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M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ and Hollywood’s Failure on Mental Health

Some mental-health advocates say that M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller erroneously links mental illness with violence. Below, one of them offers a list of alternate viewing options.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, James McAvoy plays a kidnapper with 24 distinct personalities.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, James McAvoy plays a kidnapper with 24 distinct personalities.

When Hollywood Gets Things Right! is a new Culture Pages series where we highlight titles that experts say shattered stereotypes, made nuanced observations, and otherwise did not insult entire peoples and populations. At a time when the industry continues to disappoint audiences with dubious representation or casting decisions, this series will celebrate causes for optimism and comfort, plus some commendable alternative viewing options.

At this point, M. Night Shyamalan has gotten so much shade in the press that he probably looks on it as inevitable. Thirteen years after Newsweek dubbed him “the next Spielberg,” FiveThirtyEight was describing his career in an equally memorable way: “death spiral”—reviews of The Village, The Lady in the Water, and The Happening haven’t been kind to the guy behind Signs and The Sixth Sense.

This year, though, the much-maligned Shymalan is facing more than angry film nerds and disappointed Unbreakable fanboys—now he’s getting scrutinized by mental-health advocates.

Shyamalan’s new movie, Split, depicts a psychiatric patient with dissociative identity disorder (DID), a condition in which a person “experiences a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Popular films have long linked its symptoms with a proclivity for violence—take Psycho, Fight Club, Lord of the Rings, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even The Incredible Hulk. Split’s trailer, and early reviews, have advocates convinced that it will follow suit: As early as October, a teenage girl had started a Care2 petition to boycott the film for its “tired and offensive trope” of associating DID with violence; more recently pieces have appeared in The Mighty, Mic, and the Guardian with similar critiques.

Split’s main character, Kevin (James McAvoy), possesses “24 distinct personalities” according to the film’s official description, two of whom kidnap three girls in a mall parking lot and hold them captive in an underground bunker (a third may help them escape; it’s confusing!). But according to Professor David Spiegel, Willson Professor and associate chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, DID doesn’t work like that at all; instead, it’s “a serious disorder that most of the time occurs in the wake of serious physical and sexual abuse, usually in childhood… Typically, people with DID are more likely to be victimized than victimizers.”

In other words: The real plot twist would’ve been if Shyamalan had decided not to link mental illness with aggressive behavior.

Even before its release, then, Split has already reignited an important conversation about how irresponsibly casting villains as mentally ill can further stigmatize those who suffer from disorders in real life. But not all movies have been so heedless; entertainment has, on some occasions, offered some sensitive portrayals. To find out which ones are best, we turned to Spiegel, who has been treating trauma and trauma-related dissociation for more than four decades. Spiegel was also in charge of the dissociative disorder section of the DSM-4 and -5, and helped to change the name from multiple personality disorder to DID in the fourth edition. For someone suffering from DID, Spiegel explains, “The idea is not that there are really 12 people in that body, it’s that they have a fragmentation or dissociation of their personal identity, so it’s a failure of integration.”

On Wednesday, Spiegel shared his list of film titles that offer a fairer, more empathetic, more accurate approach to DID.

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What It Is: Based on the 1973 bestseller by Flora Rheta Schreiber, this two-part miniseries depicts the real-life treatment of Shirley Ardell Mason, a mental patient diagnosed with multiple-personality disorder, before that term was erased from the DSM. The book was credited with bringing the disease to America’s attention: Just 100 cases had been reported in medical literature before its release, but by 1980 it was officially recognized by the DSM and thousands of cases were reported. (Experts have since argued that Mason’s psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur encouraged Mason to exaggerate her symptoms, though Spiegel, whose father worked with Mason, says she “had a dissociative disorder for sure.”) Sybil the movie also introduced the American basic-cable crowd to the formidable talents of Sally Field, who won an Emmy for her nuanced performance as the titular patient.

Why You Need to See It:“Sybil is probably the single best movie I’ve seen about someone who genuinely has DID. What you saw in it was [Mason’s] struggles and her therapist’s struggles—and perhaps over-involvement with her. The disorder can be so interesting that the therapist gets swept up in it too, [but] therapists have to understand that they can’t get too caught up in the drama of the symptoms. Good therapy is participant observation: You’re in a real relationship—you have feelings about the patient, they have feelings about you—but you also have to always be able to step back and help them manage their situation.”

“The Three Faces of Eve”

What It Is:Released 16 years before Sybil, The Three Faces of Eve introduced 1950s moviegoers to modest housewife Eve White (Joanna Woodward), who, after going to see a psychiatrist, starts to black out and act like a flirtatious, vixenish fragment of her personality, calling herself “Eve Black.” The real-life person on which Eve was based, Chris Costner Sizemore, has taken issue with the movie’s happy ending, which presents Eve as a cured woman—Sizemore experienced her symptoms for 18 more years after the events at the end of the movie. The movie was, nevertheless, embraced by critics at its time, winning Woodward an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her three-pronged performance (a third side, “Jane,” helps White to remember the childhood trauma at the root of her dissociations).

