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Looking Back at the One of the Most Stigmatizing Depictions of Mental Illness

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I do think films that stigmatize mental illness do more harm than good. I agree with those who criticized “Joker” for the way it depicted the mentally ill as violent, terror-inflicting villains.

However, I want to examine probably the most famed stigmatizing depiction of mental illness in “Fatal Attraction” that I love for reasons other than its problematic portrayal of borderline personality disorder (which I have). This will be a personal rethink of this much criticized film to show what helps me in my own dramas.

Finally, I will offer my favorite cinematic and television depictions of major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD), to show how authentic and imaginative dramatizations can inspire me in my own borderline and depression narrative.

“Fatal Attraction” (1987)

I am old enough to remember when this film was released and the sensation of paranoia it caused. Some commentators saw it as an allegory for sex in the 80s AIDS epidemic, while others said it “scared the pants on men.” But what I most remember was the feminist Susan Faludi arguing that the depiction of the two main female characters was a backlash against women, especially the central villainess Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). The film enforced the idea of the good faithful wife (Anne Archer) triumphing over the independent, childless career woman who seduces the married man Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) but turns violent when he discards her. Amazingly, there was no discussion about Alex Forrest having a mental illness — no one seemed experienced or trained to read her that way, least of all the filmmakers.

Yet in recent years there has been so much written around Alex having BPD based on her behavior in the film. It is important to note that she is never diagnosed in the film, no mental illness is ever mentioned; instead Dan tells her she should see a psychiatrist in a damning not help-seeking way. Technically, she could have another disorder like complex PTSD (there is an early, oblique reference to past trauma of her father dying in front of her when she was a girl), or perhaps Clerambault’s syndrome (Erotomania) a delusional syndrome where someone falsely assumes another is in love with them (I’m not convinced).

Either way it seems to now be accepted that this character is a clear cinematic depiction of BPD. Certainly the BPD is easy to identify as she embarks on a weekend affair with a married man who soon rejects her which triggers abandonment, an unstable sense of self, chronic emptiness, self-harm, rage, devaluation (violently so), empathy depletion, labile emotions, manipulation, dissociation and bloody vengeance. Note, I just deliberately mixed real BPD symptoms in with stigmatized ones (manipulation, no empathy, violent vengeance) because that’s exactly what the film does. If she indeed does have BPD this is about as stigmatized a depiction as you can get for an illness that is still one of the most stigmatized.

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The first time we see Alex Forest at a party she has Medusa-like hair as if a Greek Goddess out to allure the male protagonist to his death. She seduces him with the false promise that she will be “discreet” and “adult” giving him no clue of the rage to come. She is clearly the baddie; director Adrian Lyne and writer James Dearden (who adapted it from his more subtle British short film “Diversion”) make this explicit. There is the battery acid on the car and especially the boiled pet bunny of her ex-lover’s little girl waiting on the family stove. But as the film reaches its histrionic climax, Alex becomes like Freddy Kreuger (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) or Michael Myers (“Halloween”) or most of all Norman Bates from “Psycho” — as the “psychopath” who comes back to life in a frenzy, brandishing a large “Psycho”-inspired kitchen knife after she had appeared lifeless and dead in a steaming bath.

Like the “Joker” “Fatal Attraction” makes mental illness a violent menace to society or the family unit, not a threat to the person living with it. This film really does seem beyond redemption.

And yet, the genius of Glenn Close manages to break through to make Alex real, in deep pain, and give hints of past trauma. The problem is she is sabotaged by the filmmakers intent on creating a simple shock villain for audiences to hate.

Recently in a reunion interview, Michael Douglas asked his co-star how it felt to play a villain. Close’s answer says everything; “I never thought of her as a villain, ever, ever… I always thought she was a human being in a lot of pain and she needed help.” In another interview for Inside Story, she specified that in her research she took the script to two different psychiatrists and asked if this behavior was possible and if so what caused the behavior; “The conclusion was that her behavior was that of someone who had been incested very early on, almost pre-memory. For enough time to really, really make her incredibly self-destructive and unable to have a balanced, adult relationship.” But the problem was the film was uninterested in her history of trauma or deep wounds as Close explained in a Vanity Fair interview; “There’s no way for the audience to know what her past was. It’s only hinted at when she looks at him [Dan] giving the bunny to his daughter then throws up in the bushes. Nobody would say: well why did this happen? Whereas… I asked and the psychiatrist said if she was molested at an early age, and what she was made to do made her gag and throw up, then that’s her trigger.”

Looking back Close can’t believe that mental illness was never mentioned during the making of the film. She says that if she were doing the role now that would be the first thing she would think of.

