Oct. 13, 2005 -- Robert B. Oxnam became a prominent China scholar and head of the Asia Society, despite a constant struggle with alcohol, bulimia, depression and mysterious blackouts. He later learned that his problems stemmed from a rare illness: multiple personality disorder.
His psychiatrist first diagnosed him when an angry boy named Tommy emerged during one of their sessions. Through therapy, Oxnam was able to work through his 11 personalities. Today, three still remain. "A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder" is Oxnam's account of how he pieced himself and his life back together.
Below is an excerpt of Oxnam's "A Fractured Mind."
Bob: "I Always Thought I was 'Real.'"
On a cold, cloudy afternoon in March 1990, driving my black Honda through the spiderweb of highways north of New York City, I had no idea that this day would change my life forever. I was in a funk of a mood, dark and irritable, loathing the meeting with my psychiatrist that lay ahead. Seven months earlier, when I first met Dr. Jeffery Smith, I had real hope that he could cure my spiraling depression and anger. But now, after enduring extensive therapy sessions and a month in a rehabilitation clinic, I felt worse than ever. It was time to break from Dr. Smith.
But I realized that cutting off relations with Dr. Smith would be a challenge. He seemed like a genuinely concerned colleague, professional but approachable, a very hard man to dislike. Working from a simple office in an unpretentious modern building, he certainly was not the sort of shrink who siphons off patients' money to pay huge overhead. He dressed in a casually professional way -- button-down shirt, plain tie, sport jacket -- never offering an imposing image. And, unlike any other therapist I had encountered, he conducted our meetings in an easy but attentive style: listening carefully with sharply focused eyes, letting me talk without interrupting, then offering cogent insights rather than "psychobabble."
I resolved to come right to the point. "Hello," I said as coldly as possible, "we've got to talk."
"Yes, Bob," he said quietly, "what's on your mind?" I shut my eyes for a moment, letting the raging frustration well up inside, then stared angrily at the psychiatrist.
"Look, I've been religious about this recovery business. I go to AA meetings daily and to your sessions twice a week. I know it's good that I've stopped drinking. But every other aspect of my life feels the same as it did before. No, it's worse. I hate my life. I hate myself."
Suddenly I felt a slight warmth in my face, blinked my eyes a bit, and then stared at him.
"Bob, I'm afraid our time's up," Smith said in a matter-of-fact style.
"Time's up?" I exclaimed. "I just got here."
"No." He shook his head, glancing at his clock. "It's been fifty minutes. You don't remember anything?"
"I remember everything. I was just telling you that these sessions don't seem to be working for me."
Smith paused to choose his words very carefully. "Do you know a very angry boy named 'Tommy'?"
"No," I said in bewilderment, "except for my cousin Tommy whom I haven't seen in twenty years..."
"No." He stopped me short. "This Tommy's not your cousin. I spent this last fifty minutes talking with another Tommy. He's full of anger. And he's inside of you."
"No, I'm not. Look. I want to take a little time to think over what happened today. And don't worry about this. I'll set up an emergency session with you tomorrow. We'll deal with it then."
This is Robert speaking. Today I'm the only personality who is strongly visible inside and outside. My own term for such an MPD role is dominant personality. Fifteen years ago, I rarely appeared on the outside, though I had considerable influence on the inside; back then, I was what one might call a "recessive personality." My passage from "recessive" to "dominant" is a key part of our story; be patient, you'll learn lots more about me later on. Indeed, since you will meet all eleven personalities who once roamed about, it gets a bit complex in the first half of this book; but don't worry, you don't have to remember them all, and it gets sorted out in the last half of the book. You may be wondering -- if not "Robert," who, then, was the dominant MPD personality back in the 1980s and earlier? His name was "Bob," and his dominance amounted to a long reign, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. Since "Robert B. Oxnam" was born in 1942, you can see that "Bob" was in command from early to middle adulthood.
Although he was the dominant MPD personality for thirty years, Bob did not have a clue that he was afflicted by multiple personality disorder until 1990, the very last year of his dominance. That was the fateful moment when Bob first heard that he had an "angry boy named Tommy" inside of him. How, you might ask, can someone have MPD for half a lifetime without knowing it? And even if he didn't know it, didn't others around him spot it?
To outsiders, this is one of the most perplexing aspects of MPD. Multiple personality is an extreme disorder, and yet it can go undetected for decades, by the patient, by family and close friends, even by trained therapists. Part of the explanation is the very nature of the disorder itself: MPD thrives on secrecy because the dissociative individual is repressing a terrible inner secret. The MPD individual becomes so skilled in hiding from himself that he becomes a specialist, often unknowingly, in hiding from others. Part of the explanation is rooted in outside observers: MPD often manifests itself in other behaviors, frequently addiction and emotional outbursts, which are wrongly seen as the "real problem."
