HBO exorcises the demonic image of multiple personalities in a not-for-the-timid, in-your-face documentary about three sufferers of the mental disorder, linking the "Sybil" syndrome directly to childhood sexual and physical abuse.

HBO exorcises the demonic image of multiple personalities in a not-for-the-timid, in-your-face documentary about three sufferers of the mental disorder, linking the “Sybil” syndrome directly to childhood sexual and physical abuse.

Director-producer Michael Mierendorf brings to the small screen cases who are far from mild sufferers; however, none lives in a mental ward, and each has achieved a level of normalcy, testament to the fact that this seemingly out-of-control mental condition can be effectively treated if not cured.

The filmmakers follow patients in their work, in therapy and undergoing various personality changes, with doctors and the patients occasionally explaining what’s happening in voiceovers.

Most impressive has to be the case of “John,” a police officer who switches personalities depending on the police action: one “alter” drives in high-speed chases well; another is the better detective, or marksman. But, amazingly, each rises to the occasion on call.

His supervisor says John is stable as cement, and inspires complete confidence. John also talks about his “best partner,” a police dog. However, it appears that John doesn’t have a human partner, and a major hole not filled is how his fellow workers feel.

The idea of a police officer with multiple personalities sounds like a bad comedy script, but as captured here, it’s really a tale of triumph over tragedy.

Complete breakdowns and reenactments of childhood sexual abuse and beatings fill the therapy of John and the other two subjects: Gretchen, a 34-year-old art student whose personalities transport her back to the actual sexual abuse; and Barb, a 34-year-old housewife and child abuse victim, whose “alters” physically take her away from her family for days.

Footage of Gretchen will be the toughest for viewers, but maybe the most insightful. As she watches sessions of herself on tape, she closes her eyes and has a mental shutdown — exactly what happens to children during abuse, according to the experts here.

Barb’s three daughters accept their mother’s condition, fully understanding why their mom seems to transform into a 5-year-old while walking down the cereal aisle of the grocery store or when watching her kids coloring. A sense of calm pervades, with the family realizing the psychotic moment will pass.

Childhood sexual and physical abuse has created the mental monsters imprisoning all three victims — a significant point effectively made by Mierendorf and crew. Docu could foster understanding of people suffering from multiple-personality disorders, who shouldn’t be perceived as mysterious or frightening, but as victims of childhoods lost.

America Undercover Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories

(Tues. (13), 10-11 p.m., HBO)

Production

Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; producer-writer-director, Michael Mierendorf; based on an idea presented by Gloria Steinem.

Crew

Camera, Dyanna Taylor; editor, Vincent Stenerson; sound, Barbara Flyntz-Bradley; music, Michael Bacon.

Cast

Narrators: Gloria Steinem, Michael Mierendorf.
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