Why You Need to See It: “The Three Faces of Eve showed somebody suffering the disorder as I see them: as people who are dealing with the aftermath of abuse, not abusers. The movie was a little melodramatic, but it also conveyed the sense that things would happen and Eve couldn’t recall them, and she wasn’t making it up. Eve White and Eve Black, too, that kind of fragmentation [is common]. You and I might say, ‘I can do things that are bad and I do things that are good, and I try in general to be good, but I’m not always good’—you see it as a continuum of who you are. But she didn’t: She saw [the bad] as a fragmentation of herself and didn’t comprehend, entirely, what she was doing—that’s what you see with people with DID.”

“The United States of Tara”

What It Is: Days before The United States of Tara premiered on Showtime in 2009, writer Diablo Cody admitted that the show’s blend of drama and comedy made her a bit nervous. The show was depicting a suburban wife and mother suffering from DID, played by Toni Collette—“it was a big challenge to find the humor in everyday life and not poke fun at the disorder. And I wanted to be as sensitive as possible,” Cody told the New York Times.

Certainly, mental-health advocates have since taken issue with aspects of the show, which ran from 2009 to 2011: Spiegel points out that the series’ emphasis on the Tara’s more dramatic personality fragments like “T,” who is uber-promiscuous, suggests the writers “felt the disorder itself wasn’t interesting enough.” Ultimately, though, critics were pretty kind. In a piece focused on the show’s depiction of mental illness, Newsweek writer Dina Fine Maron noted that “the mere fact that Tara is a likable main character helps promote greater awareness. Until the last decade or so, well-rounded depictions of people with mental illness were rare.”

Why You Need to See It: “Tara was married, and had two kids, and she was trying to live a semi-normal life, but had all these strange changes in what she did and who she thought she was. From that point of view—she wasn’t particularly harmful or threatening to other people—the show made sense. I think the idea of trying to [aspire to] this pseudo-normality, where she’s trying to live a life as a mother and wife but the disorder keeps getting in the way, that part of it I thought was reasonably realistic.”

“Primal Fear”

What It Is:In Edward Norton’s feature-film debut, the future Fight Club star plays Aaron Stampler, a young altar boy accused of murdering a church archbishop who sexually abused him. Also starring Richard Gere as his lawyer Martin Vail, the film follows Vail as he witnesses Stampler dissociate into a fragment of his identity called “Roy,” who claims to have committed the crime. Vail subsequently attempts to get “Roy” to emerge during the murder trial to plead an insanity defense, though Stampler’s diagnosis turns out to be a bit more complex than Vail realizes at the outset. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read any further, because the way this movie overturns mental-illness tropes is in its twist ending: It turns out that Stampler has been faking his DID all along, and that “Roy” is Stampler’s real, and only, identity.

Why You Need to See It: “From what I could see in the trailer of Split, and from what I’ve heard about it, it puts forward the idea that [McAvoy’s character] is this lurking sociopath who puts on all these other identities but is really just trying to lure people to a place where they can harm them. That’s not what I see with people, and it makes people with DID, who typically have suffered a great deal, and are much more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, appear threatening and really dangerous though most of them are not. At least in Primal Fear, the main character was faking it; he didn’t actually have the disorder. Norton was really good in that—he played it really well.”

“Black Swan”

What It Is:There has been some disagreement in mental-health circles over whether Black Swan’s main character, ballerina Nina Sayers, exhibits symptoms of DID. Certainly, when her dance company director gives her the Swan Queen part in the season’s production of Swan Lake, Nina (Natalie Portman) experiences black-out episodes in which she becomes a more aggressive, promiscuous version of herself, seemingly triggered by the pressure of the part. Spiegel doesn’t agree with a clear DID diagnosis—he says it’s unclear whether Nina is experiencing psychosis, has DID, or just briefly experiences some dissociation—but he does like the movie, and says it could contain some lessons for those who want to interpret her mental condition that way.

Why You Need to See It: “Certainly, the idea that people who are in these extreme situations might have this kind of dissociative reaction to it, that does happen. It is true that people tend to dissociate in stressful and traumatic situations, and hers was very stressful. As the movie came along, she became a more extreme fragment of herself, and, in that case, it might have been DID, but having watched the movie and being very interested in this, it wasn’t obvious to me that it was a movie about DID. Nevertheless, I thought that was a very good movie and it was consistent on a theme that I’ve been talking about, which is that people with DID are more hard on themselves, and more likely to hurt themselves, than on anyone else.”