Robert Oxnam, Chinese scholar tormented by multiple personalities, dies at 81

Robert B. Oxnam, a prominent Chinese scholar who learned through psychotherapy that his years of erratic behavior could be explained by the torment of having multiple personalities, died April 18 at his home in Greenport, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island . He was 81 years old.

His wife, Vishakha Desai, said the cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease.

In the late 1980s, Dr Oxnam was president of the Asia Society, a television commentator and an able sailor. But his psyche was extremely fragile. He had myriad problems, including intermittent anger, bulimia, memory blackouts and depression, but it was for excessive alcohol consumption that he first sought treatment from Dr. Jeffery Smith, a psychiatrist.

The first personality to emerge in that therapy was Tommy, an angry boy, followed by others, such as Bobby, a mischievous teenager, and Baby, who revealed what appeared to have been abuse when Dr. Oxnam was very young.

In his 2005 book, “A Fractured Mind: My Life With Multiple Personality Disorder,” Dr. Oxnam recalled the session in which Tommy first spoke to Dr. Smith. All Dr. Oxnam could remember of the 50-minute session, he wrote, was telling the psychiatrist that he didn't think the therapy was working for him. But Dr. Smith told him that he had been talking to Tommy all that time.

“He is full of anger,” Dr. Smith told him. “And it's inside you.”

“Are you joking?” Dr. Oxnam replied.

His 11 personalities settled in Dr. Oxnam's brain and acted in real life, and almost all of them appeared during therapy with Dr. Smith. Wanda had a Buddhist-like presence that was once steeped in the cruel personality known as the Witch. Bobby, who loved rollerblading with bottles balanced on his head, was having an affair with a young woman, a revelation that surprised Doctor Oxnam and his wife.

In his 2005 memoir, Dr. Oxnam recounted therapy sessions in which his psychiatrist found himself talking to one or another of Dr. Oxnam's multiple personalities.Credit…Hachette books

“It can get really loud in there, a racket,” Dr. Oxnam told the New York Times in a profile on him in 2005.

Dr. Smith said in an interview: “There were a lot of things in his head, as if one personality was going to do something destructive, another was likely to say, 'This is not good.'”

In the book, Dr. Oxnam described how personalities inhabited a vivid internal world: a castle with rooms, dungeons, walkways, and a library behind locked iron doors. Tommy described the castle to Dr. Smith, telling him that it was “medieval in style, set on a great hill”, and was made of “grey stones and surmounted by long walkways and towers at the corners”.

Dr. Oxnam did not reveal in the book who had abused him. But through Dr. Smith's conversations with Baby, he wrote, Baby was “very clear” that the severe traumas Robert experienced as a boy were not inflicted by his parents.

“Our promise to hide the identity of the abusers was easier said than done,” Dr. Oxnam wrote. “To be honest, when anger reigns in the Castle, it was difficult to remain silent. But over time, I've found that hiding the names of abusers and refusing to stay in a state of anger actually helps the healing process.

Therapy eventually helped meld the 11 personalities into three more manageable ones, he said.

Multiple personality disorder — now called dissociative identity disorder — affects about 1% of the population and usually emerges after severe trauma early in life, said Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. He coined the name change, which appeared in the fourth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (1994).

Dr. Spiegel stated that the personalities experienced by Dr. Oxnam are best known as fragmentations of his identity.

“You're a different guy when you're talking to me than when you're at a party, but there's a fluid continuity between the two,” he said in an interview. “People with DID experience themselves as different components that are stored in different identities.”

The disorder was the basis of the best-selling 1973 book “Sybil,” by Flora Rheta Schreiber, about a woman said to have 16 personalities. It was adapted into a 1976 television film starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward.

Robert Bromley Oxnam was born on December 14, 1942 in Los Angeles. His father, also named Robert, was president of Drew University in New Jersey and, before that, of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His mother, Dalys (Houts) Oxnam, ran the house.

He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts with a degree in history in 1964. His father urged him to consider graduate work in international studies, and Robert speculated that China would play a greater role on the world stage. At Yale University, he earned a master's degree in East Asian studies in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1969, with a thesis on the Chinese Oboi regency of the 17th century.

“For two years, I combed through court documents, biographies and local histories, all in classical Chinese, trying to find patches of historical forest amidst dense linguistic trees” on Oboi's regency, he wrote in 2014 in Perspectives on History, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association.

In 1969, Dr. Oxnam began a six-year stint as an associate professor of Chinese and Japanese history at Trinity College in Connecticut before being recruited to the Asia Society, a cultural, educational and research organization in Manhattan. He was the founder of the China Council, which published papers and documents on China as it began to reopen to the West after President Richard M. Nixon's 1972 visit.

As director of the society's Washington center from 1979 to 1981, Dr. Oxnam started the organization's first contemporary affairs department, to focus on government policy. He was named president of the society in 1981. Over the next 11 years, he expanded its business, contemporary and cultural programming to include 30 Asian countries and helped lead the opening of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in 1990.

Marshall Bouton, a former leader of the Asia Society, said that Dr. Oxnam helped transform the organization “from a gathering place for Upper East Siders interested in Asia to a more professional organization that addresses the Asia's most urgent challenges”.

Mr Bouton said he had not been fully aware of the extent of Dr Oxnam's alcoholism and had had inklings about his behavioral problems. He said it was amazing that Dr. Oxnam was able to solve them.

But in 1992, Dr. Oxnam told the company's board that he was resigning.

“Bob's part of me was touched by them pushing me to reconsider,” he wrote in his book. But he's gone.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1993 and who was president of the Asia Society from 2004 to 2012, his survivors include his daughter Deborah Betsch and son Geoff Oxnam, both from his marriage to Barbara Foehl, which ended in divorce in 1993, and four nephews.

After leaving the Asia Society, Dr. Oxnam hosted and wrote a series on China for “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS in 1993; he taught a graduate seminar on U.S.-Asia relations at Peking University from 2003 to 2004 (where his personality Bobby lectured in Chinese) and advised the Bessemer Trust, a wealth management firm.

He also wrote “Ming: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century China” (1995) and turned to art, turning found wood into sculptures inspired by Chinese philosophy and taking photographs of glacial rocks.

“In Chinese tradition, the term 'qi' has many meanings, but to me it means an invisible but palpable source of creative energy,” Dr. Oxnam told Hamptons Art Hub, an online publication, in 2018. He added: “I I have suffered from dissociation all my life, but somehow the connection between “qi” and art has given me focus and hope.”

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