My Thoughts on ‘The Wilds’ as Someone With Dissociative Identity Disorder
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
This post also contains spoilers for the TV series ‘The Wilds.’
As someone with dissociative identity disorder (DID), I’m always curious to see how this trauma-based disorder will be portrayed in TV and film; and most times, I’m disappointed, angry, and hurt by how it’s depicted. While some television shows and films get a few things right, most typically spread a lot of misinformation and increase stigma around this disorder. One of the worst media tropes for DID is that the person has a violent and/or monster part, such as depicted in “Split,” “Monster Inside: The 24 Faces of Billie Milligan,” and “Ratched.” This is particularly harmful as people with dissociative identity disorder have often been seriously hurt by other people and are far more likely to be hurt by another person again than for them to hurt someone.
In shows like “The United States of Tara,” when a person with DID switches parts, it’s often done in an over-the-top way, where the person looks and sounds completely different when another part is out. In reality, most people wouldn’t be able to tell if someone has switched or not. Generally, in film and TV, with the exception of “The Many Sides of Jane” and “Busy Inside,” DID is treated as scary, strange, and mysterious rather than an adaptive response to trauma that developed for a person’s own protection. These extremely flawed media depictions are harmful and show complete disregard for people actually living with DID.
That’s why the possibility of a character in “The Wilds” having DID caught my attention, and has me wondering which direction the show will take. Will “The Wilds” be the show that finally gets it right?
At the start of episode eight in season one of “The Wilds,” we are given the first verbal indication the character Shelby Goodkind might have DID. Before interviewing her, after she has been “rescued” off the island, Young says to Faber, “Read the nurse’s report on her? Heard how all over the place she has been?” To which Faber replies, “There’s been some dissociative tendencies, yes.” Young then asks, “So, how do you know what’s best for drawing her out when you don’t even know which her we are going to get?”
A few seconds later, Shelby walks into the room on crutches, and sits down across from Faber and Young. The long, blond hair she had on the island is now completely shaved off and she has a glassy, dissociative look to her eyes. Many people in her situation might appear angry, scared, or defiant, and yet initially, she smiles brightly at them and says, “Hi there!” as though greeting new friends, in complete opposition to the intimidating circumstances she’s in.
While we don’t yet know all of Shelby’s story, enough is revealed to know Shelby’s home life could have caused her to develop DID. We only see glimpses into Shelby’s life as a teen, but it’s safe to assume the family dynamics shown existed since Shelby was born, or even before then.
To their community, the Goodkind family looks picture perfect, but inside, things are toxic. Outwardly, Shelby’s father is charismatic, with a clean-cut appearance and calm manner that somehow simultaneously belies and matches his controlling nature. He is a health instructor and pastor who leads a conversion therapy group for gay men. Her mother is a quiet stay-at-home wife who doesn’t seem to have any power within the household. Shelby professes to love her father, frequently quoting him, but something doesn’t feel right from the beginning.
The most obvious trauma caused by Shelby’s father is his belief being gay is a sin. After he catches Shelby and her friend Becca kissing, Shelby pleads with him to look at her and swears it was Becca who kissed her. Her father tells her, “I pray for everyone even if they don’t deserve it and can’t be saved,” going on to say there won’t be a place for her if she chooses “that way of life.” Shelby desperately promises it will never happen again. She appears emotionally distressed and fragmented, internally at war with herself, torn between continuing to abandon herself or lose the only family she has ever known. When Becca stops by the Goodkind’s house to ask why Shelby lied to her father, it’s clear Shelby is afraid of even being seen with Becca. She verbally lashes out at her friend, leaving Becca stunned and emotionally vulnerable.
In another flashback, we learn Shelby’s friend Becca kills herself after their friendship dissolves. Shelby learns this just as she is about to sing in a pageant. After the pageant, her father asks, “What’s up, Shelby? Something happen?” Shelby replies, “No, I’m all good. I’m just tired.” The agony Shelby must be in after learning of her friend’s suicide, and yet she doesn’t feel safe in her own family to express that pain. Her father knew of Becca’s death before the pageant and is aware of why Shelby is upset, and yet instead of offering comfort, he says he’ll get Shelby dental surgery so she doesn’t have to wear the flipper she hates so much. The surgery is not advised until she has stopped growing, as her mother reminds them, but her father looks directly at Shelby and says, “If it can be fixed, pain is worth it,” and it’s clear he is talking about more than her teeth.
Shelby’s father polices the bodies of everyone in his family. On one occasion at breakfast, he takes the cereal away from Shelby’s younger siblings and throws it in the trash. He glances at his wife and says, “When did we start eating this sugary crap?” In the religious spin class he leads, he quotes Scripture while telling people how they should take care of their bodies, and also appears to almost flirt with and/or sexualize Shelby who is in the class with Becca.
