We are something we don’t understand. And one strange thing I’ve been interested in recently is the popular taste for sensationalizing mental illness and then, seemingly almost in direct correlation with that, becoming utterly fascinated with the subject. I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve been reading books and watching movies that have the common tie of some sort of mental disturbance in connection with an almost voyeuristic need to know more and more about the subjects.
A month ago or so I read about Ted Bundy and became fascinated with it for many reasons. First and foremost, I guess, is the interesting nature of human psychology and a curiosity about what it is that makes someone go down the path of destruction. I was fascinated myself, certainly, but I don’t think I would have been one of the girls to grow my hair long, part it down the middle and attend his trial just to try and attract his attention at some point (like women actually did)! So, what is it that is so attractive?
It’s not so morbid as many people imagine, and certainly not a condoning of a murdering psychopath’s actions. In my case, I want to try and see through the different doorways that these kinds of disorders produce; doorways that may open into that which we are simultaneously so close and so far from—our own consciousness and engagement with reality. And also, how fascinating would it be if there was something to this thought presented in Split regarding an augmented state that can manifest itself through one’s own thoughts? But I’ll return to the “beast” in a bit…
I spend a lot of time thinking about life, death, society, meaning, emptiness, etc. like most people do, I think. And there is always a point at which the mire of contradiction and the misrepresentation that feeds into self-deception in society kind of throws me against a brick wall. Then there seems to simply be three choices: disconnect and recede into your own world and your own values and your own desires, become engaged with the world but only to remain irrepressibly cynical and deterministic; passively analyzing the decline as an observer, or, most challenging, begin an epic MMORPG-like journey filled with endless tasks, decisions, and people to either accept or dismiss, latching on to bits of truth and bits of honesty and constructing an ever-taller complex of hope, safety measures, weapons, and principles.
[Having chosen this latter path, you most likely, due to the nature of the human brain and the necessity to categorize in order to make sense of life, become receptive only to those events and actions that support your chosen principles and instantly dismissive of anything that does not. I know that there is nothing scarier or more uncomfortable then shedding a paradigm you’ve been comfortably cocooned within for much of your life. And if there is no breaking from that paradigm, it only becomes more and more impossible to see outside as years go by. It’s as if the cocoon starts out fragile and made of thin, pristine glass like a giant window. You take things in which you are taught, but you are not so selective of what or who you take in information from; you believe it when your teacher tells you that 1+1=2, but you also believe your brother when he tells you that if you shine a flashlight down your throat it will catch fire.
As time goes on, teachings and beliefs become habit and routine. If these routines and habits are never questioned, they become like frost on the glass that never melts, becoming thicker and thicker until there is not much else coming in to your cocoon except that which reinforces the ice. At first it is just cloudy, but eventually the ice becomes so thick that nothing, it seems, can break it.]
I did some research on Dissociative Identity Disorder and found an interesting mix of articles written by skeptics and doctors presenting founded, documented case studies. The disorder is characterized in the DSM-5 with the following criteria:
- Disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states, which may be described in some cultures as an experience of possession. The disruption in identity involves marked discontinuity in sense of self and sense of agency, accompanied by related alterations in affect, behavior, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, and/or sensory-motor functioning. These signs and symptoms may be observed by others or reported by the individual.
- Recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/ or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.
- The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
- The disturbance is not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice. Note: In children, the symptoms are not better explained by imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
- The symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during alcohol intoxication) or another medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).
Under risk and prognostic factors, the DSM-5 states that “Interpersonal physical and sexual abuse is associated with an increased risk of dissociative identity disorder. Prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect in the United States, Canada, and Europe among those with the disorder is about 90%. Other forms of traumatizing experiences, including childhood medical and surgical procedures, war, childhood prostitution, and terrorism, have been reported.” Further, “Ongoing abuse, later-life retraumatization, comorbidity with mental disorders, severe medical illness, and delay in appropriate treatment are associated with poorer prognosis.” (Dissociative Identity Disorder, section 300.14, pg. 292)
Most of the skepticism I read was directed toward case studies that were believed to be fabricated or “enhanced” after the subjects became objects of popular fascination. In other words, there is money to be made, so let’s make it as sexy as possible.
A couple of the reviews under the film on Amazon mentioned the case study of “Sybil,” or Shirley Mason. I was interested in reading about a case study, but it became apparent very quickly that many suspected the case, which was popularized in the early 70s, to be a complete scam. A dramatization and wildly popular book giving an account of the details of Sybil’s experiences had come out and it had made Sybil, and her doctors, famous.
Then I found an interesting article from NPR which claimed to illuminate what was really going on with Sybil and her psychologist, Connie Wilbur:
Dr. Wilbur became very excited when she thought she’d found a great case to explore and teamed up with writer Flora Rheta Schreiber to write a book. According to Debbie Nathan in her book, Sybil Exposed, by the time Sybil began cracking under the pressure and admitting that her personalities were not authentic, even writing Dr. Wilbur a letter at one point, Schreiber had been too deep into the project to turn back. Wilbur even attributed Sybil’s letter to being a ruse to avoid going on with therapy.
The book about Sybil’s “disorder” and subsequent television movie, which came out in 1976, were gigantic hits. “As for the real Sybil, people began to recognize Mason as the patient portrayed in the book and the film. She fled her life and moved into a home near Wilbur. Mason lived in the shadows until her death in 1998.”
