Fuck Fatal Attraction
Media portrayals of women with borderline personality disorder (BPD)
I love screens. I’m addicted to the soothing background noise of a television talking to itself. Each night, I fall asleep to a familiar show or film. During a recent move, as I waited for my Internet to get hooked up, I felt so lost without my beloved distraction. Luckily, I’m a practiced collector (my partner might say ‘hoarder’) who still has a selection of choice DVDs (The Golden Girls, Misery, a collection of Tarantino films, Home Alone 1 & 2) and a PlayStation 2 to play them on. Surrounded by half-open boxes, artwork stacked up against the walls, and frantic and confused cats, I ate my first home-cooked meal in my new apartment to the comforting sounds of Uma Thurman kicking ass. It was the first moment I felt at home in the new space.
Like a lot of nineties kids, television and film played a large role in raising me. My young parents, particularly my stepdad, relied on our TV and VCR set as a sort of ersatz babysitter and important source of structure and distraction. It socialized me and became my primary reference for demystifying human behaviour. As a white girl in North America, I grew up with an embarrassment of physical representations of myself on screen. It wasn’t difficult to find characters who looked and sounded like me, but few of those characters behaved the way I did. They didn’t respond to events and interactions in a way that I would. Fictional girls and young women didn’t share my sensitivity to criticism, didn’t crumble into tears as frequently, or worry about the opinions and feelings of others as much. They didn’t get as excited as I did over good news, get consumed and carried away by episodes of joy, or move through life in such an uninhibited and spontaneous manner.
This could be because they weren’t living with a personality disorder, and I didn’t realize I was. I came to my borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis late in life at 28 because I was ‘high-functioning.’ By the time I was diagnosed, my symptoms had become so severe that I was no longer really functioning at all, nor concerned with finding representations of myself on screen. As I’ve learned to live a little easier with BPD over the past three years, I’ve sought out depictions of women with the disorder to better understand how the general population views us, to seek some clarity around my own occasionally perplexing behaviours, and to feel less alone while living with one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses. Unfortunately, what I found was disappointing. Instead of being portrayed as the highly-sensitive people we are, women with BPD are either depicted as histrionics who weren’t trying hard enough to get well, a source of schadenfreude for neurotypical people, conniving manipulators with violent tendencies, or psychotic murderous stalkers to be avoided at all costs.
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
“I just got out of the psych ward.”
Sometimes, the best way to start a meaningful friendship is bluntly. I was on the phone with a new friend, a fellow journalism student who I had just begun to warm up to when I rudely disappeared over the summer break into a mire of my own despair. We had been circling each other for the previous three years—each of us so adept at presenting as unapproachable (her, with her sharp words and loud heels and me, with my septum piercing and pot dealing) that it wasn’t until a work-study gig at the university forced us into cramped quarters that we were finally able to drop our defenses and bond.
My new friend, one of the savvier budding journalists in our year and simply a good person who possessed genuine concern, pressed me for more details. I explained to her that I had my mother and Granny bring me to a hospital after a break-up, an abortion, and a nasty case of bedbugs sucked all the colour from my world and left me wanting to die. Once I had voluntarily admitted, the hospital decided I was too impulsive to be trusted and signed me to a series of psychiatric holds that ate up the rest of the summer. I was trapped.
“Holy shit,” my friend said into the line. “They Girl, Interrupted you!”
At the time, I likely laughed in agreement, but I put off watching Girl, Interrupted until the writing of this essay. Girl, Interrupted (for the purposes of this piece, the movie, and not the memoir the movie is based on) follows Susanna Kaysen, played by Winona Ryder, during her extended stay at a psychiatric hospital, where she’s diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Released in 1999, I was too young to see the movie in theatres, and, by the time I became aware of it, my own acquaintance with institutionalization and extreme emotions told me this might be a film that simply required too much of me. For all of my faults, I’m an excellent audience member. I suspend my belief easily, willingly. I give in to imaginary worlds, overlook plot holes, and empathize with characters to such an extent that I feel I’m walking around with them days after finishing a work of fiction. I was afraid of the accuracy of Girl, Interrupted, based on Kaysen’s real-life experiences, and that watching it would shift me back to my darkest summer.
