Exploitation of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) through the Entertainment Industry

The Depiction of DID in the TV Series "Mr. Robot"

Academic Paper, 2017

26 Pages, Grade: 3




2. DID: Definition, causes and therapy

3. DID in movies
3.1 United States of Tara
3.2 Split

4. DID in Mr. Robot
4.1 Elliot Alderson’ personality
4.2 Symptoms
4.3 Origin of DID
4.4 The switch
4.5 The alters
4.6 Therapy

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


What wouldn’t people do for money?

Human mankind is known to be easy to bribe, but the impact these corrupt actions have on people are almost always blinded out. This also happens in the film industry where topics get exploited and distorted to make them as interesting as possible. In the end, little remains of the truth, but the spectator often does not know that and takes what is shown on screen as reality.

This has also happened to a disease called “dissociative identity disorder”. A high percentage of people are not even aware of this disease, and when they see it in movies or series they either believe it to be fantasy or they stick to the depiction given by the film, without even going further into the topic (Rose). As the depiction of the afflicted people is often one of a crazy, uncontrollable or ridiculous split personality, like in Robert Louis Stevenson’ novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, dating back to 1886, and in movies like Psycho, Fight Club, Me myself and Irene and many more, it can have a huge negative impact on people with DID (Anonymous).

To undo these movies which have already been created is impossible, but we still have the present to change people’s minds and lives. Therefore, it is important to examine everything that appears on Television about this topic, and as Mr. Robot is a fairly new series and a 3rd season will be aired in future, the question arises if this series too has been exploiting and distorting DID for the sake of entertainment; hence, this is the question this paper is aimed to answer.

In order to properly analyze Mr. Robot, first a detailed definition of dissociative identity disorder will be given to understand what DID is really all about. Secondly, an examination about two fairly recent examples of the exploitation of DID will follow to make sure the reader of this paper understands how reckless the filming industry can sometimes be. The last chapter will exclusively be about the series Mr. Robot and its depiction of dissociative identity disorder, following the topic question.

2. DID: Definition, causes and therapy

In order to analyze whether the series gives a realistic depiction of what dissociative identity disorder looks and feels like, a detailed definition of this disease has to be given.

Dissociative identity disorder is a controversial disease as it is still difficult to describe and recognize its causes and symptoms. This difficulty is due to the fact that a lot of the DID’s symptoms can be ascribed also to “normal” posttraumatic problems, such as depression, amnesia, suicidal tendencies, sleep disorders and an inclination to violence towards oneself and towards other people etc. (webmd.com). As a result, it is rather difficult to diagnose a person with DID, it can even take years of psychic treatment to come to the final conclusion that one is really carrying this disease (webmd.com). Because of these difficulties, people used to and still think that a great amount of symptoms are just imagined (Boysen/Van Bergen 15). It even took until the 1980s for DID to become officially recognized in the third edition of the DSM, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, even though it is not as rare as one might think: 0,5-1 % of 100000 people are afflicted (Gentile/Dillon 22) (doccheck.com).

The biggest symptom, and at the same time the most doubted and debatable one, is certainly the switching between different identities. The afflicted person, also called multiple, is able to - one could also say that he/she is forced to - share its body with two or more distinct alters; the number can vary between just a few or even more than 50 different alters (Gentile/Dillon 25). Here it is important to understand, that these different parts are not at all different people, but rather the “dissociated, concretely personified aspects of a single person” (Loewenstein 69). The different parts can be of different age, character, worldviews or even of different sex (doccheck.com). It has been shown that they can either look familiar, like people from the past, or unfamiliar, and that at least one identity will respond to the person’s real name (webmd.com). Most of the people with DID will have similar alters, so that it is rather hard to understand when the switch happens (doccheck.com).

It can even be possible that the identities carry different diseases, like diabetes, or allergies (nurseslearning.com). The most impressing case has been a woman who was diagnosed with DID at the age of 33. She had been left with “cortical blindness from a craniocerebral trauma” after a car accident 15 years’ prior the diagnosis. In the 4th year of psychotherapeutic treatment, one of her male alters started to see again, thus giving her the ability to switch between blind alters and alters who could see (Strasburger/Waldvogel 1-2).

