Meet Karen Overhill, The Woman Who Has 17 People Living Inside Her Head

In 1989, at the age of 29, a woman known under the pseudonym Karen Overhill went to Chicago therapist Dr. Richard Baer in the hopes of finding the source of her lifelong memory lapses. After an examination and several visits, the diagnosis came back: Overhill had a rare mental condition - multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). Baer determined Overhill had 17 distinct personalities

In the decades since she began treatment, Overhill’s condition has become a well-known case study. Mental health professionals have maintained there’s a direct correlation between childhood abuse and adult mental illness, citing the example of Overhill. Baer concluded Overhill developed her 16 DID alters to cope with childhood trauma - specifically the sexual assault and torture she told Baer that she endured in the 1960s when male family members allegedly led a cult. Baer employed hypnosis and visualization methods to help Overhill reintegrate her personalities, and in 2017, he released the biography Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman with 17 Personalities

  • Initially, Baer Thought Overhill Was Depressed

    Initially, Baer Thought Overhill Was Depressed
    Photo: Karen Overhill / via Switching Time / Fair Use

    In 1989, when Overhill first came to the practice where Dr. Richard Baer, fresh out of medical school, offered psychotherapy counseling, he did not expect the extent of her mental illness. He told Chicago magazine

    She had chronic pain resulting from surgery, from delivering her daughter by cesarean section. People who have chronic pain often have depression. I knew from her manner that her depression was serious and had to be dealt with before anything else. [...] With this patient, I thought she was just a depressed woman who needed medication. Obviously, I was wrong.

    He admitted to at first feeling impatient with the new client, not understanding why she seemed so unsure of herself and her life. However, he recognized “character traits” in Overhill indicating medication alone was not the answer. 

  • It Took Close To Three Years For Overhill And Baer To Identify Her Disorder

    Baer initially believed Overhill suffered from secondary depression as a result of chronic pain. His understanding of her circumstances changed as she began to reveal several “little tidbits of things that were odd.” For example, she told Baer she fainted three times during her wedding ceremony. There were also several instances in which Overhill was unable to respond when he asked what she did the day before.

    Baer was hesitant to diagnose her condition because he wanted to be sure she had multiple personalities before moving forward. He recognized her description of “dissociative episodes,” but could not identify the nature of the episodes until after extensive therapy. 

  • Overhill’s Father and Grandfather Allegedly Led A Cult That Assaulted And Tortured Children

    According to Overhill, she was just one of the victims of a cult her father and grandfather founded. According to her, throughout the 1960s, her father collected a variety of men - including a police officer, a teacher, and a priest - who actively participated in the “ritual abuse” of children.

    Dr. Baer explained to reporters how acting as a “detective” wasn’t the way to cure Overhill. In his book, Baer documented a letter from “Miles,” one of Overhill’s personalities. In the letter, Miles explained how he and “Elise,” another personality, went to the “rituals” and kept “cult and non-cult things separate” from Overhill.

    When Baer researched the claims years after Overhill’s treatment, he discovered several stories that seemed to corroborate her allegations. In 1993, the courts convicted her father on 19 counts of sexual abuse. Reportedly, he assaulted Overhill’s niece.

  • She Was Subjected To Physical Abuse, Like Needles In Her Abdomen

    Over the years, Overhill’s accounts remained reliable. He described her as "completely consistent in all her memories, in all the alters, over 10 years." He further explained how "she never gave [him] reason to doubt her." Baer eventually met all 16 of Overhill’s alternate personalities.

    Throughout their therapy sessions, the personalities allegedly “revealed different pieces of Karen’s frightening childhood […] satanic rituals, torture, and rape.”

    In one account, a personality told Baer how Overhill's father and the cult took her to a funeral home after hours and placed her on an embalming table. According to the alter, her father then jabbed her in the abdomen with needles while strangers “caressed” her. In other memories, personalities recounted several instances of torture, such as "being pierced with coat hangers and fish-hooks, carved with knives, and beaten with hammers and baseball bats." 

  • 'Claire' Sent A Letter To Baer, Asking For Help

    Once Dr. Baer suspected Overhill might have multiple personalities, the pair began to investigate her disorder. At first, Overhill was unsure, but a few months into treatment, she arrived at her weekly session to discover Baer had received a letter in the mail:

    Dear Doctor Baer, 
    My name is Claire. I am 7 years old. I live inside Karen. I listen to you all the time. I want to talk to you, but I don't know how.

    Overhill said she knew instinctively she’d written the note, even though the penmanship was utterly different from hers - and appropriate for a 7-year-old. Baer later explained in an interview that he believed Claire reached out to him because she “wanted a good, positive daddy figure.”

  • Overhill’s Alters Formed As A Coping Mechanism For Traumatic Events

    At the age of 12, an elderly relative reportedly raped Overhill - subsequently causing the arrival of “Jensen.” Jensen, one of Overhill’s earliest identities, was an 11-year-old boy who said he “fought back against the abuse and tried to bind [Overhill’s] breasts flat to help [her] appear more masculine.” Jensen was one of the alters who sprang up to help keep Overhill’s fractured mind intact while adult men allegedly sexually abused her. 

    In a conversation with Jensen, Dr. Baer asked the boy why he put anti-freeze in Overhill’s vagina. The preteen replied:

    Because this body hurts. He hurt me with a hanger, and I have to clean it out […], so it’s no more female.