Dr. Anita M. Muhl

Wrote "Automatic Writing An approach to the Unconscious" in 1963, with a foreword by Eileen J. Garrett. In this book, Muhl purposefully described methods of inducing dissociations in order to encourage automatisms to reveal the contents of the subconscious mind. The article below appeared in "An Outline of Abnormal Psychology" (1929, A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc.) edited by Gardner Murphy.

Automatic Writing as an Indicator of the Fundamental Factors Underlying the Personality

 - Anita M. Muhl -

          AUTOMATIC WRITING in its simplest form is script which the writer produces involuntarily, and in some instances without being aware that he is doing it, even though he be in an alert waking state. Automatic writers may be divided into two classes: those who can write only while being consciously distracted and stimulated, and those who can write only while relaxed and with the attention fixed. These two groups may be further subdivided into subjects who at the moment of writing have no idea what the hand is recording and those who at the moment have ideas corresponding to the ones recorded, but which seem to flood the mind without volition and without logical association toward the normal mental processes. The writing is the manifestation of dissociated ideas of which the writer is not aware...

Violet X    was born in New England and lived a normal healthy life as a child. She had excellent schooling, graduating from a college for women. She had no illnesses and never considered herself nervous or hysterical. In college she had the usual courses in psychology but knew practically nothing about abnormal psychology. She had been especially interested in sociology and had done some social service work in Boston. She was a teacher of English and later married a professor of English in a western town. She had a fine intellect and a charming personality.

Just previous to the time of her automatic activity she had worked very hard and had begun to feel run down. The physicians she consulted told her she was overtired and had some slight cardiac disturbance. Aside from this condition of fatigue she appeared to be normal physically and mentally. One day when in the state of fatigue, it was discovered that the Ouija Board was working unusually well for Violet X    and Dr. Richmond was prompted to test her ability to write automatically. This started a series of records which were obtained during a period of several months. The first attempts were not so brilliantly successful, but with repeated attempts a marvelous facility for writing developed and with this an increased tendency to dissociate appeared which finally became so alarming that the experiments were abruptly terminated.

During the period of experimentation no less than seven distinct recurring personalities emerged, together with several minor ones. Each had a name and a handwriting more or less individual. Each spoke of herself or himself in the first person, giving detailed answers to questions, coherent accounts of themselves and admonitions and advice to the experimenters. Half a dozen different personalities might come at one sitting, interrupting one another unceremoniously, and sometimes even rudely. The personalities, once established, would often appear when called, coming with the remark: "So and so is here, what do you want?" Miss Violet X    maintained the same attitude as the other experimenters, questioning or replying to what the hand was writing. Any levity on the part of the subject or the others was apt to call forth scathing remarks from the secondary personalities. Miss X    with one exception retained her own personality and was fully aware of what was going on, although she by no means always knew what the hand was writing; but as will be seen, her behavior was different when the different personalities were asserting themselves. In the following account it must be remembered that they appeared at different times throughout the several months of the experiment and that often several came at one sitting; but they shall be taken up, one at a time.

The first of these personalities to appear and the one who appeared most frequently and had the most to say way Annie McGinnis. Annie immediately drew a portrait of herself and it was a very clever picture. (In her normal personality Miss X    could not draw at all.) Annie's story as she told it at various intervals is the following: Annie was a poor girl who had fallen through no fault of her own, but had been led astray by a man who had promised her food and shelter and an easier life. After that she became a prostitute, and finally died in giving birth to a child; she suffered greatly because of her sins and wandered aimlessly about until she found Miss X   , with whom she took up her abode "because," as she said, "you are so good, I love to be with you." Annie, true to type, was coarse, rude, quick-tempered, resentful, reckless and passionate. Whenever she appeared she took charge in a whirlwind fashion and if she happened to be in a good humor, she was a great blarney. Whenever Annie appeared, Miss X    would be seized almost as though with a convulsion; her arm would stiffen and the fingers would grip the pencil tightly and write in a coarse, flowing hand; or her feet would pound on the floor while the arm would bang itself on the table with enough force to cause considerable pain. The pounding occurred, Annie said, when she thought of what men had done to her. Annie hated men with large capital letters and often after one of the male personalities had been recording she would obliterate all traces of these records by scribbling over the entire paper.

