M. Night Shyamalan Keeps Getting Mental Illness Wrong
“Glass.” The storyline features a killer who is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), making it the latest film in Hollywood’s legacy of dehumanizing people who live with mental illnesses. A follow-up to M. Night Shyamalan’s controversial “Split” — including characters from his earlier film, “Unbreakable” — the movie has thus far received some admiration and praise for its creator. The New York Times even called it a “nutty ride.”
I’m here to shut that down.
DID and other dissociative disorders affect less people than more familiar mental illnesses like depression. In my experience, an even smaller number will openly discuss it for fear of being stigmatized. With films like “Spilt” and “Glass” that perpetuate
these harmful stigmas, it’s easy to understand why. This only makes it more challenging to combat the false narratives about dissociative disorders.
In fact, to speak with authority on this, I feel I have to come out and say that yes, I have DID, but thanks to M. Night Shyamalan, I come out at great personal risk in a world that is even less compassionate, less safe and less educated.
I knew when the trailers came out for “Glass” I wanted to write something about it. In preparation for these words, I reached out to Christine Forner, president of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. I have included some of her thoughts below.
Shyamalan’s creation is dangerous because it’s an objectively false characterization of what DID is and how it affects people’s behavior. Shyamalan recklessly uses the façade of DID to justify his character’s behavior, but it has no basis in reality. As Forner put it, “They have Frankenstein-ed several disorders.” She went on to say:
Sadomasochist psychopaths and people with DID have very, very different neurobiology, behaviors and defenses. DID and all [dissociative disorders] is what happens when you cannot take action or move. It is our last line of defense. Psychopathy is a very severe fight response… The pre-frontal cortex works differently in these individuals. [People with] DID hurt themselves, not other people. Sadomasochistic psychopaths hurt others. Because so little is taught about both conditions it is just up for pure, inaccurate mythological garbage.
Forner’s expertise echoed many of the conversations I had with my own therapist. DID is a disorder that results from extreme trauma. My consciousness did not separate itself because I was dangerous, but because I was in danger. I cannot stress enough that dissociation is not a functional state. Dissociation is a response to perceived danger. Dissociation, even in the context of DID, does cause people to kill or commit criminal acts. In fact, it often leaves me staring into a blank wall for hours.
But Shyamalan’s portrayal is not only inaccurate, it’s exploitative. He has succeeded in profiting off my trauma without living with any of the consequences of that trauma. Without having to see the daily suffering DID can inflict on its survivors. Without having to experience the prejudice in society that comes with it. He’s used the guise of my illness to cover for his inability to invent a probable narrative. He has neglected his responsibility as a story teller. He has appropriated my identity.
Mental illness is not a replacement for an effective plot mechanism.
Mental illness is not a character flaw to overcome.
Mental illness is not a justification for crime.
Shyamalan’s insistence on portraying it as such is not only damaging for the mental health community, it’s lazy writing. He, like so many before him, have fallen into the trap of using illness and disability as a catch-all excuse to explain villainy.
This narrative failure is no surprise when even journalists peddle a false symbiosis between mental illness and crime to rationalize events in the real world. Mental illness is an easy scapegoat to explain what we don’t understand, like how someone could commit atrocities like mass shootings. The Mighty has written on this subject before. Mental illness doesn’t drive these actions. DID does not make you a mass murderer.
People with DID are some of the most vulnerable. We are people who have experienced prolonged unimaginable trauma from a very young age. At 23 I can say I have yet to experience a feeling of safety. I work incredibly hard to manage an emotional system that has been separated in 18 distinct alters. I experience a host of co-occurring illnesses like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I struggle to avoid abusive relationships and to protect myself from predatory personalities. I fight to feel like I matter.
It is a battle to find treatment because DID is something even many mental health professionals are not educated about, let alone qualified to treat. Without a large body of research, my therapist and I found ourselves testing any and all ideas to help me. I had to create my own worksheets to track DID because there simply aren’t adequate resources out there to help people with DID. I had to become my own therapist and my own advocate. I even began holding Q&As with counseling students to help educate them about DID. But my lectures can’t compete with the reach of someone like M. Night Shyamalan.
Shyamalan’s stigma-filled films are making it harder for people like me to find help. When I asked Christine Forner about what she thought about these media portrayals, her answer was in alignment with my own experience. She again noted how people with DID do not hurt others, explaining:
They hurt themselves by cutting, self-harming, aligning with dangerous people, suicide attempts, self-loathing, etc. These people are not killers or harmful, these are the children of killers or people who blatantly harm others.
I could feel her frustration through the screen. She went on to discuss how false information about dissociative disorders makes it easy to make false statements about people who live with them. “[Dissociative disorders] DD and DID in particular are so vilified and sadomasochistic psychopaths are so idolized that the DD and DID have little chance of being seen accurately,” she said. “This fans out to bad or no treatment and lack of proper care.”
These horrific media portrayals have real-life implications for people with mental illness. It makes it that much harder for us to survive, for us to love ourselves. People with DID are empathetic, we want to connect with people. Unfortunately, because of abuse, connection has usually been unsafe for us.
Why can’t we have realistic portrayals of DID in film? In short, DID is mostly invisible. It’s subtle. It’s a system designed to go unnoticed. It’s a system designed to help you operate in a world filled with danger. That is hard to show on-screen and it requires a level of familiarity and expertise to write DID characters well. It is much easier to show a romanticized version of mental illness.
People with disability and mental illness deserve better from Hollywood. We deserve representation. We deserve inclusion. How do you keep stigma spewing films like this from happening? Have us at the writing table. Mr. Shyamalan, I’m happy to help you write a real story about DID. Have us in the editing room. Have us in the cast.
Our stories deserve to be told. They have the power to entertain and inspire viewers alike, but the stigmatizing has to end. It’s 2019 and I’m getting really tired of explaining why it’s not OK to equate people with mental illness to mass murders. A headline from syfy.com brings me to my final point — “How M. Night Shyamalan found his voice by embracing his thriller roots.” To find your voice Mr. Shyamalan, why did you have to take away mine?