One of the most interesting results of this story is the fact that following this account in the early 70s, the “occurrence” of DID skyrocketed: “When Sybil first came out in 1973, not only did it shoot to the top of the best-seller lists—it manufactured a psychiatric phenomenon…Within a few years of its publication, reported cases of multiple personality disorder—now known as dissociative identity disorder—leapt from fewer than 100 to thousands.”
So, is this a case where people read a list of symptoms and immediately become hypochondriacs, fitting the profile of the disease they become paranoid about and subsequently obsessed with? Is there even some kind of desire to be labeled with a psychiatric disorder because people may find you interesting and your ordinary, dull life may become something of interest to people? I don’t know, but it would seem like the desire for attention and fame has at least a little to do with it.
After more research, I found a paper which was presented at the International Institute of Islamic Medicine (IIIM) and Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) Meeting in January of 2005 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It was written and presented by Abdel-Aziz A. Salama, M.D. The paper briefly introduced a case report involving DID in a woman named “Kathy.” The paper directly associates the development of dissociative identity disorder with early sexual abuse experiences, in which a child cannot handle emotionally what is happening to him/her and subsequently creates distance between him/herself and the experience by creating an intermediary in the form of a completely separate person: “MPD develops when an overwhelmed child cannot flee or fight adverse circumstances, takes flight inwardly, and creates an alternative self-structure and psychologic reality within which and/or by virtue of which emotional survival is facilitated.” (Multiple Personality Disorder: A Review and a Case study, JIMA: Volume 37, 2005)
Kevin, M. Night Shyamalan’s own case subject in Split (2016), follows along these lines. His disorder is a result of early abuse, and he develops over 20 separate personalities. Only one personality at a time comes into the “light” and is in control. Kevin’s “hoard” includes a few bad apples, associated with a lewd desire to watch young women dancing naked. But with the help of psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher, played wonderfully by Betty Buckley, Kevin has managed to keep these two under wraps. What she doesn’t know is that Dennis, one of these bad apple personalities, has captured three young girls and is holding them prisoner in his apartment. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott writes in his review that “’Split’ is lurid and ludicrous, and sometimes more than a little icky in its prurient, maudlin interest in the abuse of children. It’s also absorbing and sometimes slyly funny.” (New York Times, January 19, 2017)
Certainly, the film deals formulaically with a situation that seems to have become routine in the psychological thriller go-to chest of plotlines: the mentally disturbed villain whose traumatic childhood is revealed slowly, culminating in a moment of “ah, ok, that makes sense. That’s the type of thing that causes that stuff.” The mechanism works as a way to develop sympathy for an otherwise monstrous being. Which is interesting, as someone who feels infuriated when people are dismissed as “monsters” because of their actions without an iota of interest, it seems, in the possibility that there is a complex sequence of events, thoughts, feelings, possible genetic predispositions, etc. that led him/her to that place, (I don’t believe Ted Bundy came out of the womb with the intention of killing young women), but it also seems to have become oversimplified. People see the hints of sexual abuse coming and the intrigue seems to stop there; they know all they need to know, case closed, when in fact, it should only be the very beginning of an effort to understand.
But now, I want to talk about what really struck me in Shyamalan’s film. So let’s talk about the “beast.”
I was totally enthralled with the idea of the beast and the assertions from Dr. Fletcher regarding the mind’s ability to transform the body into “more than, not less than.” Several months back I wrote up some thoughts on the movie Touched with Fire (2015) and the concept of people with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder being labeled as people that are afflicted with something extra, a spot, a stain, a something-not-right, while normal people are without this spot. This came back to me when I heard the lines from Dr. Fletcher, describing her patient as someone who is “more than, not less than.” But instead of this something extra being something malformed, it is something which can unlock “greatness,” something with great power and ability.
I watched a wonderful interview with the director along with Betty, James and Anya on youtube for BUILD series (watch full here) in which Shyamalan explains the crux of the film, which is to discuss how we think about and marginalize people with mental disorders or people that have been through traumatic experiences that have marked them in some way, whether physically or mentally. He also involved a lot of turning stereotypical genre roles on their heads regarding a woman in captivity being held by a male villain by playing with how those characters deal with the situation. Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey, very much stands in contrast to the other two female victims, who are more stereotypical in their roles. Casey engages the situation and engages with her captor on a much more personal level in a situation where you might expect the captor to behave as the domineering, controlling entity and the captive to react as a helpless victim whose fate is dictated by the captor and not by her own faculties as a rational human being. (This is explained in large part later in the film in a revelation about her past that solidified Shyamalan’s observation and statement regarding the “marginalized”). But the theme is taken to a whole new imaginative level with the concept of the beast being a possibility of human potential for greatness that is brought about not by a genius, battle hero, or altruist, but by a human being that has been fundamentally “broken.”
The beast is interested in the consumption of those useless souls who have maintained their innocence; who have not been broken. (This in context can be seen as referring explicitly to sexual purity, but the impression I got was a referral to the experience of great suffering in general). They are extraneous and of absolutely no use, in his mind. People only unlock the potential of greatness through suffering. The idea brings to mind the philosophical idea that true, great art can only come from people who have experienced darkness (and also the scene in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) where Steve Carell illuminates Proust’s observation of people being made who they are by living through their darkest years; those marked by suffering). Though it isn’t art we’re talking about creating here; the manifestation in Split is much bigger, greater, and much darker.
The idea of unlocking the potential of the human mind has always been a subject of fascination for me, and I think the concept of the beast hits a beautiful balance that handles the manifestation of dark transformation without descending into the realm of a monster movie. Unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kevin’s alters seem to successfully merge and rally behind the single entity of greatness; and after realizing this terrifying Platonic ideal, ready themselves to show the world, “just how great we can be.”