Understanding Persecutory Alters

As I write this I am safely admitted to St. John Of God Burwood. On Monday (I have Dissociative Identity Disorder) and switched to my persecutor alter, Eileen who took a massive overdose. I collapsed at the kitchen table having breakfast with my family. My husband thought he had been monitoring me closely taking my medications but I had managed to stash at her behest a dose big enough to land me in ICU at St. George’s Hospital in Sydney. I was helicoptered there from our local District Hospital.

He thought I had had a stroke so rang the Ambulance immediately. Two arrived and worked on me. I was barely breathing. They intubated me and took me straight to the hospital where they worked on me, discovering from blood tests that I had taken an overdose.

That was so hard for my husband to hear. He thought he had been so conscientious but the alter outwitted him unfortunately. I feel so guilty about how he must feel and how my children must be feeling seeing their Mother in such a state but I have no control over the alters and when I switch. It is totally involuntary and I don’t ever remember what happens when I do switch so it makes it very difficult for me to do anything about what they do. When I switch and my husband observes it he is able to tell me and that is really helpful otherwise it is just lost time and I have no idea what I had done.

I am constantly doing research on DID and persecutory alters. My other alters are harmelss though do get very upset at times. I found this paper on persecutory alters which I found very interesting and useful in explaining what they were and how they orignated. Understanding them is very helpful.

Source: Fortrefuge.com

Therapists working with either Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) or Ego State Disorder (Bloch,1991; Watkins & Watkins, 1993, 1992) recognize this angry wail as coming from a “persecutor” or “malevolent” alter or ego state. Such alters are present in somewhere between 50 and 84 percent of Dissociative Identity Disorder cases (Putnam, 1989; Ross, 1989) and can pose considerable risk to the host, frequently disrupt the therapy, and often scare both host and therapist with their vehemence and determination.

Most of the literature on the development of these persecutory alters reports that they usually begin life as protectors and then, for some reason, turn on the host, becoming persecutory. The theoretical reasons given for this change are numerous: it is due to either a “masochistic turning inward of expressions of hostile affect” (Kluft, 1985, p. 183) or an identification with the aggressor (Bloch, 1991) or the “identification with the evil motivations of others” (Bloch, 1991, p. 29).

After reviewing the current literature on persecutory alters we will attempt to formulate a developmental theory which makes clear the persecutors underlying positive role within the system. We will then turn to the treatment implications which result from this perspective. Finally, we will explore some common countertransference responses to persecutor alters and their effect on us as therapists and on the work we do.

Before we begin, however, we are faced with an insurmountable problem: In the literature there is no consistent nomenclature or system of differential diagnosis of persecutor alters. What, exactly, we are talking about is unclear. Many authors such as Ross, Beahrs, and Bloch have established different categories of aggressive alters. Bloch calls them either persecutory or malevolent (1991); Beahrs (1982) differentiates between persecutors and demons; while Ross places them in subgroups of uncooperative alters, angry adolescents, or internal demons who “really want to be contained and loved.” (1989, pp. 255-257). The categorical criteria or descriptive differences each author uses is different from the other authors.

In addition there appear to be aggressive alters who “may be sadistic sex murderers who have committed numerous crimes and be beyond rehabilitation” (Ross, 1989, p. 259-260). While Ross, like Putnam (1989), groups these alters together with the persecutors we are not convinced that they are dynamically and functionally the same. In this paper we are not talking these alters who are truly “beyond rehabilitation,” but rather about persecutors who, as we shall see, are described as malleable, changing from childhood protector to persecutor and then, with proper treatment back into forceful ally. Unfortunately there is no existing nomenclature with which to denote this difference.

Finally, each author proposes quite different treatment approaches for their different persecutor types. This is reminiscent of Ross’s critique of the personality disorders field in which one expert’s “borderline” is another’s “narcissist” who would do poorly if treated like a” borderline” (Ross, 1994).

We believe this confusion and uncertainty both warrants and necessitates further study and the establishment of a system of differential diagnosis of aggressive alters so that in both clinical and forensic settings therapists can accurately, consistently, and safely differentiate the types of aggressive alters.

At present we must simply heed Ross’ advice to “enter negotiations with persecutors cautiously, with eyes and ears open” (1989, p. 260) and, through the techniques we outline here, to assess the function of the behavior. Through this assessment the true nature of the alter will emerge as well as its capacity to form a treatment alliance. In the vast majority of cases this capacity appears to be excellent once understanding has been mutually achieved. It should not. however be assumed without careful assessment.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Description of Persecutor Alters

In the literature on DID and Ego State Disorder (ESD) the description of persecutor alters’ behavioral manifestations is remarkably consistent.

