By David Van Biema and Meg Grant
Updated March 27, 1989 12:00 PM

I’m only 15 years old,” says Chris Costner Sizemore, startling a visitor. Clearly, Sizemore is not 15. She is 61. Yet so many of those years were a waking nightmare that she likes to believe her life really began with her rebirth in 1974. More than three decades ago, Sizemore provided the model for the 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve, in which Joanne Woodward played timid “Eve White,” flamboyant “Eve Black” and practical “Jane”—three separate selves battling for control of one young woman. Eve’s—and Sizemore’s—struggle was with Multiple Personality Disorder, a frightening syndrome whose victims are possessed by two or more personalities—often personalities of widely varying backgrounds and ages.

Although the movie, based on the book of the same title, portrayed her as cured by age 29, it actually took nearly two decades more for her to become a healthy, whole woman. “I know who I am now,” she says in a soft Southern contralto. “I like who I am. I live a lot, and I love life.”

All true, no doubt. But it is also true that in one sense Sizemore is still suffering from multiple identity: this time not psychological but legal. There is Chris Sizemore, the flesh-and-blood woman sitting comfortably in her new home in Bradenton, Fla. And then there is Chris Sizemore, intellectual property, a disembodied but potent phantasm that Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. claims it owns until the day she dies.

Sizemore’s first personalities—22 in all—were unified, painfully, in a psychiatrist’s office. On Jan. 30, she filed suit in Federal District Court to recapture the last one. “All I want are my rights,” she says. “I want the freedom to make choices about my life. That’s a part of healing.”

The current conflict goes back to 1956, when Chris, then 29, walked into the Augusta, Ga., office of her then psychiatrist, Corbett H. Thigpen, and signed over to Fox, “forever,” the film rights to “all versions of my life story heretofore published or hereafter published.” That story was already well known. In a best-selling book, Thigpen had described his cure of a young divorced mother—Eve, as he called her—with a syndrome not seen since the turn of the century. As a 2-year-old, Eve had witnessed three unnerving scenarios within three months: a drowned man being pulled from a ditch, a sawmill worker sliced into three pieces and her own mother cutting herself severely on a piece of broken glass. Too young to deal directly with what she had seen, she developed the first in a line of alternative personalities, including the three that now revealed themselves, one by one, to the amazed Thigpen.

The movie version was a hit, propelling Woodward to an Oscar and grossing millions. Under the contract she had signed in Thigpen’s office, Sizemore received $7,000. But underpayment was hardly the worst of her troubles.

Whereas Woodward’s character was happy and healthy at the movie’s end, it became horribly obvious to Chris that although Thigpen had correctly diagnosed her, he had not cured her. Rather, Jane, the calm and mediating personality he had proclaimed the real Chris, became increasingly erratic, eventually vanishing. In her wake came a dozen successors, among them the “Purple Lady,” the “Virgin” and the “Turtle Woman.” Although she had remarried, to electrician Don Sizemore in 1953, and gave birth to a son in 1958, Sizemore had difficulty handling daily demands. She went through periods during which she was violent, and on two occasions attempted suicide. It was only in 1974, with the care of her eighth doctor, Tony Tsitos, that a stable “final” personality emerged.

That is the Chris who is filing suit, in 1977 she and a cousin, Elen Sain Pittillo, published a book of their own, I’m Eve, which retold her story and charted her post-Thigpen travails. And last winter Sizemore completed work on a second book, an autobiography, scheduled to be published by Morrow in September, about her recovery and the successful career as a mental-health advocate she began at age 51. To Chris’s delight, Sissy Spacek expressed great interest in turning the new book into a movie documenting Sizemore’s entire saga, complete with the real happy ending. “I thought, ‘At long last it has come full circle,’ ” says Size-more. “I thought she could do a superb job with it and make a very positive movie.” The show business trade paper Variety ran a notice announcing the impending deal.

There the trouble started. Lawyers for Twentieth Century-Fox sent a chilly letter to Spacek, informing her that the 1956 contract gave them ownership of Chris Sizemore’s life story in all its manifestations: past, present or still-to-be-lived.

That was when Sizemore decided to sue. “The bottom line is, people got rich off Chris,” says her attorney, Carol Rinzler. “There’s nobody who hears about this who doesn’t have a visceral sense that it’s entirely unfair.” Rinzler hopes to prove that at the time Sizemore signed the original contract, she was represented only by Thigpen, who was functioning in a variety of potentially conflicting roles—as her doctor, her agent and his own agent.

Moreover, Rinzler argues, it would be very hard for Fox to maintain that Christine was “of sound mind” when she signed away her rights: “She still had multipersonalities.” Rinzler claims that the original contract proves that Fox (which declines to comment) knew Chris was still deranged. Beneath her signature are typed three more names: Eve White, Eve Black and Jane.

A logical co-defendant in the controversy might appear to be Thigpen, now 71 and living in retirement in Evans, Ga. Last month, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he defended his earlier behavior by commenting, “I wasn’t treating her at all when they signed the contract. I did everything I could to help her in every way.” Besides, he added, “She had a husband.” The more than 200 hours he spent treating Sizemore at $25 an hour would have amounted to $5,000, but he waived his fee. And, indeed, his former patient refuses to take action against Thigpen. “I owe him,” she says. “He diagnosed me when multipersonalities were not being diagnosed. I would be in an institution without him.”

Despite the pending suit—to which Fox must reply by the end of this month—Sizemore seems to have little time for resentment. While she waits for her book to come out, she continues the busy life she has adopted since her full cure. She still paints, a hobby of several of her personalities; but now, instead of the fast-drying acrylic she used to accommodate their comings and goings, she works in oil. She spends 10 months a year on the road lecturing about MPD, stressing the need for mental-health funding and the fact that, with therapy, the disease has a 97 percent cure rate. And with the permission of their doctors, Sizemore has actually become involved with eight MPD patients. “If they’re in the process of being integrated,” she explains, “the other personalities are often fearful. They think they are dying. I tell them that they don’t go anywhere. They become part of the whole.”

Less cheerful is the prognosis for her husband, Don, 65, who has Parkinson’s, an incurable degenerative disease of the nervous system. The couple’s recent move from North Carolina to Bradenton’s warmer climate was at the recommendation of his physician, and Sizemore spends many of her days when she is home accompanying him on therapeutic walks along the Gulf shoreline. She also enjoys frequent visits with their son, Bobby, 30, a guidance counselor in nearby Fort Myers, and her daughter, Taffy Fecteau, 40, who lives with her family in Fredericksburg, Va.

Compared with the traumas of Sizemore’s past, the Fox dispute is a relatively minor affair. And it may all be for naught: She knows that by the time her case wends its way through the courts, Spacek may have lost interest in the movie. “But it will still be worthwhile,” says Sizemore. “I’ll have gotten back my rights.” She sees the case as the last part of a healing process that began 37 years ago. “Fox wouldn’t have done this to an attorney or a businessman,” she says. “They did it to me because I was an ex-mental patient.” They did it to her, she suggests, because she was Eve.

“And I’m not Eve anymore.”

—David Van Biema, Meg Grant in Bradenton