Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Other Loons Page




By Gelett Burgess




There’s probably no child alive who hasn’t played at having a secret or second identity, whether it was Superman or Wonder Woman, a pirate, an astronaut, or a cowboy. It’s harmless fun and part of growing up. For that matter, it’s the rare adult who has never indulged in a daydream of talent, wealth, power, or beauty. But what would happen if our other self achieved an independent existence, either in a separate body or perhaps even more frighteningly, in our own? What if that other self could seize power, either suppressing our original identity or ousting it completely and taking over our existence?

It’s been happening for as long as we have records. Until the latter years of the Nineteenth Century the phenomenon was regarded as supernatural in nature. One was possessed by an angel or demon or Satan himself. The notion that a physical or psychological explanation was possible appeared as early as 1886. Robert Louis Stevenson described the alternation of two selves in one body in The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. The “good” Jeckyll could invoke the “evil” Hyde by ingesting a drug. Hyde could switch back to Jeckyll with another dose. Then Hyde started appearing uninvited, suppressing the Jeckyll personality against the latter’s will.

In actual cases of dissociative identity disorder or “multiple personalities” a chemical stimulus is not involved. Psychologists posit that a shocking experience, usually in childhood or adolescence, causes a portion of the personality to split off, forming a separate identity of its own. In many cases there are not two but many personalities, often quite different from one another in behavior and temperament. They adopt different names and modes of dress. They may be aware of one another to varying degrees, sometimes sharing memories, sometimes holding them back from one another.

The pioneer explorer of this disorder was Boston-born Morton Henry Prince (1854-1929). The seminal work in the field of dissociative identity disorder is Prince’s The Dissociation of a Personality (1906). Prince’s subject was one Clara Norton Fowler, whom he described under the pseudonym Christine Beauchamp. A gloss of Prince’s work describes Christine as “characterized by seriousness, sensitivity, scrupulousness, and personal reticence.” Her most prominent other self he called Sally, described as “gay, relatively insensitive, carefree, and attention loving.”

Enter Gelett Burgess (1866-1951). A fellow Bostonian by birth, Burgess became a prominent author and bon vivant. It is a matter of speculation as to whether the quiet and dignified Prince and the flamboyant Burgess ever met, but there can be little doubt that Burgess was familiar with Prince’s publications.

Burgess’s novel The White Cat (1907) appeared on the heels of Prince’s most important publication. Prince’s description of Christine/Sally Beauchamp is a virtual template for Burgess’s Joy/Edna Fielding. Prince utilized hypnotism in his treatment of Miss Beauchamp, as Burgess’s Dr. Copin does with Miss Fielding. The dissociation of Miss Fielding’s personality is described as originating in a shock when she was thirteen years old, the same age as Miss Beauchamp when she suffered a similar shock.

The modern reader may find the “treatment” introduced by Burgess’s male protagonist, Chester Castle, unlikely to have succeeded, but we must bear in mind that the study and treatment of dissociative personality was in its infancy when Burgess wrote The White Cat.

A second fascinating aspect of Burgess’s novel is his treatment of the race theme. The character of Leah is portrayed with remarkable sensitivity and dignity for so early a work. The portrayal of King, a Chinese employee of the Fielding household, is more of a comic caricature, certainly objectionable to the modern reader. But we take note (without giving away too much of the novel’s plot) that King provides a critical insight without which the “cure” of Miss Fielding would have been impossible.

Largely forgotten until reissued by Surinam Turtle Press, The White Cat was far ahead of its time. Scores of authors have utilized its themes. These include Stanley G. Weinbaum (The Dark Other, 1950), Shirley Jackson (The Bird’s Nest, 1954), Philip K. Dick (A Scanner Darkly, 1977), Mary Higgins Clark (All Around the Town, 1992), and even the undersigned, Richard A. Lupoff (The Triune Man, 1976).

Yet, despite the passage of more than a century, Gelett Burgess’s The White Cat retains the power to shock and to move the reader.


Richard A. Lupoff


April 2008


Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Other Loons Page