The fact of the matter is that Bob did not see himself as the dominant personality inside Robert B. Oxnam. Instead, he saw himself as a whole person. In his mind, Bob was merely a nickname for Bob Oxnam, Robert Oxnam, Dr. Robert B. Oxnam, PhD.
This feels so strange. It's the first time in more than a decade that I'm speaking directly to outsiders. I feel awkward and tongue-tied. I used to find it easy to speak in public; the bigger the audience, the better. I thrived on television work. I once hosted a TV series called Asia: Half the Human Race. You see, I was an Asia expert with a specialization on Chinese history and contemporary affairs. So when China news was hot, I was often a TV guest for the Today show with Jane Pauley, and...
Oh, sorry, I used to be quite a name-dropper, too. But I was making a point. I'm really nervous talking to you. I'm out of practice. And now Robert introduces me? I used to be the one who made introductions. I was making introductions before anyone ever heard of Robert.
In the old days, when I was outside and he was inside, Robert was constantly criticizing me. You can't believe what he said about me. He was really nasty. Let's see if I can remember. "Mr. Rolodex and Mr. Résumé." "Willing to suspend a mile of values to achieve an inch of ambition." Then later, in 1990, as you will discover, Robert changed his tune and began saying nice things.
Know why I'm really anxious? Want to guess who was the egg who took the "great fall"? You got it. I'm Bob, your Humpty-Dumpty. For the longest time, I saw myself as the whole egg. By the time I found out about MPD, the egg was splattered all over the sidewalk.
During much of my early life, from the 1950s to the 1970s, I was on a pretty good roll. It wasn't until the late 1970s, and even more in the 1980s, that the dark clouds moved in. Look, I'll try to give you a balanced picture, both the upside and the downside. Bottom line — though I didn't know it at the time — both sides were directly related to multiple personality disorder.
My memories of childhood are very hazy, though I always had a rather rosy view of my early years in the 1940s. During World War II, I lived with my mother and her parents in a modest, comfortable house in southern California. My memory bank contains a few shards from those very early years—an upright piano that my grandfather played, sunshine streaming into the backyard, hummingbirds darting around flowering plants, a gum tree that put sticky sap on your hands, a view of a white-capped mountain from the breakfast nook. My grandfather worked as a Con Edison lineman, and my grandmother was, among other things, an early Tupperware salesperson.
My mother always described my relationship with her parents as "warm and loving," but I remember them with a mixture of sun and clouds. Both my grandparents were into fishing, and it was fun to accompany them and watch them use home-tied lures to catch trout by the dozen. They taught me to fish, and though I was better at splashing in the stream, one time I did catch a pretty rainbow trout. I remember that my grandparents had a small house trailer in the driveway, a great place to find a safe cubbyhole when playing hide-and-seek or just hiding from adults.
But one day, my grandparents took me to a chicken farm and I remember with horror watching chickens run around with their heads cut off; my grandmother had grabbed a chicken by the neck, killing it instantly with an expert ropelike snap of the wrist. I can't remember exactly when I started finding my grandparents' humor rather odd — my grandmother once said, "Wee, wee, wee...that's what the French say when they take a piss," only to be matched by my grandfather's question, "What's the longest thing on a giraffe?...Answer: it ain't his neck."
My father's side of the family couldn't have been more different. His father was Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, the leader of the American Methodist Church and the first president of the World Council of Churches. Granddaddy Oxnam was well known as a supporter of many liberal causes. He achieved national attention in the McCarthy era when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After grueling testimony, he was cleared of any "Communist leanings," but in the minds of some American conservatives, he was always seen as the "Red bishop."
I told Granddaddy I thought it was "cool" that he was on the cover of Time magazine. His response stays with me — "Yes, Robbey, I suppose it's 'cool.' But you see Time magazine every week at your house. Who was on the cover of last week's Time magazine?" I couldn't remember. He just smiled knowingly. I had learned an important lesson about the fleeting importance of fame.
My dad was prominent in his own right as a university administrator — a dean at Syracuse University, vice president of Boston University, president of Pratt Institute, and finally president of Drew University. Although I often sensed he was frustrated that he didn't match fully Granddaddy's achievements, Dad was always heroic in my eyes. He was my role model as a professor and an intellectual leader; I desperately sought to follow his example. Dad also had a genial laugh and inner warmth that drew others to him; in my eyes, he was both a "hero" and very "real" at the same time.
Dad also had a wild side. One time, when my grandfather was proudly sitting at a homecoming football game at Depauw University, where he was president, his son buzzed the field in his biplane, causing the players to scatter for cover during a play. With that bizarre sense of humor, Dad was a hard man to dislike, even when he resorted to strict discipline, such as whipping me with a thick leather belt when I had been "sassy" or had "broken the rules."