There are moments in the movie that resonate with me deeply enough to make my heart wince: when a psychiatrist tells Susanna she’s hurting everyone around her; Lisa, played by Angelina Jolie, screaming and kicking orderlies in an attempt to avoid being forcibly medicated; Susanna, unable to leave the hospital though she signed herself in; Lisa’s agonizing howl after Susanna tells her she’s already dead. But, where Girl, Interrupted does BPD justice is its examination of the friendship between Susanna and Lisa. Within the BPD community, there’s a (non-scientific) concept called the ‘favourite person’ or ‘FP.’ People with BPD often experience intense attachments to a single person who determines their mood, identity, and self-worth. For Susanna, this person is Lisa, and it’s not hard to see why. Jolie imbues Lisa with the essence of a lightning strike: she’s bold, daring, outgoing, manipulative, and charismatic. She crackles with life in a place full of sorrow, and Susanna quickly follows her lead. Susanna cheeks her laxatives based on Lisa’s example, and uses them to gain entrance to Daisy’s room (played by Brittany Murphy—RIP), a place no other patient has set foot in. Though Susanna is willing to give Daisy her laxatives for nothing, Lisa insists on a trade for Valium for her personal use. Susanna continues to bond with Lisa over unbelievable hijinks (what mental institution has a goddamn bowling alley in it?) and public confrontations to the point that, when she has a chance to escape to Canada with casual lover, Toby (Jared Leto), she passes it up to stay with Lisa in the hospital, much to Lisa’s satisfaction. For most of the film, Susanna seems blind or unwilling to confront Lisa’s obvious penchant for manipulation and callousness in exchange for a friendship that helps her cope with her surroundings—an accurate rendering of the idealization that often occurs in FP relationships.
Between the depiction of FP relationships and institutionalization; however, the overarching message of the film, as it relates to BPD, was irksome enough to keep me from losing myself in the narrative the way I normally would. After a tumultuous escape from the hospital with Lisa, who pushes former patient, Daisy, to die by suicide, Susanna returns to the ward seemingly worse off than ever (again, an accurate reaction to the loss or sudden devaluation of an FP). She has a vile and racist confrontation with Nurse Valerie (Whoopie Goldberg), who tells her, “You’re not crazy. You’re a lazy, self-indulgent girl who is driving herself crazy!” This is an echo of an earlier conversation with Toby, who tells Susanna essentially the same thing, and one with Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave), in which she asks Susanna if she’s willing to commit herself to the hospital for life in the name of indulging her flaws. Susanna spends the rest of the movie buckling down, taking her meds, actively participating in therapy, and writing until she’s recovered enough to be released. The thrust of the film suggests that Susanna is allowing her BPD to debilitate her: unlike the rest of the women in the ward, she’s had the agency and intelligence all along to merely will her illness away through enough cognitive effort. Don’t get me wrong—people with BPD can absolutely recover, but if it was merely a matter of effort and intelligence, I would have already done it. As much as I’ve worked to accept living with BPD, I’d still choose a life without it if I had the choice. That Girl, Interrupted positions recovery from BPD as a simple personal choice, or Susanna’s symptoms as an exaggeration or case of wallowing in her flaws, is an insult that actively harms real women with BPD who already face considerable stigma from the medical industry when they reach out for help.
After my first experience being hospitalized, where my own symptoms were positioned as a character flaw, I avoided mental healthcare for five years, certain recovery was not possible for someone like me in the system as it existed. When gritting my teeth against a tidal wave of worsening symptoms was no longer possible, and I was placed on another psychiatric hold (called a Form in Ontario, where I live), the friend who was so accommodating of my earlier disclosure was among the first to visit me. Her heels echoed against the tiled hospital floor. She brought me a care package of trashy magazines, nail polish, and snacks. A true friend really does ease the brunt of hospitalization.
Alice Kleig, Welcome to Me
For some, the best way to overcome adversity is to laugh in its stupid face. Gallows humour, or black comedy, appears to have been around for as long as humans have been executing each other. On June 14, 1856, after being found guilty of poisoning his friend, William Palmer is said to have looked at the gallows’ trapdoor and asked, “Are you sure it’s safe?” James French, executed by the state of Oklahoma on August 10, 1966, told reporter Bob Gregory that the headline about his death should read: “French Fries.” In 2007, Texas death-row inmate Patrick Knight made the news after putting out a call for people to send him jokes to raise the spirits of other inmates on death row. “A bit of levity is needed,” Knight told NBC. “And it seems to be working. I just want to go out laughing. I’m not trying to disrespect anyone. I know I’m not innocent.”
