailable offline in order to keep her real identity secret. For the most part, he developed an elaborate and complex history for Joan, but creating imaginary personas was not something with which he had extensive experience. So there were a few minor inconsistencies in Joan’s history from time to time; and it was these that provided the initial clues that eventually tipped off a few people on the net that something was wrong. As it turned out, though, Joan’s major problems didn’t arise from the inconsistencies in her history, but rather from the consistencies — from the picturebook-perfect life Lewin had developed for her.


The cult of Isis reached full flower in Egypt at around 300 BCE, in the New Kingdom during the Persian Dynasties. The outlines of this familiar myth are simple: At first there existed only the ocean. On the surface of the ocean appeared an egg, from which Ra, the sun, was born. Ra gave birth to two sons, Shu and Geb, and two daughters, Tefnut and Nut. Geb and Nut had two suns, Set and Osiris, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris married his sister Isis and succeeded Ra as king of the earth. However, his brother Set hated him. Set killed Osiris, cut him into pieces, and scattered the fragments over the entire Nile valley. Isis gathered up the fragments, embalmed them, and resurrected Osiris as king of the netherworld, or the land of the dead. Isis and Osiris had a son, Horus, who defeated Set in battle and became king of the earth.

In his foundational work in abnormal psychology Multiple Personality Disorder, Colin Ross makes the point that the Isis/Osiris myth illustrates the fragmentation, death, healing, and resurrection of the self in a new form. Ross used the Osiris myth as a specific therapeutic model. He maintained that the MPD patient suffered from an Osiris complex, rather than an Oedipus complex. His abandonment of the Oedipus complex as a useful explanatory model stems from his reading of Freud’s interpretation of the case of Anna O. and Freud’s repudiation of the seduction theory following the publication of Studies in Hysteria. Ross’ rationale is partly one of explanatory economy; he points out that the Oedipal model is what hackers would call a kluge — a complex, unwieldy, and aesthetically unsatisfactory patch that has the singular virtue of getting the job done — and that the Osiris model (not to mention the accompanying Isis model which would replace the Elektra complex) provides a much simpler and more elegant explanatory framework for multiple personality.


Joan Green first signed on in 1982 under the handle “Quiet Lady.” She was a New York neuropsychologist in her late twenties. Within the last few years she had been involved in a serious automobile accident caused by a drunken driver. Her boyfriend had been killed, and she had suffered severe neurological damage to her head and spine, in particular to Broca’s area, which controls speech. She was now mute and paraplegic. In addition her face had been severely disfigured, to the extent that plastic surgery was unable to restore her appearance. Consequently she never saw anyone in person. She had become a recluse, embittered, slowly withdrawing from life and seriously planning suicide, when a friend gave her a small computer and modem and she discovered CompuServe.

After being tentatively online for a while, her personality began to flourish. She began to talk about how her life was changing, and how interacting with other women in the net was helping her reconsider her situation. She stopped thinking of suicide and began planning her life. Some time during this period she changed her handle from “Quiet Lady” to “Talkin’ Lady”, celebrating her return to an active social life, at least on the net. She still maintained her personal privacy, insisting that she was too ashamed of her disfigurements and her inability to vocalize, preferring to be known only by her online persona. People on the chat system held occasional parties at which those who lived in reasonable geographic proximity would gather to exchange a few socialities in biological mode, and Joan assiduously avoided these. Instead she ramped up her social profile on the net even further. Her standard greeting was a huge, expansive “HI!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Joan started a women’s discussion group on CompuServe. She also had long talks with women outside the group, and her advice was extremely helpful to many of them. Over the course of time several women confided to her that they were depressed and thinking about suicide, and she shared her own thoughts about her brush with suicide and helped them to move on to more life-affirming attitudes. She also helped several women with drug and chemical dependencies. An older woman confided her desire to return to college and her fear of being rejected; Joan encouraged her to go through with the application process. Once the woman was accepted Joan advised her on the writing of several papers (including one on MPD), and in general acted as wise counsel and supportive sister.

She also took it upon herself to ferret out pretenders in the chat system, in particular men who masqueraded as women. She was not shy about warning women about the dangers of letting one’s guard down on the net; “Remember to be careful,” she said at one point. “Things may not be as they seem.”


Back in Oshkosh, we asked one of the observing psychologists whether there were positive aspects to MPD.

“Well, it can be a way to get attention because of its fashionability in some therapeutic circles. There’s no doubt that Sarah is a person who is not well. But she’s learned to channel her illness so it gets attention. Or maybe she gets attention. But that way of dealing with a psychological problem has its own difficulties. It’s also self-damaging. Part of her way of expressing it is to burn herself with cigarettes. Then her other personalities wonder how she got burned.”

“Is there a possibility that she was acting? To get attention?”

He shook his head, looking thoughtful. “If she was acting, it was a hell of a brilliant job. And if she wasn’t acting, then there was something else going on that was quite fascinating. Her vocabulary and demeanor, for instance…over time and place, they’re consistent within a personality.”

“How can you be sure that a particular person really has MPD and isn’t faking it for some reason?”

