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

Updated October 11, 2018 382.0k views10 items

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

  • '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. 

  • Overhill’s Personalities Were Wildly Different From One Another

    As she began to catalog her identities, Overhill initially found 10 additional personalities inside her mind. In addition to Jensen and Claire, there were two more children; two teen girls, Julie and Sandy; a 21-year-old woman; Holdon and Katherine, who were both 34; and “another very angry man.”

    It took several more years of therapy to find the remaining six personalities. As they came to the surface, each one revealed strikingly different characteristics. For example, 2-year-old Karen Boo was Hungarian, 5-year-old Sydney pathologically stole, and 13-year old Julie had asthma. The identities spanned races and ages, and some were left-handed while others were right-handed. Each even had their own distinct mannerisms and gait

  • Her Different Personalities Were Able To Shield Her From Physical Pain

    Overhill’s mind was so neatly divided that the other personalities couldn’t feel the physical pain the dominant alter at the time experienced. Overhill had developed these different “alters” to shoulder the burden of her childhood trauma. This protective behavior continued throughout adulthood. The alters worked to shield Overhill from pain, but this sometimes backfired: 

    If I had a bad headache, it would just go away without medication. But this caused problems, too, because pain is protective. Once I stayed at work till the end of the day when I needed an appendectomy.

    Baer worked with Overhill for years to “gradually dissolve the separation between the alters.” His long-term plan included reintegrating the separate identities into one: Karen.