By Abi and Virginia

In 2016, a film called Split was released as a follow-up to Bruce Willis’ Unbreakable. Until the end of this film, when Willis made an appearance, the link was not apparent, but in the last few minutes it became clear that there would be a sequel once more. The film that ties them all together is Glass, released this year, 2019. We have seen all three, but this is not just a film review.

In Split the main premise is that the antagonist has disassociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. One of the writers of this article, Abi, has DID (she wants to assure you that “not all of us are writing this, just me”) and she wants to put the record straight by giving an insider’s perspective on these movies and dismantling some of the negative stereotypes attached to this disorder.

DID is formed by extreme and repeated childhood trauma and is diagnosed when two or more distinct personality states are present along with amnesia of these personalities. For as long as media has existed it has been used as a plot twist in horror movies and thrillers. For example, Psycho and Fight club. This trope has been incredibly harmful and has caused a negative stigma around a disorder which is simply a survival mechanism. In the film trilogy, it’s all very well to turn the story into a fantasy comic book superhero scenario, but the negativity surrounding DID is very much present, particularly in the last two films.

Kevin Wendell-Crumb, the antagonist in Split, applies a collective noun, “the horde”, to his alter-egos. Arguably, some of the ideas represented in the film are rooted in fact: Wendell-Crumb suffered abuse as a child which caused his disorder and certainly it is not uncommon to name your “system” (the professional term for the group of personalities, which are called alters). James McAvoy’s acting most certainly cannot be faulted — the audience is very aware of which alter is in the room by extremely subtle shifts in character and expression, not just costume or voice. But why does he have to be the villain of the piece?

Although alters are real people, as morally “grey” as anybody else, it seems deeply stigmatising to have an inherently evil alter constantly portrayed on screen. Most people enjoy a horror or suspense movie, with twists and surprises — when Psycho

In the Split trilogy, Unbreakable is a “superpower” film, Split is a thriller, and Glass is somewhere between the two: it seems unsure of its genre, and the use of DID cheapens it. If audiences are uneducated about DID, their only knowledge comes from these films. Abi remembers old friends, upon discovering her DID, who made remarks like, “Don’t let your serial killer out!” There can be subtle discrimination, where people can begin to avoid the person. However, it should be acknowledged that for all its flaws, Glass portrayed a more sympathetic and slightly more accurate depiction of DID than Split. The alters are developed as more multi-faceted and there is some genuine sympathy for even the “evil” alter-ego. On the other hand, one of the more harmful messages of this film was the portrayal of therapists as the enemy, and quite inept. The therapist exclaims that twenty-three alters is unheard of, yet in truth the amount of alters in any system can vary from two to over 100. The average number is thirteen.

The most harmful act one of Abi’s alters has ever done is steal food from the fridge, which got her into trouble!

Recently, a more accurate portrayal of DID has been showcased in DC’s Doom patrol in the form of Crazy Jane and her 64 alters, all with different superpowers. This proves that you can have an honest portrayal and still have a great super- hero story. Another accurate characterisation, in Mr Robot, is Elliot, the protagonist of this TV show. He only has one alter, but is just as sensitively written as Jane. Both of these are the product of extensive and thoughtful research, unlike Kevin and the horde. The director and writers of Split were offered guidance and help by both people with DID and therapists, but turned them down.

Maybe it’s time for a film or book written by someone with DID, or even a blockbuster that portrays it in an accurate and more positive light. What an intriguing story that would be!

 

I find it almost constantly dispiriting that Hollywood and also authors, when depicting a little-understood, “fashionable” condition give the condition to the antagonist or villain, for example, the criminals in 'House rules' (by Jodi Picoult) and 'The behaviour of moths' (by Poppy Adams). I am interested to hear what other people think, Editor.

 

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