“In many cases it’s hard to say. Most MPDs are very intelligent. I’d think the more intelligent you were, the better you’d be able to fake something like that. If you were mentally ill anyway and knew it, there’d be excellent reasons to get a designer disease. You might be worried about getting lost in the state hospital system, and coming up with symptoms of MPD is a hell of a good way to get lots of attention quickly. If I were committed to a state facility, I’d try to generate a good case of MPD for myself just as fast as I could. That kind of thing can easily make the difference between life and death in some places, or between a reasonably comfortable life and being zombified by compulsory meds twenty-four hours a day.”

“I couldn’t say that I was absolutely sure just what MPD is, how it works, or really anything as simple as diagnostic procedures that worked in every case. A good part of what we’re seeing here is a very tight interaction between the patients and the doctors, where a certain amount of the syndrome is occurring in the interactions between them, and that makes it very difficult to tell what’s really going on. Do you get MPD when you’re diagnosed or when you’re two years old? I’d like to find out, in a definitive way, but it gets more difficult every day. The thing is taking on a life of its own…”


Joan Green worked off her fury at drunk drivers by volunteering to ride along in police patrol cars. Because of her experience at neuropsychology she was able to spot erratic driving very quickly, and by her paralysis she could offer herself as a horrible example of the consequences. During one of these forays she met a young cop named Jack Carr. Her disability and disfigured face bothered him not a whit, and they had a whirlwind romance. Shortly Jack proposed to her.

Joan’s professional life began to bloom. She began attending conferences and giving papers all over the world. Of course there were problems, but Jack was the quintessential caring husband, watching out for her, nurturing her. They took frequent trips to exotic places. While they were on safari, if there was a place her wheelchair couldn’t reach, he simply carried her. When they were home he was frequently out on surveillance assignments in the evenings, which gave her lots of time to engage with her online friends. Occasionally he would take over the keyboard and talk to her friends on the chat system.

It was some time during this period that Joan’s friends first began to become suspicious. She was always off at conferences, where presumably she met face to face with colleagues. And she and Jack spent a lot of time on exotic vacations, where she must also be seeing people face to face. It seemed that the only people who never got to see her were her online friends. With them she maintained a firm and unyielding invisibility. There were beginning to be too many contradictions. But it was the other disabled women online who pegged her first. They knew the real difficulties — personal and interpersonal — of being disabled. Not “differently abled”, that wonderful term, but rather the brutal reality of the way most people — including some friends — related to them. In particular they knew the exquisite problems of negotiating friendships, not to mention love relationships, in close quarters with the “normally” abled. In that context, Joan’s relationship with the unfailingly caring Jack seemed impossible. Jack was a Stepford husband.

Still, nobody had yet pegged Joan as other than a disabled woman. The other disabled women online thought that she was probably a disabled woman, but also felt that she was probably lying about her romantic life and about her frequent trips. But against that line of argument they had to deal with the reality that they had hard evidence of some of those trips.

Actually, Lewin was getting nervous too. Apparently he’d never expected the impersonation to succeed so dramatically. He thought he’d make a few contacts online, and maybe offer some helpful advice. What had happened instead was that he’d found himself deeply engaged in developing a whole new part of himself that he’d never known existed. His responses had long since ceased to be a masquerade; with the help of the narrow bandwidth online mode and a certain amount of textual prosthetics, online he had become Joan. She no longer simply carried out his wishes at the keyboard; she had her own emergent personality, her own ideas, her own directions. Not that he was losing his own identity, but he was developing a parallel one, one of considerable puissance. Jekyll and Joan. As her friendships deepened and simultaneously the imposture began to unravel, Lewin began to realize the enormity of his deception.

And the simplicity of the solution.

Joan had to die.


Edward Salzsieder, Mark Peterson’s attorney, started out with a novel and, until that moment, an unthinkable idea. Salzsieder suggested that even though Wisconsin law forbade questioning a rape victim about her sexual history, such protection shouldn’t extend to all of her other personalities. So he proposed questioning the other personalities — Franny and Ginger in particular — about their sexual histories. Many observers felt that this was one of the key points in the definition of multiple personality as a condition or state with legal standing other than as a pathology. For better or worse, Judge Hawley didn’t think much of the idea. He did appreciate its complexity, though — “We’re trying to split some very fine hairs here,” he said — but he wasn’t willing to take the idea so far as to impute autonomy to the multiples. “I do find,” he said, “that the rape shield law applies to (Sarah) and all her personalities combined.”

That threw Salzsieder back on his own resources. Deprived of the opportunity to question the personalities about their individual sexual exploits, he fell back on the strategy of attacking their legitimacy. To bring this off he needed to assemble a cadre of MPD infidels, unbelievers with legal and professional stature who, he hoped, could cast doubt on the whole idea of MPD. As it turns out, it wasn’t difficult to do. All kinds of people were willing to testify on all sides of the issue. But Salzsieder was looking for a special person, someone who not only didn’t believe in MPD but who could convince a court that MPD was a convenient fantasy, something that Sarah had read about and then adopted to excuse her promiscuous behavior. Eventually he came up with Donald Travers. Travers is from Wisconsin, a slightly balding man of medium build who when on the stand projects the proper blend of sober professionalism and easy believability that Salzsieder needed. Travers is an impressive infidel. He is an articulate speaker who is convinced that MPD is a medical hoax and whom Salzsieder had gotten to review Sarah’s psychiatric records for the previous year.