Gallows humour has played a vital role in my recovery, but it’s difficult to joke about the particulars of living with BPD with people who haven’t experienced it. One misplaced joke about suicide or self-harm to a well-intentioned friend or relative can lead to a loss of freedom if you live with a personality disorder. I didn’t find a receptive audience for my particular brand of humour until I found my people wandering the halls of the psych ward—it’s hard not to laugh when you haven’t taken a shit in five days due to a strictly cheese sandwich diet. My journey through the silos of Canada’s mental health system eventually led to a referral for group therapy for people with BPD. I was at last surrounded by peers whose emotions were as hair-triggered as mine, who found abandonment as paralyzing as I did, who navigated their loved ones’ subtle emotional cues the way one might wander through a minefield. The beauty in this connection was the linguistic shorthand that developed almost instantaneously among group members, which allowed us to joke about things we never dreamed we could: cheerful memes about how we were on the verge of collapse, how thrilling it would be to jump off a cliff, or how our lives couldn’t be a joke because even jokes have meaning.
My excitement bubbled to a boil when I found out about Welcome to Me, a 2014 dramedy about a woman living with BPD. The film follows Alice Klieg, portrayed by Kristen Wiig, who brings her trademark quirkiness to the role. Alice is a woman with BPD who suddenly wins the lottery and is able to launch her own Oprah-like daytime television show. That there was finally a movie that didn’t pair BPD with institutionalization or criminality and drew upon one of my favourite ways to cope gave me hope that the mainstream media was taking baby steps to destigmatize the disorder I live with. In many ways, Welcome to Me brims with irreverent humour. During the press conference to claim her winnings, Alice admits she’s been using masturbation as a sedative since 1981 (and rages after finding out the network cut her feed). She tells the producers of her upcoming show about an episode of IBS so severe it prevented her from having orgasms. She has a segment on her show called, ‘Smelling Things Before They Happen.’ She reads from prepared statements, tries to treat her BPD with string cheese, has had her television on nonstop for 11 years (sound familiar?), and dozes off each night in a sleeping bag on top of her covers. However, the audience is meant to laugh at and not with Alice, whose quirks, though presented as entertaining, do interfere with her ability to lead a fulfilling life.
Welcome to Me also gets much of the symptomology of BPD wrong, aiming for quirk over accuracy. It’s incredibly difficult to find cases of “pure” BPD—a 1988 comparative study found that 91 per cent of people with BPD in inpatient settings had at least one additional diagnosis—but Alice seems to suffer a host of unspoken mental health challenges in addition to BPD. Her apartment is organized by colours—possibly a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the beginning of the film, she’s gone off her Abilify, an antipsychotic primarily used to treat schizophrenia. She hoards stacks of lottery tickets, mentions she was once diagnosed with manic depression (today’s bipolar disorder), and refuses to enter her corner store. That Alice might suffer from schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder, and agoraphobia on top of her BPD in itself is not problematic; it’s that these comorbidities are never addressed clearly, which can confuse the uninitiated about what living with BPD truly means. Where the film gets BPD right is in its presentation of the more impulsive aspects of life with BPD: Alice’s blunt relationship to her sex life and her pursual of casual sex, the way she mirrors the behaviours of those around her, her ability to spend millions of dollars in the span of a few months, and the wellspring of rage she draws upon when she relives minor slights that happened in her past during her talk show, screaming, between sobs, at a stand-in actress, “Fuck you to death, Jordana.”
The other element of living with BPD Welcome to Me gets right—and I hate that it’s so accurate—is the excessive amount of emotional space people with BPD can take up in the lives of our loved ones. Alice’s daytime television show ends up being a surprise hit in the ratings, largely due to what her mother deems her emotional exhibitionism, which leads her to alienate and neglect her best friend, Gina (played by Linda Cardellini). An accident on set where Alice “nearly burns her tits off” sets off her mental deterioration, which takes the form of an emotionally devastating montage of dogs getting neutered, a series of lawsuits brought forward by people she’s defamed, a nude walk through the casino she’s been living in, and an eventual hospitalization. When Gina finally visits Alice, she makes a teary speech I’ve heard, in some form or another, from most of the people I’ve let closest to me: “You’re a terrible friend. You only care about your own pain. I’m sorry you hurt so bad but that doesn’t mean other people aren’t vulnerable or sensitive and just because you’ve made a career out of it doesn’t mean other people don’t have feelings.” At this point, both Alice and I wilt into a mess of tears. “You don’t get to fucking cry right now,” Gina seems to say to both of us. “I am crying right now.”