The film originally had a different ending (only Japan kept it interestingly) where Alex does not show up at Dan and his family’s house for bloody revenge but instead takes her own life in her loft. When the film was shown to test audiences they overwhelmingly hated the ending saying it was flat and they longed for the wife to go through with her earlier threat to kill Alex. At this stage the studio was thinking about box office — not about stigmatizing mental illness — and so the decision was made to shoot a new ending where the crazed stalker gets her comeuppance in the bath. Glenn Close thought this was a joke when first told, and fought tooth and nail for weeks against it because her research said this character would be more likely to harm herself than others. She felt this was the ultimate betrayal of the character she had tried to portray. But she eventually relented and shot the ending that put the nail in her character’s coffin and her humanity.

Crucially, this shows the actress herself playing this stigmatized character saw her humanity not villainy. If you look back at the film in certain scenes you will see the pain in Close’s bravura performance; the aforementioned being sick at the bunny being gifted to the daughter, the abandonment pain in her face and then self-harm after Dan’s first rejection, her unstable sense of self and chronic emptiness as she flicks the light on and off to Madam Butterfly, the splitting as she says “I’m not going to be ignored,” the joyless dysregulated way she rides the roller coaster, and her dissociated state when she surprises the wife in the final showdown. Close fully embodied this character and gave her a heartbeat, a complexity and a backstory. But sadly she was betrayed by the film’s main decision makers.

I wish Close, perhaps with a female director, had had control of the movie then we may have seen a real, sensitive depiction of mental illness, BPD or otherwise. One that empathetically showed the tragic backstory of the character, or even even a single scene outside the main male character. Douglas’s Dan gets many scenes apart from Alex at work and especially with his doting, genial family to make him more likeable. Stigmatized Alex has no such scenes (there is a brief conversation with someone we can’t really hear at the first party) so it is no wonder that she was so easy to hate and the character became one of the most stigmatizing depictions of mental illness, even if the mental illness was never stated in the film.

I can’t really defend “Fatal Attraction” but I sure can defend Glenn Close and see in much of her performance (especially before the battery acid and boiled bunny) an illness that I have lived. I would have given her that Academy Award she so emphatically deserved.

The films/series with BPD and MDD I love the most:

Moving away from the stigmatized to the inspired, two films and one series depict an experience I most relate to, help me better understand my BPD and MDD, and inspire me to keep fighting for a life worth living.

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992)

Although ostensibly mental illness or diagnosis is never mentioned in this prequel to the seminal television series, I always think the tragic heroine Laura Palmer had BPD. The sexual abuse, the unstable sense of self and emptiness where she lived a number of different lives (prom queen, sex worker, carer, incest victim), the splitting on the people she loves and rapid emotional changes, the uncontrollable anger and definitely dissociation. If people can make Alex Forest have BPD then I think Laura Palmer is equally as diagnosable. Of course she definitely could also have complex PTSD. It is hard to put a concrete diagnosis on a character that exists in non-naturalistic states of consciousness/ alternate worlds/ kooky humor that is a David Lynch universe, but to me it is all there in Sheryl Lee’s devastating and very underrated performance. She goes right down into the depths of Laura’s trauma and makes you care. I wept.

“Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night)” (2014)

In this beautifully emotional Belgian film, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra who is fighting desperately to keep her job in a factory whilst in the grip of a very dark and debilitating depression. I love this film for Cotillard’s extraordinary Oscar-nominated performance. Like Glenn Close and Sheryl Lee, there is so much truth in her performance as if the actress had experienced depression herself. I also love it because her depression collapse is not the main storyline, which is her trying to convince her colleagues to vote for her to keep her job. The depression is just the obstacle or the foil to overcome. A truly beautiful film makes me sob cathartically every time, especially the soccer pitch scene.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019)

I don’t need to tell you Mighty readers. You already know! In fact the fabulous Mighty articles on this groundbreaking show helped get me watching it.

My brief love letter; I love that Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is not diagnosed until season 3. It felt like I was not diagnosed until about season 10 in my life, so very relatable. Before the simply genius diagnosis episode, Rebecca’s character was richly established as a brilliant and highly intelligent lawyer who is very funny and has great friends and loves very deeply and completely. Of course, her flaws were there from the beginning but it was fascinating watching these flaws finally become symptoms. A brilliant piece of writing, directing, acting and composing those perfectly knowing and uproarious songs.

Also in the diagnosis episode she says after being diagnosed by her cute psych; “All those things are me. I don’t have five [BPD criteria] I have nine.” and, “This is not something I have but something I am.” I said/felt something very similar after I was diagnosed by my own cute psych.

Finally in the song “You Stupid Bitch” (inspired realizations of internal cognitive distortions and maladaptive schemas that are totally part of daily BPD) she sings; “Yes Josh completes me but how can that be when there’s no me left to complete” which articulated exactly where I was at when I first heard it.

I could go on! Inspired and even life-saving.

No male BPD characters:

The only thing missing for me in any film or TV show or anywhere is a male character with BPD. But this figures when we are still so much in the shadows or the closet, even in therapeutic circles. Perhaps I’ll just have to try and write one full of great feeling, love and pain who is benevolent than malevolent and fully understandable like the character Glenn Close was valiantly trying to portray.

Originally published: November 30, 2020
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