OSHKOSH, WIS. -- Two blocks from the courthouse, waiting for the verdict, Sarah was smoking a cigarette. She held her arms oddly, a stiff angle to the elbows, and when the reporters came in she smiled and sat carefully in a dining chair in the middle of the room. She had invited three reporters, summoning them as a group to the small hotel where she had decided to spend Thursday afternoon, and she received them in the sober dress of a promising young executive -- stockings, smooth gray blouse, navy pin-striped suit.

"Castration," Sarah said, with precision. A reporter had just asked for her view on a suitable punishment for Mark Peterson, the unemployed grocery store bagger charged with raping her in an Oshkosh park. "Life in prison," Sarah said.

She was asked to elaborate.

"What he did was unforgivable," Sarah said. She had put on eyeliner, neatly, upper and lower lids. Her hair was combed smooth and straight to her shoulders. She said she did not object to being described in some detail, as long as the description was not unkind; "terrible" was the word Sarah used, and she laughed. "Don't say I look terrible."

She said it was all right to put her first name in the newspaper, even though she believed herself to be a rape victim. "The name Sarah," a reporter said, sounding uncertain. "Are we talking to Sarah now?"

"Actually," Sarah said briskly, "I'm not sure if she -- Franny? Are you still here?"

For an instant she sat, her eyes open, her gaze fixed a short way off. Her eyebrows lifted. A fleeting animation swelled her face. "Yes, dear!" she cried. Then the eyebrows lowered again, and she nodded. "She's here," she said.

Did you believe it? From his bench, Judge Robert Hawley faced the jury Thursday morning, reading aloud from the printed instructions he had prepared to guide their deliberations. "Second-degree sexual assault, as defined in Section 940.225 (2) (c) of the Criminal Code of Wisconsin, is committed by one who has sexual intercourse with a person who suffers from a mental illness which renders that person temporarily or permanently incapable of appraising his conduct," Hawley read, "and the defendant knows of such condition."

He read clearly, enunciating each word, the papers held before him in both hands. He told the jurors they must disregard any testimony stricken from the record. He said the burden of proof rested entirely with the state. He said it did not matter whether the woman named Sarah had in any way consented to sexual intercourse; what the jurors must determine, Hawley said, was whether Sarah was mentally ill on June 11, 1990, the day Mark Peterson and Sarah -- or Jennifer, or Franny, or Emily, or Leslie, or Leona, or any of the other names that Sarah gave to what she described as dozens of alternate personalities -- had sex in the front seat of his car.

Did you believe it? On Main Street, in Oshkosh, in the Daun-town Cafe, an older man sauntered gaily Thursday morning toward a booth of younger women. "Can't help myself," he cried, as he leaned forward to wink suggestively at them. "I'm just one of those dual personality guys."

The women laughed and poked him in the arm. "I think they ought to give her an Academy Award," someone said at another table. "There's an idea for you, Tony," a third man said. "If you ever get caught with another woman, just tell your wife you've got multiple personalities."

There were multiple personality jokes in the courthouse pressroom too, and reporters turning uneasily to each other the day the extraordinary Sarah took the stand and appeared to shift in and out of personality on request: What did you think? You buy it? The experts had insisted, when news people called them for comment, that State of Wisconsin v. Mark A. Peterson was not forging law on the question of multiple personality disorder; the jurors were simply obliged to decide, they said, whether Peterson knew Sarah was mentally ill before he drove her from her apartment and seduced her in an Oshkosh park. "National Enquirer story," a University of Wisconsin law professor snorted, as he disposed of yet another request for comment on the Multiple Personality Rape Case. "Not the kind of thing you guys should be covering."

But of course the courthouse halls were crisscrossed with television camera wires, and two motion picture people took notes from the front rows, and when spectators arrived outside court on Wednesday at 7 in the morning, they found a lengthy line already waiting to get in. A court of law is a place of public display, and the 27-year-old woman who brought charges against Mark Peterson was promising a display so memorable that District Attorney Joseph Paulus screened his jury pool Monday by asking for a show of hands from those who thought it too bizarre to contemplate.