I don’t need a reminder of what a burden my emotions can be to those around me. The medical system, with an assist from my own lived experience, has done a wonderful job instilling me with a guilt so pervasive I’m terrified of making new friends lest I encumber them with my presence. As a result, I’ve spent most of my life worrying more about how my emotions are affecting others rather than learning to cope with and express them in a healthy manner. A movie billed as a comedy that expounds on a concept that has caused me so much grief and self-condemnation is a disappointment. I simply wanted to laugh through my adversity.
Livia Soprano, The Sopranos
For the 26-and-a-half years she was in my life, my twinkly-eyed Baba (great-grandmother in this context), at least once during every visit or phone call, would remind me, “Baba old. Baba die soon.” Baba lived to be 98 years old.
I don’t doubt that, at least for the last few years of her life, she probably did want to die. Her friends were dead. Her husband too. As much as my family tried to be there for her, I’m sure she was lonely, even depressed. However, I know I personally had become so desensitized that I normalized my Baba’s gloomy proclamations. I once suggested to my Granny, Baba’s primary caregiver as she aged toward triple digits, that Baba might benefit from an antidepressant, but we knew her devotion to her Ukrainian Orthodox faith meant she would never go against her God’s will and risk a bad death like a suicide. Ukrainians also have a more comfortable relationship with death than the average Westerner—we understand it is a natural part of life, and not something to fear. This can be seen in the last farewell funeral ritual, when family and friends kiss their deceased loved one in their casket for the final time. Plus, my Baba had lived through Holodomor and being an Ostarbeiter (foreign slave worker) in WWII, when death was a part of daily life. For these reasons, it was easy to overlook Baba’s perpetually impending demise.
By the time I got around to watching The Sopranos (I have a complicated relationship with the Italians that make up my biological and step-family), it had been off the air for over three years. The show’s reputation preceded itself, particularly when it came to discussions of Tony Soprano’s mother. Livia Soprano, portrayed by the incomparable Nancy Marchand, routinely made television’s top villains lists; relatives warned me about “what a piece of work” she was; interviews with creator David Chase revealed she was based on the toxic dynamic he had with his own mother. Yet, when I finally met Livia, she merely seemed a composite of many of my older female relatives. Though the causes of BPD are still unknown, studies have suggested a genetic or inherited component. It wasn’t unfamiliar for me to hear a grandmother ask for the Lord to take her now, to refuse to open the door for strangers, answer the phone when it’s dark, or drive when the weatherman is predicting rain. My other great-grandmother shared Liv’s sharp tongue and it was like watching an on-screen version of her quip when Livia slyly asked a guest at a wedding, “Are you still seeing your other women, Lorenzo?” Some of the biting humour I was looking for in Alice Klieg, I found in Liva Soprano. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Livia’s motivations and manipulations never seemed monstrous to me. If anything, most of what she did had a distorted sort of logic to it—though it should be noted that my undiagnosed BPD was probably at its worst during my first viewing of The Sopranos.
Unlike Alice and Susanna, Livia doesn’t have an official diagnosis of BPD. Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) suggests Livia is suffering from BPD during her psychiatry sessions with Tony (James Gandolfini) and, despite Melfi’s unflattering description of the disorder, I’d say she’s spot on. Marchand’s subtle portrayal of the disorder is one of the more accurate I’ve come across. The way she alienates her family—Tony is the only one of her children who will put up with her— sends figurative spiders scurrying up my spine as I feel I’m looking in a terrifying mirror of what’s to come. One of the primary symptoms of BPD is unstable personal relationships, and I know if I let certain symptoms of BPD get the better of me, I could be just as isolated as Livia in my golden years. People with BPD are also known for having unusual or ‘primitive’ defense mechanisms, which though maladapted, serve an important role in getting their needs met. Livia has honed these mechanisms into an art form: Liv could never be a part of the family business—the mafia is a patriarchal organization, yet through her manipulation of Tony and his uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), Liv plays a major role in the family’s operations. She uses every piece of information as a weapon—she has to. She’s a woman in a man’s world using the power she has to get her needs met, however skewed those needs may be. Perhaps this is the reason I didn’t find Livia as ghastly as other viewers: behind her ‘bad’ behaviour was understandable motivations.
