Dissociative identity disorder or DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is a mental condition characterized by the presence of one or more alternate identities, or alters, that a patient may switch into. These identities may have unique names, memories, and personal characteristics such as voice patterns. The creation of these alters is linked to experiencing a traumatic event in early childhood, leading to the inability to form one integrated personality. This disorder has long fascinated both medical professionals and the entertainment industry, the latter of which has taken great liberties with their portrayal of this disorder. Entertainment is a tremendous influence on the way we think, and over the past few decades, entertainment media has portrayed DID as violent and supernatural. Due to this standard, DID has faced an inordinate amount of stigma and fear. As mental health awareness shifts more into the spotlight and positive representation becomes ever more vital, the entertainment industry continues to damage the validity of DID.
I first took interest in dissociative identity disorder through a YouTube channel called DissociaDID. This channel aimed to break down the stigma surrounding DID and other trauma-based disorders while providing a well of helpful information. As someone who believed this disorder to be fictional due to my media intake, I was shocked to learn that it was a real medical condition. This led me to question why I didn’t know anything about it, and why I was so sure it didn’t exist. I reexamined much of my media consumption and drew the conclusion that DID was woefully misrepresented. As an aspiring writer and storyteller, learning the dangerous effects of wrongful representation is important to me, as is learning how to be respectful to marginalized groups while telling their stories. However, my biggest motivator to pursue this topic was the outright disinterest and denial my peers showed towards this disorder. The majority of family and friends I talked to about DID were either convinced it was fictional, or so rare that discussing it was a waste of time. I was discouraged from writing about it at every turn, and that convinced me of the necessity of this page.
What You Need to Know
The first popular piece of media to explore the idea of dual personalities was Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novel tells the story of Dr. Jekyll and his alternate identity, Mr. Hyde, the latter of whom commits several heinous murders. Although the novel does not reference DID specifically, it does rely on the presence of a violent alternate personality state to tell its story. In fact, Stevenson’s biographer Sir Graham Balfour believed the buzz the novel received was “due rather to the moral instincts of the public than to any conscious perception of the merits of its art” (Balfour). Essentially, violence and murder became associated with the words “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and by extension, dual personalities. This trend continued when Hollywood became the center of American entertainment. 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve was loosely inspired by the real-life case of Christine Costner Sizemore, a woman who in 1952 started therapy for DID. (Psychological Consultation). In the film, the main character is “cured” by hypnosis and lives a happy life as her “true self”. However, the real-life Sizemore retreated into anonymity following her cases’ publication due to stigma around her disorder and wrote a book correcting the errors the film contained to better advocate for those with mental illness. The film grossly misrepresented her story, giving Hollywood sensationalism a brighter spotlight than a brave woman who pioneered DID activism (Bernstein). Perhaps more famous was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, based on a book of the same name by Robert Bloch. Psycho featured main antagonist Norman Bates, who switches into the personality of his departed mother while killing young women. However, the real-life inspiration for this film is notably inconsistent with both movie and book. Wisconsin killer Edward Gein was the inspiration for both book and film, having admitted to killing two women and robbing numerous graves for body parts. However, Gein was diagnosed with schizophrenia while awaiting trial and never showed symptoms of DID (Harring). This conflation between schizophrenia and DID is a relatively common misconception and one that damages the reputation of both conditions.
However, as we enter an age where mental illness is increasingly supported and understood, films continue to use DID to sell a story. In doing so, producers are spreading misinformation while intertwining this misunderstood disorder with a host of horrors.
In 2000, Me, Myself & Irene, was released as a “schizophrenic comedy.” The film follows Charlie, a mild-mannered man with “advanced hallucinatory schizophrenia” that changes him into Hank, a violent womanizer (Scott). However, Glenn Gabbard, professor of psychiatry at the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry, asserts that schizophrenia is not the correct diagnosis. According to him, the symptoms “exhibited by [Charlie] are not indicative of schizophrenia but of multiple personalities, known to psychiatrists as dissociative identity disorder” (Butler). While this misrepresentation hurts those with DID, it also harms schizophrenics. Julie, a member of Schizophrenics Anonymous, says that “what the film tells people is that people with schizophrenia are unpredictable and have a propensity for violence” (Butler). However, many psychologists suggest that schizophrenics are more likely to be isolated and withdrawn than violent. (Butler). However, this film was poorly received, unlike its more recent counterpart.