In his early twenties, Dad went off to Hollywood and studied to be an actor. According to my mother's reports, he was "too studied" to be a good actor, but he had the looks, with a Clark Gable mustache and a Rudy Valentino dark complexion and flowing jet-black hair. It was there he met my mother, Dalys Houts, blond and beautiful (so it appears in her publicity photos).
They were married in 1939 and I arrived in 1942. In the late 1930s, my mother pursued her undergraduate degree (courtesy of support from my dad's grandmother) and my father began his graduate studies, both at the University of Southern California. It was the end of their acting careers and the beginning of a more successful life in the academic world.
Mom, who died in the summer of 2004 during the editing of this book, was a complicated lady who had her share of supporters and critics. By the end of her long life, especially in the thirty years after my father died in 1974, I think the supporters outweighed the critics (surely spearheaded by two true gentlemen who were by her side in the later years: her genteel second husband, Harry Jaecker, and later, the lovable Ralph McVain, both of whom predeceased her). At Heritage Village in Southbury, Connecticut, where she lived after Dad's death, Mom finally fulfilled her acting dream by starring in several amateur productions and in a one-woman show where she took on various roles as defined by their hats.
But it was her acting penchant that also prompted her critics; back when Dad was alive, she frequently described herself as "the first lady of Drew University" or as the "hostess with the mostest." For some in Dad's family as well, her posturing prompted irritation, almost as if there was a family feud between the Oxnam cosmopolitan clan and the Houtses' earthier roots.
I actually felt closest to my mother when she was too weak and too needy to resort to acting. When Dad died, she needed my help sorting out the finances and establishing her new widowed life in Connecticut. I was touched when she vowed to always eat in the dining room, setting another place just so that she could sense Dad's presence. In the 1990s, when she had a near-fatal illness, I rushed to her hospital bedside. She grasped my hands and said, "Thanks so much for being here. I love you." I was so happy to connect that I ran out to the drugstore and bought balloons and a stuffed animal as presents. Finally, she had shown the genuine mother-son love that I had longed for all my life. Looking back on her life, I feel grateful for those loving moments, but also sorry for a mother who seemed so much better at promoting her "ideal family" than she was at dealing with her own feelings. Once, late in her life, after I was married, when I had pushed her hard on this "always acting" matter, she stood up and pointed to where she had been sitting. Her voice changed into a deep rasping, and she said, "I hate that person. I hate everything she does." Then, realizing that it was a very odd revelation, she quickly sat back down and pretended nothing had happened. My wife and I simply stared in astonishment.
Early on, I became aware that Mom and Dad had very high expectations for my success. When Mom talked with family or friends, she would often tell them, "There's Robbey. He reads books when other kids are playing. He's such a good student, you know." I sometimes thought that Mom, along with Dad, wanted me to prove something to my father's family — was it that their son might also be a superstar? After all, I had my father's first name, "Robert" — and "Bromley" was my grandfather's middle name that he always used. It wasn't that the pressure was overt, at least not most of the time, but rather that the notion of a high-achieving son was built into an understated WASP family ethic. Successes produced smiles and failures prompted frowns. That was enough for me. I bought into the system with unquestioning passion.
I was always obsessed with success, feeling fleeting glee when I achieved it, then on to the next challenge. But failure, even partial failure or even almost-success, filled me with searing guilt and self-loathing. The successes never stayed with me. I harbored agonizing memories of every single mistake or shortcoming. To this day, I can reconstruct those ghastly moments in perfect detail.
Throughout my life — beginning as a teenager and later as an adult — perceived failures prompted severe self-punishments. Hiding in an attic or a secluded forest, I would scream at myself: "You're stupid! A stupid idiot! I hate you!" I pummeled myself with clenched fists slamming against body and arms, and then hammered my forehead against a tree or a wall. For days, I would sit sullenly, recalling the terrible episode, often writing the words You're stupid! on a notepad or whatever scrap of paper was at hand.
So, given the inner penalties for failure, my outer pressure to succeed was pretty strong. An early test was the sport of target archery. Dad, worried that I was going to maim someone with my homemade bow and arrow, declared solemnly: "Boy, if you're going to use a weapon, let's use it right." A firearms instructor in the war who almost lost his life when another soldier accidentally discharged a sidearm in the barracks, Dad was adamant about doing things safely and methodically. So, after buying archery books and making a couple of lovely, if rather hefty, bows, he joined the Newton Archers just outside of Boston. Inventing his own modified military system of teaching archery "by the numbers," Dad became a very competent archer himself, and I, not yet a teenager, was his pupil. His approach to archery taught me many lessons: disciplined practice was the key to success (so I began practicing several hours a day); quality equipment was essential to quality performance (my father bought the very best bows and aluminum arrows); and success in competition made my father happy.