Salzsieder started by getting Travers to attack the credibility of MPD as a diagnostic category. After Travers was sworn in, Salzsieder asked “How many psychologists actually have patients with MPD?”

“There’s a band of very intense believers who have all the sightings, where the rest of us never see any,” Travers said. “What I call the UFOs of psychiatry…”


Events on the net ground inexorably onward. One day Joan became seriously ill. With Jack’s help, she was rushed to the hospital. Jack signed on to her account to tell her online friends and to explain what was happening: Joan had been struck by an exotic bug to which she had little resistance, and in her weakened state it was killing her. For a few days she hovered between life and death, while Lewin hovered, setting up her demise in a plausible fashion.

The result was horrific. Jack was deluged with expressions of shock, sorrow, and caring. People offered medical advice, offered financial assistance, sent cards, sent flowers. Some people went into out-and-out panic. The chat lines became jammed. So many people got seriously upset, in fact, that Lewin backed down. He couldn’t stand to go through with it. He couldn’t stand to engineer her death. Joan recovered and came home.

This left Lewin still stuck with the problem that he hadn’t had the guts to solve. He decided to try another tack, one that might work even better from his point of view. Shortly, Joan began to introduce people to her new friend, Sanford Lewin, a New York psychiatrist. She was enormously gracious about it, if not downright pushy. To hear her tell it, Lewin was the greatest thing to hit a net since Star-Kist Tuna. She told them Lewin was absolutely wonderful, charming, graceful, intelligent, and eminently worthy of their most affectionate attention. Thus introduced, Lewin then began trying to make friends with Joan’s friends himself.

He couldn’t do it.

Sanford simply didn’t have the personality to make friends easily online. Where Joan was freewheeling and jazzy, Sanford was subdued and shy. Joan was a confirmed atheist, an articulate firebrand of rationality, while Sanford was a devout conservative Jew. Joan smoked dope and occasionally got a bit drunk online; Sanford was, how shall we say, drug-free — in fact, he was frightened of drugs — and he restricted his drinking to a little Manischewitz on high holy days. And to complete the insult, Joan had fantastic luck with sex online, while when it came to erotics Sanford was an utterly hopeless klutz who didn’t know a vagina from a virginal. In short, Sanford’s Sanford persona was being defeated by his Joan persona.

What do you do when your imaginary playmate makes friends better than you do?


In one of the foundational accounts of MPD, Colin Ross identifies the fragmentation of self and the transformation of identity that occurs across ethnic and cultural boundaries, all of which he lumps together under the rubric of “aberration”. While his identification of this characteristic of human cultures is correct, his use of the rubric is peculiarly situated. Ross is interested in making a strong case for legitimizing MPD as a recognized medical phenomenon, and in so doing he seems to feel that he must explain away the problem of why many of the cultures he mentions in passing do not themselves pathologize MPD. Ross can perhaps be excused for pathologizing MPD tout court, because he evinces a genuine interest in assisting the individuals he has observed whose accommodation to buried trauma causes, in his words, more suffering than it prevents. I am primarily concerned here with how the phenomenon of multiple personality fits into a broader framework of cultural developments in which the abstract machine of multiplicity (in Deleuze and Guattari’s words) is grinding finer and finer. Among the phenomena at the close of the mechanical age which it is useful to note is the pervasive burgeoning of the ontic and epistemic qualities of multiplicity in all their forms…


With considerable effort Lewin had succeeded in striking up at least a beginning friendship with a few of Joan’s friends, when the Joan persona began to come seriously unraveled. First the disabled women began to wonder aloud, then Lewin took the risk of revealing himself to a few more women with whom he felt he had built a friendship. Once he started the process, word of it spread through the net. But just as building Joan’s original persona had taken some time, the actual dismantling of it took several months, as more clearly voiced suspicions gradually turned to factual information and the information passed around the conferences, repeated, discussed and picked over. Shortly the process reached a critical level where it became self-supporting. In spite of the inescapable reality of the deception, though, or rather of the inescapable unreality of Joan Sue Greene, there was a kind of temporal and emotional mass in motion that, Newton-like, tended to remain in motion. Even as it slowly disintegrated like one of the walking dead the myth of Joan still tended to roll ponderously ahead on its own, shedding shocked clots of ex-Joan fans as it ran down.


It is the moment everyone in the courtroom has been waiting for. People had been standing in line since before dawn to assure themselves of seats in the courtroom. A few had brought folding chairs to use while they waited in the predawn chill. Some sat on beach blankets with thermos jugs of steaming coffee. The composition of the crowd was extraordinarily diverse.

After an agonizing wait while people chatted to each other with the same lively animation I associated with waiting for the start of a long-anticipated film, the bailiff called the room to order. The silence was instantaneous. “All rise,” the bailiff called, and Hawley strode in, followed by the court stenographer.

Hawley sat down in the high-backed leather chair, squared something on his desk, and looked down from the bench at the packed courtroom, his glasses catching the light. The sound of people getting seated died away, and a hush again fell over the room.

For the most part Hawley had not said very much beyond what was required of him as presiding magistrate, but this morning he cleared his throat and made a brief introductory speech. His voice carried well in the room. It was a calm voice, not too inflected.