"You will get the chance to observe her transform from one personality to another," Paulus said. "It is somewhat dramatic, and most unusual. Is there anyone who feels they could not be a part of that process?"

To no one's surprise, no hands went up. From the day last August when the Winnebago County prosecutor's office first drafted the criminal complaint against Peterson, this case had stirred interest and argument about a good deal more than a date-rape report and a subsection of the Wisconsin criminal code. If the allegations were true, then ordinary people in one Midwestern city were about to watch a courtroom demonstration of something that might without undue hyperbole be called the splitting of a human mind. And if the allegations were true, then Peterson had managed almost literally to do what men and women have for decades made the subject of raw anger and raucous jokes: Deliberately, planning it, figuring it out beforehand, he had reached into a woman of great self-control and pulled out a woman with none.

Growing Up 'Multiple' "I know from Leona that I was at least multiple since I was a baby," Sarah said. "She remembers being with me in the orphanage -- arriving there. She was the first one."

The psychiatrists who now diagnose multiple personality cases frequently believe severe childhood trauma causes the young mind to split apart to protect itself. Did Sarah know whether she had been traumatized too?

"For one thing, I had no maternal or paternal care of any kind," she said. "I was not touched or picked up, except to be fed or changed. And Leona reports -- Leona is an empath ..."

An empath?

"She can sense the emotions of the insiders, and of myself," Sarah said. "She reports that I was a very angry, lonely, sad and confused baby. And the reason she finally emerged was as a comforting presence. She could not communicate at the time."

Sarah's voice was extremely firm and clear. "I know that my father was probably a soldier, Caucasian of some sort," she said. "My mother was Korean. That a neighbor brought me to the orphanage."

Here she stopped, and gazed at her knees and breathed. When she spoke again, her voice was unchanged. "That round-eyed, half-breed babies are not accepted in countries like that, at least in that country, and that had I remained there I probably would have been killed, murdered or ended up in prostitution, forced prostitution, drugs, slavery, something like that. Bad. That they want to keep the race pure."

There were reasons, Sarah said, that she did not elaborate during the trial on the particular troubles of her upbringing. "For my parents' sake," she said, meaning the Americans who adopted her and raised her in Iowa City. "Not all of it was their fault. There was a lot of confusion, because they did not realize what they had in me. And because I believe my father was ill and could not help himself." Her father's illness appeared to her to be manic depression, she said. "They did not realize I was multiple," Sarah said. "All they knew, for all I know, was that they had a child they couldn't cope with."

When she was 20, Sarah said, her father was crushed to death when the jack collapsed under a car he was repairing. Sarah and her mother found the body, she said, and she believes a personality named Evan was created to manage the emotion of the discovery. "Justin and Richard came about when I went to a private school," she said. "So did Ginger. That one was formed specifically to take in the sexual abuse that I suffered at the private school, and from the hands of a 32-year-old that I did not know."

A teacher?

"No," Sarah said, her voice still firm. "A stranger. And to learn to like it, in order for the body to cope with it."

Was there any possibility, she was asked, of talking to Ginger?

"No," Sarah said quickly. "The last time she went on a bender, she nearly killed the body. I'm on medication that does not mix with alcohol. She nearly killed us. I ended up in the hospital. As a punishment, and to protect the body, Leona took her down very deep into my mind, and dropped her in some sort of a well and left her there, with a massive headache. She cannot come out unless Leona brings her out, and I strongly recommend that not be done except under a doctor's supervision, with Thorazine close by."

The reporters nodded and put writing on their note pads. There was a moment's silence. "Would it be possible," a reporter asked, "for us to meet one of your male personalities?"

"Which one?" Sarah asked quickly. "How about Evan? Do you have any Marlboros? Evan believes Marlboros are the only real cigarette. Typical male. No offense meant."

