It's Happening Again... Multiple Personality and Dissociation on Film


TW: reference to child abuse, no details
Spoilers: many films featuring DID and trans characters. To list them here would be a spoiler in itself…

Film and TV have long been fascinated by all things psychiatric, especially multiple personality and split identities. You only have to look at the catalogue of thrillers, horror and crime drama which utilize the Jekyll-and-Hyde sublimation of one version of ourselves by another. The reveal that Norman Bates and his mother are the same person or Ed Norton’s wry-smiling altar boy in Primal Fear are chillingly memorable moments on screen. Films such as Fight Club, Identity, Split, Shelter, Raising Cain, Session 9, Peacock, Sucker Punch, Secret Window, The Ward, Three Faces of Eve and Sybil present different takes on the idea that a person can contain a multitude of wants, needs and drives which manifest as distinctly separate individuals. Superhero narratives often explore the idea of ‘alter-egos’, to varying degrees of literal or metaphorical manifestation.

In these films, the ‘host’ of multiple selves is often unaware of the other personalities, or at least unaware that they are part of the same whole. In this way, multiple personality is often presented as an exploration of the id over the ego: the impulsive, animalistic side of our rational, law-abiding public face. Subsequently, people with multiple personalities are often shown as unpredictable, violent and sadistic. These exaggerated representations of multiple personality, or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as is the clinical diagnostic term for the condition, make for entertaining viewing but bear very little resemblance to the nature of dissociation and those who experience it.


Norma/Norman in Psycho

DID is a controversial diagnosis. Professionals from medical and therapeutic perspectives champion and deny its existing or veracity yet is not as rare as we may think; it is estimated to affect 1-3% of the population and is theorized to be a response to extreme childhood trauma. Although the mechanism is not completely understood, DID is recognised by some as a coping strategy, a mental and emotional defence against unthinkable and unrelenting abuse: “a brilliant piece of creative resilience which comes with a terrible price” (Sinason, 2002, p4).

It has been observed that the rise in DID diagnosis mirrors the increase in media and clinical interest in the condition. High profile cases such as Shirley Mason (the basis for Sybil) have been debunked as the fantasy of over-zealous therapists and therefore DID is seen by many professionals as a socially-constructed disorder rather than a true psychiatric condition (Lack, 2015). This argument has been used to discredit some accounts of child abuse as false memories ‘implanted’ into victims by professionals, and has led to a preoccupation with establishing the truth behind people’s experiences rather than recognising or supporting distress and need (Sinason, 2002).

Considering the confusion and controversy over Dissociative Identity Disorder, it is important to look at media representations of the condition and see if they add to the debate and understanding or peddle unhelpful stereotypes.

Fight Club

Dissociation as a Continuum

It is likely that public understandings of DID are influenced by the extreme manifestations seen on screen. Think of Shelter’s David standing up from his wheelchair as he switches to an able-bodied alter, Tyler Durden’s penchant for monologues and anarchy or the famous ‘she wouldn’t even harm a fly’ speech in Psycho. In reality, dissociation exists on a continuum and is something which we all experience to differing degrees of frequency and intensity. The psychological condition refers to any number of ways that we ‘detach’ from the world around us or our inner feelings and thoughts. Have you ever driven somewhere familiar, such as home or work, with no memory of getting there, or done something on ‘autopilot’? Ever caught yourself daydreaming? When going through periods of intense stress, people often report losing time or having no memory of conversations or events. Sometimes we feel ‘disconnected’ from our body or numb from our feelings, as if we have blown an emotional fuse. These are all forms of dissociation.

Shelter

These types of dissociation are sometimes explored by the media but usually in exaggerated forms which bear little resemblance to our everyday experiences. Think of the shifting realities and disconnection in The Matrix, Silent Hill, Twin Peaks and Jacobs Ladder, blurry dreamscapes in Inception or A Nightmare on Elm Street, the memory loss and multiple ‘truths’ of Total Recall and Memento. These films show dissociation symptoms as frightening, life-changing and sometimes supernatural, rather than functional ways that our brains deal with stress, over-stimulation and trauma. Although multiple personalities may be seen as an extreme form of dissociation, it is rarely framed as an extension of normal processing which reinforces the binary distinction between mental illness and the mentally ‘well’. This suggests that those who struggle with their mental health are somehow ‘other’.

DID and Violence

It is not surprising that the concept of multiple selves is often used to explore a multitude of fears: the fear of not knowing someone, the fear of not knowing ourselves, the fear of what we may be capable of, the fear of loss of autonomy and bodily control, and the fear of losing our minds, memories and sense of self. Also unsurprisingly, dissociation is often conflated with possession, as in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the heroine seems to be inhabited by a spirit. The overlap between mental illness and demonic possession is a common narrative in film and a larger topic than be considered here (see The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside etc).


'The Beast' - Split

Sometimes, the characters in DID narratives are given a backstory of trauma to explain their condition (as in Primal Fear, Sybil, Split or Three Faces of Eve). Yet this is rarely given much exploration, reducing DID to a simple reaction to a glossed-over trauma without appreciating the complexity and resourcefulness involved. Media depictions often portray alters as the ‘dark sides’ of their hosts - Jekyll and Hyde, Cain and Margo in Raising Cain, Primal Fear’s Roy, Dennis and Patricia in Split, Tyler Durden in Fight Club - who are the vengeful, aggressive ids to their host’s more subdued ego. This reinforces the stigmatizing myth that childhood trauma causes people to become abusers, when statistics clearly show that this is not the case (see The Kids Aren’t Alright).

