, January 26, 2017

Alex on Split

When the first trailer for 'Split' was released back in September, I was filled with dread. A ‘horror’ film, based on dissociative identity disorder (DID), the mental illness that I’ve battled with every single day for the past eight years. The whole DID community shared my concerns and protested the release of the film. However, a world renowned director, actor and production from Universal Studios meant the film was majorly anticipated with lots of hype. Many people with DID chose to boycott the film, but I wanted to be able to make informed responses to perceived ignorance and my curiosity got the better of me. I went to see Split.

The first point for me to make is that every case of DID is different, I can only compare the film to my own experience and of course my understanding of the diagnosis built through years of therapeutic input.

Split isn’t the first on the big screen to have used DID as a plot twist; films such as 'Identity', 'Frankie and Alice', 'Me, Myself and Irene' and 'Fight Club' (but we won’t talk about that) have all seen the diagnosis portrayed by A-list actors for entertainment purposes. All in all, DID gets a rough time in the media and the already prolific stigma is amplified.

For me, simply going to the cinema demonstrated the daily effort to manage the disorder. Where to sit? Easy access to the exit, no one in front of me and no one behind me. Pockets full of bits and bobs that belong to each alter (alternative identities) in case I switch. As the title certificate appeared on the screen, my heart pounded.

The film was quick to show DID in a negative light – a hostage situation within the first five minutes threw me in at the deep end but I cringed a little and stayed in my seat. The next part of the film was, in a sense, okay. The first clinical scene of the film, shows Barry (one of the alters) in a therapy session with his clinical psychologist (Dr Fletcher), and, although their relationship is a little (massively) exaggerated, the film does mention some important elements of the psychological input for DID; the importance of therapeutic consistency, the heartache involved in the lack of belief in existence of the diagnosis, the necessity to be maintained at a functional level, the presence of trauma, the importance of communication and cooperation.

It was clear at this point that M. Night Shyamalan had done some homework. He showed the controversial opinions amongst people and, thankfully, the growing acceptance of the diagnosis amongst professionals. He writes about the most fascinating parts of DID, the change in body chemistry, the differences of illnesses or allergies, changes in the body’s ability and strength, skills or languages that have developed without training. No one with DID would be offended at people finding it interesting or fascinating – Shyamalan was educating about DID, which was a positive.

However, let’s not forget that the main character(s) still have three teenage girls locked in a basement.

The film continues with many failed escape attempts from the girls and the audience meet more of the alters: Patricia, a strong influential woman; Dennis, a psychopathic 'clean freak'; and Hedwig, a nine year old boy. Again, this shows the diversity often seen in a system, mixed genders and ages, and alters with their own problems or destructive behaviours are not uncommon.

As someone with DID, I began to empathise with the character of Kevin (the host identity/core person), I saw a reflection of my own struggles and battles with both inwardly and outwardly destructive alters. The complete lack of control, the heartbreak of having to piece together what happened whilst you weren’t ‘in the light’, as the film calls it. As I sat in the cinema, listening to people chuckle at Hedwig’s childlike assessment of the world, I felt the pain. I wanted everyone in the cinema to know that what they were watching was real, that it’s a debilitating mental illness and not just a made up fantasy for good ratings. I saw my life on that screen, the many toothbrushes, the different attires and belongings, the confusion in communication, the different desires, the utter despair involved in sharing a body, and feeling no sense of belonging. I became very aware that people were enjoying the film for all the wrong reasons, they weren’t being educated – they were being entertained.

Just as I began to feel very disheartened with the film, it took a darker turn. A new protector alter (an alter that appears to defends the host). An animalistic ‘beast’ that was about to be ‘unleashed’. Without spoiling the film too much, things don’t end well for the girls or Dr Fletcher. The film very quickly changed from perhaps, in some way, helping us to fight the stigma and educate people, to reinforcing stigma and portraying us as monsters. The film ends without trying to re-humanise DID. There are no closing statements about the mental illness, no internal peace for any of the alters, just a premise that the ‘beast’ will strike again – even worse.

We are not monsters. We are broken and we are survivors. We know that it’s fascinating and interesting, we know that it’s not common and that people will struggle to understand. We’re not freak shows, we are battling every second of every day. We lose precious time and we must constantly adjust our lives to cater for parts of ourselves we can’t control. Split hasn’t given us a great platform to talk about DID, but it has given us a platform. A reference point. Somewhere to start the conversation. Use the film as a starting block to educate yourself (Split only scratched the surface about all there is to know). Ask us questions, allow us to remove the barriers, shame and embarrassment. Accept us for who we are. It is Time To Change. 