“On first meeting they will be fearsome, loathsome, demon-like entities totally committed to the malicious harassment and abuse of the patient” (Putnam, 1989, p. 205). Watkins and Watkins (1988) describe them as “loaded with rage, they may be both suicidal and homicidal. They slash the patient, strike at others, initiate bizarre behavior and threaten all, including the therapist” (p.68). They may initiate: “headaches, internal bullying, increased blank spells, interference with function, or imposition of unpleasant states on the host personality” (Ross, 1989, p. 255). In a word they are abusive toward the host and often toward other alters (Bloch, 1991), the therapist, family members, and other people.

In addition to the physical abuse of the host there are other forms of “torment” which are “inflicted” on the patient:

“Self-mutilation by persecutors to punish the host or other alters is common.

“The host may also find threatening notes or even more graphic warnings of future mutilation … for example, … a threatening message written in … blood on [the] bedroom wall. (Putnam, p. 206)

The harassment and abuse also frequently take the form of internal talk by the persecutor. “These voices will berate and belittle the patient, threaten or urge suicide, and sarcastically and gleefully taunt the patient about their total control over him or her” (Putnam, 1988, p. 206). The voices will also often demean and belittle the therapist and urge the host to drop out of therapy.

Finally, the persecutors engage in numerous behaviors which compromise the well being of the host. These include such things as alienating friends and family (who frequently withdraw) and anti-social behavior for which the host is then responsible.

Taken together, “the various forms of harassment and the patient’s reactions to them constitute a major source of torment for an MPD patient” (p. 205) as well as very real threats to the health and well being of the host. From observations of the patterns of “harassment” and from the life histories of the persecutors, theorists have attempted to create explanatory developmental and dynamic models which we shall examine in the next section.

Origin and Development of Persecutory Personalities

It is generally agreed in the literature that persecutors start out as friendly, in fact protective alters. This is supported by Kluft’s findings that in childhood DID “persecutor personalities … are notable for their absence” (Kluft, 1985. p. 183) and Bliss’ observation that “all of the personalities begin as friends and allies…” (quoted in Putnam, 1989, p. 208).

The most common explanation in the literature of the childhood protective function, with several variations, is that the persecutor started life as some kind of repository for various painful experiences and emotions. Watkins and Watkins state that dissociation leads to splitting off the rage into a separate ego state which “lays the basis for forming an unconscious destructive, malevolent ego state divorced from normal super-ego controls” (1988, p. 69). Ross also speaks of the persecutory alter as “carrying all the anger” (1989, p. 256). Kluft describes the persecutors as initially “taking all the suffering for the others” (1985, p. 185). Elsewhere they are described as containing the “affect and energy the depressed and apathetic host cannot sustain” (Putnam, 1989, p. 208), as a “personification of the patient’s vital life energy (Beahrs, 1982, p. 141), and finally as serving “as [a] crystallization of the client’s aggressive, destructive impulses” (Bloch, 1991, p. 55).

There is less agreement in the literature about the process by which this initially protective container or repository becomes persecutory towards the host. It has been described as the result of the alter’s “becoming impatient” (Bloch, 1991, p.55) or “resenting suffering for others” (Kluft, 1985, 185). The implication here is that due to the level of distress the alter turns on the host. Alternatively, it has also been suggested that the alter changes from protector to persecutor through “a masochistic turning inward of hostile affect … identifying with the aggressor” (Kluft, 183-185), and similarly, through a process of identification “with the evil motivations of others” (Bloch, 1991, p. 55). Finally the process is explained as occurring, “when later repression breaks down, this [malevolent] state emerges, takes over executive control of the body and vents it’s rage on the patient or others” (Watkins and Watkins, 1988, p, 69).

Functions of Persecutor Alters

Finally in our review of the literature on persecutor alters we noticed a conspicuous gap. In DID and ESD, alters and ego states are generally seen as having certain roles, functions, or purposes within the system (Bloch, 1991). While we have noted some mention in the literature of initial or childhood function, Putnam and Ross are alone in their discussion of persecutor’s later roles (Putnam, 1989; Ross 1989).

