mansion of mind:

the imaginal world of Stephen Leeds

Sanderson’s Legion is, in truth, a portrait of psyche, created by psyche, to be observed by the psyches of its readers. And, like any other imaginal world, it can be entered into.

Welcome to the world of Stephen Leeds and his forty-seven inner companions — a community living in an imaginal system that is neither dissociative identity disorder (DID) nor schizophrenia, but involves facets of both, and quite a bit beyond.

I don’t fit any of the profiles, says Leeds. But why should that matter? I get along fine. Mostly.[1]

An affluent problem-solver and detective for hire, Leeds does his work with the help of his aspects,[2] a posse of subpersonalities he experiences as interacting with his external environment and moving with him as he travels the outer world. He is so dedicated to his belief in their existence — even as he refers to them as hallucinations[3] — that he reserves a seat for each of them when he travels by plane. They are a diverse group (e.g. Korean, Black, Indian) each with their own skills (e.g. handwriting analysis, psychology, linguistics) and relationships to other aspects in Leeds’ inner-world community.

Psychologists want to study him. Grad students hanker to write dissertations about him. So, let’s take a look at Stephen Leeds, considering his world through the lens of complex psychology. Looking at Leeds as the ego-complex in a wider community of complexes, his fictional ‘disorder’ offers fascinating perspectives on dissociation, psychic reality, and plurality of mind.

the author Sanderson

You can find Leeds in the pages of Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds,[4] a collection of three science-fiction novellas (Legion, Legion Skin Deep, and Lies of the Beholder) by Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson is an accomplished fantasy author, perhaps best known for his authorship of the conclusion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

While this essay does not focus on Sanderson, it is interesting to note that, in his preface to the Legion collection, the author describes the series as in some ways the most personal stories I’ve ever done.[5] Sanderson is probably not coming out of the closet as a sufferer of a hybrid hallucinative-dissociative disorder. Rather, I suspect the author is expressing something essential about all of us: that we all are made of many parts, each of whom has its own preferences, desires, and griefs. The fact that Sanderson has elected to create a protagonist with an undiagnosable, fictional condition is a literary delight for readers, opening a way for us to consider a plural inner world both metaphorical and yet grounded in the range of real human experience, a task for which the tools of complex psychology are especially suited.

the protagonist Leeds

Droves of researchers are not the only folks theorizing about Leeds’ and inner world. Stephen Leeds, too, contemplates his condition and its implications. The formal definition of insanity, he explains, is actually quite fluid. Two people can have the exact same condition, with the exact same severity, but one can be considered sane by official standards while the other is considered insane. You cross the line into insanity when your mental state stops you from being able to function, from being able to have a normal life. By those standards, I’m not the least bit insane. (To which one of his aspects banters back, You call this a normal life?)[7]

Still, as the Legion stories unfold, Leeds will experience his aspects as growing unstable; he will start to doubt his own level of control over his inner world. This part of his voyage, too, poses interesting questions about the nature of the plural psyche and the imaginal world.

getting to know the territory: complex and dissociation

Before we look at the particularities and peculiarities of Stephen Leeds, it will be helpful to consider the concepts of complex, dissociation, and the important link between the two.

It is not uncommon in conversation for someone to say they have a complex — by which they generally mean they have an emotional or psychological hangup around a particular issue. In its fuller usage, however, the Jungian term complex conveys something much richer: a network of associated material—made out of repressed memories, fantasies, images, thoughts which [produce] a disturbance in consciousness.[9] Stein tells us, complexes can be thought of, too, as … subpersonalities.[10] What’s more, these inner persons have autonomy, meaning that each has its own will and ways of looking at the world, independent of the person we generally understand as ‘I or ’me.’

We often encounter complexes as we sleep, for they are the actors in our dreams.[11] But, even during waking hours, we meet our complexes. Slipping beneath our conscious notice, they can settle over us and into us, causing us to think and behave in ways that leave us thinking, I don’t know what came over me. That wasn’t like me, at all. And this is neither rare nor pathological. Structurally, complexes are the living units of the unconscious psyche,[12] foundational to our mind’s makeup and operation. [You can find much more about complexes in our Subpersonalities section.]

In contrast to the complex as a structural component, dissociation is a process of psyche. Definitions vary, but as a starting point, we might define dissociation as the separation of mental and experiential contents that would normally be connected,[13] or an apparent lack of association between two or more events or processes.[14] Consider, for example, the victim of violence who experiences himself as floating over the scene of an assault — a dissociative separation from the physical and emotional pain of the ordeal. Further along the dissociative path, dissociation becomes the hallmark of dissociative identity disorder (DID). There, the disconnection involves barriers between subpersonalities, creating gaps in memory, skills, and behaviors.