“Before we proceed any further, I want to make sure all the video and film equipment in this room is turned off and that all the cameras are down out of sight.” He scanned the room slowly, more for effect than for surveillance, then continued in the same calm voice. “There has been an unusual amount of attention surrounding this case. The issues we are considering are of an unusual nature. But I want to make it clear to everyone here that this is not a circus. This is a very sensitive case. There may be some bizarre behavior that you have not witnessed before. But nothing should get in the way of this being a court of law, first and foremost. I know that I can expect you to behave appropriately.”

Nods from the spectators. People settled deeper into their seats. The unusually large population of professionals among the spectators now made itself known as people reached into bags and briefcases for their yellow notepads, making the room bloom like a grey field dotted with buttercups.

Hawley nodded to Paulus. The silence deepened, if that were possible, and Paulus called his first witness of the day.

Sarah walked briskly to the stand. She seated herself and was sworn in. She put her hands in her lap and looked calmly at Paulus. This is the main event, I thought. It is what this whole thing is about, really. It is not columns in a newspaper. It is not theory or discussion. It is not soundbyte media hype. It is a young, calm, slightly Asian-looking woman in a white cotton sweater and a pale blue skirt.

Paulus stood a few feet in front of her, holding his body relaxed and still. He spoke to her in a normal conversational tone, not very loud but clearly audible in the silent room.

“Sarah, you’ve heard some testimony here about some events that took place recently in Shiner Park. Do you recall that testimony?”

Sarah nodded slightly, then added “I do.”

“Do you have any personal knowledge as to the events in the park?”

“No,” Sarah said, “I do not.” Her voice was quiet, flat, matter-of-fact.

“Who would be in the best position to talk about the events in the park that night?”

“Franny,” Sarah said.

“Would it be possible for us to, uh–” Paulus hesitated and looked like he wanted to clear his throat, but he settled for an instant’s pause instead and then continued– “meet Franny, and talk to her?”

“Yes,” Sarah said, looking calmly at him. A beat or two. “Now?”

“Yes,” Paulus said. “Take your time.”

Ths silence was absolute. Faintly, from somewhere outside in the hallway, something metallic dropped to the floor and rolled.

Sarah closed her eyes and slowly lowered her head until her chin was resting on her chest. She sat that way, her body still, breathing slowly and shallowly. It seemed as though everyone in the room held a collective breath. The muted hush of the air conditioning came slowly up from the background as if someone had turned up a volume control.

Maybe five seconds passed, maybe ten. It felt like hours. Then she raised her head, and slowly opened her eyes.

She looked at Paulus, and suddenly her face was animated, alive and mobile in a way that it hadn’t been a moment ago. The muscles around her mouth and eyes seemed to work differently, to be somehow more robust. She looked him up and down, taking him in with obvious appreciation. “Hel-lo,” she said.

“Franny?” Paulus said, inquisitively.

“Good morning,” Franny said. She looked around at the windowless courtroom. “Or good afternoon– which is it?” Her phrasing was more musical than it had been, with an odd lilt to the words. It, too, was animated, but it didn’t sound quite like an animated voice should have sounded. Also, on closer inspection it appeared that the more animated look of her features hadn’t made it down into her body. Her posture, the way she held herself, the positions of her shoulders and legs and the relative tension in the muscles of her body, hadn’t changed very much from Sarah’s posture.

Paulus looked as if he wanted to feel relieved, but again he hid it quickly. “It’s, uh, morning, actually,” he said, in a conversational tone. “How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?” The same lilt to the words.

“Just fine. Now I was just talking to Sarah a few moments ago, and I’d like to talk to you about what happened June ninth of 1990.” He glanced up at Hawley. “But before we do that, the judge has to talk to you.”

Hawley looked down at Franny. When she faced forward most of what he could see of her was the top of her head, but she turned now to face him. Her expression was hard to catch, but Hawley looked perfectly placid, as if swearing in several people in one body were something he did every day. “Franny,” he said, “I’d like you to raise your right hand for me, please.”

Hawley swore her in, his face impassive. It was just like any other court ritual.


Is there room for non-traumatic multiplicity in any of these accounts? At one point Ross answers this question almost dismissively and with complete self-confidence: “The term (multiple personality) suggests that it is necessary to debate whether one person can really have more than one personality, or, put more extremely, whether there can really be more than one person in a single body. Of course there can’t…” (Ross 41). And here Ross misses some of the most crucial implications of his study.

Multiple personality (without the stigmatizing final D) is a mode that resonates throughout the communities I study. Ross’s research both affirms and denies that mode in a complex way. He has a clear investment in affirming the reality of a clinical definition of multiplicity, and his views concerning Freud’s problems in coming to grips with the probable etiology of clinical multiplicity (with the D) are useful in studying the influence Freud has had on the field of psychoanalysis. For reasons that I find not entirely clear, he dismisses out of hand the idea that there can be more than one person in a single body. At that point he appears to fall back on received social and cultural norms concerning the meaning of “person” and “body”. Like the surgeons at the Stanford Gender Dysphoria Project, of whom I have written elsewhere, Ross still acts as a gatekeeper for meaning within a larger cultural frame, and in so doing his stakes and investments become clearer.

