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By HAL BROWN
Could the flamboyant Britney Spears and the dour Dick Cheney both suffer from multiple personality disorder? The term is most often used colloquially to describe someone who has contradictory parts of their personality. Now that Britney Spears has replaced Anna Nicole as the headline grabber of the week and we wait to see if Vice President Cheney will skate away unscathed from the Plame Affair, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to speculate about the psychology of Spears and Cheney.
First some psychological conjecture about Britney, the more interesting of these two world renown people.
Britiney Spears shows some clinical symptoms suggesting she might actually suffer from multiple personality disorder. This has been officially renamed the more clinical sounding dissociative identity disorder; but since the general public never heard of the later and everyone knows about the former, I’ll use the old term here.
The public has been treated to depictions of Britney’s bizarre behavior. Her behaviors could destroy her career and lose her custody of her children. So far media commentators and her handlers have attributed this to drinking and using drugs. But they may be wrong.
Amnesia is the ultimate form of dissociation. If I was Britney’s therapist I would want to know if she seems not to remember doing some of the more outlandish things we know she did. Sometime multiples pretend to remember incidents they’re asked about, but they really don’t. When one alternative personality is in control and acting out, the others often have no memory for what happened. It takes considerable clinical acumen to discern the truth if they are really suffering from amnesia.
If Britney has periods of non-alcohol induced amnesia there’s a good chance she really does suffer from multiple personality disorder and needs intensive psychiatric treatment rather than drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Enough about Britney, as much as I hope she gets the help she needs, this is a political website.
What about Dick Cheney and multiple personality disorder?
I don’t mean to suggest that Dick Cheney really suffers from this serious mental disorder. I use the term with Cheney in the colloquial sense.
I think Cheney has consciously developed the ability to dissociate and to project specific personalities to others as he see fit. This is other directed, not inner directed. He does not do this to protect his psyche from traumatic memories as a true multiple would do. He does it to either attack or distance himself from his enemies and to endear himself to his friends.
Cheney seems to have developed alternate type personalities that are more like personae. However, he does it so well I think he is also able to dissociate to a limited extent. I’ve always suspected actors Robin Williams and Jim Carrey use dissociation to rapidly shift between diverse characters. Of course millions of people find Williams and Carrey entertaining while most of us are coming to find Cheney just creepy.
I was particularly struck by this with Cheney when I looked at some video of him on talk shows where he seemed at ease, with his demeanor shifting between sarcastic put-downs of critics and humor with sympathetic Fox News interviewers and compared this with his reactions during the State of the Union address.
During the address, sitting behind the president next to Nancy Pelosi, he was onscreen all the time. While an anxiously elated Pelosi blinked so often I thought she’d strain her eyelid muscles, Cheney blinked once or twice a minute.
It takes a certain ability to dissociate to go without blinking for a minute.
I also think back to Cheney’s unemotional reaction after he shot his friend Harry Whittington in the face as an example of dissociating himself from feelings. Like his excuse for taking five draft deferments, he had “other priorities” to deal with.
I think Cheney has developed an ability that he uses when he’s in the unusual position of not being in control. It involves dissociating himself from experiencing any emotion while remaining conscious enough to respond if he must. He did this, albeit poorly, during the State of the Union when Pelosi beat him every time to get up to lead the applause to nonpartisan Bush comments.
Dissociation is also the most effective method of lying without seeming to lie.
The most adept liars dissociate themselves from the words they speak. They don’t try to sound innocent, like Bill Clinton did during Monicagate, because that can come across as someone trying too hard to be convincing. Dissociators can speak falsehoods forcefully but without affect, detached from the meanings of the words. Thus they can turn the truth upside down and inside out without it showing in their lying eyes.
That sounds like Dick Cheney to me.
(Hal Brown is a clinical social worker and former mental health center director who is mostly retired from his private psychotherapy practice. He writes on the psychopathology of public figures and other topics that pique his interest. He can be found online at www.stressline.com)