So between ages eleven and fifteen, I embarked on a short archery career, filled with enough victories to make both my parents and me very happy indeed. Within the junior archery ranks, I was club champion the first year, eastern regional champion the following year, and national American junior champion the following year. I recall with some pride the many victories, the medals and trophies, the growing list of national record scores. Mom, to my consternation, sent news releases of my archery achievements to both local and national papers, claiming that was her role as "head of public relations for the Newton Archers." So failure, such as my third-place finish at the Junior Nationals in 1956, is forever fixed in my memory. "You're terrible," I yelled, throwing open my archery tackle case, pulling out a handful of aluminum arrows, bending them into an unusable mess of spent metal.
Only later in life did I learn that failure can be the best teacher, but that lesson escaped me in my archery years. Once I lost a regional championship to a remarkable archer named Lloyd Corby who kept shooting in an awful thunderstorm. Ignoring the high winds and biting rain, he scored very well while those of us who sought shelter stared in amazement. When the storm abated, I was so stunned by his composure that I finished badly and lost the championship. How had he done it? "It's Zen," he explained later with a quiet smile.
I thought I understood the paradox that made Lloyd Corby a champion: his state of mind was everything; the weather was irrelevant; he achieved perfection by not seeking perfection at all. Sadly, it was a truth that did not sink into my soul for forty years. I persisted with my simple method: rigorous preparation yields success, and total preparation yields the highest success. I was not about to change it; it seemed foolish, and almost un-American, to give up such a treasured formula for a wild notion like Zen. Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers was more my style: "Winning isn't just the goal. Winning is everything."
In 1957, after finally winning the national championship, I was flattered to be invited by the women's world champion to spend the summer at her rural Pennsylvania home so she could coach me for the Olympics. We knew that the International Olympic Committee was considering archery as an official sport in its meeting that very summer, so I had visions of making the team and competing in the Rome Olympics in 1960. One day my coach approached me with a long face: "There's good news and bad news," she reported. "Archery was approved, but archery competitions won't occur until 1972. What will you do?" No way was I going to keep practicing eight hours a day for the intervening fifteen years, when I'd be an old man of thirty. At age fifteen, my archery career was over. To this day, I cannot bear to watch Olympic awards ceremonies on TV; it hurts too much to imagine how glorious that gold medal would have felt around my neck. Of course, not going to the Olympics did have one advantage: imagine my self-punishments if I had lost the biggest competition on earth!
So archery was over. The next battleground was the classroom. I had coasted through elementary and junior high school, usually getting stellar report cards, until one day in the eighth grade. The task was to produce a five-page paper on some aspect of twentieth-century American history. My draft paper produced a shocking result, a grade of C for "sloppy writing and almost no background reading": worse yet, we were required to enlist parental help in producing the final paper. I can still see my father's frown as he read my shamble of a paper, tightened eyes reflecting his agreement with my teacher, and his penetrating stare hurting worse than a whipping. On this occasion, there was no time for my self-abuse ritual; it was late Thursday, and the paper was due on Monday after a long holiday weekend.
For the next three days, under Dad's uncompromising scrunity, I had a tutorial on paper writing "by the numbers": a day in the library learning the card catalog system and how to take notes, a day at home discovering how to make an outline and write a first draft, another day at home absorbing how to edit, to make footnotes and a bibliography, and to prepare a perfect final copy. When it was all done, presented to the teacher in a neat green binder, I was delighted to discover that schoolwork was really archery by another name. The grade for "Admiral Mahan and the Modern American Navy" was A-plus; the wayward son was welcomed back into the fold with smiles all around. My mother taught me another trick that had helped her produce an admirable record at the University of Southern California. "Take all your notes from class," she said, "organize them well, and type them into a finished copy. At exam time, you memorize the notes and the underlined parts of your books." So, after teaching myself to type, I became the only student at my high school, maybe in the whole United States, who had three-ring binders chock-full of typed notes. Even after I transferred to Poly Prep, a private school in Brooklyn, New York, my father's paper-writing method and my mother's system of memorizing typed notes worked wonders.
So, even before the term was invented, I was a nerd of the first order. At Williams College in the early 1960s, my secret system flourished, but, of course, it demanded huge amounts of time. My Williams day was nothing but classes, studying in a hidden carrel deep in the library, and occasional breaks for meals and a squash game for exercise. Social life was nonexistent; I had only a couple of dates in high school, and three dates in my first two years of college.
Late one night, a fellow student barged through my closed door, saw my meticulously typed notes, and observed, "Ox, you're one fucking obsessed nut." My immediate reaction was not anger — who could deny that he was right? But I felt guilty at being discovered in a clandestine act.
