For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Billy Milligan was the first person to successfully use Multiple Personality Disorder (now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder) as a part of an insanity defense in court. Milligan was diagnosed with MPD and found to have 24 different personality states. This diagnosis came after an evaluation by a team of psychologists in preparation for his defense against several violent crimes, including armed robbery and rape. Milligan’s attorney claimed that his female lesbian alter, Adalana, was responsible for the three rapes he was charged with and a Yugoslavian communist alter named Ragen committed the robberies.
Here’s the thing, I understand that this is a true story. Milligan was said to have suffered early childhood abuse consistent with the development of dissociative disorders. And he was legitimately diagnosed with MPD/DID. So in that respect, this is admittedly a refreshing departure from the use of DID as the “plot twist” wherein someone pretends to have DID for the sake of getting away with a crime (I’m thinking specifically of Edward Norton’s character in “Primal Fear“).
Which, by the way, the idea that DID patients are all fakers is a tremendous stereotype surrounding DID. I remember when I first started searching for information on the disorder. I was immediately inundated with research papers and websites about how to tell whether someone is “really” dissociative or just pretending to be. Seriously. Here is one little gem for you:
“While most psychologists demonstrated belief that DID is a valid diagnosis, 38% believed that DID either likely or definitely could be created through the therapist’s influence, and 15% indicated that DID could likely or definitely develop as a result of exposure to various forms of media (Cormier & Thelen, 1998).”
However, the overwhelming majority of films depicting DID portray the diagnosed character not as a malingerer, but as a violent criminal. If these characters are not explicitly violent, they (or a specific alter) are most certainly cast as the “villain”. Also, this particular trope is exclusively played by men. In case you can’t think of any films that apply, here is a list of the first 10 movies that come to mind:
- “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde“
- “Raising Cain“
- “Fight Club“
- “Me, Myself, and Irene“
- “Secret Window“
- “The Lord of the Rings“
- “Mr. Brooks“
- “Shutter Island“
So here we have at least 10 films showing Dissociative Identity Disorder through violent, criminal, or dangerous male characters. There are surely men (and women) with DID that have committed violent crimes, such as Milligan himself, but that is hardly the standard manifestation of DID. Research from the American Psychiatric Association shows that there is not a link between mental health and violent behavior (except in the case of substance use). Here is a great quote from Psych Central:
“Violence is most often a criminal activity which has little correlation with a person’s mental health. Most people who suffer from a mental disorder are not violent — there is no need to fear them. Embrace them for who they are — normal human beings experiencing a difficult time, who need your open mind, caring attitude, and helpful support.”
If we were to link mental health and violence, it would actually go in the OTHER direction. Statistics show that people suffering from mental illness are far more likely to be the victim of a crime or to be violent towards only themselves (both of which are true for me).
Another important point is that this movie does absolutely nothing to de-mystify or clarify what Dissociative Identity Disorder actually is. Many people confuse DID with things like schizophrenia, psychosis, psychopathy, and sociopathy. In fact, there is already confusion about what, exactly, Milligan was diagnosed with. This UK article announcing the casting of DiCaprio says,
“It was revealed last week that the 40-year-old actor is planning to co-produce and star in ‘The Crowded Room’ as schizophrenic criminal Billy Milligan.” (Emphasis mine).
Some may argue that there is no reason to be upset because it’s “just a movie”. However, it’s important to remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. Media portrayals of mental illness are one of the primary determinants of how the general public understands and reacts to the mentally ill. Negative and/or inaccurate representation only adds to the already existing stigma. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has this to say about the impact of stigma:
“Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders – especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment (2003).”
If society is only shown images of individuals with DID that are either violent or faking, how will they ever know any different? These stereotypes are not just offensive, they are also dangerous because they perpetuate the misconceptions and stigma around persons suffering from mental illness. This stigma only exacerbates their suffering, isolating, and pathology.
It is so important to have representation in this world. My post reflecting on the impact of meeting other individuals with similar experiences with and symptoms of DID shows how crucial it is to see ourselves reflected in other people.
But it is not enough to just make a movie about DID (or any other mental illness). It is also imperative, for the sake of all members of our society, that we make films that are accurate and a true representation of the people who live with the illnesses being portrayed.