During Annie's appearance, Miss X    often was observed to have a peculiar expression on her face which grew more marked toward the latter part of the experiment. Her eyebrows were raised and she looked almost frightened. Sometimes she would grit her teeth and press her lips together firmly.

Mary Patterson was the next personality. Her handwriting was very much like Miss X   's normal writing. She used the best English and in general was more like Miss X   's primary personality than any of the others. She came quite seldom and when she did she was apt to be rather rudely ousted by some of the more aggressive ones. Mary declared she was Miss X-'s most familiar spirit.

Mary Minott was a third personality. She described herself as a cosmopolitan and very talented. She hated Mary Patterson and called her a prig, full of puritanical notions. She would bitterly upbraid Miss X    for preferring Mary Patterson to her. She insisted that if Miss X    would only listen to her she would make her a famous designer, and to prove it she designed a number of beautiful dresses (Miss X    normally could not do this at all). Mary Minott had a perfect passion for designing gowns and she had talent that amounted almost to genius.

A fourth personality, persistent and always unwelcome to Miss X    was Alton. Unlike the others, he was no myth but a friend of her fiancÚ, whom she had met the previous summer. He wrote the most sentimental things and seemed to try to dissuade her from marrying the man to whom she was engaged. Alton was always urging Miss X    to give herself up to mediumship, saying that the spirits of both the dead and the living could speak through her. He admitted that it was sometimes dangerous but felt he could guard her from harm.

Miss X   's father was the other personality who purported to be dead, as he actually was. This personality assumed the actual handwriting of her father. He did not appear often and then only made hurried remarks about family affairs.

A sixth interesting personality labeled himself simply "the Spirit of War and Desolation." This spirit sounded dreadful warnings (it was just prior to America's entry into the war) and urged Miss X    to work for the Red Cross. This personality alternately urged Miss X    to give up automatic writing and to take up the study of mediumship for which she was told she had rare talent.

The last personality to develop and the one who finally caused the disruption of the experiment, called himself merely "Man." In the beginning he was not at all distinct, neither with regard to handwriting nor to the content of what he wrote. At first he would break into some other conversation with totally irrelevant remarks and when questioned would give only ambiguous answers or none at all. Finally, however, he identified himself as Man and would alternate with Alton, but he developed such an antipathy toward Alton that he succeeded in banishing him altogether. He also fostered an intense dislike for Annie McGinnis, who hated him in return in letters two inches high. She considered him the incarnation of all her enemies. "Man" tried to banish her, but nothing could banish the flippant and irrepressible Annie and she took particular delight in scribbling all over the things he had written.

These two personalities now had the field pretty much to themselves and "Man" became more and more persistent and dominating. A change began to come over Miss X    when he was in control. She first mentioned it herself, saying: "I feel different when 'Man' is present than I do with any of the others; there is a feeling of power and vigor and I don't want to sit still, I want to run or express myself in some vigorous physical way." "Man" soon expressed an interest in dancing and would fill sheet after sheet with marks produced through rhythmic motion of the pencil, becoming more and more energetic as time went on. He would write occasionally - "Let's dance, Violet." Miss X    began to say she believed she really could dance spontaneously if she would give herself up entirely to the feelings, but she was always a little afraid to try.

Toward the end of the experiment some three months after it was begun, Miss X- was writing quietly one evening when "Man" came and as usual began to dance. In a moment Miss X    spoke loudly and said: "Oh - want to dance I believe I can dance," and getting to her feet she began to sway rhythmically back and forth. The swaying became more and more violent, her arms began to wave and her feet to execute a curious shuffling movement. Suddenly her body gave a violent wrench and she cried out in a sharp, high voice. Her face depicted the emotions of a tremendous struggle, ecstasy and terror contending for expression. She was taken to a couch by the experimenters, where for about ten minutes she remained stiff and moaned in an unnatural voice. Gradually she resumed her natural speaking voice, relaxed and returned to normal, and though rather terrified by the experience, she was able to discuss what her feelings were. She said she tried to control the movements and suddenly realized she couldn't - it was as if something were making her do it and she couldn't stop. She declared she was in fear of losing herself and of another personality gaining control. She said: "I wanted to give myself up to it and yet I didn't want to. I can't describe it, but I felt as though I were two people."

