Symptoms represent important unconscious messages to oneself and should be managed—if necessary, through psychotherapy or pharmacology or both—but not indiscriminately silenced. Symptom is one way by which the psyche tells us that we’re not listening to its deeper voices. (Chalquist)
I have been attempting to study the psyche of queer-identified peoples since I was 19 years old, doodling zine ideas in the back row of Gay and Lesbian Studies. From my undergraduate escapades in queer theory and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues to the doctoral dance of Mark Thompson’s Gay Spirit and Mitch Walker’s Radical Faerie ideology, my understanding of queerness and psyche has been a continuously evolving construct, malleable in definition and subject to the zeitgeist. Despite its adaptability, or perhaps because of it, the construct of queerness, psyche and queer psyche remains an elusive topic of study. I had been writing about the queerness and the psyche for over a decade when my client named The Collective came into my life. By the time I met them, I had already spent years researching and writing about the nature of queerness, Queer Spirituality, Queer Spirit and The Queer Archetype. I had come to a type of understanding, for better or worse, on the key facets of these constructs. By the time I met The Collective I had already conducted research on the role of queer spaces in Queer Spirituality and published a theory of Queer Archetypal Lifespan Development. I had been down the proverbial rabbit hole with the queer psyche, argued for its existence through historical presence in indigenous cultures, gathered data on its representation in myths and societal customs, as well reviewed literature on its depictions in spiritual traditions, legends, and folklore. Throughout all of this, through this lengthy academic journey, the assumption of the singularity of psyche, whether stated or implied, remained. That psyche, queer or otherwise, referred to one soul, one psyche per person, per human incarnation. Enter The Collective.
In March of 2017 a female presenting person walked into my office. This person, referred to as Patient Q (PQ), revealed that they identified as a “queer, copresent multiple,” an individual who identified with the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID), and as a unit, they were queer.
A depth psychological lens
As a practicing psychotherapist and depth psychologist, I am constantly in dialogue with the way unconscious processes express themselves in society and culture, and how, in turn, that culture affects the psyche. Depth Psychology functions under the premise that “the mind is an arena or interplay of dynamic, passionate forces connected to a somatic base” (Chalquist).
In my work with clients I come from the vantage that my clients are experts of their own perspective, regardless of “empirical truth.” From this interdisciplinary lens, literature, spirituality, philosophy, mythology and the arts affect my conceptualizations of cases, their diagnosis and treatment methods.
That being said, dissociative identity disorder is a controversial mental health diagnosis characterized by the presence of more than one sense of identity within a single human body. These alternate identities, commonly referred to as “alters” or “dissociated parts,” are conceptualized in modern clinical psychology as elements of a single fragmented personality. This personality is able to be experienced by the person and others as different people, able to function independently, and conventionally thought to be the result of childhood trauma (“Alters”).
Depth Psychology advocates for the exploration of conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious material in order to heal social, emotional and spiritual wounds. In approaching The Collective’s queer psyche from this lens, I utilized their own framework to guide our work. It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess the evidence for the existence, etiology and treatment methods associated with DID as a clinical disorder. What follows is an exploration of queer psyche as PQ believed it to be. It is in no way comprehensive and intended to serve as a jumping off point for future research.
The Collective and their queer psyche
As PQ and I got acquainted, I was told that PQ preferred to be referred to as she; however, as a unit, preferred I refer to them as “They.” PQ indicated that she was a cisgender (gender identity corresponds to sex assigned at birth) woman, as were all the other members of The Collective. She also stated that though she as an individual identified as queer, the other individuals did as well. She continued on to indicate that the queer identity went far beyond any of their individual sexual orientations or gender expressions, but it was the core of their multiplicity. They were not one queer psyche or many queer psyches, but the group of psyches as a unit were, in and of themselves, queer.
From this moment, all of my previous work with respect to queer psyche suddenly felt inadequate. Was multiplicity in psyche queer? How could one even know, when queer psyche itself felt like Jell-O, always moving and moderately cohesive. It felt as if the container I had been using to hold the construct of queer psyche was not extensive enough to hold this amorphous construct to be accurate. I needed to break it all down from the beginning.