People diagnosed with DID will often describe the feeling of identity-switch comparing it to a car. The driver is the identity controlling the situation. One can be kicked off the driver`s seat and either land in the front seat, therefore seeing everything but not being able to control what happens; land in the back seat where everything is foggy and even the voices are not fully recognizable; or even land in the trunk which can be compared to a complete black out (Pluraldoxa). There are patients of DID that don’t even know of the other alters, although most of the time one alter is aware of the other parts (Gentile/Dillon 24). For all these points listed above, one has to remember that dissociative identity disorder doesn’t manifests itself in the same way in each afflicted person, so the symptoms can vary a lot (Kreece 2013).

To fully comprehend Mr. Robots ’ plot, it is important to understand what triggers this dissociative identity disorder. Several studies (Loewenstein 1993; Armstrong 1995; Ross 1997) conducted in the last century have shown the connection between difficult childhoods, with sexual or physical abuse and the eruption of DID in individuals (Loewenstein 51). DID is said to break out in the first five years of one’s life, although this isn’t the rule for every single case (doccheck.com). After that point, it is more difficult for the disease to gain the upper hand as the brain already has grown to a certain size and children are able to cope with dramatic situations more easily (doccheck.com).

The starting point of this affliction is most of the time a trauma that is too great to handle for the child, and in order to survive it, he/she decides to flee from his/her body; therefore, this disease could be described as an “emergency defense” (Gentile/Dillon 23). Most of the time it starts with the separation of certain body regions, for example, when being sexually abused, the child could turn off the sensitivity of the genital area. This will cause the child to connect the dissociation with the improvement of an impossible situation, and therefore leading it to go even further and try total dissociation (doccheck.com). There are contradictory opinions on whether DID develops from drug abuse or just from some kind of trauma. Some studies (Gentile/Dillon 24) say the latter whereas some webpages written by patients with DID list other causes as well, for example “medications […], a number of illnesses and diseases such as MS, Lyme disease, epilepsy, and sleep disorders” (di.org.au).

The therapy takes place without drugs, even though antidepressants will be prescribed to solve the side effects, like depression, anxiety, nightmares, aggression etc. (Gentile/Dillon 28). The patient has to undergo a trauma-therapy and learn how to live with the other personalities and it is crucial to have or build up a social life. On page 22, a chart will show the most important points of the therapy.

With this description, I can now watch the following series and films about this topic with major scrutiny and recognize, which aspects often get distorted. In chapter 4, 6 charts will list the most important points of this chapter, in order to be able to analyze the depiction of the DID even better.

3. DID in movies

It gets clear while watching Mr. Robot that there have been a lot of inspirations for this series. The different topics that are brought up are not new at all and have been used and reused several times. Even though the hacking is certainly one of these interesting topics that show up in Mr. Robot, it is the dissociative identity disorder of Elliot Alderson which is able to create intriguing plots with the most unexpected twists. But, as already mentioned, this hasn’t been the first time DID was used as the center of a movie-plot; just think of Fight Club, Shutter Island, Me, Myself and Irene, Sybil, Secret Window and many more movies which can only work thanks to this disease. And who could blame the film industry for exploiting this? People love to hear supernatural stories and the symptoms of DID are certainly not to be ascribed to everyday life.

In the whole, using DID in movies is not only highly interesting and entertaining but could also be a way to acquire knowledge about this disease. Yet, problems can arise when movies or series depict DID with false features. For those who do not have this disorder, it is certainly not life changing if wrong information is being spread, but for so called multiples it definitely is.

Therefore, a few new questions need to be answered: which features of DID does the film industry find necessary to change, why does that happen, in what way does the false depiction of DID do any harm to the people carrying this disease and - most important of all - is Mr. Robot finally giving a truthful depiction of DID? As already mentioned in the introduction, in order to answer these questions, I necessarily had to analyze not only Mr. Robot, but also another series and a movie.