Putnam states that persecutors “contain the energy and affects that the depressed and apathetic host cannot sustain” (p. 208). He also states that through their threatening behavior persecutors preserve the secrets of the past abuse. In addition to protecting the facts of the abuse the persecutor “serves to keep noxious reminders of the experience at a distance” from both therapist and host. It accomplishes both goals by “creating such an uproar in therapy that the therapist never has a chance to focus on the past” (p. 208).

It should be noted that this is again a behavioral description in which the overarching function of or reason for the behavior is hinted at but never stated. In an early work Helen Watkins, while not outright saying what we think is the important discovery she has made, alludes to her increasing understanding that a persecutor is “blindly protecting [the client] according to its view of itself and its originally created purpose for existing” (Watkins, 1978, pp. 368-369). Ross is alone in formulating the concept that “the hostile behavior is actually protective” (1989, p. 259) or more generally that the persecutor “has a good reason for what she is doing and that her behavior makes sense from her point of view” (p. 258). In the following sections we shall follow Ross’s lead and attempt to look at persecutor or malevolent alters not so much in terms of what they do but why they act as they do, the “good reason.” We shall attempt to distinguish between means and end, behavior and intent. We shall begin by proposing a theory of persecutor’s etiology and development.

ETIOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT OF PERSECUTOR ALTERS

Protector Initially formed in childhood

We agree entirely with the observation that persecutors evolve out of helper or protector personalities who first come into existence in the host’s childhood or early adolescence. We disagree, however, with the implication in the literature that the persecutors undergo a transformation of identity role to “become” a malevolent entity. This assumed malleability of essence is taken further in the literature when authors talk about therapy with persecutors and note that the persecutor can be “turned into [a] constructive force” (Watkins, 1978, p. 397) and become “one of the therapist’s strongest allies and can play a major role in the healing of the patient” (Putnam, 1991, p. 205).

In our work with these alters we find no such changes. The protectors are still and always protectors. What changes is the form of the protective behavior which no longer looks obviously protective and which may, in actuality be harmful and life threatening to the host.

Though he is writing about the development of aggression, hostility, and hate in childhood, we find Parens’ formulations helpful in understanding the development of these feelings in persecutory alters. Hostility is not inborn but is “generated by unpleasure-inducing events … invariably object-related, which are experienced as excessively painful by the child (and ego)” (Parens, 1994, p. 88, italics original). Under the pressure of “excessive unpleasure” aggression is transformed into hostility which “has as it basic aim to act upon, assert oneself over, and control” the object in an effort to stop the excessive unpleasure (pp. 80-81). The hostility is thus instrumentally used and “the inflicting of pain or harm upon, and thus effecting the hostile destruction of, the object” is in the service of control of the object (p. 81).

In our view the most important change in the development of persecutor alters is that in adolescence or adulthood the protector perceives the host or the host’s actions as the source of the threat (the object to be controlled) and consequently acts to protect the system from him or her. To understand the change from childhood protector to adolescent or adult persecutor we need therefore to look not at the alter but at the host. We shall do this in the next section but a preliminary case vignette may be helpful. In an HBO special on MPD (Mierendorf, 1993), a persecutor alter who identifies herself only as “Me, Myself” is questioned about her mutilation of the host:

“I would do anything in the world to destroy anything she did and hurt her any way I could. I used to be one of those inside who would belittle her and called her names and swear at her. I used to cut the shit out of her — and I’m very good at it. I’m the one who severed the artery and 4 tendons.” 

The therapist asks: “Why’d you do that?” 

“I wanted to kill her.” 

“What did she do?” 

“I stopped growing at 14 because that was when she began becoming interested in boys, and dates, and all that ……….[she trails off], and I hated it and I didn’t want any part of it. So I quit, I wasn’t going to be any more than 14 ’cause nobody was ever gonna touch me ………” 

“And whenever that would happen with Gretchen [the host] it would hurt me and I would hate it and I’d hate her, and I’d hate her for letting that happen … so I’d cut her.

The Change to Harassment: Changes in Host’s Behavior

With the increased agency of adolescence and adulthood the host now starts to engage in behavior which the protector assesses to be dangerous. To protect the host he or she must be controlled. The means of that control are the same aggressive thoughts, feelings, or acts which may have previously been directed toward others (in the protective role) but which are now experienced as “persecutory” as they are directed at the host.

Naturally, given the underlying protective role of the persecutor, this ego state may also feel genuine and intense hostility toward the host for putting the system in danger.

The following discussion of specific host behaviors which elicit this change in the protector’s focus of control is not intended to be exhaustive but rather suggestive of the possible range.