Not all dissociation is disordered, or related to extreme trauma, however. Howell suggests a health-to-pathology continuum for the range of dissociative experiences, and offers both ‘flow’ states and moments of profound absorption as examples of normative, and even healthy, forms of dissociation.[15] In these cases, we separate from the wider world, focusing down on a single task, creating something like a mild trance. This is the state we experience when ‘tune out’ to read a novel or watch a movie. In this way, dissociation can be both adaptive and maladaptive,[16] highly creative,[17] and, ultimately, a normal part of mental life.[18]

With this foundational understanding of complex and dissociation, we can now begin to understand the complex as a structure created by a dissociative process. Essentially, when a person experiences something as traumatic, unacceptable, or overwhelming, the feelings and memories surrounding that experience are dissociated, resulting in the formation of a subpersonality or greater or lesser autonomy. Being in complex, writes Murray Stein, is itself a state of dissociation.[19] On this basis, everyone has multiple personalities because everyone has complexes.[20]

Leeds’ aspects as complexes

Let’s turn back to Stephen Leeds and his many aspects, viewing all of them — including Leeds himself — as complexes resulting from a process of dissociation.

As the narrator of the story and the figure around whom all ‘aspects’ revolve, it seems appropriate to designate Leeds as the ego-complex, the central figure of the conscious psyche. (Note how Leeds leads.) In contrast to non-disordered folks, whose complexes can seem to overlap with the ego-complex, or those with DID, where the ego-complex (or host)[22] can get completely pushed aside by an alter, Leeds presents a different picture. He experiences his fellow complexes as physically external to himself, seeing them in the form of hallucinations who appear as human figures distinct from him. Though this is a non-traditional presentation for complexes, such visionary dissociation is no means unheard of. In a fascinating article on fantasy proneness and dissociation, Lynn, Pintar and Rhue consider a population they call fantasizers, a group who spend at least half of their waking life fantasizing with the ability to hallucinate objects and to fully experience what they fantasize ‘as real as real.’[23] Meanwhile, Grosso offers us this definitive statement: Hallucinatory voices and visions are clearly dissociative phenomena.[24] In short, Leeds may be an atypical dissociative, but not an inconceivable one.

Another fascinating aspect of Leeds’ inner world is that, while his complexes do occasionally constellate on their own — appearing after being triggered by some affect or event germane to their dispositions — Leeds is also able to call his complexes into action by choice, ringing them up on an imaginal phone, knocking on their door, or even asking another aspect to go retrieve them. From the standpoint of complex psychology, Leeds is engaged in a full-time, advanced form of active imagination, in which he consciously summons the resources of his inner world to assist him with problem-solving. This is exciting, in that it paints a picture of a skill which most of of us are capable of. With practice, respect — and sometimes a bit of wooing — many of our own complexes can learn to respond just as ably with their own set of skills and perspectives.

As for Leeds’ aspects, themselves, let’s take a look at a few.

Tobias, an expert in history and literature, was the very first [aspect].[25] A gentle leader among Leeds’ other complexes, the imperturbable Tobias is ebony skinned, age wrinkled,[26] and has a calming, optimistic voice.[27] When Leeds needs help finding balance in situations that might otherwise overwhelm him, Tobias is there. In a lovely tribute to the power of a befriended complex, Leeds describes Tobias as his lifeline to sanity.[28]

We do not get a full ‘origin story’ for Tobias, but if he is like traditional complexes, we can assume he arose from some kind of injury or trauma. At the same time, we know that life was not always easy for Leeds — that, before he got help marshaling his aspects, he claimed he was surrounded by demons, each whispering instructions to him.[29] Certainly a life of shadows and nightmares[30] is a trauma sufficient to call into being a complex, especially one embodying Leed’s shadowed sense of inner calm. (Complexes and the psychic shadow often get bad raps, but any interpersonal quality can be shadowed or suppressed, including our tenderness, our creativity, or our sense of serenity.) Hence, the constellation of Tobias.

The Indian linguist Kalyani, another of Leeds’ aspects, holds Leeds’ affectionate spirit and his genius for languages. Sweet, perky, and a hugger, Kalyani has sufficient brainpower to learn Hebrew during a flight to Jerusalem. As with all of Leed’s larger-than-life traits, Kalyani’s skills are an exaggeration of a real, normal phenomenon: the tendency of the psyche to develop complexes which carry the cultural traits associated with a particular spoken language. Multilingual people, write Fadiman and Gruber, often experience themselves as being a different person depending on which of their languages they are speaking.[32] Watkins and Watkins agree: The normal changing of ego states [essentially, complexes] is also illustrated in bilingual people who have learned one language in childhood, but who now as adults reside in a different country.[33] Kalyani, in a fictional play on these ideas, then, becomes the aspect who holds the full range of Leeds’ multilingualism.

