Before she started hosting her nationally televised show, Oprah had a local talk show in Baltimore. One of her first guests on that Baltimore show was Truddi Chase, a woman who, after suffering sexual abuse by her stepfather that started when she was 2 years old, split into 92 distinct personalities.
"This is a story like no other that you will ever hear," Oprah says.
Truddi talks about the abuse and her recovery in her book When Rabbit Howls. Her life story was made into a made-for-television movie starring Shelly Long called The Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase.
The abuse stripped away most of her childhood memories, but Truddi says therapy helped her remember them. Truddi's mother left her father and moved her to a farm with her stepfather when she was 2. She says he raped her for the first time shortly after that. "It's springtime, the ground is still wet, there is tall grass over your head," she says. "I don't have all of it. The others have parts of it, which is why multiplicity comes into place in the first place."
Truddi says her old self ceased to be after that. "Something has to give," she says. "You can't dump that much on a human being and not lose something."
She now refers to her body, or the collective personalities' experiences, as "you" or "we."
Truddi says her memories are divided up between her 92 personalities, whom she calls her troops. "We all remember different sections," she says. "Multiplicity keeps you sane under the worst conditions. I am sane; we are sane. Believe it or not, it's easier to deal with than the abuse was."
"Black Catherine" is the personality who is most filled with rage. "When she first came out, nobody wanted to know her, but in order to know one, you have to know all," she says. "And so we had to inspect ourselves and the memories."
"Rabbit," Truddi says, holds the pain. "At first we didn't understand what her purpose was. She was so small," she says. "Somebody said, 'How do you put the fur and the skin back on Rabbit?' It's as though she was stripped of everything."
Truddi says she was not the only person in her family abused by her stepfather. She says her half-brother—her stepfather's son—was a victim too. "You hear his screams and you hear the thwack of the belt," she says. "When you hear those sounds, you want them to go on and on and on forever, because you know when they stop it will be your turn. You have to face those things about yourself, and I guess we forgive us because we were so little, but it's not nice."
Her stepfather also sexually abused the animals on the family's farm, Truddi says. Then he would kill the animals to prevent them from doing something that could make neighbors suspicious, she says.
Truddi says one of the hardest things to deal with is realizing her mother—who passed away after the book was released—must have known about what was happening in the house. "She repressed so much, as we found out later. Tons of things," Truddi says. "Maybe in order to stay sane she had to do that. Now I don't know if we're giving her excuses."
The very first time Truddi realized she wasn't living alone was when she heard a small child's voice calling out. "I said to myself: 'My God, I know that I talk to myself, but I'm hearing this voice. What is this?' And then that stopped, thank God. But shortly after that, like you woke up one morning and in the bedroom it was all gritty and grey and you looked around and they were all there. Except the mind is so kind to you, it gave you the impression of there being only seven. And as we went on in therapy and you realize the number was growing, you said, 'Boy, I must really be crazy.'"
Truddi says her personalities don't always know one another, and not all 92 of her "troops" are active. "Some of them are so damaged they kind of stay back in the shadows," she says. "They don't give their names; they don't come out. It's only lately that we're getting shreds and pieces from each one of them."
Truddi says she never told anyone about the abuse she was suffering from when she was a child because she didn't think anyone would help her. "Nobody would have listened, and back then, we were the ones who would have been locked up if we had told," she says. "People would have said simply, 'This cannot be.' But it can, and it was."
Once, she says she considered asking for help but didn't. "There was a teacher in school, and we thought, 'Wow she is so nice, but she is so clean,'" Truddi says. "'And if we tell her, she will see how dirty we are.'"
After When Rabbit Howls was first published, a Washington Post reporter tracked down Truddi's stepfather in New York state. He denied everything, but other members of Truddi's family have confirmed her story.
Before starting therapy, Truddi says she and her "troops" wanted nothing more than to confront—violently, if possible—her abuser. "Then it got worse because we were really dredging things up," she says. "The memories were coming back and you looked around you at the chaos that your life was in and you knew why it was in chaos and you just wanted to see him dead as a doornail. And now, I think, probably at last, we have some kind of relief from that. I don't ever want to see his face."
Truddi's therapist, Dr. Robert Phillips, says what causes a personality split like Truddi's is unclear. "It seems to be something about the brain, about the mind, which allows this very creative process to come in and to help defend a person. It usually is a person who is abused very, very young—before personality is formed," he says. "When you're so young everything is overwhelming; the whole world is overwhelming. Something like this just overloads, so the person cannot stay there and take it."
Dr. Phillips says despite Truddi's condition, he doesn't like calling her "dysfunctional." "It's the most functional way to help a child survive. A child does not die but is able to survive and goes on," he says. "Many, many people who are multiple function quite well. I've worked with a man who is a lawyer. I've worked with people who are professionals, counselors, medical doctors. They are able to go on and live life."
While Truddi's daughter, Kari, grew up in her father's custody, she says having Truddi for a mother was wonderful. "I come home from school I don't know who I'm coming home to," she says. "It's always interesting."Read how Truddi's legacy lives on