In my mind, my approach was a secret trick, a labor-intensive device to beat the academic system. For most of my life, I assumed that my academic achievements came solely from obsessive work, not from intellectual ability. I viewed myself as a successful fraud, a driven but "stupid" fellow, basking in grade-measured success, while keeping his memory-driven system top secret. Throughout life, I have been uncomfortable with praise because I feel it is not deserved.
In spite of my low intellectual self-image, Williams College prompted a newfound joy in the rich array of courses and readings. Williams was a teaching college par excellence and many of the professors in the English and History departments were brilliant. It was at Williams, under such great minds as Bob Waite, Dudley Bahlman, Russ Bostert, and Chris Breiseth, that I learned to think analytically and to write clearly. New worlds opened as I read Plato and Kant, Tillich and Éliade, Conrad and Sartre, and I started participating in class discussions and preparing less methodical and more imaginative papers.
From Williams I went directly to graduate school at Yale University in Asian studies. I suppose I was fated to keep plodding on the academic treadmill, but why pick Asian studies? Unfortunately, Williams College, like most liberal arts colleges of that day, offered little about countries across the Pacific, with the exception of Fred Greene's informative course on Asian politics. But I did read three nonassigned books about China and Japan. My only childhood exposure was hearing a few tales and seeing a few art objects brought back by my grandfather from trips to Japan, China, and India.
I just had a hunch that China, with its great history and remarkable cultural inheritance, might be a more positive force someday. That was a pretty radical thought at the time; most people still saw a malevolent "Red China" with harsh images from the Korean War and the Cold War. Oh yes, Dad also urged me to consider international studies. He told me a popular joke: "What's the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?" Answer: "Optimists study Russian. Pessimists study Chinese." My optimistic father was already learning Russian, so I — not a pessimist, but perhaps a more cautious optimist — picked Chinese.
The clincher was money: I got a terrific financial aid package from Yale Asian studies courtesy of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), supporting studies about "critical countries" (that often meant enemy countries like China and the Soviet Union). By the way, it was the same "studying the enemy" argument that prevailed with my draft board to give me a student deferment during the Vietnam War. I will never forget the gruff chairman of the draft board asking me "one final question to see if you're a real Asia expert" before granting the deferment: "Was it chow mein or chop suey that was invented in China?" (I'm not kidding!) My correct answer — "Chow mein...because chop suey was created in America" — kept me out of the Vietnam conflict. I blessed my nerdish memory for trivia that fateful day.
My Yale experience from 1964 to 1969 was an eye-opening voyage into Chinese and Asian art, history, politics, and economics at a time when few graduate students were attracted to the field. The Chinese program was spearheaded by two exceptional scholars, Arthur and Mary Wright (Mary was a pioneer in modern Chinese history and the first female full professor at Yale). The Chinese-language department, created to train air-force officers in the Second World War, had a great array of linguists. My first Chinese teacher, the talented Daisy Kwoh, eventually became my assistant at the Asia Society and has been a close friend ever since. It was Daisy Kwoh who gave me a lovely Chinese name — An Xilong — rich in meaning and historical allusion, always producing knowing nods from prominent Chinese.
Incidentally, my penchant for short-term memorization worked less well in the Chinese language: I could pass the examinations with ease, but I could not keep the vocabulary, especially the devilish written characters, in my head long enough to build a solid linguistic foundation. In good automaton tradition, I went from the first few words of Chinese-language study in the fall of 1964 to a doctorate in Qing dynasty history in the spring of 1969 (something of a speed record in a difficult field). My mentor was the brilliant Professor Jonathan Spence, who painstakingly guided me through a doctoral dissertation — Policies and Factionalism in the Oboi Regency, 1661–1669 — demanding two years of research, all in classical documentary Chinese.
The rigors of scholarship never suited me at all. I enjoyed learning about Asian history and culture, but I never felt at home doing fastidious library research. Spence could make ancient Chinese records come alive with magical stories, but for me, it was more like dissecting old Yellow Pages. I just turned on my inner machine, conducted disembodied research, wore out Chinese-language sources and dictionaries, and spit out a doctoral thesis.
So why spend so many years pursuing something not in my heart? The honest answer is that I had to get that doctorate. I couldn't wait to receive the deep blue doctoral robe and hood that signified "Dr. Robert Oxnam." Like the Chinese scholar-officials who wore emblems to signify their status, I sought to project the image of "success" in every sense of the word.
For the next two decades, I sought to reap the rewards of all this academic preparation, to live the dream of success. But like the famous twin masks of Greek drama, one face radiated smiling confidence, but the other face, generally hidden from view, was contorted with rising pain.
Over time, the balance changed. The 1970s were filled with a good bit of sunny weather, allowing me to ignore dark clouds on my inner horizon. But in the 1980s, the few shafts of sunshine were obliterated by a violent series of inner storms. The big question of the 1970s — "So what's the next big professional challenge?" — was replaced by the big dilemma of the 1980s — "What's really wrong with me?