In this context, the context of multiplicity and psychology, it is useful to consider the work of Sherry Turkle. In her study “Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality”, presented at the Third International Conference on Cyberspace, Turkle notes:

“The power of the (virtual) medium as a material for the projection of aspects of both conscious and unconscious aspects of the self suggests an analogy between multiple-user domains (MUDs) and psychotherapeutic milieus….MUDs are a context for constructions and reconstructions of identity; they are also a context for reflecting on old notions of identity itself. Through contemporary psychoanalytic theory which stresses the decentered subject and through the fragmented selves presented by patients (and most dramatically the increasing numbers of patients who present with multiple personality) psychology confronts the ways in which any unitary notion of identity is problematic and illusory. What is the self when it functions as a society? What is the self when it divides its labor among its constituent “alters” or “avatars”? Those burdened by post-traumatic dissociative syndrome (MPD) suffer the question; inhabitants of MUDs play with it.”

In Turkle’s context, the context of virtual systems, the question that Ross dismisses as, to him, obviously false — namely, can multiple selves inhabit a single body — is irrelevant. Compared to “real” space, in virtual space the socioepistemic structures by means of which the meanings of the terms “self” and “body” are produced operate differently. Turkle seizes upon this and turns it into a psychotherapeutic tool. Moreover, Turkle shows how the uses of virtual space as an adjunct to therapy translate across domains, beyond the virtual worlds and into the biological. What in this context might be called the ultimate experiment — plugging a person with MPD into the MUDs — has yet to be performed. Thus we have not yet observed one of its possibly hopeful outcomes: healing trauma, but preserving multiplicity; or perhaps more pertinent, creating discursive space for a possibly transformative legitimization of some forms of multiplicity. The answers to the questions posed above — why is MPD so important to an examination of communication technology, and is there room for non-traumatic multiplicity in clinical accounts — in fine are bound up with the prosthetic character of virtuality. The technosocial space of virtual interaction, with its irruptive ludic quality, its potential for experimentation and emergence, can be a problematic and hopeful domain of non-traumatic multiplicity. Turkle and others, myself included, are waiting to observe how the dialogue between nontraumatic multiplicity and clinical accounts emerges in a new therapeutic context.


The Joan incident produced a large amount of Monday morning quarterbacking among the habitues of CompuServe’s chat system. Sanford Lewin retained his CompuServe account. He has a fairly low profile on the net, not least because the Sanford persona is inherently low key. Many of Joan’s friends made at least a token attempt to become friends with him. Not too many succeeded, because, according to them, there simply wasn’t that much in common between them. Several of the women who were friends of Joan have become his friends. One said, “I try to forget what happened. Whether he’s Joan or Sanford, man or woman, it’s his soul that I like.”

The hackers in my study population, the people who wrote the programs by means of which the nets exist, just smiled tiredly. They were aware that it takes time to understand, through experience, that social rules do not necessarily map across the interface between the real and virtual worlds. But all of them had understood from the beginning that the nets presaged radical changes in social conventions, some of which would go unnoticed until an event like the disabled woman persona and the violated confidences brought them to the foreground. Some of these engineers, in fact, wrote software for the utopian possibilities it offered. Young enough in the first days of the net to react and adjust quickly, they had long ago taken for granted that many of the pre-net assumptions about the nature of identity had quietly vanished.

There is a subtext here, which has to do with what I have been calling the online persona. Of course we all change personae all the time, to suit the social occasion, although with online personae the act is more purposeful. Nevertheless the societal imperative with which we have been raised is that there is one primary persona, or “true identity”, and that in the offline world — the “real world” — this persona is firmly attached to a single physical body, by which our existence as a social being is authorized and in which it is grounded. The origin of this “correct” relationship between body and persona seems to have been contemporaneous with the same cultural moment that gave birth to what we sometimes call the sovereign subject. There can be productive interventions into our cultural belief that the unmarked social unit, besides being white and male, is a single self in a single body. Events in Oshkosh pointed this up. The attention of the audience was on the moment of rupture, conjoining the sacred and forbidden, when the seamless surface of reality can be ripped aside to reveal the nuts and bolts by which the structure is maintained. At that moment Sarah was a liminal creature, representing something deeply desired and deeply feared. In the same court an ax murderer would attract a certain ghoulish attention, but nothing like the fascination we were seeing here. On the principle that where one finds a circumstance which is a focus of the most intense emotional energy coupled with the least understanding of why it is such a focus, there is the place to dig, then it seemed clear enough that the moment Franny appeared was that place.

Multiple personality, as it is commonly represented, is the site of a massive exercise of power and of its aftermath, the site of a marshalling of physical proof that identity — of whatever form — arises in crisis. It vividly demonstrates the connection between the violence of splitting off a string of identities to the violence of representation under the sign of the patristic Word in a court of law. In order for the prosecution’s strategy to work, the victim must mainfest a collection of identities each one of which is recognizable to the jury as a legal subject. We are witnesses to an exercise of power, to an effort to fix in position a particular subjectivity. Having thus been drawn to the grotesque — in this case, to the spectacle of the maimed persona — we might reflect on how we got here and where we were going when our attention was arrested. Otherwise we may miss the lesson of how we came to be capable of being constructed as witnesses @italic miss comprehending our own violent origin.


The trial ends with Peterson’s conviction.