The reporter said none was taken. "L&Ms are the best I can do," he said.

"I'll see what I can do," Sarah said. "I can ask them out. They don't know you. Whether or not they come out is entirely up to them. Perhaps if Sheila calls them out."

Sheila Carmichael, the county victim's assistance coordinator, went to look for a pack of Marlboros. "Evan is 19," Sarah said. "He is mainly meant to cope with crises. He went to college with me, where we got an associate of arts degree in law enforcement, and he wants very badly to be a cop. But he realizes that as long as we are multiple, we cannot."

Carmichael came back with the Marlboros. "Okay, Evan, let's get ready," Sarah said. She upended the package and tapped a cigarette into her palm. "Can you stand so that he can see you?" she asked Carmichael.

"Sure," Carmichael said, and moved closer. Sarah closed her eyes. "Can you call him?" she asked.

"Evan," Carmichael called, wheedling a little, as though coaxing someone from the next room. "I got something for you. Marlboros."

Sarah opened her eyes. She looked at the cigarettes. She looked up at Carmichael. Heartily, with a voice that now had chest in it, she cried, "Bless your heart! How you doing?"

"I'm doing fine," Carmichael said. Sarah held up the cigarettes. "Can I have one? Are these mine? Hot damn."

"Evan," Carmichael said. "These people are from several different newspapers. Tom Richards, he's from the Post-Crescent."

Sarah lunged across the table to shake hands, and then gazed down at herself. "Oh, God," she said. "I'm wearing a dress. I hate it when that happens."

She looked at her feet, and started. "What the hell are those?" she cried.

"Pumps," Carmichael said.

"Jesus Christ," Sarah said. She lifted one heel. "They're 10 feet off the ground."

Scenes From a Courtroom The criminal complaint itself, written in dry police officer's prose, has about it the tone of unnerved sobriety that marked nearly all of the four-day trial. "While driving in the car, Sarah was still experiencing the 'Franny' personality. Mark A. Peterson then asked Franny if he could talk to Jennifer, at which time the 'Jennifer' personality appeared. Sarah described the 'Jennifer' personality as a 20-year-old female who likes to dance and have fun. Sarah indicated that neither her 'Franny' personality nor her 'Sarah' personality were present after the 'Jennifer' personality appeared. Therefore, neither 'Franny' nor 'Sarah' had personal knowledge of what subsequently transpired."

Mark A. Peterson, according to the complaint, had introduced himself on the evening of June 9 to a woman fishing at an Oshkosh park. The complaint declares that the woman identified herself as "Franny," and that Peterson was told, both by the woman and by a neighbor who was fishing with her, that the woman had "multiple personalities and a mental disorder." Following these warnings and additional information about the woman's many personalities, the complaint charges, Peterson took the young woman out in his car two days later and waited until she had turned into "Jennifer" before proposing that they have sex. Edward Salzsieder, Peterson's attorney, asked Sarah on the stand about what happened next. "You did not like the sex?" Salzsieder asked.

Sarah, in the voice she had introduced as Jennifer's, asked Salzsieder what he was talking about.

"The sex," he said.

"What's that?" Sarah-Jennifer asked. Sarah-Jennifer, Sarah-Sarah had already explained, is 20 and shows up at the sound of rock music. She very much likes to dance, Sarah-Sarah had testified. But she does not know about much of anything else.

"Didn't the two of you have sex?" Salzsieder asked.

"I dunno," Sarah-Jennifer said, her voice rising. "What's sex?"

It was a moment of such utter illogic that Salzsieder stopped for a moment, looking at the witness, collecting himself. In the courtroom he was a plodder, with his ill-fitting jackets and his hair awry over his forehead; for the first two days he carried his notes and files to the defense table in a cardboard box that read "Schweppes Seltzer" on the side, and there he would sit, bent over his legal pads, while the younger prosecutor in the good dark suits brought witness after witness to the stand and then chatted amiably with the television reporters during recess. Salzsieder was defending a rapist whose alleged victim was testifying that she put her arms around him and told him it felt good, but he appeared to be making no headway at all.