Breaking it down: The basics
The term “queer” is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “odd, strange, unusual, funny or peculiar” as well as “an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications” (Jagose 91). It is of note that the term “queer” refers to “nothing in particular,” resulting in the notion that the “fundamental indeterminacy makes queer a difficult object of study; always ambiguous, always relational” (Jagose 96).
Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives defines “queer” as non-normative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment and activity in space and time that specifically emerge within postmodernism and transcend “bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety and inheritance” (6). Halberstam indicates that queer time and space are critical to the understanding of queer subcultures as a whole, in that queer life modes, existing outside of heteronormative timelines, offer an alternative to living within the parameters of child-rearing practices.
The term psyche, derived from the Greek psȳchḗ, meaning literally “to breathe,” refers to the construct of “the mind, soul or human spirit” (“Psyche” Dictionary.com). Psyche, represented in both Latin and Greek mythology as a beautiful woman, is made immortal by the love of the Greek God Eros, also known as Cupid. Pictorially represented as a butterfly, the concept of the psyche in modern psychology references the center of “thought, feeling, and motivations consciously and unconsciously directing the body’s reactions to its social and physical environment” (“Psyche” The New Dictionary).
According to Craig Chalquist in the article “What is Depth Psychology,” psyche is more indicative of a process, “a verb rather than a noun,” existing as simultaneously conscious and unconscious. He indicates that “the unconscious, in turn, contains repressed experiences and other personal-level issues in its ‘upper’ layers and “transpersonal” (i.e. collective, non-I, archetypal) forces in its depths.”
In order to utilize the most expansive definition of the term, for the purposes of this discussion, the term “queer psyche” refers to the process of a fluid and evolving construct of soul, mind, and/or consciousness which has the potential to incorporate all facets of life including time, systemic structures, attitudes, and ideas that are not associated with heteronormativity. This is inclusive of sexuality, sexual expression, and gender identification, but is not limited to it.
Transcending the binary, transcending the singularity?
One of the primary tenets of queerness as a construct is the notion of a gender-sexuality spectrum. Non-binary genderedness can be understood as a conceptualization of being and consciousness whereby the illusory nature of the separation between genders dissolves, creating individuality that can be differentiated but not split. Non-binary genderedness assumes the differentiation between biological sexes is a static chromosomal characteristic, as opposed to gender, a fluid sociological construct (Blackmore 3).
The manifestation of non-binary genderedness, according to Edwin Johnson in the book Gay Spirituality: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness, is referred to as spiritual androgyny (123). Spiritual androgyny, or the ability of consciousness to incorporate and therefore overcome opposites, is present within the queer individual. This “potent blend of male strength and competence with female sensitivity and feeling” makes a more complex and fascinating human being (124). At this juncture, I have found no reference for or against multiplicity being a component of spiritual androgyny.
According to Mark Thompson in his book Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, nonbinary genderedness and the ability to transcend polarities have been an honored and integral component of queer individuals historically across a variety of cultures. Named bote by the Crow Indians of Montana, nadle by the Navajo, and lhamana by the Zunis of New Mexico, these “two-spirited” individuals have been revered for their capacity to embrace characteristics of their non-biological sex (53). Within indigenous cultures native to the Americas, cross-dressing often meant “entering a magical state involving taking on a persona or spirit of a god,” as well as assuming a variety of roles such as healers, leaders, and mediators of spiritual life (67).
One of the most famous examples of the confluence between non-binary gender expression and elevated social roles is the tale of We’Wha, the Zuni Berdache (two-spirit), who rose to diplomatic prominence in Washington DC’s elite social circles in the late 1800’s. According to Will Roscoe in the book The Zuni Man-Woman: We’Wha and the Zuni Third Gender Role, We’wha was an accomplished potter, weaver and a recognized expert in Zuni religion whose success culminated in an 1886 meeting with then-President Grover Cleveland. According to Roscoe, it came as no surprise to the Zunis that We’wha would travel thousands of miles, overcoming the obstacles of language and culture, to live and mingle with the leaders of a powerful nation as “Berdaches were expected to be extraordinary” (Roscoe, willsworld.org). Examples of non-binary gender expression, two-spiritedness, and third-gendered individuals appear in myth and folklore across cultures, locale, and time. Within classical Mayan cosmology (200-900 CE), a deity known as the Tonsured Maize, depicted as an “effeminate young man associated with art and dance,” was considered to embody the culture’s third gender, while gender variance and same-sex eroticism in Aztec mythology was depicted through representations of Xochipilli, the patron god of “art, games, beauty, dance, flowers, maize, and song” (Connor et al. 351). During the same relative period, pre-Islamic Arabic and Oikoumene cultures worshipped the third-gendered trio Mukhannathun, Al-lāt, Al-Uzza, and Manāt as divine creators, while the Akan people of Ghana’s deities manifested as the androgynous celestial beings Abrao, Aku, and Awo (Connor et al. 40).