It all began so well. From Yale, I went directly to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, as assistant professor teaching Asian history, feeling very much at home in the comfortable, almost nineteenth-century, Trinity academic environment. The department chairman, English history professor George Cooper, was very supportive and called me "Ox" in a paternally proud way. I bonded with several faculty members, especially of the younger generation, over lunches, coffee, and an occasional midday boccie game in the Quad.
Realizing that my knowledge of Asia was totally from books and courses, I felt a need to broaden my approaches in teaching. In addition to publishing my dissertation, which made the college and my parents happy, I also invented a radically new method for teaching about China, which raised some eyebrows among older faculty. The Ch'ing Game, as it was called in its published version, was a simulation of eighteenth-century China in which my undergraduates played different roles (emperor, magistrate, censor, gentry, etc.) over a daylong process that used the entire Trinity campus to replicate Beijing and various Chinese provinces. The game, brilliantly developed by my graduate students, was designed to enhance undergraduate interest in Chinese history and to prompt better papers as they prepared to play roles in the simulation. The Ch'ing Game not only worked wonders for teaching (many students still have vivid memories of Chinese history as a result), but it also attracted a lot of publicity in Hartford papers and the local TV station.
So, I became both a published scholar and an academic innovator. The result was rapid promotion — I was named associate professor of history with tenure after three years, and also assistant to Trinity's imaginative and affable president, Theodore Lockwood, for academic planning. At the same time, I pursued a variety of liberal causes, something that began at Yale, where I first spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1964 and later mobilized Asian scholars to protest against American involvement in that conflict. At Trinity, I was a faculty leader of the successful effort, in the wake of the Kent State massacre, to promote a campuswide strike of students and faculty with teach-ins as alternatives to regular classes.
In 1964, I married an attractive and caring lady who was very supportive of my academic life. She also pursued her interests in teaching English at private preparatory schools, which supplemented my limited college teaching salary. We had two children—a boy, born in 1969, and a girl, born in 1972. We had many happy times together, including our travels to Europe and our summers at the Oxnam grandparents' place on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I thought of myself as a pretty good father who spent many hours with the children, carrying them on my back hiking or cross-country skiing, teaching them about wildlife and rocks, or just telling stories at bedtime. But there's no doubt that my former wife, having left her job while the kids were growing up, deserves the lion's share of credit for the fact that our children are loving and successful adults today.
Then, in 1974, came the awful news that Dad was afflicted with lung cancer, surely the result of a lifetime of heavy smoking. His decline was astonishingly rapid: he was diagnosed on May 1, and he was dead on July 19. I was with him when he died and will always hear his muted cry, "No, no," as he struggled to get his last breaths. Without Dad as my role model, my inner light seemed dimmed. Together we had planned a trip to China. The following year, when I finally got to China (tagging onto a delegation of American women), I buried a little envelope of Dad memorabilia under a rock in a Suzhou garden.
On the surface, Dad's death prompted me to pursue new avenues with feverish energy, perhaps trying to maintain his commitment to "making a difference." Dad knew that while I thrived on teaching Asian history, I found the isolated existence of the scholar stultifying and hated the very thought of writing another historical monograph. So I think he would have applauded when, in lieu of a sabbatical, I took on the responsibility of developing a national public education initiative on China at New York's Asia Society in 1975. The China Council, as it was called, was a new institution, to draw together a wide array of China specialists (not just academics, but also businesspeople, journalists, educators, and former government officials) to develop national programs offering balanced, accurate portrayals of China.
It was a heady period for the China Council: right after the Nixon-Mao détente and before the Carter-Deng normalization. We were trying to counteract the long history of China lobbies (right-wing in the McCarthy tradition of 1950s and 1960s and then left-wing among 1970s neo-Maoists). I found it exciting to shape a new organization with a good purpose: setting up fifteen regional China Councils across the country, spearheading a variety of key studies about China, coediting two books on U.S.-China relations, and often briefing the national print and broadcast media on China. It was teaching at its best: bringing outstanding American experts on China to a truly national classroom. Oh yes, it was also fun to get phone calls from Walter Cronkite ("Can you be on the show tonight?") or from Tom Brokaw ("How do you pronounce Deng? Really? Like cow dung?").
Totally hidden from outsiders were mounting inner problems. At night, I was filled with anger and depression, and I began drinking myself to sleep with several slugs of scotch or bourbon. I visited a rather classic Freudian psychiatrist, replete with "uh-huh" responses and puffs on his pipe, who told me that he thought I had "problems with authority." Then he asked me, "When you told your story about your father's death, did you realize that you were smiling?" I was furious. How could he speak about Dad that way? In retrospect, I'm sure there was truth in his observation. After all, a great deal of my success-driven career had its roots in trying to emulate and please my father. But back then, it was a good excuse to stop seeing the psychiatrist.
