The Current

How Judy Rebick's 11 personalities helped her cope with the abuse she suffered as a child

Feminist Judy Rebick reveals she lived with multiple personalities — and that it made her a stronger activist.

The condition gave me a fearlessness that made me a better activist, Rebick says

Judy Rebick talks about disassociating

5 years ago
Duration 7:41
Judy Rebick, famed Canadian feminist, talks to Anna Maria Tremonti about disassociating

Originally published April 10, 2018.

Read Story Transcript

Famed Canadian feminist Judy Rebick has long championed causes — from abortion rights, to awareness of violence against women, to the rights of the deaf.

But in those decades where she lent her voice to the fight for justice, she was also dealing with voices that distorted her own.

In her memoir Heroes in My Head, Rebick reveals that she was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder, in the late 1980s. Through therapy, she realized that she had developed 11 distinct personalities to cope with the trauma of being sexually abused as a child. The memories of her abuse had been repressed until her therapy.

"I had a memory of lying down and being touched in a sexual way by a grown man," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

In 1989, Rebick experienced a raft of memories of abuse, and returned to therapy to confront them.

"By the second day of the therapy, I realized that the man was my father," she recalled.

Rebick, a journalist and founder of the news website Rabble, argues that we need to reimagine how we talk about mental health.

Her condition, she said, not only protected her as a child, but gave her a fearlessness that helped her activism as an adult.

Judy Rebick's new memoir details her dissociative identity disorder, and argues that it has made her a better activist. (Ben Holbrook/National Speakers Bureau, House of Anansi Press)

Who are the 11 personalities?

The personalities, which she calls "the alters," would come out in the therapy sessions. They would speak through her mouth, but she felt like a spectator in the conversation.

"First, they'd say: 'Where's Jack?' — that was my father — to make sure that I'm safe," she said.

All but one of her alters were identified as children between the ages of 5 and 12. One personality, named Simon, was the guardian personality, who would come out first to make sure it was safe. A flirtatious persona, named Sophie, would emerge when Rebick was attracted to someone.

"As far as I can tell they didn't come out until the therapy sessions," she said, "but they did act throughout my life."

She said that when they emerged during her adult life, she would "lose time," not remembering what happened in 10- to 15-minute intervals.

Judy Rebick, aged 5. She said the personalities that emerged were her psyche's way of coping with abuse. (Submitted by Judy Rebick)

Rebick said that her disorder is an extreme version of forgetting as a coping mechanism. Her alters protected her from the trauma of the abuse she was subjected to.

"The little girl forgets what happened to her the night before ... and then when she hears the steps coming to the room she comes back into knowing — but it's not her, it's someone else," she said.

"It's like a child's imagination [that] creates imaginary friends who are conscious of the abuse, so she's not conscious of the abuse."

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Fearlessness and the Grateful Dead

Rebick said her condition involves an inability to feel fear, which led her to take risks or seize opportunities, like having Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane crash at her place during Expo '67 in Montreal.

She answered a knock at the door one day to find the bands' manager asking for somewhere to stay. They had heard that Roger — her partner at the time — was cool, and they were happy to sleep on the floor.

"So I said OK," she recalls, adding that she had never heard of Grateful Dead at the time.

"I hung out with the Grateful Dead, with Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl, who was his partner, and Pig Pen, and I really liked them, they were really interesting people," she said.

"They brought tons of food, they cleaned up — it was part of their lifestyle, communal living. ... I think they're the best house guests I ever had."

Confronting her father

Rebick's therapist taught her that her 11 alters were fragments of her own personality.

"You have to make friends with them, and listen to them," she said.

"Because what's bothering them is bothering you."

Over time, she was able to integrate the personalities into her consciousness. They haven't re-emerged since 1992.

She credits their disappearance with confronting her father, who is now dead but always denied the abuse.

Judy Rebick talks about the abuse she suffered as a child

5 years ago
Duration 1:46
Judy Rebick, famed Canadian feminist, talks to Anna Maria Tremonti about the abuse she suffered as a child.

"They saw that he couldn't hurt me anymore," she said, "so there wasn't a purpose for them anymore."

She doesn't see her disorder as a mental illness, but a defence mechanism where a child used the only weapon she has: her imagination.

"I think we have to say that everybody's brain is different and we perceive the world differently," she said.

"I'm hoping that by me coming forward with what most people would consider to be a serious mental illness, it helps to make that happen."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.