In the forward of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit, Gloria Anzaldua refers to a similar construct as the Queer Spirit (vi). The Queer Spirit is a vast community of jotos, or sacred queers which participate in the mythic dimensions of life. The sacred queers engage in beliefs and practices woven together from Shamanism, Buddhism, Christianity, Santeria and numerous other traditions (vii). From the “effeminate drag queen” psychopomp Haitian Voodoo spirit Ghede Nibo, to the Australian Aboriginal rainbow-serpent transgender god, Angamunggi, evidence of jotos can be found in a multitude of mythologies (Connor et al. 157). For example, third gender, or gender variant, spiritual intermediaries are found in many Pacific island cultures, including the Bajasa of the Toradja Bare’e people of Celebes, the Bantut of the Tausug people of the south Philippines, and the Bayagoin of the pre-Christian Philippines (Connor et al. 85). The Bayagoin’s polytheistic religion included the transgender and/or hermaphroditic gods Bathala and Malyari, whose names means “Man and Woman in One” and “Powerful One” respectively (Connor et al. 84).
The Queer Spirit is simultaneously a belief system, energy, and an embodied manifestation. The Queer Spirit contains the idea of a spiritual mestizaje or shapeshifter as its central mythology. “It is a spirituality that nurtures the ability to wear someone else’s skin in its disturbance of traditional boundaries of gender and desire with a narrative of metamorphosis” (Anzaldua viii). Hindu mythology contains numerous examples of deities changing gender, manifesting as different genders at different times and incarnations, combining to form androgynous and/or hermaphroditic beings, as well as embodying the opposite sex in order to facilitate sexual acts. For example, Ardhanarishvara, a god created by the merging of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati, has a name which literally means “The lord whose half is a woman” (Connor et al. 67). Representing the “totality that lies beyond duality,” this form of Shiva is associated with communication between mortals and gods as well as men and women (Connor et al. 67).
Multiplicity, while not specifically referenced in any he above described examples, appears to be able to be absorbed into the logic of the larger context. If It is possible to embody more than one gender or biological sex, perhaps multiplicity could follow.
The outsiders containing myth
Non-binary genderedness is also a crucial component of the queer psyche and Queer Spirituality in the larger context. Queer psyche, falling under the umbrella term of Queer Spirituality, which as its own entity, addresses the notion that the containing myths, which have held societies since the birth of organized religion, are inadequate to address the needs of modern consciousness (Anzaldua ix).
Taking its fundamental precepts from Queer Theory, Queer Spirituality calls for a new paradigm, a “new myth” in which the fast-paced evolution of consciousness and the environmental concerns of the planet can be addressed. The new myth of Queer Spiritually assumes an earthrise perspective; that human consciousness was forever transformed by the capacity to witness the planet from outside and above. This vantage, displayed most prominently from Apollo 8’s 1968 images of the Earth from outside its orbit (“Apollo 8”), corresponds with Queer Theory’s notion that “outside” perspectives of society provide avenues to insight that were previously unavailable. It could be argued that this line of reasoning applies to multiplicity as well.
Situated within the container of Queer Spirituality exists the Queer Archetype, embodying the physical, spiritual and psychological elements of queer sexual expression, practice and gender identifications (Blackmore 2). The Queer Archetype is the embodiment of the concept of the Queer Spirit. It embodies the academics of Queer Spirituality while simultaneously focusing on the mythic and spiritual aspects of erotic and gendered experience (Blackmore 3).