Also in the late 1970s, I fell prey to another addiction, more prevalent among women than men. I didn't know the name at the time, but it was bulimia. When I was a child, I loved eating fatty foods and ice cream. By my archery years, I was a chunky little kid. Once, when photos of the archery team were planned, Mom prompted me to wear a girdle so that I wouldn't look so fat. But food was always plentiful at home, and I often stole extra food from the refrigerator (raw hot dogs were among my favorites). During the China Council years, I discovered the delight of having free business lunches where I could gorge myself and charge it to American Express. My weight soared to above 250 pounds, a lot even on a six-foot four-inch frame; although I lost a lot of it by virtue of an illness on a China trip, I never gave up the love of eating too much.
Then, one day in 1979, after I had moved to Washington, I got ill after feasting on a two-pound bag of peanuts and half gallon of vanilla ice cream. Bang, it suddenly dawned on me: I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight. And so began a pattern which I could not overcome until the late 1990s; it cost me dearly in energy loss, in enormous weight fluctuations, and in tooth decay (stomach acid rots teeth very quickly and forced me to wear a "partial" set of false teeth in my late forties). I was surprised that this method of weight control was not my invention, and astonished when a television friend told me that bulimia means "eats like a cow."
Perhaps because I fooled myself by ignoring these rising problems, the effect was to hide them from others as well. At least, there was no apparent impact on my professional career. Indeed, Phil Talbot, president of the Asia Society and a true old Asia hand, was grooming me as his successor. In 1979, I was named Asia Society vice president and director of its Washington Center, taking the China Council with me to the nation's capital. Thanks to a travel grant from the Ford Foundation to visit the whole Asia Pacific region and the enormous array of Asia-wide programs at the Washington Center, I made the quick transition from "China specialist" to "Asianist."
In 1981, at the age of thirty-eight, I was named president of the Asia Society, suddenly responsible for leading American public education about all the countries and cultures of the Asia Pacific region. I took over a multimillion-dollar operation, in a brand-new building on Park Avenue designed by Edward Barnes, continuing a legacy established by John and Blanchette Rockefeller. Looking rather splendid, I thought, in my new suits and ties, I set out to create a new array of programs on Asian arts, education, and contemporary affairs. I would take the energy of the China Council and inject it into the Asia Society as a whole.
Within a few months, it was clear I was in for a rude awakening. Several million dollars had to be raised for the new building and its higher operating costs. John Rockefeller 3rd, who had died in a car accident in the late 1970s, was no longer there to provide financial assistance. His widow, Blanchette, and her remarkable associate, Elizabeth McCormack, concerned about the situation, fashioned a devilish challenge grant forcing the Society to raise a lot of endowment money very quickly. And, to complicate matters further, Mayor Edward Koch decided to try to tax the Asia Society on the grounds that it was not an "educational institution" because it did not offer courses or grant degrees.
Overnight, it became apparent that my job priority was crisis management, not Asian expertise. And I knew that everyone was watching — was the young president up to the task? One supportive trustee gave me an appropriate gift for my headaches — a huge replica of a Bayer aspirin tablet. I thought long and hard about quitting, but I knew that would be professional suicide. And so, steeling myself, I resolved to confront the problems. It meant severe budget cuts — eliminating over twenty employees in a hundred-person staff (causing a huge internal uproar and an enormous decline in morale) and renting out space in our new building (forcing those who remained into much tighter quarters). Working day and night, we managed to raise the capital for the Rockefeller challenge grant, creating the first Asia Society endowment and, after three years, bringing balanced budgets for the remainder of my tenure. We joined forces with other embattled institutions to fight Mayor Koch's tax efforts in the courts and in the press; eventually he backed down when we made it clear that New York's cultural and educational not-for-profits brought billions of dollars to the city every year.
By 1984, the Asia Society had won its battles, but inwardly I felt I had lost the war. The job, once an exciting challenge, now seemed a hollow pursuit, filled with vexations, a demanding daily schedule, and lots of human problems. I stuck it out and initiated reforms — regional Asia Societies in the United States and Asia, a new K-12 education program, well-attended corporate conferences in Asia, pathbreaking studies on key U.S.-Asia relations issues, a staff and board that included many Asians and Asian-Americans.