This outcome is a mixed grill for the various interests surrounding the trial. While there are several points on which new law might have been written, two in particular are interesting in connection with the Peterson trial. One concerns the conflation of multiple personality with mental illness. Another concerns the legal status of each member of a multiple personality. Both of these relate to issues of how cultural meaning is constructed in relation to bodies and selves.


Ruth Reeves, Sarah’s downstairs neighbor, is a woman with no particular investment in much of the debate. “I’ve met most of them (the personalities), and they’re real,” she says. “It’s no different, really, than talking to a roomful of people.”

“Do you think she’s sick…mentally ill? I mean, multiple personality as a disease…”

“Well, her personalities mostly just seem to live their lives. It’s not like one of them’s a murderer or goes around busting up the furniture. Some of them aren’t healthy for her, though. I hope therapy can help her, so she doesn’t have to do things like eat crayons or burn herself. But–” She looked thoughtful for a moment, searching for words.

“You know,” she said, “if the therapy turns out to be effective I’m going to miss the personalities. They’re a wonderful bunch of folks.”


The verdict upholds existing Wisconsin law. The law states that it is a crime to have sex with a mentally ill person if the person is so severely impaired that he or she cannot appreciate the consequences of their behavior, and if the other person knows of the illness. Because the trial made no attempt to separate the issue of MPD from issues of mental illness, the verdict reinforces the general conflation of multiple personality with mental illness. This seems natural to the great majority of mental health professionals who viewed the trial. A few, who perceived the opportunity to “decriminalize” MPD, are disappointed.

“Multiple personality” covers a broad range of phenomena, which includes within its spectrum such things as spirit possession. “Multiple personality disorder” is the official term for a condition which includes, among other things, blackouts. That is, only one personality is out at a time, and if there is a dominant personality it suffers memory gaps during the time the other personalities are out. “You find clothes in your closets that you have no memory of having bought, and worse yet, they aren’t the cut or color you would ever think of buying”, one multiple says. “You get court summonses about traffic violations you didn’t commit, you wake up in the morning and find you have burns and bruises and you have no idea how or where you got them.” In general the dominant personality is frightened and troubled by these occurrences. The dominant personality may also have difficulty coping in the world, and it is this maladjustment, or the fear and disorientation caused by the blackouts, that generally bring the person into the doctor’s office.

At the other end of the spectrum are persons who also consider themselves multiples, but who do not suffer blackouts and who claim to retain awareness of what the alter personalities are doing when they are out. These persons find themselves in a difficult situation. If they assert their multiplicity, they fear being pathologized, so they tend to live “in the closet”, like other marginalized groups. They live largely clandestine existences, holding regular day jobs and occasionally socializing with other multiples of similar type. They worry about being discovered and being forced to quit their jobs, or about being declared disabled or mentally incompetent. They have no common literature which unites them; the multiple equivalent of Well of Loneliness has yet to be written. Their accustomed mode of existence, sharing a single body with several quasi-independent personalities, is emblematic of a fair percentage of everyday life at the close of the mechanical age.


Having been a technical and scientific writer as well as an author of fantasy and science fiction, I am aware that the boundaries between science and fiction are fluid. The most troubling stories are precisely those that are difficult to analyze — those stories that are situated in the boundaries between categories and that must be analyzed in multiple ways before their meanings can be understood. In the listener they frequently produce a sense of unease, a feeling that the way things are might shift unexpectedly or slip away. I find that frequently these are the most interesting stories, because their shapeshifting qualities make them powerful agents of transformation.

The encounters I have related here are about relationships between bodies and personae/ selves/ subjects, and the multiplicities of connections between them. They are about negotiating realities, and the conjunctions of social spaces and activities bound together by webs of physical and ideological force. They map out a field of discourse for which they act as experiential demarcations:

Technologies that enable near-instantaneous communication among social groups pose old problems in new guises (similar to the unexpected ways in which the invention of the automobile affected postadolescent courting behavior in some industrialized nations), but also pose new problems: not simply problems of accountability (i.e., who did it), but of warrantability (i.e., did a body/subject unit do it). The issue of warrantability — i.e., is there a physical human body involved in this interaction anywhere — is one such.

Social spaces and social groups do not spring into being only as concomitants of technology. Some workers study technologies as crystallizations of social networks, the technologies and the networks co-creating each other in an overlapping multiplicity of complex interactions. Technologies can be seen as simultaneously causes of and responses to social crisis. Consider following the history of communication technologies as a study of social groups searching for ways to enact and stabilize a sense of presence in increasingly diffuse and distributed networks of electronically mediated interaction, and thus also as ways to stabilize self/selves in shifting and unstable fields of power.

Let’s consider bodies and selves in relation to communications technology in three ways:

  1. Selves and relationships between selves constituted and mediated by technologies of communication; i.e., an apparatus for the production of community.
  2. Technologies that mediate cultural legibility for the biological substrates to selves, substrates that legally authenticate political action; i.e., an apparatus for the production of body.
  3. Technologies mediating between bodies and selves which may or may not be within physical proximity; i.e., interfaces.

Implicit in many of these accounts are assumptions about what bodies should be or do, what form bodies should take, and what conditions relationships between bodies and selves should require.

