Back in 1990, Robert Oxnam was on top of the world. He had parlayed an academic career as a China scholar into the presidency of the prestigious Asia Society, the leading sponsor of cultural, educational and artistic contact between the U.S. and Asia. And because the late '80s were a time of increasing political unrest in China--culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre--Oxnam, now 62, was frequently tapped by political leaders to help them figure out how to deal with the Chinese. He even accompanied former President George H.W. Bush as an on-the-ground adviser on a goodwill trip to China in the late 1990s.
At the same time, however, Oxnam's private life was falling apart. He suffered from alcoholism and bulimia and flew into frequent, irrational rages. Several nights a week, as he admits in his courageous new memoir, A Fractured Mind (Hyperion; 285 pages), he performed what he calls his addiction ritual. "It required," he writes, "two packs of cigarettes, Polish sausage, a gallon of ice cream, a two-pound bag of peanuts, a bottle of scotch, and a pornographic movie on the VCR."
Then things got really bad. One day, what seemed like seconds after he had begun a session with his psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Smith, the doctor informed his astonished patient that their time was up. "I spent this past 50 minutes," he told Oxnam, "talking with ... Tommy. He's full of anger. And he's inside of you." In short, Smith explained, Oxnam was suffering from what used to be called multiple-personality disorder. (It's now known as dissociative identity disorder.) Like Sybil, the character in the 1970s book and TV movie, he had several independent identities--11 in all, he would eventually discover--some old, some young, some male, some female, many of them known to one another but not to the "real" Robert Oxnam.
"It was just an utter shock," Oxnam tells TIME, "as if an earthquake had just hit. My second reaction was that this was hogwash. It had to be a doctor pulling a scam." Eventually he accepted the diagnosis, and Smith began teasing out the hidden personalities, helping Oxnam discover them one by one. In order to help others who might be suffering--and, says Oxnam, "to offer a look at the multiple nature that is in all of us"--he wrote A Fractured Mind.
Unfortunately, the book dwells on Oxnam's personalities in excruciating detail, allowing each to speak with its own voice until the readers' eyes glaze over. It's like listening to a long, very complicated story involving people you have never met and cannot keep straight. There's Tommy and Robert and Wanda and Bobby and the Witch and the Librarian and Eyes, and they all live in the Castle, and ... you get the idea.