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.