The Case of Doris Fischer

Long before Sybil and the Three Faces of Eve, there was Doris Fischer and her case is still considered a classic (although little-known these days).

It was in 1910 when she first came to the attention of Walter Franklin Prince, then-rector at an Episcopal church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prince, who was born in 1863, received degrees in theology at Yale and Drew Theological Seminary, and went on to become a prominent psychic researcher and psychotherapist.  . When he met the twenty-one year old “Doris Fischer” in his congregation, she appeared to be an extremely unhappy and lonely individual who was prone to odd mood and behaviour shifts. She also seemed to experience bouts of amnesia in which she would forget what she had previously said or done.

While Prince initially diagnosed her as suffering from hysteria (a common diagnosis for women patients of the time), he carefully studied her and concluded that she matched the clinical description of what was then known as “multiple personality“. Over the years in which Prince followed the case, he came to identify at least five different personalities including “Margaret”- a child of about ten, “Sick Doris” who was a perpetual invalid, “Real Doris” whom Prince regarded as the core personality, “Sleeping Real Doris” and “Sleeping Margaret” who only seemed to emerge when Doris was in a hypnotic state. It was “Sleeping Margaret” who seemed to have the best insight into how Doris’ different personalities worked together and often helped Prince as he attempted to get to know each personality individually.

Through sessions with “Sleeping Margaret”, Prince was able to piece together some of Doris’ background. She was born in 1889 of German parents and her father was an alcoholic who frequently abused her. The possibility of sexual abuse was never raised (it was a taboo topic at the time) although it was never ruled out either. It was apparently in her early childhood that “Margaret” first emerged as a defense against the abuse and alternated with “Real Doris”. The third personality “Sick Doris” emerged after her mother’s death when she was sixteen years old. She reported a total amnesia surrounding the five-year period between her mother’s death and when she first began attending Prince’s church. “Sleeping Margaret” only emerged once Prince began treating Doris.

Gaining access to Doris became much easier after Prince and his wife formally adopted her as their daughter (not the usual clinical approach, I’ll admit). He published a massive 1300-page treatise on his prize patient in 1915 (he named her “Doris Fischer” in his publications although her real name after the adoption was Theodosia Prince). Prince would later publish another thousand-page treatise on the psychic experiments that he did with “Doris” making this case the most well-documented example of multiple personality disorder on record. Over the years that he worked with Doris, Prince was able to reintegrate all of her personalities into “Real Doris” (although “Sleeping Margaret” still resurfaced at times whenever Doris/Theodosia was in hypnosis).

Multiple personality disorder (now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder) remains a controversial diagnosis, not to mention fairly rare these days. In my decades as a clinical psychologist dealing with trauma in various forms, I have never run across a case of it and there some researchers who are of the opinion that many reported cases are iatrogenic in nature.

With the Doris Fischer case, the problems seem evident.  First of all, there was a considerable blurring of the relationship between Doris and her therapist. Not only did she become Prince’s adoptive daughter but she was also his prize patient (he often introduced visiting clinicians to “Sleeping Margaret”) and test subject in different psychic experiments. A later clinician would report that “Doris’ love for her adopted father was no ordinary love. She loved him not merely as a devoted daughter, she adored him almost as her God, in that he had saved her from hell and had, one might almost say, given her a soul”.

Did Prince’s expectations impose demand characteristics that shaped his adopted daughter’s reported symptoms? Given the current controversy over recovered memory and the potential impact of directed psychotherapy on suggestible subjects, the possibility seems all too real. Information concerning Doris/Theodosia’s later life tends to be scarce although she experienced a relapse following Prince’s death in 1934. Aside from the clinical report of the treatment that she received at that time, there seems to be nothing else available (if anyone has more information please let me know).

The Case of Doris Fischer” by Dr Romeo Vitelli at Providentia is licensed under CC BY 3.0.
The image in the original article has been removed. The image on this page, just above the article, is not from the original article.