Tag Archive | Touched with Fire

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/ or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.
  3. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”

I Do Not Have a Spot, You Have Many Spots. Touched With Fire (2015)

When I watch a movie or listen to part of a song or performance or anything that hits me as incredibly beautiful, oftentimes I run over to the piano, skipping along hopping a foot into the air as I go. Or, like now, maybe 20 minutes into a movie I have to stop the film. That’s always step one. It’s like my brain is sending my nerves a brief flash of notification that something is coming. Then I get up, I have to do something, even if it’s just to move/dance to the background noise of the fans in my computer or the projector. It feels so big, bigger than myself and everything except the last time it happened, which was just as powerful. If it’s music I’m listening to that struck me I usually have to go play a song on guitar or sing or play piano. If it is something really meaningful, I end up writing feverishly. Like now.

I’m not bipolar. I’ve met and made friends with individuals who were, mostly in college. They were fascinating to be around. But I know I’m not on the same page as them. I’ve never been to a low that was so destructive I could not progress through it; at a trudging pace maybe, but I still keep moving. I have never been at a dead stop, where the ground completely falls beneath you and there is nothing but nothing, everywhere. I’ve looked over the edge, but have never ever come close to falling in.

I do, however, have Asperger’s, and through many hours of research I understand how this fits my situation and the experiences I have of nearly unbearable joy as well as sadness, which much of the time can be more closely labeled as confusion, or a feeling of powerlessness.

Both autism and bipolar disorder are neural situations, one is termed a disease (bipolar) hitting anywhere from early adolescence into adulthood, the other a neurological difference, (at least to many), present from an early age with a wide range of manifestations and points of diagnosis within the person’s lifetime. The entertaining things to me in the film which led to me having to pause involve the neurotypical’s reaction and rationalization of the mental illness they’re dealing with. Their looks and reactions suggest that they have a sense of something being present in the mind across from them that should not be there. There is a presence that should be sedated, ripped out, in order to return to normalcy. They themselves feel a confidence so strong it is imperceptible that they are at peace in the river of normalcy, flowing along with everything around them who is also mentally healthy. There are no ugly presences in their minds.

Before I go off and get away from the point, succinctly I am trying to write in this post that people feel that individuals like Luna and Carla’s characters are ill because of the presence of something that should not be there, while they themselves are free from this presence and all other bad things characterizing mental illness.

This is interesting to me because of the truth that I feel wholeheartedly that things are just the opposite in this respect, if we’re going to compare. And I will explain.

The mother and father’s characters’ responses in the film follow logical, conditioned processes. Something is wrong. Why is it wrong. What can I do to make it not wrong anymore. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What can I do to make it go away?

In Luna’s case, stop working and paying bills, not on medication, let’s go to the hospital. In Carla’s case, at mother’s house at 4 in the morning, must not be able to sleep, let’s go to the doctor and get some answers. Similar processes occur when one runs out of toilet paper. Where is the toilet paper, my husband must have had beans last night, I must go to the store.

In these examples, there is a presence of method to handle the situation that is continuously conditioned over and over again until it becomes so much of a habit you can’t even tell you’re in the midst of it again and again. These processes are pretty easy to understand. They make logical sense and most people are comfortable with the standard line of reasoning demonstrated. It applies to many situations.

What is invisible because it is so habitual is that this very process common to most people is a presence of knowledge, which is substantive, learned, ingrained, and part of our neural net even long before adulthood, in most neurotypicals. The simplest form of the process is learned early on, people add on additional sets of hangers-on to the stream of logic. When we think of going to the store for toilet paper, we have the knowledge of where we’ve gone to get it before, how much it costs, if that annoying cashier would be working, what our friend said about the store the other day, etc. Some of these bits of knowledge are subjective based on personal experience, others are based on what we are told by other people and how we choose to feel about them. Obviously buying toilet paper does not carry much social weight, but in the case of dealing with mental illness, as demonstrated in the film, there are social neuronets so complex and yet so ingrained that most people believe them to be as grounded as logic or common sense. Something is wrong, you go to the doctor to get it fixed: of course, no brainer, done deal. And most people seem to stop there. Their neuronet stops and they have never been challenged in any way to deal with any alternative or other possibility. They don’t have to. “Other people said this about it, and I believe them because it’s the easiest option.” And why do they choose the easiest and most acceptable path? Fear of their social appearance in a lot of cases probably. Also, it’s just, well, easier. And we humans like easier.