Family therapy for The Collective
As my relationship with The Collective deepened, we began to “treat” what they had come to therapy for in the first place. PQ indicated that she was what she referred to as “co-present”—conscious, but able to “take a back seat” to whoever was in charge of the body at any particular moment. PQ’s goal for therapy, contrary to psychiatric recommendations, was to co-exist harmoniously with all entities that she shared a physical form with. She absolutely did not want to “integrate” herself. Integration of the alters into a singular personality stems from a clinical understanding that the alters are merely fractured elements of the primary patient’s psyche (“Alters”). PQ felt that integration of the others would be analogous to “killing her family.”
PQ was aware, however, that some of the others, were in fact, alters, that is, fragmented components of herself. The Collective, as a unit, was able to both acknowledge and differentiate between types. Referencing historical child-like alters that had been integrated years earlier, The Collective became even more convinced of the others’ “soul status.” The Collective’s beliefs center around the understanding that there are several whole human souls inside her singular body, distinct from PQ as an individual. It is PQ’s assessment that there are other components, which they believe to be whole, non-human unrecognizable entities. They were not sure if they were souls, per se, but indicated they were a form of consciousness other members of The Collective has exposure to.
At that moment in time, The Collective had a long history of satisfying relationships with cisgendered men, but an almost exclusive sexual attraction to queer-identified women. Some of the souls had names (Hope, Rosa, etc.), while others preferred to be called by their primary function (The Researcher, Survivor, The Robot, etc.). One even identified as differently-abled (she was blind and PQ’s vision would literally go dark when she was in charge). The fragmented alters were also present; however, PQ functioned as their mouthpiece, discussing them as personifications of feelings (Sadness, Rage, etc.) PQ retained executive function over the alters.
We decided to work with the others as a family, a closed system. As I gained each individual’s trust, we negotiated their role in the family, the autonomy of their decisions, established a democracy on dating, and created safety rules.
Quickly, The Collective was able to function like a well-oiled machine, each soul maximizing their contribution to “PQ’s life” through the implementation of their specific skill at its most necessary time. Once we had addressed some of the resentment stemming from PQ’s early life “body choices,” a safe space was organically created to dialogue. According to PQ, once the others “felt seen and heard” and were “able to be validated as real” there was a motivation to work together.
With this increased visibility and validity, a new world emerged. Rosa, the extrovert, went to work, The Researcher paid the bills, PQ nurtured the children. I began to see this way of being as potentially the next evolution of humanity. One member of The Collective would rest and another would take over. Their physical body functioned on 3-4 hours sleep. One soul went to work for 8 hours, another wrote poetry for several more. PQ cooked, cleaned and tended to the needs of the children, while The Researcher studied metaphysics throughout the night. They were able to accomplish more per day then I had ever seen a singular human accomplish. I began to wonder. If queer people could be viewed as healers and revered for their two-spiritedness the world over, is perhaps singularity the next duality to transcend? Perhaps with modern technology moving ever faster, our souls could evolve, could transcend our own singularity for maximum productivity. If queerness transcends duality by embracing polarity, does this now transcend singularity by embracing multiplicity? My mind began to swim.
A drop in the bucket: Soul dualism
In researching some of my own questions, I tried to find examples in other cultures’ myths, lore or legends. Soul dualism is a range of beliefs that a person has two (or more) souls or kind of souls existing in one physical body (“Soul Dualism”). Thus far, I have found evidence that the concept of a dualistic shadow-soul exists in Estonian, Hungarian, Finnish and Baltic-Finnic folklore, as well as in the Kalbo and Caribou Inuit cosmology (Ibid.). These groups believe that people have more than one type of soul inhabiting the body simultaneously. For example, in Hungarian folklore, the disease spirit of “Iz” is referenced and associated with the presence of decay in the mouth and gums (Lükő).
In addition, traditional Chinese culture differentiates between hun and po souls, which correlate with the concept of yang and yin respectively. Within this soul dualism, every human has both an ethereal (hun soul) that leaves the body after death, as well as a substantive physical (po soul) that remains with the corpse. Chinese traditions differ over the number of hun and po souls per person, with the Daoist tradition claiming three hun and seven po per physical body (“Soul Dualism”). Described as a historically pivotal concept which remains today, hun and po are commonly understood to be the key to understanding Chinese views of the human soul and the afterlife (“Hun and Po”). It is thought that the identification of the yin-yang principle with the hun and po souls occurred sometime in the late fourth and early third centuries, when hun and po compounded with qi “breath; life force” and xing “form; shape; body” to combine the words/concepts hunq and xingpo (“Hun and Po”).
