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Dear Ryan Murphy: Your Portrayal of This Mental Disorder in ‘Ratched’ is Damaging

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Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the Netflix series “Ratched.”

Dear Ryan Murphy,

I am a fan. “Glee,” the “American Horror Story” saga and even “Scream Queens” are all works of art to me. And I have no words for how beautiful “Pose” is artistically and as a human rights commentary. I am especially impressed with how “Pose” reflects your transformation and willingness to learn compared to how you handled trans issues in “Nip/Tuck” many years earlier. 

I hope that you are willing to make a similar transformation about how you conceptualize and portray dissociative identity disorder (DID) — formerly multiple personality disorder.

Having recently binged on “Ratched,” which I was excited about due to my love of Sarah Paulson and connection to the original “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,” I was initially impressed. The entire piece looks gorgeous, is well-acted, and in its own way makes its commentary on the abuses of psychiatry in the good old days. And then … enter Charlotte, the character with dissociative identity disorder. At first, I was optimistic that you might do something interesting, relevant and truly “Ryan Murphy” with her. And then… you stooped to the most damaging stereotype to our community, showing people with DID as murderers or naturally prone to violence as a result of our trauma. This was not only the dramatically easy route to take, like many in your industry have done before you; it feeds into the misunderstanding and discrimination that people with DID face. And not just by the general public, also by other therapists!

I am a psychotherapist, most specifically a specialist in trauma and dissociation, and I am also out as a woman with a dissociative disorder. While my condition is not the fullest expression of DID that causes me to be amnestic or blank out time as an adult, I often did as a child. And I have a team of other parts, developed at various stages in my life as a result of trauma, that ride along with the adult me who writes you this letter. For much of my career, I’ve been teaching other therapists how to work with dissociation. The biggest hurdle I typically have to jump over first is working through therapist fears, myths and misconceptions about the human phenomenon of dissociation and how it manifests clinically. Part of this problem exists because of graduate training that is still surprisingly insufficient in addressing trauma. Yet the other major component of this problem has long been how DID/multiple personality disorder is portrayed in media and movies. There is always this tendency to go for the most extreme expressions in the spirit of hooking in the audience. And sensationalizing pain, a best practice of media since — well, the dawn of media — met with the inherent potential for drama in a condition like DID makes for the perfect storm. 

What’s sad is that many therapists I work with are afraid of working with dissociation, specifically DID clients. Yes, they are afraid of not getting their clients back safely before a session ends, yet more frequently they are afraid that their clients may get violent towards them or others. They are afraid that any of their clients who dissociate can turn into Charlotte from “Ratched” and commit murder. And thus, the fear of being held responsible stymies any potential they may have to be effective. The amount of referring out clients who dissociate is alarming, and it’s largely fueled by this fear. Thus, clients who dissociate — who are in need of trauma-focused therapy — often don’t get it or have to look really hard for it because doors continue to be shut. And I hold how the media sensationalizes us as the primary culprit.  You think it would be common sense, yet one of the first teaching points I have to make when speaking to other professionals is, “Don’t base your knowledge of DID on what you see in the movies or media. You’ll be getting a gross misrepresentation.” Yet people still do, and while this reflects deeper problems in my field that I am also working to address, I am asking you as a culture influencer to do your part.

My understanding is that there will be a second season of “Ratched” and that Charlotte’s revenge will be featured as a major plot point. My stomach is already churning. While I’m sure this provides rich storytelling opportunities for you, the portrayal will have impact on real lives — people with DID who are not dangerous, who are not killers and are just trying to get the world not to be so afraid of us. Unfortunately, professionals are still filled with the fear, misunderstanding and mystique that comes along with dissociative disorders that you in the media help to promote. And real people under the care of such professionals, people impacted by trauma with a variety of dissociative presentations, will suffer the consequences. 

I trust that you received some type of mental health consultation for “Ratched,” and I am not sure if the consultation was incomplete or if you chose to ignore it in order to make your narrative more exciting. I hope that any consultation you received informed you that people with DID are no more likely to commit murder or violence when viewed comparatively with other mental health disorders or the general public. People with dissociative disorders, including DID, can be incredibly “high-functioning” and we usually excel in our chosen professions because of our capacity to creatively problem solve. 

I am not sure how far along you are in preparing season two, yet I do ask you to take some of these points into consideration. I am happy to personally answer any questions that you might have through both a personal and a professional lens. If the fate of DID people is already in the bag for season two as untreatable murderers, I ask that you consider how else you might make this right. Some suggestions that I can offer would include using your public influence to host a panel or online event about mental illness, especially dissociative disorders, in real life. Such a panel can include actual mental health experts and people living with the conditions you portray in “Ratched.” Or perhaps in a future project, you can highlight a dissociative character as someone who lives a beautiful and creative life, showcasing the power of the dissociative mind to adapt in turbulent times. 

We are not killers — far from it — yet most of us have had our spirits mangled through the maliciousness of trauma. Please don’t make it even worse for us.

For more on the Netflix series ‘Rached,’ check out this article from our community on its portrayal of the cycle of abuse.

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Originally published: October 16, 2020
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