The broadcast of When the Devil Knocks on the Knowledge Network tonight (February 7) comes at a time when the dispute over the validity of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is on the boil again. In October, author Debbie Nathan published Sybil Exposed, a book claiming to debunk the well-known story of Shirley Ardell Mason, whose multiple personality disorder (as DID was known at the time) became a cause celebre in the ‘70s.
Nathan’s booked touched off a firestorm of anger among abuse-survivors. When the Devil Knocks provides a fairly decisive answer to the doubt sown by Nathan and other questionable figures (and well-funded organizations) who have insinuated themselves into a false debate over the existence of DID.
Hilary Stanton endured massive sexual torture at the hands of a neighbour when she was a child, fragmenting her personality into 35 distinct alters who would emerge in moments of crisis in order to protect Stanton’s core personality—a phenomenon recognized in the DSM as a common response to extreme abuse.
Stanton was in her 40s when one of those alters, a confused boy named Tim, tried to steer her car into oncoming traffic. It was only then that she figured out why her life was peppered with long periods of missing time, why she felt so emotionally stunted, and why her own children had to endure the frequent and chaotic presence of her multiples. Stanton herself meanwhile wasn’t even aware of her alters.
The film covers Stanton’s subsequent 12 years of treatment with Dr. Cheryl Malmo, an Edmonton-based psychologist specializing in childhood trauma, sexual violence and women’s issues. It’s incredibly moving stuff. Through footage shot during their sessions, we’re allowed to witness the actual reintegration of four of Stanton’s alters (Tim, Mary, Joanie, and Little Hil) into her core personality.
“I know it’s over because it’s quiet in my head,” says Stanton, at the end of a transformation that, besides being utterly extraordinary, also raises profound and haunting questions about the very nature of the mind and the self.
A sad postscript: not long after When the Devil Knocks was completed (and received a standing ovation at VIFF in 2010), Stanton died in a car accident in Mexico. She agreed to make the film because, she says, “I want people to see that there’s nothing glamorous or Hollywood about being multiple,” and When the Devil Knocksis an outstanding testament to that goal. It’s also a timely and powerful rebuttal to those seeking to muddy the waters around this condition with their own dubious agenda.