One of the ways multiplicity has been most commonly understood is by shamanic practitioners who view the phenomenon as a type of soul loss or spirit possession. One of the essential aspects of shamanic healing across all cultures is the shaman’s journey in search of these lost soul parts. The shaman seeks help in getting the spirit or soul part to move to where it will best serve his patient. (Gucciardi). Michael Harner, in The Way of the Shaman, indicates that in almost all pre-industrial societies a “person’s physical illness or erratic behavior often has its roots in loss of an essential part of oneself” (5). This loss can be compounded by the fact that trauma, which is often referred to as “the triggering event for soul loss” (6), can also allow the entry of foreign spirits into a person’s psychic space, disrupting the individual’s mental and physical health. It would then be the role of the shaman practitioner to retrieve the “lost soul parts and restore them to the individual” (10). The performance of various healing modalities, such as dispossession or extraction, will remove the occupying spirits (10). It is of note that this line of thought is still seeking to return the soul to singularity, not multiplicity.
While not addressing the concept of soul multiplicity in one physical body specifically, support for the notion of a single soul in multiple bodies simultaneously lends credence to the idea that soul incarnation is not necessarily a one-to-one phenomenon.
Michael Newton, a counseling psychologist, master hypnotherapist and researcher for over 40 years, provides additional support for the notion of many souls in a singular physical body in his pivotal work Journey of Souls. Through his experimentation with a deeper state of hypnosis deemed the “theta state” Newton compiled thousands of session transcriptions over the course of 30 years. What he claims to have discovered is a methodology for hypnotherapy that allows for the transcendence of past life regression into the space he deems “the lives between lives.” Utilizing 29 specific cases, specifics on life after death, reincarnation and other mysteries emerge with astounding consistency.
In asking a patient (S) about soul dualism and the ability of souls to exist in multiple spaces and in multiple planes, they state:
Dr. N: How did you know you were ready to be a caretaker and begin assisting others spiritually?
S: Its an…awareness which comes over you after a great number of lives… that you are more in balance with yourself than previously and are able to aid people as a spirit and in the flesh.
Dr. N: Are you operating in or out of the spirit world as a caretaker at this time?
S: I am out…In two lives
Dr. N: Are you living in two parallel lives right now?
S: Yes I am. (151)
Dr. Newton indicates that the majority of his colleagues who do past life regressions have overlapping chronologies from people living on earth in two, and very rarely, three parallel lives (155). He continues to indicate that souls may be capable of living in different dimensions during the same relative time.
Dr. N: I wonder how you can function effectively as a spiritual guide for the nine members of your company and still incarnate on Earth to finish your own lessons?
S: It used to affect my concentration to some extent, but now there is no conflict.
Dr. N: Do you have to separate your soul energy to accomplish this?
S: Yes, this capacity (of souls) allows for the management of both. Being on Earth also permits me to directly assist my company and help myself at the same time.
Dr. N: The idea that souls can divide themselves is not an easy thing for me to conceptualize
S: Your use of the term divide is not quite accurate. Every part is still a whole. I’m just saying it takes some getting used to at first since you can manage more than one program at a time.
Dr. N: So, your effectiveness as a teacher is not diminished by having multiple activities?
S: Not in the least. (179-180)
The next frontier
In writing this I am left with vastly greater questions and literally no answers. It appears that the concept of queer psyche, as a vast and fluid entity, is, at the very least capable of holding the construct of multiplicity, though it remains unclear what a practical manifestation of that would look like.
As debates on nature/nurture elements of sexuality and gender continue, and academic discussion of DID persists, it is not likely that these questions will be answered any time soon. That said, what has come of this inquiry is a desire to know more. It is the wish of The Collective that their story be told in the hope that other practitioners will allow space for the continued existence of multiple souls in a singular body. It is my intention that this future research be collaborative and transparent, exploratory and descriptive. Such research, particularly on the transcendence of singularity, has the potential to highlight the power of mythology in our modern psychological understanding.