I admit, I’m hooked on The United States of Tara, the Showtime series that follows the life of a suburban housewife with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Toni Collette (Tara) has won various prestigious awards for her leading role in the show, which is due in no small part to her depiction of Tara transitioning into her alternate personalities.
As eye-opening as this series has been for me, as I have had no experience with DID, it was no match for the depth of insight that the documentary film, When the Devil Knocks, had in store.
This challenging story, based in Alberta, packs a different punch, as the plotline is completely true and portions of the film are excerpts from actual therapy sessions. The films’ subject, Hilary Stanton, gave the filmmakers unlimited access to more than 40 hours of videotapes of her psychotherapy, filmed over 10 years. These therapy tapes revealed a cast of supporting characters, "alters", who kept Hilary alive by taking over for her during times of crisis.
Dr. Cheryl Malmo, Hilary’s psychologist, initially videotaped these therapy sessions (with Hilary’s permission) to help train therapists in the treatment of DID. There are still many people, therapists included, who don’t recognize DID as a valid disorder, or believe that people who suffer from it are simply "acting" and can control their behaviour. This is frightening for many reasons, especially since the commonality of DID has been linked to be as similar in numbers as bi-polar disorder (1 in 100 or approx. 1-3% of the population.)
"It’s more common than people think," says Cheryl, "the basic thing that needs to change is that people understand that it does exist. In the professional community there is a whole lot of denial of its existence, and because of that, it’s not properly diagnosed, and people are being given drugs for other things instead of for this condition."
"The position that this is a made-up illness can only be taken by people who have not experienced working with somebody who has DID, and someone who is not aware of the current literature available. Hilary was very motivated to have her sessions videotaped because of a very bad experience she had with a therapist who told her it was all in her head, that memories are unreliable and that she couldn’t trust them. She was very keen that therapists should be educated. Without the proper diagnosis, people cannot get the proper treatment."
This motivation was indeed strong for Hilary, as she not only agreed to the filming of her therapy sessions for training on DID, but ultimately for use in a documentary that would have her in the leading role.
When Helen Slinger, director of When the Devil Knocks, learned of the tapes and approached Hilary about their possible use in this capacity, Hilary almost instantly said yes. "For someone who had so little safety in her life, she was really open," said Helen, "because she wanted people to be educated by her experiences." And educate she did, in the most vulnerable yet powerful way she could: by sharing her story.
The film is a spliced narrative of past and present, as we hear stories from Hilary’s past, and the events that triggered the alternate personality fragments, "alters", to take over for her, protecting her from a reality that was too cruel to withstand.
Severe traumas during childhood are the link that most people with DID have in common. Also, nine times more women than men are diagnosed with DID and 97% of those diagnosed have a history of physical sexual abuse, with a huge majority being objectively verified even when the patient didn’t recall the abuse.
Although we see but a brief glimpse into the dozen years of treatment that Hilary had with Cheryl, the images left with you are indelible. Real footage of Hilary becoming her alters; personalities that differed widely in age and physicality. From the 12-year-old Tim who contained his anger by always clenching his fists, to the withdrawn 10-year-old Joanie, who initially had no voice and had to write everything down. Each alter held a specific purpose for Hilary’s protection, although until she began her therapy with Cheryl, she was unaware that these other fragments even existed.
While watching the film it could seem that Hilary can easily transition in and out of personalities at will, as Cheryl asks for the alter by name. But this perceived ease was borne out of years of therapy and intentionally creating a safe and non-judgmental environment for them to come into.
"People who are untreated go in and out of their alters all the time; this switching happens automatically," says Cheryl. "When she (Hilary) was living her life, it was happening all of the time, it was very dangerous for her, but in therapy we were able to practice in a very controlled and safe environment. Much of the work in therapy is to work with the alters so that they can stay safe and keep the others safe as well. Alters would never come out if the therapist were judgmental or dismissive of abuse; they are there to protect her."
Although tragic in many ways, Hilary’s story is not devoid of hope, in fact, against all odds, it flourishes.
"This is a story of hope because she succeeded in healing," Cheryl said. "She never gave up, she kept working, even when she felt like giving up but when she felt that way, I wouldn’t let her. She never missed an appointment, she never cancelled, she always did her homework and wrote in her journals, and even when she was terrified to go into the world, she finally consented to going into a support group, and eventually became a mentor and leader to the people in that group."
It was clear that the learning between Hilary and Cheryl was a two-way street. "I learned a tremendous amount from her," Cheryl stated confidently. "Hilary had a magic about her which was very compelling, a sparkle and a dry wit; people loved her. She was gentle, bright, interesting, and interested. It was a privilege to be able to work with her."
Hilary’s gentle and curious spirit goes a long way in dispelling the myth that DID is not something that happens to "normal" people.
"People can tend to be skeptical about this disorder because it challenges their sense of safety, that you’re not dealing with something ‘known’," says Director Helen Slinger. "But with a film, you’re no longer in discussion, you’re watching. A real, ordinary person dealing with their life. The fact that you see it actually happening, instead of simply talking about it, is powerful."
One delightful but unexpected part of this film is the love story between Hilary and her wife, Debbie Stanton. Having lived together since 1999, Debbie knew much about Hilary’s struggle with DID, and was a constant source of love without judgment. During their wedding vows, Hilary shared, "Now that I am well, I can either follow or lead, but I will always walk by your side."
I wish that this story could end here, but regrettably, there was yet another tragic twist in Hilary’s life. One month after Hilary appeared at the triumphant festival launch of this film in Vancouver in October 2010, she was killed in a car accident in Mexico.
"As Hilary went through so much to get healthy and whole, it seems desperately unfair that she didn’t have more time," said Helen. "But at least she was finally truly happy. She found real pleasure in the making of the documentary and, as the credits rolled at the premiere screening, she glowed in the warmth of an absolutely thunderous standing ovation. Hilary was very brave to lay open her life in the way that she did and she was proud of the resulting film, now her legacy."
Her legacy is a film that beats with sincerity and hope, and a story that will surely inspire us, as individuals, therapists, and as a society, to become better educated on DID and other mental illnesses; is one that speaks to the power of the human spirit and the insurmountable bravery of one woman to let us into her world, in hopes to make ours better.
"Because of Hilary’s courage, maybe one person (and hopefully many more), will realize that it is possible, through treatment, to live through the trauma and come out a whole, strong person at the end," says Debbie. "It is a long, hard road, but it is worth it."
For more information on this film and on DID, visit the films’ website. When the Devil Knocks is also available to watch for free online, through CBC.