Split is a movie that portrays a man living with dissociative identity disorder (DID), a mental disorder that develops in childhood as a defense mechanism against severe trauma, usually in the form of abuse. My daughter first introduced me to the existence of the movie, and she stated in her text message, “This is why the world needs your writing. To balance out crap like this.” (Okay, she’s maybe biased in her opinion of my writing, but I’m fine with it.) She’s right about what I do (or attempt to do). As a mental health writer, certified counselor, person who was diagnosed with mental health disorders after a traumatic brain injury, and general human being, I write to increase understanding and empathy.
When I read the description of Split and saw its trailers, I wondered if this would be yet another movie that gets mental illness, specifically DID, completely wrong. Would this stigmatize? Villainize? Dehumanize?
Ironically, my most recent novel, Twenty-Four Shadows (Apprentice House Press, 2016) is about a man newly diagnosed with DID and the effects it has not just on him but on his wife, young son, and best friend. The fact that Twenty-Four Shadows has been acclaimed by critics and readers alike and was named to Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2016 indicates that realistic stories of mental illness are becoming okay.
Box office movies, though, aren’t always realistic. What about Split
The movie Split surprised me. It wasn’t all bad. Split splits its portrayal of DID into two parts: human and disorder. This is also the split between the good and the bad.
Split: The Human, the Good
The movie is about Kevin and his system of alters, the other identities that are a real part of Kevin’s mind. They see a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Fletcher, who tells a friend, “We look at the people who have been shattered and are different as ‘less than.’ What if they’re ‘more than?’”
Spot-on, Dr. Fletcher. People living with DID are real human beings, not inferior or “less than.” While Split is a thriller and involves the kidnapping of three teenage girls, the movie does not vilify Kevin or any of his alters, although Dennis and Patricia, the two responsible for the kidnapping, are certainly not seen favorably.
In Split, the human is good—the entire human, Kevin and the alters. They’re seen as individuals in their own right, and Dr. Fletcher treats each with respect. She gets it. Split gets it. Other things that Split gets right:
- Different alters can and do have different traits (handedness, IQ, strengths, need for glasses, medical issues, and more)
- Someone with DID can function in life (Kevin’s system has held a job for 10 years, sees a therapist, lives on their own)
- Use of the terms “we” or “us” rather than “I” or “me”
- Brain scans are unique for each alter
- The idea of protection (alters Dennis and Patricia believe they’re the only ones who can protect Kevin; in reality, all alters serve the function of protecting the primary identity, each in different ways)
- The presence of a structure, a place for the alters to be when they’re not out in the world (in Split it’s very simple, just a room with a chair for each alter, but in reality, the structure is often more complex. In Twenty-Four Shadows, the structure is an elaborate blanket fort.)
Another good: many different alters e-mail Dr. Fletcher requesting emergency appointments. They are seeking help. They’re not evil.
During the movie, the audience actually chuckled playfully in reaction to Hedwig, one of the alters who is a nine-year-old boy but of course in the body of the adult character. To me, this is a very good sign. It shows that people really saw Hedwig as a child, separate from the kidnapper. Maybe in this regard, Split helps people connect with people who have DID.
Split: The Bad and the Weird
Split is a thriller. Thrillers must scare, and to do so this movie uses DID, mental illness.
To scare, thrillers must be real enough to invade our psyche and put us on edge. Split is real enough. The bad guy is a real person with a real disorder portrayed, for the most part, in a very realistic way. For full fright effect, a thriller must go beyond the real into that which is unthinkable outside of the movie theatre. Split achieves the real and the beyond-the-real. It achieves the good, the bad, and the weird.
The good thing about Split is that it humanizes Kevin and his system of alters. The bad thing is that the disorder itself is villainized. The weird thing is that the disorder isn’t just villainized but dehumanized. The system morphs into a beast. Eye-roll. Huge you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me element.
To set the record straight and counter the bad and the weird parts of Split:
- The person with DID is not a monster, nor does he or she host a monster inside.
- The Incredible Hulk stuff like super-human size, strength, and speed, is the stuff of movies and comic books, not the real world.
- DID isn’t in the realm of the supernatural.
- People with DID can’t scale walls like salamanders.
Split: A Step in the Right Direction?
Is this movie a step in the right direction? To a certain extent, it does separate the person from the illness. It humanizes the human (it’s too bad that that is necessary). But as a thriller, it does enter into the realm of the bad and the weird. It humanizes the people but dehumanizes the disorder.
We need books and movies that treat people and disorders exactly as they are. People and disorders are neither villains nor beasts.