By Kalei Swogger
“People who come to see my movies, you’re coming to see a drama masquerading as a genre piece.” This is what M. Night Shyamalan, the creator of the 2016 thriller Split, said in response to the question of whether he worried about controversy over his depiction of dissociative identity disorder (DID). The main character in the film, Kevin, is a host to 23 different identities. In a film full of major plot twists, the only thing exhaustingly predictable is that Kevin deteriorates into the villain. Shyamalan claims the philosophy behind the film is that the broken are more evolved. However, the portrayal of Kevin as an erratic criminal raises questions about Shyamalan’s success in communicating this idea.
Although M. Night Shyamalan’s goal was not to accurately portray DID, his lack of understanding misrepresents and further stigmatizes those who live with the diagnosis. Artistic liberty is allowed, but I think it’s right to question the morality of taking liberties in an area where ignorance costs a significant group of people their dignity.
I don’t remember when I first heard about DID, but I remember having the idea that it was scary. When my sister was diagnosed, I was forced to confront the reality that something I had confined to the arena of criminals and the insane was something my sister dealt with on a daily basis. I deeply love my sister. And she isn’t close to being either of those things.
At first, grappling with this reality was extremely difficult. It wasn’t exactly something I could call my best friend about, expecting them to understand. So I began to educate myself in order to reconcile my conflicting ideas about DID.
This is the most important thing I learned: DID is a complex defense mechanism, not a violent disorder. It develops in response to childhood trauma that the developing brain cannot process. The result is a splitting of the mind into different identities, each one defined by a small part of the memory. Some parts are purely emotional and not really capable of intellectual thought or language. Others are similar to what we call personalities. They have unique dispositions, ticks, and ways of speaking. Each one plays a role in processing the trauma and protecting the original person. Without the brain’s extraordinary capacity to break down an experience into more manageable parts, the experience would cause a break with reality. With DID, however, all the identities can learn to cooperate as a highly functional system, capable of acting almost seamlessly throughout everyday life.
Most people with DID do not understand what is going on until the process is explained to them. They may recognize that different factors are acting on their behavior, think they hear voices telling them how to act, or experience blackouts similar to highway hypnosis. However, once the cause of their confusion is explained, they can begin to gain more control and balance between all their parts.
If safety is secured, it is possible for the individual to acknowledge that they no longer need the system to function for them. This is called integration. It requires the individual to accept that they lived through the experience, and as a way of coping, natural parts of themselves developed into individual identities. Although the identities will never leave, integration leads to extreme self-awareness that can provide unique insight, understanding, and problem-solving capacities that might not be available to a neurotypical person.
So yes, M. Shyamalan, the broken can indeed become more evolved. And because of this, they have more to offer than providing the novelty in your screenplay.
Understanding DID as a defense mechanism has allowed me as an observer to understand my sister on a much deeper level, and to support her through the journey with compassion and encouragement. To truly understand requires walking in another’s shoes. While everyone’s experience is different based on their unique personality, I invite you to see a glimpse of what it’s like for one person to live with DID.