Alex blogs over at DefineDisorder, and you can follow her on Twitter on @AlexElk123

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Alex, I haven't seen the film, yet. Please know that I am diagnosed with several debilitating mental illnesses myself. Major depression, anxiety disorder, agoraphobia ( I *can* go out, but it drains my energy and I must sleep a lot afterward), PTSD and Aspergers. Please understand that I am sympathetic to your position. I also hold a journalism degree from one of the top 5 communication schools in the country. However, I have been interested in film and how they tell stories for a majority of my life. There are differences between a major feature motion picture that tells a story and a documentary. From the reviews I have read, the film is actually very sympathetic to those with your diagnosis. But this is a story, not a documentary. And truly good story tellers, no matter what the form, know the elements needed to make a good story. And this is, from what I can tell, a good story that is told very well. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a true master storyteller said he could have done a film about 20th century feminism, but no one would watch. Your diagnosis *is* a fascinating one, and I have been fascinated with the subject since Sally Field's tour de force performance in SybilPT. I know that I don't think of you or anyone else with this diagnosis as a monster, but I view you with compassion as a fellow companion with mental illness. Telling a story in film form is challenging. Please try to view this as a work of art and not just a judgment on those with your diagnosis. I don't think there will be many who will view you or anyone with your diagnosis as a monster. Hopefully this is will open the doors for healthy discussion about DID. I still want to see the film. Blessings on your journey, Alex.

Every film tells a story. And

Every film tells a story. And Split tells the story of a monster who has DID, thereby reinforcing the stigma surrounding DID.


I can completely see where Alex is coming from, my partner is a paranoid schizophrenic and when you tell people this they say "has he hurt you?". Films and Tv make certain mental health problems seem horrific. My partners illness is controlled with medication but he still has some side effects now and again, but he is NOT a killer and will NOT be talking to himself as he walks down the road.

M. Night Shyamalan's "Split"

Hello Alex, I appreciate your article. I have not yet seen the movie but have experienced problems since first seeing the previews this month. I, like you, was filled with dread and have been dealing with internal strife. Some wish to avoid it, others insist it is necessary to watch it, as you said in order to "be able to make informed responses to perceived ignorance." We have poured over comments on the official Split facebook page and written some ourselves to (hopefully) educate. Sadly, it seems no matter how clear and polite our words are, the replies from the public have been for the most part quite nasty. Not having seen the movie, there are a few things I'd like to point out: 1. I was told repeatedly in exchanges on the official facebook page that I should watch the movie before criticizing it. Under normal circumstances I would say it's wrong to criticize a movie one hasn't seen, but I consider this to be a special circumstance. I feel the relationship between DID and PTSD needs to be highlighted- there seems to be a gap in the public's understanding. Something is amiss when folks see no problem with telling a person with DID to watch a horror movie featuring a sadistic character with the same disorder. 2. Regardless of how sympathetic or fantastic the movie may be, there are issues with the promotional material- previews, posters and overall presentation. I must ask what of all the people who see the previews but don't watch the movie? None of the previews suggest the movie is fantasy (this is a key part of the "twist" if I'm not mistaken). What you see is a person who has "split personalities" engaging in sadistic, criminal activity. Without seeing the full movie you are left with something that is likely to strengthen the association between mental illness and violence. 3. M. Knight reportedly did not consult with anyone who has DID in real life despite being given the opportunity (see the CNN article titled "What Shyamalan's 'Split' gets wrong about dissociative identity disorder"). 4. M. Knight promised to raise awareness about DID but has gone silent (reported in the same article). 5. Considering the risks that transwomen face today, any movie that has a male actor don women's clothing in any sort of creepy or criminal setting is out of touch with reality and downright negligent. This perhaps should be at the top of the list. It is my opinion that M. Night has been reckless and must be held accountable.


Hi Alex Thank you for sharing. When I read your blog I was close to tears. I suffer with anxiety and OCD which I struggle with terribly. I hate it when people make flippant references to being OCD because they like a tidy room or they like their tea spoons facing in the same direction. I do know that they do not do this because they want to hurt me they do it because they are un-educated and haven't experienced the accute suffering of mental ill health. I would hope that people are able to see the difference between fact and fiction. I do fully understand your frustration. Sending you lots of positive thoughts. xxxxxxxxx


Hi Alex I just wanted to let you know that I watched the film tonight. I of course have heard of this disorder but never looked into it or come across it in 'real life'. The film opened my eyes and I was intrigued by the main character. It made me want to research and read up on it. I thought I was going to be watching a horror film but found myself wanting to educate myself more and understood the pyschological side. I'm sure the film sensationalised a lot as they do. But not all of us are closed minded. And I just felt the need to let you know. I cannot imagine what life must be like and will continue to read and learn. Take care.

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