Over time, the relationship between bodies and their attendant “selves” has undergone a slow process of change. Although its effects have been profound and lasting, the classical bourgeois world view, incorporating a mechanistic view of the universe/ nature and an egoistic view of “man”, with its implications for the ways body and self might be coupled under a particular set of political and epistemological constraints, was a preeminent factor in the production of knowledge for a period of only about 150 years. Its influence began to be felt perhaps in the late 1600s and was signaled by (e.g.) the publication of Newton’s Principia, and was challenged, though not silenced, in the 1840s at about the time of (e.g.) the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry and the development of critical psychology. Powerful social forces channeled the structure of this world view into the form of binary oppositions: body/mind, self/society, male/female, &c. In the deployment of a series of epistemes whose informing principles include the ontic status of binary oppositions, we can see both the workings of the totalizing mechanisms that produced the new classical sciences and also the substructure for the academic disciplines — the deployment of each being deeply informed by the emergence of capital as a primary influence upon the structures of knowledge production.

This deployment of knowledge structures was accompanied by improvements in systems of measurement both in the realms of the physical and the symbolic (as in cartography and psychology). Partly, I suggest, this represented a complex response to a political need to order the relationships between the emerging “subject” and its presumed associated body in ways that assured the maintenance of a social order that was already in dangerous disequilibrium. In this sense of the term, social order implied spatial accountability — that is, knowing where the subject under the law was.

Traditionally accountability referred to the physical body, and most visibly took the form of laws that fixed the physical body within a juridical field whose fiduciary characteristics were precisely determined–the census, the introduction of street addresses, passports, telephone numbers–the invention and deployment of documentations of citizenship in all their forms, which is to say, fine-tuning surveillance and control in the interests of producing a more “stable”, manageable citizen. The subtext of this activity is an elaboration and amplification of spaciality and presence — a hypertrophy of the perception of where, which was reflected in the elaboration, within the sciences, of new fiduciary understandings of cosmic and molecular (and later, atomic) velocity and position.

The symmetry implied by the increasing precision with which both velocity and position could be determined in the macro and micro world was ruptured in the 1920s and 30s by the theoretical work of (e.g.) Niels Bohr and later by Werner Heisenberg. The deep ontic unease which these proposals generated, even though they were frequently only imperfectly understood, was accompanied by increasing preoccupation on the part of a political apparatus at the macro level for precisely determining action (as speed, e.g., cf. Virilio) and position in everything from satellite ranging to postal codes. Implicit in this elaboration of the concepts of spaciality and presence is the development of the fiduciary subject, i.e., a political, epistmological and biological unit which is not only measurable and quantifiable but also understood in an essential way as being in place. The individual societal actor becomes fixed in respect to geographical coordinates that determine physical locus — a mode which implies an ontic privilege of the physical body and an unusual but identifiable invocation of a metaphysics of presence which may be familiar from other debates –rather than being located in a virtual system, i.e., in relation to a social world constituted within an information network, a social world whose primary mode of interaction is that of narrow-bandwidth symbolic exchange. In the context of this research, by a metaphysics of presence I mean that a (living) body implies the presence within the body of a socially articulated self that is the true site of agency. It is this coupling, rather than the presence of the body alone, that privileges the body as the site of political authentication and political action.

Tactics of discipline and control directed at the body are meant to manage the coupled self within which agency and consequent political authenticity have been constructed to reside. The fiduciary subject is fixed and stabilized within a grid of coordinates that implicates virtual location technologies — making the boundaries between the jurisdictions of the physical and those of the symbolic extremely permeable — by techniques such as psychological testing. In this way the deployment of the new kinds of knowledge that accompanied capital formation and of their concomitants in the arts and sciences, and in particular a worldview which took for its basis a binary experiential framework, had a profound effect on perceptions of and relationships to the human body. This is particularly clear in regard to ways in which an individual acquired knowledge of the categories of physical experience — of experiences of one’s own body. For example, the invention of sensual categories such as pleasure as ways of interpreting bodily experience in European discourses of the body — a fairly late development — can be interpreted as an attempt to impose order upon the chaotic and unruly theater of sensual experiences which the body was thought to represent, in all its disruptive and productive potential. Categorizing the sensual modes that bodies can experience fulfills several functions. It elicits a discourse system; it represents efforts to frame the body as an ordered set of impressions which could be disrupted and require re-ordering (implying a structure to do the ordering); and it implies a binary view of the ways that bodily experience is mediated — the opposition of order and chaos within the frame of a single physicality.

Theorists of gender and the body frequently view individuals’ experiences of their own bodies as socially constructed, in juxtaposition to approaches which hold that the body is ontologically present to itself and to the experiences of the (always unitary) “self” which inhabits it; in Lacanian terms, under the older dispensation the essence of one’s own body is understood as that which ultimately resists symbolization. If we consider the physical map of the body and our experience of inhabiting it as socially mediated, then it should not be difficult to imagine the next step in a progression toward the social — that is, to imagine the location of the self that inhabits the body as also socially mediated — not in the usual ways we think of subject construction in terms of position within a social field or of capacity to experience, but of the physical location of the subject, independent of the body within which theories of the body are accustomed to ground it, within a system of symbolic exchange, i.e., information technology.

