Depictions of dissociative identity disorder misguided

[TW: This article contains mention of trauma, mental illness and violence.]

[Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie “Fight Club.”]
Dissociative identity disorder (DID), other-wise known as multiple personality disorder, consists of several defining features. Often the result of childhood trauma, the disorder is characterized by a fracture of an identity into two or more distinct personality states and recurrent episodes of amnesia. To learn more about the criteria for this disorder, one can look up the official list in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Oftentimes, pop culture attempts to represent DID in various contexts. Famous movies and books often make sales through dramatized characters, which is relatively inevitable since it can lead to engaging content. However, the common representation of a person with DID is that of a monster capable of dangerous and often illegal acts. This portrayal damages the public notion of DID, effectively creating shame and stigma around the condition.

There are some people who have shared their personal experiences with DID on a more accessible platform, namely YouTube. Their videos involve discussions of the disorder, answering questions and switching on camera. This is not for views, but rather for the education of those who would like to know more.

YouTuber AlexMax Han discusses the different personalities of her five alters and at what age they came about in her video titled “Dissociative Identity Disorder | switch caught on camera–meet my alter!” She describes these alters as protectors, with one alter being the mother of the group, and explains how her first identity split occurred after severe childhood trauma.

Another YouTuber, DissociaDID, has more than 21 alters, some of which are non-human, and in one video titled “Making our Inner World! Sims 4 | Dissociative Identity Disorder,” she even built a Sims mansion to help show her viewers how her alters were organized in her “mental mansion.”

Viewers have expressed mostly positive responses to these videos, but some will write off these women as fakers, claiming that they only pretend to have DID for the views. However, especially during a switch, it is evident that the footage is entirely real, with each personality again showing its own traits and manner of speech. It would be difficult to authentically create these personalities on screen, although some actors have attempted to do just that for their movies.

One famous example of DID in film lies in the 1999 movie “Fight Club.” Edward Norton plays the protagonist, a depressed man wishing that his life would take a turn for the better. He runs into Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, who essentially embodies everything that Norton’s character wishes he could be: confident, self-assured and fearless. Durden takes the lead in recruiting members to join a fight club, which grows into a mafia-style crime group. Initially, Norton’s character watches from the sidelines, but as the group becomes increasingly violent, he finally decides to shut it down. Yet, nobody listens to him, and the members instead treat him the same way they treat Durden.

He confronts his new friend, which leads to his realization that he and Durden are actually the same person. He has flashbacks of the horrible acts he witnessed Durden commit, but now instead of Pitt, we see Norton. Even in the first fight scene, in which Durden and the protagonist brawl against each other, we see Norton’s character alone and punching himself. Everything falls into place as strange occurrences that the characters initially wrote off earlier finally make sense.

Again, DID is represented by a dangerous, thrill-seeking sociopath. The alternate personality developed as a way for the protagonist to express his violent tendencies, and he managed to create a substantial amount of chaos before the host even realized that he was there.

Another well-known portrayal of DID comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 book “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” When we first learn of Hyde, we hear a description of a seemingly apathetic dark stranger. Jekyll, a kindly doctor, has made Hyde the sole benefactor of his will yet acts skittish when asked about Hyde’s behavior. Jekyll ends up shutting himself away more and more, until eventually he refuses to receive any visitors.

Finally, the protagonists find Hyde dressed as Jekyll, dead in the office. Jekyll’s note explains that he wanted a way to be self-indulgent without discovery, so he created a serum that turned him into Hyde. However, he lost control and began transforming in his sleep. Realizing that he would turn into Hyde permanently, Jekyll decided to end his experiment before it became irreversible.

Once again, we see an alternate personality develop as a way to commit crimes and other terrible acts without dealing with the consequences. Because of the inclusion of an actual physical transformation, the book does not explicitly reference DID, but it does explore the idea of multiple personalities. “Jekyll and Hyde” is renowned not only because of the twist ending, but also because it touches on the idea of the mind being split into two—the complete duality of character.

In general, the examples shown in these sources tend to pit good against evil personalities. This makes sense, as many movies and other works of fiction attempt to sensationalize their characters in order to draw in viewers and promote an interesting discussion about the human condition. However, using Dissociative identity disorder as a thought experiment damages the public’s opinion of such disorders. Therefore, films and books should take steps toward accurately and respectfully representing this mental condition.

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