Open Letter to M. Night Shyamalan: 'Split' Perpetuates Stereotypes About People With Dissociative Identity Disorder (Guest Column)

David Carlson
Dr. Michelle Stevens

Hollywood filmmakers have to stop portraying people with multiple personalities as dangerous freaks.

Dr. Michelle Stevens is the author of the upcoming book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving. She is the founder and executive director of Post-Traumatic Success, a nonprofit organization that provides education and inspiration to those affected by psychological trauma.

Dr. M. Night Shyamalan,

According to the box-office results, congratulations are in order. It seems your new movie, Split, is doing gangbusters. That means millions of people all over the world have seen or will soon see your story about a man who is suffering from dissociative identity disorder.

Personally, I think that’s a shame.

For as much as I’m rooting for you as an artist, Mr. Shyamalan, I’m angered that you chose to climb to success on the overburdened backs of the mentally ill.

I’m sure you beg to differ. After all, Split — a psychological thriller about a sociopath with multiple personalities — follows a long tradition of films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain, Primal FearFight Club and Mr. Brooks. In fact, murderous multiples have become so ubiquitous in Hollywood that they are practically their own genre.

But just because other filmmakers have callously chosen to portray people with multiple personalities as dangerous freaks doesn’t let you off the hook. For the record, dissociative identity disorder is a real mental illness that affects millions of real people, including me.

As a person who suffers from multiple personalities, as well as a psychologist with an expertise in the subject, I feel it is my duty to school you in a few facts: People who suffer from dissociative identity disorder are not, generally speaking, creepy or deceptive; we don’t lurk in dark alleys. We aren’t kidnappers who lock teenage girls in basements, and we certainly aren’t murderers. Instead, we are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors who silently suffer from a painful, scary, often debilitating condition in which our sense of who we are feels divided into fragmented parts. Our condition is caused by a history of severe and repeated child abuse. In truth, we are victims of unimaginable violence. Multiple personalities, as well as the depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidality that most of us suffer, are all just symptoms of miserable childhoods.  

When you and others in Hollywood make a mockery of our disorder, it’s no different than the schoolyard bully who taunts a disabled kid. Would you make a movie about a person with Down syndrome who has sick sexual fantasies? Would you pen a script about a knife-wielding killer with autism?

Of course not. It’s distasteful.

So why is OK to deride my mental illness?

With the release of your highly objectionable movie, you have become my bully, Mr. Shyamalan. I am personally harmed by the grotesque stereotypes you perpetuate in Split. Your derivative depiction of Kevin Crumb as one more gender-confused, cross-dressing multiple with a penchant for violence has the same effect as shouting across the playground, “People with dissociative identity disorder are dangerous nut jobs!”

I have lived for years with the stigma created by movies such as yours. Despite being a successful doctor who runs a charity for adult survivors of child abuse, I live with constant anxiety that people will learn of my diagnosis. For no matter how long I’ve known someone or how highly they think of me, once they know I’m a multiple, the reaction is always the same:

First, the person’s eyes widen. A countenance of disbelief crosses their face, followed by horror. Their pupils dart about as they start to silently reassess every interaction we’ve ever had. In an instant, I am transformed in their minds from a respected psychologist, wife and mother into a monster — a monster created entirely by you and the others of your Hollywood ilk.

I’m not a monster, Mr. Shyamalan. On the contrary, I’d say I’m a pretty ordinary person with a stable, loving family life who has dedicated her career to helping other people. Like millions of others, I suffer from mental illness.

In the future, I’d appreciate it if you stopped using our pain and suffering as fodder for your entertainment.

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