Robert Oxnam, China Scholar Beset by Multiple Personalities, is Dead

Robert B. Oxnam, a distinguished China historian who discovered via psychotherapy that his years of erratic behavior may be attributed to the agony of having several personas, died on April 18 at his home in Greenport, New York, on the North Fork of Long Island. He was 81.

According to New York Times, his wife, Vishakha Desai, stated that the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Oxnam was president of the Asia Society in the late 1980s, as well as a television pundit and sailor of note. But his psyche was quite fragile. He had a variety of issues, including intermittent rages, bulimia, memory blackouts, and melancholy, but it was his excessive drinking that prompted him to seek treatment from Dr. Jeffery Smith, a psychiatrist.

Tommy, a furious youngster, was the first personality to emerge during therapy, followed by Bobby, an amusing teenager, and Baby, who revealed what appeared to be abuse when Dr. Oxnam was very young.

In his 2005 book, “A Fractured Mind: My Life With Multiple Personality Disorder,” Dr. Oxnam described the session in which Tommy initially met with Dr. Smith. Dr. Oxnam’s only recollection of the 50-minute appointment was informing the psychiatrist that he didn’t believe the therapy was helping him. However, Dr. Smith informed him that he had been chatting with Tommy the entire time.

“He’s angry,” Dr. Smith told him. “And he’s inside you.”

“You’re kidding?” Dr. Oxnam responded.

His 11 personalities took up home in Dr. Oxnam’s brain and manifested themselves in real life, with the majority of them appearing during therapy with Dr. Smith. Wanda had a Buddhist-like presence that was once hidden beneath the vicious demeanor known as the Witch. Bobby, who enjoyed rollerblading with bottles balanced on his head, had an affair with a young woman, which shocked Dr. Oxnam and his wife.

“It can get really noisy in there, a din,” Dr. Oxnam told The New York Times in a 2005 feature.

In a recent interview, Dr. Smith observed, “There was a lot going on in his head, like if one personality was about to do something destructive, another was liable to say, ‘That’s not OK.'”

In the book, Dr. Oxnam detailed how the personas lived in a colorful interior world – a castle with apartments, dungeons, passageways, and a library behind iron-locked walls. Tommy told Dr. Smith that the castle was “Middle Ages-style, standing on a large hill,” composed of “gray stones and topped with long walkways and towers at the corners.”

Dr. Oxnam’s book does not reveal who abused him. However, throughout Dr. Smith’s interactions with Baby, he stated that Baby was “crystal clear” that the tremendous traumas Robert had undergone as a youngster were not caused by his parents.

“Our vow to hide the abusers’ identity was easier said than done,” he said. “To be honest, it has been difficult to remain silent while the Castle is filled with fury. But, with time, I discovered that hiding the abusers’ names and refusing to remain furious actually aids in the healing process.”

Therapy eventually helped him combine the 11 identities into a more manageable three, he explained.

According to Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, multiple personality disorder, also known as dissociative identity disorder, affects around 1% of the population and typically develops after early-life traumatic events. He proposed the name change, which was published in the fourth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (1994).

Dr. Spiegel stated that the identities that Dr. Oxnam experienced were more accurately described as fragments of his identity.

“You’re a different guy talking to me than you are at a party, but there’s a smooth continuity between the two,” he noted in a recent interview. “In people with D.I.D., they experience themselves as different components that get filed into different identities.”

The disease served as the foundation for Flora Rheta Schreiber’s best-selling 1973 novel “Sybil,” about a lady who was reported to have 16 personalities. It was adapted for a 1976 television film starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward.

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

In 1964, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Williams College, Massachusetts. His father encouraged him to pursue graduate studies in international affairs, and Robert predicted that China will play a larger role on the global arena. At Yale University, he got a master’s degree in East Asian studies in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation focused on China’s 17th-century Oboi Regency.

In 2014, he wrote in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s newsmagazine, that he spent two years researching the Oboi Regency through court documents, biographies, and local histories in classical Chinese, hoping to uncover historical insights among the dense linguistic trees.

Dr. Oxnam began a six-year tenure as an associate professor of Chinese and Japanese history at Trinity College in Connecticut before being hired by the Asia Society, a cultural, educational, and research institution in Manhattan. He founded the China Council, which released papers and briefs about China as it reopened to the West following President Richard M. Nixon’s visit in 1972.

From 1979 to 1981, Dr. Oxnam served as director of the society’s Washington center, where he established the organization’s first contemporary affairs section, which focused on government policy. He became the society’s president in 1981. Over the next 11 years, he expanded the organization’s business, modern affairs, and cultural activities to cover 30 Asian nations, as well as guiding the 1990 launch of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

According to Marshall Bouton, a former Asia Society official, Dr. Oxnam helped turn the group “from a gathering spot for Upper East Siders who were interested in Asia to a more professional organization that dealt with Asia’s most pressing challenges.”

Mr. Bouton stated that he was unaware of the full extent of Dr. Oxnam’s drunkenness and had had suspicions regarding his behavioral issues. He felt it was amazing that Dr. Oxnam was able to work through them.

However, in 1992, Dr. Oxnam informed the society’s board that he was resigning.

“The Bob part of me was touched that they pressured me to reconsider,” he writes in his memoir. But he departed.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1993 and served as president of the Asia Society from 2004 to 2012, he is survived by his daughter, Deborah Betsch, and son, Geoff Oxnam, both from his divorce with Barbara Foehl in 1993, as well as four grandkids.

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

He also published “Ming: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century China” (1995) and pursued an artistic career, creating sculptures out of found wood influenced by Chinese philosophy and photographing glacier rocks.

“In Chinese tradition, the term ‘qi’ has many meanings, but for me, it means an invisible but palpable source of creative energy,” Dr. Oxnam told Hamptons Art Hub, an online journal in 2018. He went on to say, “I have suffered from dissociation all my life, but somehow the linkage between ‘qi’ and art has given me focus and hope.”

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