More worryingly, the media often links DID with violence. In Split, James McAvoy plays several personalities within a young man who are waiting for ‘The Beast’ to emerge and kill young women. In Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer’s abuse and murder of his daughter is blamed on ‘Bob’. Session 9 features a psychiatric patient who murdered her parents through her personality ‘Simon’.  Primal Fear’s innocent altar-boy murders his abuser and then claims another personality did it. The ‘victims’ in Identity turn out to be alters of a serial murderer. The main characters in Psycho, Shelter, Secret Window and Raising Cain kill people. The killer in Black Christmas, 'Billy', talks in different voices as if channeling different selves. Similarly, DID often features in TV crime dramas as a motivation for serial murder, as in Criminal Minds (episodes ‘Conflicted’ and ‘The Big Game’) and Wire in The Blood (‘Anything You Can Do). In many of these cases, DID is also presented as supernatural, suggesting that those who experience the condition are evil and to be feared.

Agent Cooper and 'Bob' in Twin Peaks

This isn’t surprising. DID makes a great narrative device and can provide a dramatic plot twist if even the murderer does not know they are the one hurting people.

This propensity to violence or deviance does not match reality. The disorder’s symptoms do not predict criminality or harm towards others and media portrayals of people with DID as unstable, violent and sadistic are inaccurate and harmful (ISSTD, 2004). These representations also reinforce the myth that people who hurt others do so because of uncontrollable urges rather than because they choose to. This simultaneously demonizes people with mental health difficulties and absolves those who abuse. Considering the murderers who have claimed that an alternative personality committed their crimes in an attempt to avoid prosecution (including ‘Hillside Strangler’ Kenneth Bianci or Clifford Mills), it is an irresponsible and dangerous myth to perpetuate.

DID, deviance and gender

People with multiple personalities are often shown as having alters of different genders. Whereas this does fit with reality (see Sinason, 2002), these manifestation of gender are often reduced to stereotypical exaggerations. Actors may see it as a chance to prove their skill but there is a fine line between (mostly) male actors portraying a believable female identity and mocking feminine traits, behaviours or postures. There is also a tendency to make the cross-gendered alters ‘deviant’ - Norma Bates, Margo in Raising Cain, Patricia in Split, Eve Black in Three Faces… - which sends out a further misogynistic message. Films that show female characters with female alters (Sucker Punch, The Ward and to some extent, Sybil and Three Faces…), similarly fit their personalities into one-dimensional stereotypes of women: the smart one, the seductive one, the virginal ‘good girl’ etc.

John Lithgow as 'Margo' in Raising Cain

These gendered stereotypes are interesting when considering the reality of DID. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder and some have suggested that this is due to society’s tendency to view women as unstable, hysterical and non-credible (Sinason, 2002). It would be interesting to know whether more women than men experience dissociation or DID, or whether clinicians expect it from women and either over-diagnose, or under-diagnose male patients.

Problematic portrayals of DID and gender overlap with a deeper issue. There has been a tendency in film – as in all aspects of society - to present transgendered people as unnatural or evil. Norma/n Bates and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, Sleepaway Camp’s Angela or the murderer in Dressed to Kill all send a similar message: men who dress or identify as female are evil and violent, either as a direct result of their transition to femininity or by the deviance of giving up their male identity. This overlap between gender identities and dissociative states suggests that trans people are mentally ill and that gender identity is shaped by traumatic experiences. It also suggests that identity - including gender - is a fixed and stable concept and that to explore or change identities is ‘crazy’. The media shows DID characters as switching between clear, stereotyped versions of masculinity and femininity, as if the such characteristics cannot exist simultaneously; we are either a macho male or a passive female. When forced into such a binary existence, developing alternative identities to express and reconcile our thoughts, feelings and desires would seem like a healthy and functional way to thrive (Deline, 2016).

Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs

Conclusion

If we made assumptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder in accordance with what we see in the media, we would assume that people with this diagnosis are violent, unpredictable, out of control and possibly supernatural. Because we so rarely see relatable portrayals of dissociation in our media, we do not see these experiences as being part of a ‘normal’ everyday continuum. Yet the experience of dissociation is far from rare and the media’s tendency to rely on junk science is frustrating because the reality is engaging, fascinating and relatable. The ‘othering’ of people with a diagnosis of DID reinforces the stigma around mental health. It also allows abusers a believable – if somewhat outlandish – reason to escape accountability for their actions.

References

Deline, E. (2016) Trans People, Trauma and Dissociative Identities. https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/trans-people-trauma-and-dissociative-identities [Accessed 21st June 2018].

International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation – Statement on ‘Split (2004)’: http://www.isst-d.org/downloads/Statement%20on%20Split-final.pdf [Accessed 31st May 2018]

Lack, C. (2015) Dissociative identity Disorder: How the Media Created a Diagnostic Fad: www.skepticink.com/gps/2015/05/09/dissociative-identity-disorder-how-the-media-created-a-diagnostic-fad [Accessed 31st May 2018]

Sinason, V. (2002) Attachment, Trauma and Multiplicity: Working with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Routledge, UK.




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