Set This House in Order — the origins of the story

The following essay originally appeared on the Powell’s bookstore web site:

On Building the House

Maybe I should thank Rob Morrow for the idea. In the early 1990s, I was living in Portland, Maine, and on Monday nights, after Northern Exposure ended, I would call up my friend and fellow Exposure fan Lisa Gold to talk about the show. During one of these late-night chats, we somehow got on the subject of multiple personality disorder. I’d been fascinated with MPD ever since I’d read Flora Rheta Schreiber’s biography of Sybil Dorsett, and thought it might be fun to write a story with a multiple as a protagonist—if I could come up with an original plot.

Sybil, though presented as non-fiction, is dramatic enough that it might as well be a novel: A young woman goes to the doctor complaining of headaches and “nervousness,” only to discover that she’s sharing her body with sixteen other personalities, fragments of a former self. She spends the next eleven years struggling to come to terms with the horrendous child abuse that caused her psyche to split, her other selves helping and hindering her by turns. Finally, after many twists and setbacks, she successfully recombines into a single, whole person, and lives happily ever after.

“Cool story,” I told Lisa. “Too bad it’s already been done.”

And then Lisa, doing me a much bigger favor than either of us realized at the time, said: “Well, you know, not every multiple chooses to reintegrate the way Sybil did.” In fact, she added, this was something of an unacknowledged controversy. The official psychiatric line on treatment of MPD was that fusion into a single persona was the only desirable outcome. The trouble was, that treatment goal didn’t work for a lot of multiple personalities. Some couldn’t reintegrate; others managed for a while, only to split apart again after their therapy ended. And some didn’t want to reintegrate—they wanted to live their lives as multiples, just without the confusion of uncontrolled switching.

I asked Lisa how she knew all this, and she said she had a friend named Michael B. who was one of those multiples who’d decided not to go the Sybil route. Instead, he’d developed a mechanism that allowed his different selves to coexist peacefully: he had an imaginary house in his head where his people lived, and where they could see and negotiate with each other instead of fighting blindly for control. The house was ruled over by a father-figure named Daniel, who ran things along the lines of a benign dictatorship: setting strict rules, resolving disagreements, and, where necessary, meting out punishments. Meanwhile, “Michael”—the person you first met when you met Michael B.—was a new self, specifically created to “run the body” and deal with the outside world.

Though I now know that such an MPD coping strategy is not all that unusual, at the time it was a completely new concept to me, one with obvious story potential. But Lisa wasn’t done talking yet. For a while, she said, Michael had been dating a woman (we’ll call her Shelley) who was also a multiple personality. Shelley didn’t know she was multiple, though—she’d never been diagnosed—and when Michael figured it out and tried to tell her, she made it clear she didn’t want to know. Then several of Shelley’s more self-aware alters decided they didn’t like Michael, and began working behind the scenes to sabotage the relationship…

A lot of novelists would have lunged straight for the word processor at this point, but I tend to take a more deliberate approach, mulling an initial inspiration over at great length before I sit down to write. Besides, I was already working on a novel (Sewer, Gas & Electric, my Ayn Rand satire), and I knew I had to finish that before I could start anything new. So I thanked Lisa for giving me a lot to think about, and put the MPD idea away to gestate for a few years.

The story evolved considerably in the telling. My original capsule description of Set This House in Order was that it was “a love story between two multiple personalities.” But as the novel took shape, it became clear that what I was writing really wasn’t a love story after all. My protagonists just weren’t ready to be in love: Andrew, though he desperately wants a girlfriend, is too immature to handle a romantic relationship, and Penny, for most of the story, is simply too confused. I knew better than to try and force it—when your characters resist your intentions, it’s a sign they’ve acquired real depth—but I was sorry to lose what had been a nifty tagline. “It’s about a platonic friendship between two multiple personalities” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The reaction to the book has been amazing: I haven’t had a single negative review so far, and when O Magazine said that Andrew and Penny were “the two most engaging multiple-personality-disorder characters since Sybil,” I was jumping up and down for days. But probably the most gratifying response has been from real-life multiples. Since the day the novel came out, I’ve been getting emails—sometimes two or three from the same address—complimenting me on the accuracy of my portrayal. So even if the style of the House is different than I’d first planned, I seem to have gotten the basic architecture right.

The tough part is going to be deciding what to work on next. I feel like the idea for this novel was a gift, and I’m going to be hard-pressed to find another that will challenge me as much. Still, I do what I can: Northern Exposure is off the air, but Lisa and I still chat on Monday nights (and every other night too—we’re married now), and I always pay attention when she talks about her friends.