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.
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.
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.
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.
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."