To me, it makes perfect sense that Shelby developed dissociative identity disorder, and looking back, I see evidence she has DID throughout season one, not just at the end. The Shelby we meet at first is a ray of sunshine, with a bright smile and a confident exterior. She eagerly greets all the other girls on the plane and is always the one to suggest icebreaker games. During the interview, Faber and Young told Shelby the other girls called her “the resident optimist, a Pollyanna mall girl who shits confetti.” Fawning, which includes things such as people pleasing and perfectionism, is a type of trauma response and if we consider the way Shelby was groomed by her family, it makes sense this would be the first part of Shelby you’d meet.
Then there is the Shelby who is fiercely protective of her friend Becca, the one who stood by her friend through her battles with mental illness and who spontaneously initiates vandalism of Becca’s stepbrother’s car after learning he sexually abused Becca when she was 13. Or when Fabin and Young bring up events that happened after the pageant, we see Shelby abruptly switch, going from upbeat and submissive, to defiant and hostile. It’s not just Shelby’s emotional affect that changes, but also posture, body language, tone, and expression.
Depending on the circumstances, we can see different parts of Shelby showing up, and little slips in her “Pollyanna” facade she developed to survive her home life. At the beginning of episode eight when the girls are sitting on the beach dreaming of what it will be like to be rescued, Shelby is the only one quiet and disengaged. As Faber and Young point out, “when rescue was imminent, your enthusiasm flatlined.” I think it’s safe to assume Shelby was distressed and burdened by the thought of going home because for her that meant going to a place where she had never been allowed to be herself and where everything she did or said was watched and open to criticism and control by her father. In fact, it’s when rescue seems near that Shelby completely falls apart, experiencing an intense dissociative episode and oscillating between fight, flight, and freeze as she flashes back to overhearing her dad pray for the men in his conversion group.
I think season one of “The Wilds” did a commendable job of shedding light on the impact of trauma without glamorizing or oversimplifying anything as some shows do. Whether it’s Martha’s suppressed sexual abuse memories, Rachel’s experience of not fitting in with her family and her battle with an eating disorder, Dot taking on responsibilities any adult would struggle with, the massive pressure Fatin is put under, or any of the other characters’ backstories, the thread that weaves them all together is trauma.
On the island Shelby initially clashes with Toni, a teen who is comfortable with her sexuality despite the bullying she has experienced, but it soon becomes apparent Shelby’s reaction is because of her own internalized queerphobia as she struggles with her growing feelings towards Toni. Her expressions of disgust toward Toni’s sexuality echo her father’s twisted belief system and the self-loathing, shame, and terror she developed as a result. As her relationship with Toni develops, some of the protective walls she has built up to survive start to come down and it is beautiful to see. Each of the characters own unique responses to trauma, just as all people do, and the show handles each of their stories with compassion.
These are a couple reasons why I have hope if Shelby’s DID is part of the storyline in season two that it will be handled with care, guided by research and the lived experiences of people with DID. There is so much potential to do good, rather than perpetuate harm and stigma around trauma and mental health.
There are three main things I’d like to see “The Wilds” communicate about DID, in addition to what I’ve outlined already.
1. People with dissociative identity disorder are not monsters or murderers.
They do not have some locked up evil part or alter inside them just waiting to take control. Also, people with DID don’t dissociate because they are bad people and about to do something dangerous or threatening, they dissociate because they perceive the environment or situation they are in is unsafe. People with DID experience high levels of distress and are frequently also diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
2. Everyone’s experience with DID is different, but often its presentation is very subtle.
While the internal experience of someone with DID might be chaotic and painful, outwardly, someone can seem fine and even be highly “functional.” Again DID develops in response to trauma at an early age and is the brain’s attempt to protect someone by shielding them from the entirety of their experience. For example, if a child’s parents are abusive, the child might develop DID so they can go on living rather than feeling the full weight of the horrors of their reality and not being able to physically escape from it.
3. Dissociated and abandoned parts of self can be welcomed in.
Some parts might have been isolated or rejected along the way to survive through horrible situations, but they are not gone forever and they all have a purpose. A person can also learn to have better communication within their system once they accept they do have DID and have experienced trauma. No one has to remain feeling fragmented forever, nor continue hiding from themselves. Healing is possible, and not only that, but people who heal from their trauma can help others heal as well.
Up until being stranded on the island, Shelby Goodkind had spent her entire life in a household that never cared to really know Shelby, instead subjecting her to impossible standards and a hateful worldview. The Goodkind family is rotting from the inside out. Years of having her truest self chipped away at, swallowed down, shamed, rejected, and threatened has eaten away at Shelby. Her home has never been a safe place for her to just be.
I’m hoping to see more parts of Shelby be given the space to be seen, heard, and loved. Toni so far has been central to helping Shelby take steps towards freeing herself from the past by witnessing various parts of Shelby, recognizing her internal struggles and loving her without restrictions, and I hope their relationship continues. I think it would be incredibly empowering to so many survivors of trauma, in particular those with DID, to see this character really be able to live the life they always wanted to and show up authentically and fearlessly in the world.
Lead image via The Wilds’ official Twitter