After this experience, Miss X    was strongly dissuaded from trying anything more, but she did try it a few times and always "Man" came, telling her he represented all the vigor and love of action in her. He always wanted to dance. After this came her marriage and the automatic writing was largely forgotten for several months, but one day when she was alone she decided she would try it again. This time Mary Patterson, "the most familiar spirit," came and explained that all the other personalities were completely submerged and lacked sufficient intensity to be able to express themselves. After this no further attempts were made.

Miss Violet X    was tremendously interested in all the manifestations and introspected carefully and sincerely. She felt that none of them expressed things outside her own experience except Alton, who was a real person. However, after repeated attempts at analysis Miss X    recalled a conversation with her mother after her meeting with Alton which satisfactorily accounted for the genesis of his remarks, and after this explanation he gradually disappeared.

Miss X    felt that Annie McGinnis was entirely explicable. She had been strongly impressed in her experience in social work with the idea that only the accident of birth and training had saved her from such a life as that led by some of the girls of the lower economic classes. Annie was, in part, the systematized expression of ideas, once acutely conscious but largely relegated to the paraconscious where they continued active, and she was also the means of expressing the polymorphous perverse sexual tendencies of the personal unconscious. She further illustrated a distinctly compensatory trend, for her expressions of hatred for men were probably the outcome of the ambivalent opposite emotional tendency.

"Man" undoubtedly represented the bisexual trend of the subject and came, if not wholly, at least to a great extent from the personal unconscious. His desire to dominate, as well as the assertive and very aggressive tendencies manifested, appear much more instinctively masculine in character than feminine. The power and vigor of expression as well as the greater freedom from repression in this personality seem to be evidence of the same phenomenon...

An attempt will now be made to briefly summarize the points which have been illustrated.

1. Automatic activity and dissociation constitute a reversible reaction. The greater the tendency to automatism the greater the danger of dissociation. Violet X    as she attained her greatest proficiency in writing also came very near to having a complete cleavage of the personality. This was when "Man" insisted she should dance.

2. The Paraconscious(1) is the chief abode of automatic activity and may consist of dominant and active states, the latter of which are apt to produce personalities which are concomitant with the original personality. Mary Patterson knew all about Violet X    and what she thought and did - on the other hand, Violet X    knew nothing of what Mary Patterson thought. Annie McGinnis also knew what Violet X    thought and also what the two personalities "Man" and Mary Patterson thought.

(1) The paraconscious is "that state in which ideas and images are beyond the field of awareness but which are not too difficultly recallable. If the ideas and images of the paraconscious are dormant then we have a state which was formerly described as the foreconscious and the subconscious; if the ideas and images are active and independent then we have a state which has been called the coconscious."

3. The Personal Unconscious(2) besides being the zone where the impressions of the most deeply repressed and lost experiences are left, also contains the elemental instincts of the personality and may so color the paraconscious activity as to suggest many unusual trends...

(2) The unconscious is:
(a) "that state in which the records of the experiences of our lives are retained and conserved, no matter in what condition they were impressed; whether in normal, consciousness, in the hypnotic state, in dissociated personality, or in hysterical crises. These complexes ... are not readily accessible and recallable ... Put very simply the personal unconscious is the individual's mental lumber room."
(b) "that which constitutes the haziest part of the background, and is that state in which the instincts of the development are impressed. These instincts while influencing the individual's reaction are beyond any form of recall. It is thus seen that although the conscious, paraconscious and personal unconscious are capable of affecting each other reciprocally, the genetic unconscious while exerting an influence on the preceding states, can never be influenced by them because it represents the residual left in the wake of a development for which our present powers of interpretation are wholly inadequate!"

If it is seen that a certain tendency to dissociation in a given person exists and that in the secondary personality developed there is a suggestion of latent abilities and talents - would it not be worth while to deliberately break up the synthesis of the mental states and resynthesize the subject into a more culturally successful and economically efficient individual by means of either hypnotism or analysis, or both combined?

In conclusion I should like to state that in view of the evidence offered, I believe I am justified in assuming that automatic writing is an indicator of the fundamental factors underlying the personality and that it may be considered an especially valuable instrument in the study of mental disturbances of psychogenic origin, to reveal the predominating, elements of the patient's mental make-up.


The article above first appeared in the Journal of Psychology, vol. 17.


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