A typical example of the extent to which participants in narrow-bandwidth communication engage their own interpretive faculties and of the extent to which their interpretations are driven by the engagement of structures of desire is indicated by studies of client-provider interactions in phone sex (Stone, 1991f). Phone sex is the process of constructing desire through a single mode of communication, the human voice. The comunication bandwidth between client and provider is further narrowed because the voices are passed through the telephone network, which not only reduces the audio bandwidth but also introduces fairly high levels of distortion. In my studies of phone sex, I was particularly interested in how distortion and bandwidth affected the construction of desire and erotics.

Narrow bandwidth interactions are useful in analyzing how participants construct desire because the interactions are both real and schematized. While they cannot provide information about the vast and complex spectrum of human sexuality across time and society, they do provide a laboratory which is large, moderately diverse, and easily accessible for a detailed study of desire in narrow-bandwidth mode. But it is not necessary to engage in interactions that mobilize desire to experience the attraction of virtual systems. An informant at an organization that tracks high-technology businesses reports that large public databases are experiencing difficulty in becoming profitable. “What’s happening”, he reports, “is that users don’t find the services, like online ticketing, electronic shopping and stock reports, very interesting. On the other hand, the online conferences are jammed. What commercial online information services like Prodigy don’t realize is that people are willing to pay money just to connect. Just for the opportunity to communicate.” That Prodigy fails to understand this is clear from the way the database runs its conferences. Prodigy supervisors monitor its online conferences and censor what it considers offensive language — what Bruno Latour might consider an example of building your morals into your technology and what I would consider building your morals into your nature. At this point it does not look like imposing a set of morals of any kind on the net is going to work. “Centralized control is impossible”, Chip Morningstar (1991) said, speaking of the Habitat simulation. “Don’t even try.”

In an ironic mode, I consider that to be a vastly hopeful remark — in part, at least, because centralized control is not the only kind of control. Just as technology, in Gibson’s words, finds its uses on the street, control finds its uses in virtual systems, and I hope to observe the transformations that control undergoes as it seeks its level among the virtual communities.


This paper is part of a series of ongoing experiments in representation and method in social, critical and cultural studies. As such, it is a construction zone, full of visible or concealed rocks and potholes, and is hereby posted; please drive carefully. The narrative style is adapted from certain techniques of fiction; with its descriptive digressions, interruptions and shifts of voice, it is of particular concern to me, because of the sensitivity of the material and the problematic juxtapositions of personal violation with theoretical material, and consequently I am still rethinking it. It is intended to evoke multiplicity, firstly by jump cutting between the (problematic) firsthand viewpoint of the trial, the chat line conversations and their consequences, and the theoretical discussions of medicopsychological texts that interrupt the accounts of the trial and each other. In addition, none of the main threads, taken separately, are meant to be read as linear narratives. I have taken portions of RossU text out of the order in which he presents them in the primary source. In this action I am using RossU theory to construct a different sort of theoretical ambiance than Ross himself might like — an act of wholesale appropriation in a spirit of experimentation. It is in no sense a traditionally anthropological account. My intent is rather to experiment with an alternative quasi-anthropological storytelling, accompanied by fair warning that we are outside the bounds of traditional academic discourse. All courtroom scenes are reconstructions created through interviews with persons who were present at the trial, and occasionally with the aid of transcriptions from tape recordings of portions of the testimony. In this regard I have relied heavily upon source material kindly provided by Cynthia Gorney, who was present at the trial as a reporter for the Washington Post and who produced a wonderful and insightful series of articles for that publication (beginning November 6, 1990), upon material provided by Deborah Bradley and Mark Hargrove, and upon numerous interviews. An earlier insightful account of the Joan Green incident was published by Lindsy Van Gelder as “The Strange Case of the Electronic Woman”, first in Ms. Magazine (1985) and later in Rob Kling’s anthology Computerization and Controversy : Value Conflicts and Social Choices> (Boston 1991). When I first wrote up my version of the incident I used a pseudonym for the psychiatrist, and although Van Gelder used his “real” (legal) name, I have retained the pseudonym in this version because my treatment of him is quasifictional. Data collection for this project was of the type generally characterized as Rin depthS, since I was interested, in an as-yet unwritten longer account, in creating an atmospheric piece that conveyed my own odd sense of the problematic and productive clash of narratives between the Oshkosh trial and the virtual crossdressing psychiatrist. The dialogue within quotes comes from my interviews with persons who were present or who had professional or nonprofessional contacts with any of the principals, and where my notes fail, from GorneyUs verbatim transcriptions. (Official transcripts were prohibitively expensive.) Even where dialogue is quoted there is no guarantee that things are in any sense pristine. On occasion I have added dialogue from other parts of the transcriptions, deleted portions of the testimony, collapsed several persons into one, changed some names and not others, and in general constructed a fictional narrative which hews rather closely to that of the trial itself but which is not identical to it. Where I describe gestures, these come from descriptions of gestures made by the participants and reported by my informants. In the case of atmospheric phrases (e.g., media vans, the sound of air conditioning, something metallic dropping in the hallway), I elicited such as were available from my informants. For me, the problems of producing the Oshkosh narrative are the obverse of the problems I faced when writing my (forthcoming) science fiction novel Ktahmet, which is heavily based on material that I copied verbatim from my diaries. In writing Ktahmet the problem was the real-life character of the fictional narrative (Betsy Wollheim, my editor, was fond of yelling “Even if it’s true, it’s fiction”), while in this paper the problem was the fictional character of the real-life narrative.