But the fun was gone. Rather than driving the vehicle, I often felt that I was hanging on for the ride. My shiny self-image began to tarnish and corrode. Earlier flaws in the picture, which I had tried to discount, quickly turned into very serious problems. When I became angry, it often turned to a furious rage that prompted me to say terrible things and leave everyone around absolutely flabbergasted. In professional settings, I was able to keep my anger under control. But every few months, the anger would surge with family or close friends. A small provocation would throw me into a furious frenzy and screaming invectives. I would pace a room until the anger took a physical form and I broke something — a door, a piece of furniture, my glasses, or a clock. Then, as it slowly dawned on me that I was totally in the wrong, I went through a contrition ritual. I took full blame and promised that my rage would never happen again. But I could sense people shying away. A friend said that life around me was "like walking on eggshells."
On one occasion, I flew into a frenzy at the end of a three-day race on the boat of a very good friend whom I knew professionally. Since I was the most experienced skipper on board, I had stayed at the helm for much for the race, losing sleep trying to keep what was not a very competitive boat in contention. Toward the end of the race, he told me that my decisions had put us into a lull in the wind as other boats had caught a breeze and whisked them to the finish line. My anger was uncontrollable; I screamed at him for his insensitivity and incompetence, and then went into the cabin to sulk. An hour later, when I tried to apologize, he said he forgave me, but I knew that serious damage was done. I later heard that he still tells the story of the "boat race from hell."
I kept telling myself that the Asia Society was the culprit — look, this is a tough job, it's just stress, it would make anybody frustrated. Many people told me I looked tired, and warned me of burnout. I desperately wanted to show them I wasn't falling apart inside.
In spite of inner problems, I still saw myself doing professional work attentively and well. And when my political passions were engaged, I felt an old rush of energy fuel my activities and statements. My instinctive hatred for repression was reactivated in June 1989, when the Beijing government killed hundreds of protestors at Tiananmen Square. The fact that I had predicted this terrible outcome two weeks earlier did not make it any easier when I saw the awful images on television. I strongly condemned the Tiananmen massacre — in television interviews, in an address to some four hundred people who packed an auditorium at my twenty-fifth reunion at Williams College, and in comments for a thousand people at the Asia Society's annual dinner. At the same time, I also argued that we must remain engaged with China, not suspending most-favored-nation trading privileges, instead working to achieve human rights through tough negotiations on specific cases.
But inside, I was crumbling, falling apart with appalling speed. I seldom drank very much at the constant rounds of dinners and parties that the president of the Asia Society had to attend for "representational purposes" (that usually meant fund-raising in one way or another). But when I got home, I began knocking down drinks until I passed out. My consumption of alcohol eventually amounted to something between a third and a half a quart per night. I began buying extra bottles and hiding them so that those around me could not see how much was being consumed.
By the late 1980s, as things became worse, my wife and I agreed to a separation. I moved to a tiny New York City apartment where I embarked on an "addiction ritual" at least two or three nights a week. It required several specific ingredients — 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. As I think back on it, it all seems incredibly wacko, but then it felt like the right release at the end of a busy day. Somehow I managed, through huge intakes of caffeine during the day (both coffee itself and Diet Coke as well), to keep sufficient clarity to do my expected work.
People began telling me that I regularly talked to myself. Someone at work once asked me — "Did I hear you correctly? Did you say, 'Bob is so tired. He's just exhausted'? Are you talking about yourself?" I don't remember what I replied. I didn't remember saying anything in the first place.
But there was something else, a strange pattern that began long before, accelerating in the 1980s. There were blank spots in my memory where I could not recall anything that happened for blocks of time. Sometimes, when a luncheon appointment was canceled, I would go out at noon and come back at 3 p.m. with no knowledge of where I had been or what I had done. I returned tired, a bit sweaty, but I quickly showered and got back to work. Once, on a trip to Taiwan, a whole series of meetings was canceled because of a national holiday; I had zero memory of what I did for almost three days, but I do recall that, after that blank spot disappeared, I had a severe headache and what seemed to be cigarette burns on my arm.
Or there were selective memory blanks. When I was sailing, I found it impossible to respond intelligently when asked questions about China. Once someone asked me: "Bob, what's your take on human rights in China?" I deflected the question with an absolutely unrelated comment about a new sailboat device called the "quik vang." Luckily, sailors are fascinated by such technological innovations, and the conversation never returned to China. The scary fact of the matter was that, when I was on the boat or working on the boat, I honestly could not draw on my China or Asia expertise at all. I was simply a different person altogether.
I found myself living for the release of sailing. It was as if something just snapped as I left the office for the boat: work time had become playtime. But I worked just as obsessively on the boat as in the office. Though no boat is ever in perfect shape, my boat had to function perfectly. A broken knot meter could destroy a whole day for me as I sought, often unsuccessfully, to repair it. When I was on a boating vacation, I would count down the days remaining before returning to work like a man on death row facing execution.
To read the rest of Chapter One, click here.
Excerpted by permission from "Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder," by Robert B. Oxnam. Published by Hyperion. Copyright © 2005 Oxnam.