But here’s my biggest rub with the logic expressed through the parent characters in the film: it’s this whole illness is a presence I am free of mentality. On the contrary, these ill people are absent of, and what’s more, broken free of, the fear of venturing outside of the norm that is so potent in the neurotypical parents that their cozy boxed lives do not even have windows. They have posters of Costa Rica where the windows used to be, now covered.

Luna is living free of the fear of what may happen if he doesn’t follow the rules. His father is consumed by it.

Carla is free of the assumption that doing something like going out in the middle of the night is “not normal” while her mother is so shocked by this simple oddity that she makes it into a sign of something being seriously wrong.

I’m not trying to prove what’s right, who’s sick, who’s not etc. I’m just really fixated on the idea of presence and absence and which applies to mental illness versus normalcy. If lunacy is freedom from fear of the things they should be afraid of, like someone walking along a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air, then he is free of a presence which resides in most other human beings. What’s more, those mentally ill people cannot even fathom having this presence that alludes them and makes everyone else “normal,” and this drives them further into depression, confusion, etc. Carla’s character goes into manic mode because she so wants to figure out exactly what she was doing exactly when “it” happened. At some point this “thing” infested her body and now she must be rid of it.

Luna is a little more confident in his state of mental being, at least thus far in the film.

At the point where I paused the film he is talking to another guy in therapy at the hospital. The old guy is terrified of the apocalypse, of humankind ending. Luna looks at him and tries to explain to him that there is no reason to be afraid. He basically tells him it is going to happen whether you are afraid or not, therefore there is no reason to be afraid. I don’t know about you but that’s about the smartest and most logical thing I’ve heard from anyone in the movie so far. Lol But again, he is absent of the fear. There is no malicious presence, simply the absence of an aspect of his being that would make him acceptable and normal to everyone else.

But I think all of this resonated personally with me because of how strongly I feel  that the way people treat me or talk to me or look at me once I tell them I have autism suggests that they see that presence, that neon sign that says “I’m abnormal.” It’s like suddenly they see into my brain and see the spot that says “autism” on it. (Or worse, they look at me like I’m crazy because I don’t fit the paradigm of what autism is that they’ve come to accept). A presence. Something there that should not be there. Something they do not have. Something that makes me abnormal.

But I feel the complete opposite to this. My whole life I’ve experienced the absence in me of something which others around me have. Things that others learned early in life which have become natural and worn like a badge that says, “yep I’m human just like you.” These things are so simple that most people I try to explain it to don’t even seem to hear me. Things like what angle to hold your head while someone is greeting you so that you look polite, interested, not flirting though, not bored, not dumb, present, ready to respond… Greetings and goodbyes are inexplicably and ridiculously difficult for me. Whether or not I come off successful, I feel so incomprehensibly silly doing stuff like that. Hi nice to meet you, oh my gosh I know the traffic was just awful, how was your ride? I love your hair today, aren’t you glad it’s nice outside…Inside I’m just thinking, what the fuck...

Absence. Not a presence. An Absence. Something You Have That I Do Not. I do not have a spot, you have many spots. Some of them I wish I had. Some I’m glad I do not. Some I will never understand.

Ok, I’m going to finish the movie now then maybe start this blog post. lol

 

Spoilers

 

Ahhhhhh…, artistic genius in connection with bipolar disorder. I guess I saw this coming, lol. Luna declares to the others around him drawing pictures that Van Gogh’s Starry Night was created as what he saw from the window of his room in a sanitarium while he was manic. I don’t know if it’s true. (Luna challenges you to go “look it up.”)

The film is focused on the book Touched with Fire by Kay Jamison. Luna believes that the depth of emotion he feels is not an illness, but something he would like to hold on to. Carla feels the same until everything changes.

She becomes pregnant. Suddenly there is more to her life than feeling and being present. She must make changes to accommodate the responsibilities of being a parent, and she believes Luna when he commits to the same.