"Did you tell him before you got to the park that you were multiple?" Salzsieder asked.

"I'm not multiple," Sarah-Jennifer snapped.

"Did you tell him you were seeing a doctor?" Salzsieder asked.

"No," Sarah-Jennifer said.

"Did you tell him you were in treatment with a therapist?" Salzsieder asked.

"No," Sarah-Jennifer said.

When the exchanges like this were complete, Paulus would get up and propose to the jury that it was obvious Sarah's personalities had no mental illnesses; they were her mental illness, or at least the plainest symptoms of it. The argument began to suggest a passage from "Through the Looking Glass": Every time the judge entertained motions outside the presence of the jury, Salzsieder would reason that his client had sex with Jennifer, that Jennifer was "in touch with reality" that even if Sarah didn't know what she was doing in the front seat of Peterson's car, Jennifer did.

Some personality along the way had arranged for a tubal ligation too, either Sarah or Jennifer or one of the others; Jennifer herself had let that slip under Paulus's questioning, and Salzsieder kept trying to convince the judge to let him inquire further about that, or the hints that during one period in her life Sarah had gone out as the alcoholic Ginger and picked up men in bars while becoming, as Sarah-Sarah testified, "totally toasted."

But the judge would have none of it. "The rape shield law prevents any questioning of that type," Judge Hawley would say, citing state law preventing the introduction of evidence about a rape victim's past sexual history. Hawley himself evinced no change of expression each time he swore in a new Sarah; her head would sink, she would look up again, her eyes would fly open, and out of her mouth would come a voice whose inflection and language were different from the one just before.

Not very different, though -- just different. After a few minutes the difference would flatten, as though the vocal cords were abandoning the effort. Her vocabulary stayed consistent from one personality to the other, and toward the end of her testimony much of the courtroom had fallen into a kind of hypnotic confusion of grammar, with attorneys and reporters variously referring to her as Jennifer, or Jennifer-and-Franny, or Franny-and-Emily, or "them."

Along the open courtroom benches, where the seats were so jealously guarded that Hawley had warned that anybody going to the bathroom might be displaced by someone in line outside, the onlookers thrashed it around. "She consented," said a retired restaurant owner named Dennis Hughes. "She gave him her telephone number."

"But Jennifer didn't give him her telephone number," said a retired businessman named Dan Sullivan. "Franny did."

"Same person," Hughes said.

"Not really," Sullivan said.

"When I hear a Sousa march, my foot goes tap, tap, tap," an elderly man said. "Does that mean I have an additional personality?"

"Want to see me do it?" asked a woman in the back row. "Watch. I'll reemerge as Jennifer. I'm a good actress. I could do that."

An Illness or an Act? When she is Evan, Sarah explained to the reporters, she uses the toilet sitting down. But she hates it. "It's just annoying," Sarah said, in the voice she introduced as Evan. "I have to sit down. I tried it standing up, and I missed the john."

Was there a reason for this?

"It's the way the body is built," Sarah-Evan said. She sounded matter-of-fact.

What if she were sick, she was asked, but not the way the doctors said she was? What if some ordinary guy from the courtroom back row thought her sickness were a frantic and brilliantly realized need for public attention? What if her entire court testimony, not to be overly rude about it, was one, long, mad stretch of theater?

A reporter wondered if this was a question best handed off to Sarah. "You can ask me," Sarah said. "Sarah."

So Sarah answered.

"The majority of people are totally unaware of MPD, or its nature," she said. "Even doctors and psychiatrists are only recently beginning to acknowledge this as a legitimate disorder. They have been unable to recognize it. I would not expect the average layperson to understand it, because I believe it's a difficult concept to accept, even for me. But I have it."

She was certain about this?

"Oh, yes," Sarah said. She had put out the Marlboro. Her arms still had the odd tense angle to them, as though she were recovering from surgery. "Oh, yes. No doubts."