Reflecting, again, that complexes are grounded in trauma, where is the trauma at the core of Kalyani’s formation? Her appearance in the story, after all, is not marked by any incident of harm. The only overt issue seems to be Leeds’ need to speak Hebrew when he arrives in Jerusalem. Watkins and Watkins, speaking of ego-states (their own theory of subpersonalities), offer this: The general principle is that … more normal [non-disordered] ego states come about through adaptive segmentation by the personality in solving the normal problems of living.[34] I would argue that any form of problem-solving is a response to a crisis, be it low-grade or extreme, and that the work of problem-solving parts within us is essentially protective. The function of protection, after all, is to avoid pain and injury — essentially, to prevent trauma. And, in fact, such protective functions are extremely common in our inner worlds; Internal Family Systems theory goes so far as to say, a part with a job is a protector.[35] Considered in this light, it is not only Kalyani, but every one of Leeds’ aspects, who serves in a protector’s role. Yes, many may have been ‘generated’ by trauma, but some may have their roots in the more general avoidance of it.

For an inner figure with a more conventional protector’s guise, we turn to J.C.. This security-conscious aspect houses Leeds’ prejudice and paranoia, and appears to have military or paramilitary-style training. In contrast to Leeds, J.C. is a skilled marksman. (At one point, he ‘grabs’ Leeds wrist to help him fire a gun with accuracy!)

While there is much that is fascinating about this character — including his ability to change and grow, an often-neglected trait of complexes — for the purpose of this article, J.C. offers a fascinating look at the way we, as humans, hold our prejudices, secreting them away — even from ourselves.

Leeds may be extraordinary, but he remains human. Like all of us, he has prejudices. And like many of us, he probably attempts to suppress those prejudices. But the complexes which carry our racism and bias can constellate unbidden — sometimes in our minds, sometimes in the outer world — creating discomfort and harm. J.C.’s first encounter with Kalyani, for instance, offers up plenty to set the reader’s teeth on edge. He calls Kalyani Achmed and asks if she is going to blow up a plane.[37] To be clear: Sanderson is not playing this for humor value; one of Leed’s aspects immediately asks, Why do we keep [J.C.] around?[38] And the question is well worth asking: why do we keep our prejudices around? One answer, of course, is that it is no easy thing to eradicate them. Our insecurities, not to mention our fears of difference, run deep. What we can do, however, is begin the difficult task of dialoguing with our prejudiced subpersonalities and inviting them to heal — because they are, just as surely as any other complex rooted in a trauma, in need of care. Once nurtured and welcomed as more than carriers of shadow, such parts can blossom and even become highly valuable to the [intrapsychic] system.[39]

Legion, active imagination, and psychic reality

Perhaps one of the most exciting facets of the Legion novellas is Leeds’ dedication to his belief in psychic reality — the understanding that the symbols, images, and complexes of the inner world have a distinct (though not corporeal) reality. While it is true that Leeds describes his aspects as hallucinations[40] and delusions,[41] he also maintains a room for each of them in his mansion-sized home. His staff is expected to bring drinks for his imaginal posse (No ice for Tobias … Water for Ivy),[42] and he makes space for his aspects to pass through doorways as they accompany him in the world. (We had to shuffle around to get through the door and past the stacks of books. Inside, it was cramped quarters with all of us.)[43] While such courtesies may seem extreme (and perhaps even pathological), Leeds offers an allegorical model for how we might work with our own subpersonalities: considering their needs, leaving room for them, and creating time for them in our days.

As a further point of interest, Leeds occasionally mentions the role of imagination in his interactions with his aspects. When one of his subpersonalities asks for a dog, he replies, I’m not imagining you a puppy, Audrey![44] Later, the same alter, upon refusing to wear a seatbelt, playfully muses, If we wreck, I’m sure Steve-O will imagine some delightfully gruesome scars for me.[45] Though Leeds never uses the phrase, we continue to see Leeds engaged in an extended and very dedicated practice of active imagination, allowing parts to exist in their autonomy, and responding to them in a way that gives full credence to their reality. In this way, Sanderson paints an intriguing portrait of complexed — thus, dissociative — systems as imaginal, and therefore accessible through imaginal techniques. Literature, of course, may not be equivalent to material life, but art often imitates and intimates about life — making Legion an imaginative bounty for creative folks hoping to work with complexes, alters — or aspects.

other lessons from Legion

Like all good fiction, Legion poses questions about the human experience, inviting us to think more deeply into our mysteries. Here, we will consider a couple of these themes.

1) What is the nature of the unconscious mind?

Sanderson offers us a couple striking images of the unconscious as the home of shadow. Leeds’ experiences here are frightening — and not fully explained — demonstrating the potential for his aspects to turn bad and become waking nightmares.[46] In this terrifying form, aspects have sunken eye sockets and pale, milky eyes with no pupils.[47] And perhaps more frightening to Leeds, they don’t follow the rules.[48] In ‘nightmare’ form, the aspects violate the rules set by the ego-complex; they are out of control and they see with inhuman eyes.

