Sounds Like Crazy: Interview with novelist Shana Mahaffey

Highly original novel explores DID with humor and empathy.

Posted May 18, 2010

Shana Mahaffey's highly original debut novel, "Sounds Like Crazy," is a touching and often humorous look at a woman dealing with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Here's more from Shana about how she discovered Holly, learned about DID, and developed this fascinating story: 

Jennifer Haupt: How did you “meet” Holly Miller, the cartoon voiceover performer who has multiple personalities and is the focus of your novel?

Shana Mahaffey: I met Holly Miller many years ago in college. She started telling me her story through poetry, parties, and ultimately psychoanalysis. Many of Holly’s life experiences are based in part on my own experiences or the experiences of people close to me. I chose the aspects from these experiences that most fit with Holly and her journey and then extended/expanded on them to make them what was needed for Holly to become the person you meet at the start of Sounds Like Crazy as well as the person she becomes at the end.  

How she became a voiceover artist is a different story altogether. I was in a writing workshop several years ago and we were discussing my book. At this point, I had Holly, the Committee, and the back-story for how the Committee came to be. We were struggling to pinpoint exactly what was missing in the story when the woman running the writing group exclaimed “She needs a job. Holly needs a job.” We stopped discussing the book itself and turned to the very important task of finding the perfect job for Holly. After a few moments, the person sitting next to me said “voiceover artist.” When I considered a voiceover artist with voices in her head, I knew Holly had found her job. 

 JH: How did you research DID to make the character seem so authentic?

SM: My goal when writing about a person with DID was to make my portrayal was accurate and authentic. To achieve this, I read a number of psychology books about the condition and I visited blogs and online communities of DID sufferers. It is in these places I found the most poignant and real information about what it is like to suffer from a fractured psyche. Reading the posts helped me understand how someone like Holly would cope under the circumstances and it helped me have real compassion for her condition and for anyone suffering with the condition – either MPD or DID.

I admit that I worried if I succeeded in making Holly’s condition and her treatment believable. However, I was able to exhale somewhat after Sounds Like Crazy received a positive review in the San Francisco Chronicle from psychiatrist, Paul Linde. And my exhale extended to a sigh of relief after I received a number of emails, from actual DID sufferers and a few psychotherapists, telling me I got it right.

JH: I love that you call Holly’s different personalities “the Committee”! Which one of Holly’s six personalities is your favorite, or do you most identify with?

SM: My favorite personality is Sarge—he reminds me so much of my grandfather and all my uncles. My grandfather was tremendously influential in all aspects of my life, but particularly, my writing life. He and my uncles gave always made me feel very safe. To illustrate, I’ll share one of my fondest childhood memories. When I was a child we used to go to my maternal grandparents’ house on Corbett Drive in Burlingame, CA for weekends and throughout the summer. My mother is one of four children; and I am one of eighteen grandchildren. Suffice to say, with that size crowd, we had a lot of fun. Anyway, my grandparents had a small pool in their backyard. To play anywhere other than by the stairs on the shallow end, you had to first show that you could swim the length of the pool. I desperately wanted to join the older kids in the deep end, but I was also five years old and terrified of drowning. My father, grandfather, and four uncles had a long discussion with me about this to find out what was preventing me from trying. When I told them we struck a deal: they would position themselves around the pool edges ready to rescue me at the first sign of danger. I agreed and went to the deep end where I stood on the edge of the pool preparing myself for my swim. I marked where each one of them was, then I inhaled, dove, and started doing the crawl to the other side. The thing is, I’d never learned the proper breathing technique of turning your head to the side for air. Halfway to through my swim, I ran out of air and lifted my head up. Next thing I heard splashing and voices screaming “I got her, I got her” as about about ten pairs of hands thrust me high up in the air.  Man was I angry because I’d almost made it. But I never forgot how secure I felt, and looking back as an adult, I feel an even deeper appreciation for all of those men who wanted me to feel safe. Of course, my swimming lessons resumed in earnest after that, but I got to swim in the deep end of the pool and I had the perfect tableau for the character of Sarge. 

Now that said, the personality I most identify with is Ruffles. I think the main reason for this is Holly’s image of her was informed by a form of body dysmorphic disorder. Like most women in this day and age, I too have suffered from this; and, like Ruffles, age, wisdom, and a few hours of therapy, have taught me a jovial approach to my body, eating, and basically life. Because of my experience with my own body image problems and the fact that I am thankfully on the other side of them, Ruffles was definitely the easiest character to.

JH: Has Holly always had DID, and is it in any way a blessing for her? What purpose does it serve?

SM: Holly began dissociating, or splitting off, when she was a young child and could not navigate the circumstances in her life. At the time, being able to distance herself like this was a blessing. I think the last lines of chapter 1 illustrate best how, when faced with her sister asking her to let go of them, Holly felt about having her Committee: “I couldn’t tell her that even when you decide you’ve paid in full, if what you’ve paid for has become part of the framework of your life, you can’t let it go that easily.”

In other words, Holly’s DID was initially a blessing because it protected her. But, like most blessings, her DID ultimately became a curse in that by relying on her alters Holly never learned how to manage her own life.

JH: How common is DID and what is the treatment/cure?

SM: As a layperson this is a tough question to answer from a medical perspective. Based on what I’ve read and heard from suffers and practitioners, DID does seem to be quite pervasive. That said, I have found, amongst some practitioners, a certain amount of skepticism over DID to the point where people are forming actual alters inside their heads and/or developing alternate personalities they are or are not conscious of is. But, the online communities certainly overcome that skepticism, at least for me. Not really an answer, I know. As for treatment/cure, the former certainly and the latter who knows. I mean can a psychiatric disorder ever be cured? The treatment approach to DID, as I understand it from my research, is rigorous psychotherapy, sometimes accompanied by medication, with the goal of integration.

JH: What did you learn in writing this book that you didn’t know about the various parts of your own personality?

SM: Well when I first started writing about DID/MPD I swore I didn’t have it. Although, I would joke that ex-boyfriends might give a different story. But, during the writing process I discovered that in order to write effectively, I have to completely submerge myself into the character, or characters, and the scene at hand. Moreover, when I am deep in the writing process, I carry the characters around with me, seeing the world through their eyes, reacting to things they way they would. When all is said and done, I can’t say that I don’t have at least a form of DID. However, if it helps me write a book that is believable and real, a book that moves people, I don’t mind.