A Review of Catherine Klatzker’s You Will Never Be Normal

July 26, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

I didn’t really understand dissociative identity disorder before I read Catherine Klatzker’s memoir, You Will Never Be Normal. I had read Sybil, in the early 1970s, about a young woman, Shirley Mason, who exhibited sixteen distinct personalities and had a condition then called multiple personality disorder. The book became bestseller, then a blockbuster film. Then Mason confessed, she’d invented most of it.

Today, the psychiatric community believes an individual has just one personality, but trauma can shatter or fragment it. This condition is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder or DID.

“Up to seventy-five percent of people experience at least one depersonalization/derealization episode in their lives,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. That means most of us will experience this.

When it happened to Klatzker, she thought she was going insane. “I used to creep around in the gloom, the walls felt cold and I could barely see my way,” she writes. “All the years of darkness, of not knowing where my voices came from, the loss of bodily control—I shuddered when I recalled how much I’d wanted to just get rid of my intrusive Parts….” Voices screamed and “howled wordlessly” at her. Life became a “nightmare.” A therapist, Dr. Lew, would lead her on a journey back through various traumas in her life, looking for moments that chipped away at her psyche.

Klatzker grew up with a temperamental, domineering father who lorded over his wife and thirteen children. When she was small, he’d hold his hand over her mouth and roughly touch her privates. He’d drink too much, then bully and rage at the family. This confused her, as a child, because he could also be generous and thoughtful.

“If I spoke poorly of my father to friends, the response I got, spoken and unspoken, was that I wasn’t trying hard enough,” she writes. This shame and silence would add to her confusion, self-doubt, and shame.

At sixteen, Klatzker read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and found personal meaning in his writing: “I wanted to live my life deliberately, to learn what life had to teach and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

At seventeen, she escaped her chaotic home and moved in with a man, thirteen years older than her, who had been married twice and had children. By eighteen, Klatzker had a son with him. Two months later, the father of her child died of a heart attack.  

Klatzker had just finished high school, and was now a mother and a widow with no job, no skills, no college education, no money, no future, and no one to save her. She couch-surfed, worked menial jobs, and did whatever she had to do to take care of herself and her son. In time, she would find a life partner, marry, have more children, go to college, and become a critical care nurse.

Even though she made it, the ghosts of the past would haunt her.  

Until reading Klatzker’s book, I never thought I had experienced anything like DID. However, her book caused me to reflect back on a curious incident when I was eight years old. An older boy had sexually molested me. When my mother found out, she yelled and screamed at me and told me how ashamed she was of me and how she would get my father to spank me with his belt. I was far more terrified of her and my father’s belt than anything the neighbor boy had done. My mother remained angry for a very long time, which only added to my anxiety and shame.  

I escaped by becoming a horse called Midnight.

For about three years, I was this beautiful black stallion. I would disappear for hours neighing and bucking up and down the sidewalks, galloping along the train tracks, then dropping by the town stable to visit the other horses. As Midnight, I was sleek, smart, and invincible—no longer a girl who had shamed her mother.

If my father spotted me prancing up and down the street, he’d chase me, flailing his arms, and yelling, “Stop this! Stop it now! People will think you’re crazy.”

Yet, maybe I was. I couldn’t stop. I was Midnight.

“I didn’t know it was shame I was feeling,” writes Klatzker in her memoir. “I was hiding from that feeling. I needed to hide. I couldn’t articulate the why of that because I hid it: that I was bad. I didn’t know where those feelings came from, and they scared me.”

I felt something like that, and it scared me too.     

Klatzker’s memoir tells of a courageous woman who has lived through several traumas and, with the help of a therapist, takes control over the voices terrorizing her. It’s a great story of recovery told with hope and humor.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

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