Director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Split, is receiving criticism for its portrayal of mental illness. The film stars James McAvoy as a man with multiple personalities who kidnaps three girls.
A Care2 petition claims the film “paints mental illness as a horror movie plot, and not a real issue that should be addressed seriously and with profound compassion.”
But it also raises an interesting question: how common are “split,” or multiple, personality disorders? And are they really a real thing?
Multiple personality disorder is also known as dissociative identity disorder, or DID, and is thought to be a “complex psychological condition that is likely caused by many factors, including severe trauma during early childhood.”
Can people really have multiple personalities?
It’s possible, but research suggests there’s something else triggering the behavior one may associate with having DID.
A 1999 review found that between 35 and 71 percent of patients with DID also had borderline personality disorder. Studies have also showed that DID is as common as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Therefore, someone prone to DID may be seeking an explanation for their erratic and self-destructive behavior, unstable moods and impulsivity – conditions of other legitimate mental conditions.
Suggestive questions by therapists, such as, “Is it possible that a part of you you’re not aware of is making you do and feel these things?” may cause patients to become convinced that there are other personalities causing them to feel and act certain ways. What they might really be doing is trying to make sense of their real mental illness.
Therapeutic practices may also fuel someone’s belief they have DID. Recognizing the “personalities,” making them talk to each other and using hypnosis (which data shows many therapists use for patients with DID) has the potential to backfire.
Instead of patients with a condition like bipolar disorder understanding that their painful psychological experiences were created by a troubled mental condition, they disassociate their true feelings and develop the belief that a different personality is causing their behaviors.
The question of whether someone has multiple personalities has important legal implications.
If someone commits a crime and claims they have no idea who did it (because they’re not “that personality” when testifying), could they be found “not guilty by virtue of DID?”
In 1979, a woman named Juanita Maxwell was working as a hotel maid in Florida when she brutally murdered 72-year-old hotel guest, Inez Kelley. With blood on her shoes and a scratch on her face, she was arrested and later taken to court. But she claimed she didn’t know what happened and pleaded not guilty because she had six personalities.
“Wanda Weston” was the personality she said did the murder. When asked if she knew Wanda, Maxwell said, ‘Yeah, she causes me a lot of trouble." On the stand, a social worker brought the two splitting personalities out of Maxwell. What the court saw was the transformation of a “soft-spoken” woman to a “giggling, boisterous” murderer.
And while the judge didn’t specifically rule that Maxwell had a split personality, she was still found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to a mental hospital.
After her release, she went and robbed two banks – again claiming it was Wanda who did it. This time she pleaded “no contest” and served time in prison for the crime.
In 1973, a book called Sybil came out about a woman named Shirley Mason who had multiple personalities.
The book quickly rose to top of the best-seller lists and a film followed in the story’s popular footsteps. A few years after publication, the number of cases of multiple personality disorder jumped from less 100 to thousands.
As a young woman, Mason was emotionally unstable and went to psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur for help. Mason grew “unusually attached” to Wilbur and, knowing her psychiatrist had a special interest in multiple personality disorder, started acting like different people during their sessions together.
Fascinated by the case, Wilbur set out to write a book about her patient. Dependent on Wilbur for emotionally and even financially, Mason was eager to please her psychiatrist.
But when the writer Wilbur teamed up with to write the story began doubting the legitimacy of the case, Mason coughed up to the fact it was all a lie. “I do not really have any multiple personalities,” she wrote. “I do not even have a ‘double.’ … I am all of them. I have been lying in my pretense of them.”
With Wilbur too invested in the case (and already giving talks about the book) and Mason too dependent on Wilbur for things like food and rent, Mason subsequently kept quiet until her death in 1998.
While research hasn’t confirmed if multiple personality disorder is a strictly true phenomenon or a way mental illness patients try to cope with their behavior, it is still a strange occurrence, with potentially fuzzy legal implications.