By Tyler James Russell
One night in college, my friend (I’ll call Alex) told me about a traumatic moment in their life. At some point during the story, they began gliding over their R’s. New York, I thought, but how had I never noticed they had an accent before? A few minutes later, they referred to themselves in the third person.
Before I realized what was happening, Alex blinked and cracked their neck. And everything was normal again; no accent, not even a memory of the conversation. “Switching,” I would eventually learn to call it. This interaction, I later realized, was my first experience with a person who has dissociative identity disorder (DID). In the moment, I’d nearly missed it.
Over the course of our friendship, I met more of Alex’s alters, distinct personalities with unique names, genders, ages, interests and worldviews. One spoke languages that Alex did not. Some remembered otherwise lost fragments of childhood. Together, they made up a collective “system” — a group of personalities helping to manage Alex’s trauma. If Alex felt threatened, a more assertive alter might step in. If they felt especially safe, or silly, a childlike one might emerge. In the case of flashbacks, it wasn’t uncommon for an alter to come out just to give Alex a break. Sometimes the switching process was noticeable, but often it was not.
I wanted to be sensitive to Alex’s experience, but I was full of questions. Who exactly was my friend? The entire system, or only the person I’d met first (often referred to as the host)? Did the alters count, too? Were they separate, different people? If one of them did something Alex didn’t remember, who was responsible?
I wasn’t able to resolve these questions in a satisfying way. So, I did what I’ve always done with questions: I looked for stories to help me understand. Unfortunately, the stories I found were anything but helpful.
Perhaps the following story sounds familiar: A mild-mannered protagonist pursues a criminal. Over time, the hunt turns desperate, dangerous. Our protagonist finds himself disoriented and confused. Finally, at a breaking point, he falls to his knees and realizes: Our hero is the very killer he’s been looking for.
As I went looking for films about DID, this was basically what I found: Stories of evil alter egos and traumatized murderers, like “Secret Window,” “Primal Fear” and “Mr. Brooks,” to name a few. DID was almost always confined to that single, murderous reveal — a twisty iteration of Jekyll and Hyde. Even the few non-murderous representations — “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil,” for example — were highly sensationalized, with dozens of alters ripping the protagonist’s life apart.
None of these films came even close to representing my friend’s experience. Alex was a high-achieving college student who also maintained a side job. I regularly went to them for advice. They just also happened to have DID.
I caught wind that a major studio was set to release a big-budget DID story in 2016. Judging by what had come before, I didn’t have much reason to be hopeful, but I was. Maybe this one would be helpful, accurate, faithful. Unfortunately, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” is a disastrous representation. Kevin Crumb, played by James McAvoy is, just like the others, confined to the role of murderous antagonist. But the movie doesn’t stop there. In the final act, Crumb switches to his “Beast” alter personality — a superhuman cannibal who wants to rid the world of the non-traumatized.
Almost immediately, the mental health community decried the film as inaccurate and harmful, just another portrayal that would implicitly claim traumatized people were a danger to society (despite virtually every statistic showing people with DID are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators). Critics who had lived experience with DID wrote an open letter to M. Night Shyamalan, calling the film a “gross parody based on fear, ignorance and sensationalism, only much worse.” Despite this, “Split” went on to gross almost $280 million worldwide and even spawned a sequel.
Watching these films made me wonder: Why are we so afraid of people who have survived trauma? Or, if we aren’t, why do so many of our stories suggest otherwise? Do we really believe that once a person has suffered, the only social recourse is for the rest of us to avoid them?
When our only depictions of an already-stigmatized mental illness include sensationalized misinformation, it causes undeniable harm. Moreover, movies like “Split,” I’d argue, are not about DID and trauma at all; rather, they are about pondering what makes someone capable of evil. They fail to highlight that monsters are the abusers who cause trauma, not survivors of trauma who are left to cope. The big question for most survivors of trauma is not “Am I capable of evil?” It’s “How do I live when evil has already been done to me?”
DID is a coping mechanism in the face of unrelenting trauma. Indeed, some alters took the brunt of the past abuse, thereby keeping the host capable of going about daily life, unaware of the full extent of their own trauma. Alex’s story is not an outlier. Millions of children experience neglect, trauma and abuse. But when it comes time to write the story, many creatives seem more comfortable portraying DID as demon possession — the stuff of horrifying twist-endings, rather than face the reality of what happens to far too many children.
As I continued to grapple with my lingering questions about Alex and explored the complex reality of being close to someone as they confront trauma, I refused to accept the on-screen portrayals of my friend as a monster. So, I decided to tell a new story: My debut novel, “When Fire Splits the Sky,” which will be released in the fall. The story is told from the perspective of a couple, in which one partner has DID, as they confront a catastrophe and assess their crumbling relationship.
I hoped this would address some of those lingering questions: How would a person already adapted to trauma respond to a widespread crisis? How would alters handle something like a long-term relationship? What if only some of them wanted the relationship? How would they respond to a betrayal of trust?
This portrayal is by no means perfect, but I’ve done my best to honor the experience of my friend — and their alters, who read and provided feedback at multiple stages, giving their blessing to the final project before I sent it out into the world.
My hope is to answer the question I have been asking myself since the start of this journey — what would it be like to center a story on DID in an authentic, non-sensationalized way?
Tyler James Russell is the author of “To Drown a Man” (2020), a poetry collection, and a forthcoming novel “When Fire Splits the Sky” (November 2022) from Unsolicited Press. He works as an educator and lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Cat and their children. His writing has been nominated for the Rhysling and Best of the Net, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in “F(r)iction,” “Janus Literary,” the “NonBinary Review” and “Sepia,” among others. You can find him at tylerjamesrussell.com, or on Twitter at @TJamesRussell.
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