These disturbing scenes hint at couple of very human tendencies. First, we often fear the unconscious psyche. Sanderson has created a vivid portrait of the ego-complex’s fears of what might happen if the unconscious mind turns against it, and why the egoic self scrambles to find ways to control the unconscious parts of psyche.

Second, the unconscious can appear nightmarish to us precisely because it does not follow our egoic rules, and is apparently not ’human’ in the sense that we ego-complexes are. While we adhere to societal rules, suppress inconvenient and unacceptable urges, and try to operate by way of our reason, the unconscious often does not share our material-world values. It is gloriously irrational. But the flip side of that scary-sounding coin is that many wonderful things are irrational: art, intuition, love, and, often, hope. The root of all these experiences comes from the deeper, wilder, unconscious parts of ourselves.

Another way of looking at Leeds’ nightmares is to view them as envoys of Kalsched’s Mr. Dissociation . . . an emissary from the dark world of the unconscious, a true diabolos.[50] This personification of the dissociative process is an inner figure who enforces the dissociative barriers between subpersonalities in highly traumatized inner worlds. When the host, or the dissociative system as a whole, is threatened, an archaic and devastating[51] figure arises within the psyche to clean house, so to speak. The goal of this most frightening of defenders is to keep the personal spirit ‘safe’ but disembodied, encapsulated, or otherwise driven out of body/mind unity.[52a] Further, Instead of slowly and painfully incarnating in a cohesive self (or a community of co-conscious selves in communication, for instance) the volcanic opposing dynamisms of the inner world become organized around defensive purposes, constituting a ‘self-care-system.’[52b] Given some of the developments in Leeds’ psyche as his tale develops (which we will omit here, in order to avoid spoilers), it seems reasonable to ask if his nightmares are, in fact, attempting to apply a Mr. Dissociation-like method of punishments to prevent the system as a whole from growing into a new, more individuated form.

2) What would we be without our complexes?

All three Legion novellas, but especially the third and final installment, asks who Leeds would be without his autonomous subpersonalities. Without my aspects, the protagonist tells us, I didn’t know what I knew. Being alone haunted me.[53] Later, he asks, What this what I would be, without my aspects? Blank? [54]

Given that the complex is foundational to the structure of the psyche, it is unlikely that an ego-complex would, in actuality, exist without any neighboring complexes. Rather, the image Sanderson builds here is ultimately about how much poorer our lives would be without the gifts, contributions, and juiciness of our complexes. Who is Leeds without the genius of Kalyani? The firepower of J. C.? The gentle calm of Tobias? Apart from his aspects, is Leeds really Leeds, at all?

While it is true that own complexes can cause us no end of trouble — speaking unlovely sentiments out of turn, bursting out with emotions we would rather hide, revealing that we sometimes are what we despise — they are also the source of much richness in our lives. Complexes house the emotions and experiences that have brought us to our knees, for good and for ill. They defend us when we are at risk, and they remind us that we want and need. Without them, our lives would be compliant, uncontroversial, reasonable — a permanent state of Dullsville. Yes, our complexes make life difficult at times, but they also spark with the zing that makes our days worth living.

conclusion

The Legion trilogy offers more richness than we can fully explore in a relatively spoiler-free discussion. For instance — and without saying too much — one of the most fascinating questions Sanderson poses is whether Leeds’ aspects (and, in turn, our own complexes) can die. In our own inner worlds, parts of ourselves sometimes appear to ‘die off,’ but have they really gone? Is it possible to reincarnate them into our lives once more? Psychotherapist Delia Shargel once suggested that resurrections are possible in the imaginal world, just as they are in the mythical world.[56] What appears to die, then, may only be hidden — or even gestating and transforming. Certainly, there is some suggestion of this beautiful possibility in the Legion series.

Ultimately, it seems we can assume only so much overlap between the the fictional psyche of Stephen Leeds and our own inner world. But where does fiction spring from, if not from the psyche of the author, and the wider psyche of the collective that he calls home? As analyst John Beebe once noted, Jung is saying we are what we observe. There is no way to observe the psyche except via the psyche.[57] Legion is, in truth, a portrait of psyche, created by psyche, to be observed by the psyches of its readers. And, like any other imaginal world, it can be entered into. It can serve as a mirror, teaching us how to encounter the other in ways that are both compassionate and wise. Stephen Leeds — and his creator, Brandon Sanderson — are brimming over with others. Viewed in the light of complex psychology, each one of us is a Leeds, is a Sanderson, and the worlds of our inner communities are no more or less alive — and just as available to explore.

⌅   references for this article