The Court Gossip: Synopsis

Dissociative identity disorder
Image via Wikipedia


  • The patient “Mary”
  • Her “alter” Sandy
  • The writers Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, working on a paper about her
  • The composer Brian Felsen, writing a series of art songs about them.


I. The Origin of Selves

The music opens with a flashback to childhood trauma.  Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey replay the report of the MPD patient (Multiple Personality Disorder – now called DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder) “Mary” as she re-experiences past trauma.  Her “voices” blend in with the sound of her own memory washing in like the tide, punctuated by the sound of the clock in her bedroom.

II. epi sodes

This section deals with dissociation – in MPD/DID patients, “normal” individuals, and creative collaborators.  While the music mirrors the gaps, “episodes,” interjections, and discontinuities in the personality and style of the MPD/DID patient’s “alters,” the writers marvel at the radical disjunction of Mary’s personality traits.

“Mary” at first identifies herself in the first person (“I was a girl”) before switching to the third person in the same sentence (“which she would then read…”).  Dennett and Humphrey even begin to alternate addressing themselves in the first person singular and first person plural.  They compare her case with Dennett’s concept of a “normal” self as the “center of narrative gravity.”

The observers pry information out of the patient, claiming privileged knowledge about the patient (“…never knew what she had…”) and even encouraging the MPD/DID diagnosis (“What are you suppressing?”)  All the while, poor “Mary” still suffers from childhood sexual abuse, recalling how her father or “imaginary guardian” comes, either to protect or abuse her, as she lays in bed.

III. Speaking For Our Selves

Here, normal individuals are shown as being made up of partially disjointed “selves” which communicate and collaborate to form a whole.  Dennett and Humphrey sing about how their patient “Mary” compares with a normal, “multiplex” person whose “loose confederation of selves” have to work together on larger projects.  At the same time, as collaborators on the paper about “Mary,” they are experiencing the same thing: the problem of seeking a common writing style.

Dennett and Humphrey gossip about each other and their philosophies as their own concerns about each other surface.  Just like at the end of the song epi sodes, the composer wonders whom he’s addressing with this musical work and begins to worry about whether his making an artwork about the friendship will “burn his bridges” with the writer-philosophers.

Not losing sight of the patient, the scene then cuts back to “Mary’s” feeling of being watched (which, in counterpoint, the writers indeed are doing) and her fears and memories (real or imagined) of her father lurking at night.

IV. The Thick Moment

In this section, Dennett and Humphrey elaborate on their theories of how consciousness evolved.  The writers sing of consciousness and sensation as being nonmysterious aspects of nature and biology, rather than as supernatural or as irreducible elements of the universe.  They expound upon terms of folk psychology to align the seemingly irreconcilable concepts of “mind” and “brain” and sing about how sensation and the feeling of subjective experience could have evolved (recalling Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness).

The music and lyrics then turn into a slow, surreal fugue, reflecting how the “thick moment” of the present contains the past and sensation.  In the interweaving of voices, the writers:

  • compare the stories of “Mary” with the way we spin our “selves” like a web
  • compare their theories of mind to those of their rivals
  • acknowledge that although the case of “Mary” may have been caused by the diagnosing doctor, her symptoms, for her, are real nonetheless; and
  • continue to gossip about each other’s ideas.

V. Clamoring For Clout

In the final part of the piece, failures of collaboration come to the fore.  The controversy over the validity of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as a diagnosis threatens to overwhelm the ideas behind the paper itself.  The writers sing about failure – criticisms of positivism, failures in collaboration, and how genetic mistakes can turn out to bring beneficial consequences.

All the while, they jockey for celebrity and influence, compare each other’s fame, and poke holes in each other’s theories.  The composer imputes his anxiety about being “caught” making an artwork about the collaboration onto them, and he hears them as becoming angry or surprised that he’s writing about them.

At the very end, the piece begins to turn on itself in lines of self-reference.  The voices of the philosophers and composer have overwhelmed those of their subject “Mary,” whose “voices” are nowhere to be found.

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