Luna and Carla make a connection with each other in their mania while in a hospital. Each night at 3 am they meet in the art room of the hospital and come up with a grand plan to return to their home, the moon. When they start disobeying the rules, their parents and doctors begin to intrude on their lives in a strong way, terrified that they indeed feed each others’ illnesses. This is an interesting tension and discussion of that question: Are they absolutely wrong for each other, or are they absolutely right for each other? Both points of view are argued and it is left for the viewer to decide for themselves.

The path of the film’s story does not change that. Ultimately it is up in the air as to whether you side with those who believe the illness to be a terrible tragedy or a gift. Obviously when a state of mind brings one to destructive behavior threatening other peoples’ lives, there is a problem and more to be observed than artistic acumen. But even this scenario, in which Luna drives his car carrying his love Carla into the river, we are left with nothing but grey area and perspectives flying in different directions. Would the existence of Starry Night be worth it if Van Gogh had had an episode where he’d almost killed someone? (Or maybe he did, I don’t know. How can anyone know for sure.)

Then the film gets incredibly medication-centered. At first I was disappointed by this, but then I understood how important of a part medication plays in not only the patients’ own lives, but in forming opinions of society based on correlative data.

I’m not a doctor, but I do have strong opinions about the use of medication in various types of “mental illnesses.”

Having experienced this firsthand, I felt an unbelievable wave of empathy when Luna made statements about feeling nothing inside and hating it, wanting the mania back, preferring the highs and lows. He also complains that he does not feel the emotion he should feel for the person he loves more than anything in the world. Doctors explain that he must get used to a “normal range of emotion.” What a depressing, grey statement. I remember detesting the way anti-depressants made me feel. I wasn’t on them long. And while people kept telling me I had to keep at it to find the balance that would make me feel good, I refused to deal with not wanting to make music, write, or getting excited about anything.

(Tangent) My life has always presented a steady influx of obsessions that are all-consuming, work their way through me as I work my way and absorb everything it has to offer, then it tapers off before something else strikes me. None of these obsessions are ever discarded, and I think this is a gross misunderstanding in a lot of people, at least when I discuss it. On the surface it seems like I am just getting engrossed and investing everything into something then suddenly discarding it. This isn’t true at all. I’ve internalized very deeply the things I take in out of passion and inspiration. They are always with me, and they build upon each other, making connections. I remember very clearly being on one of these drugs and knowing for a fact that I would take depression over feeling nothing any day. I think anyone who has ever been touched by fire would understand this sentiment from Luna. (End Tangent)

Carla ends up following a different route, taking her medication long term, and in the end the two do not stay together. They have one final meeting for a reading of a book composed of their verses together, and it is evident that Luna has remained the same as he’s always been, while Carla has “moved on” with another man and on her medication. She has chosen to steady herself. Luna’s eyes speak to the heartbreak he feels when he realizes this, while Carla’s remain sober, even cold.

I liked this film because it struck a chord with me in that it tries to demonstrate what it’s like to feel deeply, the good side and the bad side. There are similarities between bipolar as conveyed in this movie and the things I’ve studied and experienced through autism. So many times I’ve heard it said that people on the spectrum experience life like a child for their whole lives, they retain a sense of wonder about the world and an appreciation for the most minute details in life that others may miss. I think that this sense of child-like wonder is essential for creativity. I can’t imagine cranking out a piece of work that has not blossomed from any kind of inspiration on the part of the artist. (Or I should say, a piece of work that has anything meaningful to offer on a human level. Obviously there is a lot of “art” getting cranked out according to the algorithm of commercial demand.) So is there any mystery in the fact that so many artists and inventors are considered posthumously to have probably been autistic or bipolar, or whatever we choose to call all of the maladjusted forms of nonconformity? And the fascinating question is, is this part and function of our brain, this capacity for greatness and genius in creativity, available and waiting to be unlocked within all human beings? It seems perfectly reasonable to me, given what little I know about the discoveries of neuroscience connected with neuroplasticity as well as the possibilities laid out by the implications of quantum mechanics, if we dare to venture into it without safety nets. But this post is long enough I suppose, lol. Another day.