To do so, I chose the fairly recent movie Split and the US-series United States of Tara. The former because of its exaggerated depiction of DID even though it was released this year (2017), and the latter because it is another American series which focuses even more on DID than Mr. Robot.

3.1 United States of Tara

United States of Tara is an American comedy-drama series which first aired in 2009 with a total of three seasons. It evolves around Tara, a mother and wife who suffers from DID. In the first season, 5 alters are introduced to the audience, each one more different than the other. Here again lies a misconception which gets sold as the truth: alters do not often differ so much from each other, at least not in all cases of multiples; it is rather a blur which makes it even hard to tell the alters apart (Kreece 2012). What bothered me the most is that the alters are depicted as if they have an uncontrollable urge to change clothes each time they switch, which again is completely untrue. Furthermore, the alters all seem somehow crazy in their own way: T is an all too flirty teenager, Alice is the perfect 1950s housewife, Buck is a drinking male Vietnam Veteran, and Gimme represents the animal part of Tara. These caricatures are indeed funny, but yet they make people think that this is always the case as no other example of multiple is shown in the series.

Another mistake, which was not easy to make out, was the manner of switch. Tara switches each time she is faced with a slightly problematic situation, regardless where she is. However, the truth is that people with DID don’t switch so easily in public spaces, but rather when they find themselves alone or with people they trust, like with the therapist or friends (Kreece 2012).

Besides these mistakes, the plot appears to be rather realistic, which is to attribute to the fact that the actors and the director consulted an expert of DID to create the series (Watson). Firstly, the childhood trauma as the trigger of the disease is present, although until Episode 12 of the first season, Tara believes the trauma to have happened at the late age of 16.

Secondly, the therapy plays a big role in this series. In the eleventh episode of the first season Tara even tries hypnosis with her new therapist. The audience is also being reminded how important it is for Tara to confront and talk about the moment which caused the split of personality if she wants to get better. In season 1, episode 4, Tara has a long conversation with her therapist about how vital her alters are, as they have been created to protect her and that she should get to know them better to live in harmony with them.

Thirdly, it all circles around the fact that Tara had been using medications all her life to keep the alters somehow quiet until she decided to stop, as she couldn’t do things, like eating, painting, in a normal way and couldn’t remember a lot of things because of the drugs. This serves as a huge warning sign for those who are experiencing DID, as the drugs won’t solve the problem but just some symptoms that not everyone is bound to experience.

Besides all these medical truths, United States of Tara also wants to make aware of the everyday life difficulties that people with DID have to face; for example, in season 1, episode 4, Tara describes how uneasy it made her feel when her friend asked her to switch in front of her. Furthermore, in season 1, episode 6, Tara is faced with her parents wanting to take her children away from her, as they think she is no good to them. These things happen not all too rarely, which is why people with DID will keep quiet about their disease. Another problem which is shown in this TV-show is the disbelief of some people, like Tara’s sister, towards the existence of DID. She often attributes it to Tara’s need to be the center of attention, which is certainly not true, not in this series and not in reality. It certainly happens a lot that people who don’t have DID claim to be afflicted by this disease (Gray). In most cases this is due to a misdiagnosis and only sometimes do people feel the need to fake it (Gray).

In the whole, I really enjoyed watching this series, also because of the indisputable hard work they put into it to make it as realistic as possible. It also seems to me they tried to make people aware of this topic and cover all major problems. Sadly, I often had the feeling that DID was used as an allegory for a mother’s everyday life and that the storyline often slipped into irrelevant plots which made it harder to focus on the important thing: DID itself.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


Exploitation of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) through the Entertainment Industry
The Depiction of DID in the TV Series "Mr. Robot"
University of Innsbruck  (American Studies)
American Literature and Culture: America Through the Small Screen: Television and Its Transformations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Dissociative Identity Disorder, DID, Mr. Robot, American series, exploitation of diseases in movies
Quote paper
Stefanie Dalvai (Author), 2017, Exploitation of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) through the Entertainment Industry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/456408


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