The prosecution-introduced psychiatrists who examined Sarah over the past year, both in Oshkosh and at the medical centers where she was sent for confirmation of the multiple personality diagnosis, testified that her personalities appear to have varied in number from 18 to at least 46. Some of these are "fragments," the doctors said, holding only certain emotions, and some of them, like the ones that pushed burning cigarettes into the backs of her hands, are self-destructive. On the stand, as Paulus examined her, Sarah testified that she sometimes entered into contracts with personalities whose behavior she needed to control; she had given her car keys to her neighbors so that Ginger would not drive drunk, she said, and for a time she kept her hands bandaged because the personality called Shadow kept jamming her hands through glass windows.

She kept small signs by her apartment windows, according to the trial testimony, that read, "Do Not Break These." This was not Sarah's testimony; it was Peterson's. Peterson said he was in her apartment when he saw the signs. He was at her house when he learned everything he was to know about Sarah's illness, Peterson testified; he did he see her change personality, as he said to the police in his statement, and he did have knowledge that she engaged in sex with him as someone named Jennifer. But he said all this knowledge came after the sex act, not before.

"I thought I was having sex with Franny," Peterson testified.

When he first heard about Jennifer, Peterson testified, he thought she was another person entirely. He said Sarah, whom he thought was called Franny, was talking about someone named Jennifer in the cafe where they spoke before they drove off and had sex in his car.

"A possible promunctuous person," Peterson said, referring to Jennifer.

"What?" Paulus asked.

"Promunctuous," Peterson said. "Bold."

"Promiscuous?" Paulus asked.

"Whatever," Peterson said.

He gave his testimony placidly, his head slightly cocked toward the lawyers' tables, without looking at the jury. He said that much of what he had said in June in the police affidavit he signed was wrong -- "screwed up." He said he never heard Sarah's neighbors warn him early on that she was, in Paulus's word, "mental." He said Sarah never explained to him before their drive to the park that she was, in her word, "multiple." He said his co-workers were "mistaken" when they testified that Peterson told them he had engaged in sex in his car with a 20-year-old named Jennifer who had seemed unusually innocent and who "turned him on."

He said that after he brought Sarah home and learned about her mental disorder, he left the house quickly because he "had to get ready to get to work."

"You weren't due at work for three hours," Paulus said.

"I had to freshen up," Peterson said. "I couldn't go to work smelling like some bull in a pigpen."

Before supper on Thursday, when the jury had been debating for a few hours, they called the judge to ask for a copy of the police affidavit Peterson had signed. The affidavit was sent to the jury room. Cameramen went out to dinner; reporters slouched across the tables in the pressroom; outside, in the nearly deserted courthouse parking lot, it started to snow.

"Verdict!" someone said.

When the judge read the verdict Peterson looked ahead, with no discernible expression on his face. The judge polled the jurors, one by one: You find him guilty, the judge repeated, all of you, each and every one.

"I don't want to say he was lying, but he was all contradictory," one of the jurors said afterward. "Personally, I believe that she is very sick woman, and I do not myself believe that she has MPD. ... But we didn't need to recognize MPD. We just needed to recognize that there was, and is, an illness."

Peterson tried to walk quickly from the courtroom, but the cameras were faster than he was, and when he broke into a trot the cameramen began trotting too, and calling his name. The lights were brilliant in the darkened hallway. "Come on, Mark," somebody shouted, and when he turned around he was standing in a corner, his arms crossed in front of his body, with all the cameras at him and his back to the courthouse walls.

"Could this happen to anybody?" somebody yelled.

"Oh, definitely," Peterson said. "It could, again, anybody can, if they're not aware of this person. Somebody else could be the next one."

"Mark!" a reporter shouted. "Do you feel sorry for anything?"

"What's there to feel sorry about?" he asked.

The microphones came forward, closer to Peterson's mouth.

Did he think she was lying?

"You be the judge," Peterson said. "Do you think she was?"