Risk-taking behavior is an obvious trigger of the protector’s efforts to control the host. “Traumatized people relive the moment of trauma not only in their thoughts and dreams but also in their actions. In their attempts to undo the traumatic moment, survivors may even put themselves at risk of further harm” (Herman, 1992, p. 39). Now, in adolescence and early adulthood, the host has much more opportunity than in childhood to put herself at risk. He or she has increased mobility, more unsupervised time, and vastly expanded exposure to potential victimizers.

The host increases her exposure to potential abusers and revictimazation not only through her increased exposure to other people but also through what Kluft has termed the “sitting duck syndrome” which leads to frequent involvement in exploitative and abusive relationships (Kluft, 1990). In a context of such ongoing trauma it is only natural that there will be an increasing load of hostility within the system.

Even non-abusive relationships may provoke the protector’s vitriolic reaction if the relationship takes on a meaning which feels threatening. Simply feeling the possibility of closeness to another person may be the trigger because of the protector’s prior learning that trust and dependency lead surely and inevitably to abuse and hurt. The history of relational violation leads to the equation of relationship and violation. Another factor may be the perceived threat of sex. To protectors like “Me, Myself” all sex may be experienced as invasion and abuse.

Another threat to the system which the host may pose in adolescence or adulthood is of breaking the silence about the abuse and/or the multiplicity. This threat is often raised to the level of crisis when the host enters treatment. We then witness the protector’s desperate attempt to control the client, to “save her” from the expected dire consequences of revealing the secrets.

While these perceived threats appear to us to be originating from the external world the protector perceives them as caused by the host, as under the host’s control. In the same way that the victim usually blames herself for the abuse, so to the protector blames her. Therefore the protector’s abusive behavior is directed at the host in an effort to control her behavior.

Finally, the host is often perceived as a threat for what he or she is not doing; for not protecting herself, for not getting out of an abusive relationship, for not taking better care of her body, for not sticking up for herself, for not expressing anger, and for a thousand other things which we well know are frequently difficult for survivors. What she is not doing is the fuel for the protector’s charge that she or he is a hopeless “wimp.”

In conclusion, we agree with the common belief that persecutors start out as protectors; we disagree, however, with the idea that their basic identity changes and that they “become” persecutors. We think that in fact these supposed persecutors have not changed at all and that they are still protectors. What has changed is what needs to be protected against. In adolescence or adulthood the host him or herself is perceived as the threat and the protector shifts its aggressive behavior toward the host because of this fact. In the next section we shall focus on treatment of persecutors and how we can help them carry out their underlying protective function more appropriately.

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4 comments

  1. I’m sorry you and your family are going through this. I am glad that the overdose didn’t result in death. That paper has some very interesting ideas. I hope you can return home and to your wonderful therapist soon so you can continue your healing.

    • Thanks for your kind words of good wishes. I really appreciate them. I am glad you found the paper interesting as did I. I learned a lot. I am certainly looking forward to returning home after some recovery time. All the best Erin

  2. Hello Erin I’m pleased to have found this, I hope you are doing better xx. I call mine “the others”. One of them, older teenager Red did this. Turned on me somewhat. I’ve tried to keep safe and understand for the last 10 or so years that this has happened. She takes credit for burning me, hospitalising me and running away from the hospital when I’d rather stay there and rest. She just doesn’t trust care givers I guess (although she’d word it differently). Or people in uniforms that we don’t know, she’ll be hostile or she’ll run. It’s difficult for people to understand unless they meet her or me just after her, which we all call ‘us’ as Liz is not instantly back, there’s crossover and confusion but I think it’s apparent to people dealing with me acutely that with the injuring it’s impossible for me to do that. I feel no pain and have no memory except maybe a grainy one of her thought processes. Not mine. She’s still protective of if a little irritated by our 3 year old other though, who mostly just cries. Blue is 7, its like he just realised he hates all adults and delights in telling them, he has some songs he sings which I know but I dont know how I know. How could anyone understand this? I tell them (psychiatrists) I worry that Red will kill us but I’m not suicidal so they don’t get it, I just live knowing it might happen one day. Sorry for long comment except I think maybe you might understand. Thanks for the info. My at least understanding why is important. Xx

    • Hi Liz, thank you for sharing your ‘system’ with us. Like me you have persecutory alters that do damage to you and work against your best interests. They are very difficult to manage as you cannot control when they decide to emerge. I hope through therapy you are able to achieve integration. That is what I am working towards. I have made it with three alters, 10 to go!!!! All the best Erin

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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