“The beast is born!” claims Split, as a monstrous figure rises up from the darkened subway cars. However, is this “beast” really the best way to show DID to a mainstream audience? M. Night Shyamalan’s 2018 psychological horror film Split has received a great deal of attention from both the public and the mental health community. The film stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a zookeeper with DID whose alternate identities kidnap and torture three young girls to appease “The Beast,” a personality with superhuman strength and dark intentions. The film characterizes those with DID as violent, unstable, and predatory, while also suggesting a supernatural or inhuman aspect through the character of “The Beast.” Unlike older films, such as Psycho, this movie explores DID as a medical disorder and takes place in a far more modern setting (Nedelman). Amelia Joubert, an 18-year-old DID patient, and advocate for DID support expresses that this movie is extremely distressing for DID youth, “This is the first big movie they’ve experienced that has a stigma to it,” she said. “It’s hitting hard for that reason” (Itkowitz). In the clip featured above, it is evident what Split believes DID patients to be; beasts.
DID has faced an onslaught of media stigmatization based on warped stories, pure fiction, or misdiagnoses. The entertainment industry has created a firm link between violence and DID to shock and sensationalize. From the late 19th century to the golden age of Hollywood, the only treatment those with DID receive is one of ridicule, exploitation, and media-induced hostility. How can we, as an audience, detirmine myth from fact?
While Split received a great deal of outrage from DID activists, the fact remains that it made well over 250 million dollars worldwide, and was nominated for numerous awards. Activists railed against the film, with sites like TeachTrauma raising thousands of signatures to boycott the film. While activism is vital, the organizations currently working against entertainment media are powerless in the face of Hollywood’s grip on the public. Cinema dominates American culture, and with a legacy of DID stigmatization going back decades, it is proving difficult to convince the public of its legitimacy.
If the power of the movies is so influential, a reasonable solution is to integrate positive representation into those influential movies; Hollywood needs to embrace positive representation, and it is entirely possible for them to do so. To start, consulting real DID patients and specialists in the field before putting such characters onto the big screen would create superior, accurate representations and educate audiences. Secondly, making films outside of the psychological horror genre that explore the tragedy and personal struggles of DID would greatly decrease negative preconceptions and associations with violence. There is proof that movies about personal struggles with mental illness are both popular and possible, such as 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which stars a teen suffering from childhood trauma, depression, and anxiety. The movie portrays its protagonist not as unstable or violent, but rather sympathetic and honest. The movie was both well received and relatively successful (The Pangs).
But Hollywood alone cannot change the ideas of millions of Americans, and individuals have a role to play as well. Independent exploration of the topic would dissolve many negative stereotypes, and introduce the uninitiated to the ways the film industry exploits mental illness. Not only would this help break personal prejudices, but it would assist individuals with identifying their own symptoms and relevant treatment networks. Simply educating yourself, your family, and those around you is vital to advancing the validity of DID. A final personal action you can take is to reexamine the movies you watch and the books you read. Consider who is writing these pieces, if they claim to be based on a real story, look into that story. Are the facts the same? Did they represent the case well enough? Learning about the ways misrepresentation leads to harm is absolutely vital to preventing it in the future.
Solving the problem of misrepresentation in Hollywood and other media outlets is a herculean task, and even with positive representation and personal education, there’s no guarantee that the past can be undone. But, as we, the new generation, grow and learn and develop into the next group of actors, directors, and writers, we can carry these lessons forward and use them to help those who may not have the voice to help themselves.
Call to Action
Thank you for taking the time to go through my page. If you feel comfortable sharing, feel free to answer the following questions.
- Have you heard of DID before? If so, did you hear of it through a book or movie, and did that source paint a realistic portrait of DID?
- Do you think Hollywood, and by extension, entertainment, should be tasked with challenging misinformation? Why or why not?