The Sopranos does a great job illustrating both the spectrum of BPD, and how the disorder can evolve in its presentation over time. Liv is deeply suspicious, embodying the more paranoid spectrum of BPD. She spies on her neighbours even if it means letting her mushrooms burn, and keeps enough of her wits during a kitchen fire to deliver a delicious guilt trip to Tony over the phone: “Look at how I live!” Through flashbacks, we see how Liv’s behaviour has evolved over time. Young Liv is easily overwhelmed by her children and prone to outbursts of verbal violence. She threatens to stick a fork in young Tony’s eye when he’s bothering her about an electric organ, and tells Tony father she’d smother her children before she’d let him take them to Nevada. In contrast, present-day Livia has shed the more impulsive aspects of BPD and is far more calculating in her attempts to take control of her situation. The portrayal of people with BPD as inherently violent doesn’t thrill me, but my encounter with Liv in my turbulent early twenties illuminated an important and accurate truth: that my personality disorder could and would evolve with time.
Nancy Marchand died after season two wrapped, and her character died in season three, but Liv’s presence looms large throughout the remaining seasons of The Sopranos. It’s apparent that a recurring theme in film and television portrayals of people with BPD is the emotional resources we take up of those that love us. In the same way Tony struggles with an immense amount of guilt toward how he feels about his mother, I’m once again struggling with the guilt I feel toward being such an imposition to my loved ones as I watch Liv’s bearing suck up so much of her family’s air. And then there are Liv’s more murderous inclinations. Twice, Tony is nearly killed as a result of his mother’s designs: Junior sends hitmen after him after conspiring with Livia, and Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) aims a rifle at Tony in the wake of Livia revealing that Tony had arranged for his restaurant to be burned down. The notion that insanity equals violence is a common television trope, yet one that’s largely inaccurate. In Canada, research has found people with a mental illness experience violence at a rate four times higher than those without a mental illness. In fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. People with BPD can experience even higher rates of violent victimization: one study found 46 per cent of people with BPD reported being a victim of violence since the age of 18. It’s a damaging stereotype to continually link BPD with aggressive and sadistic behaviour when the simple truth is that most people with the disorder will never orchestrate a murder.
In the years since I first watched The Sopranos, it’s become a useful yard stick to revisit to measure how severe my BPD is at any particular moment. The more I can relate to and agree with Livia’s behaviour (murder aside), the more likely it is that I need to brush up on some of my coping skills (or maybe seek out therapy). The show also keeps me connected to family members who are no longer with me. My Baba has been “planted in the ground,” as my Granny would say, for the past five years. Baba was much more pleasant and loving than Livia; however, whenever I’m feeling nostalgic for her fatal premonitions, it’s comforting to know where I can find a version of them.
Alex Forrest, Fatal Attraction
There’s nothing that deflates my heart more than watching someone’s eyes fill up with fear when they look at me. I’ve caught glimpses of it in my sweet partner’s face when he hurries to tidy something he’ll think I’ll get upset about. I’ve held the phone from my ear to dull the perplexing sound of unfounded accusations and demands for no contact when friendships end. Distant relatives who I’ve never met or spoken with have blocked me across social media platforms for no other reason than how I might behave.
I don’t consider myself a scary person. I’m neither physically, intellectually, economically, nor socially imposing, and the only person I’ve ever been a danger to is myself. Yet, my emotional instability seems to trigger a hurtful instinctual reaction in others: they believe me capable of harmful behaviours I’ve never displayed (stalking, obsessing, outward violence) or treat me like I’m the monster that just crawled out from under their bed. I might have Fatal Attraction to blame for this.
Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, follows an extramarital affair between the charismatic Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) and Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) gone terribly wrong. Like Livia, Alex is never formally diagnosed as having BPD; however, her behaviour in the film is so synonymous with the disorder, a professor once told Close he used the character as an extreme example of BPD. There are certainly more similarities than there are differences between Close’s Alex Forrest and I in Fatal Attraction: we’re both white women in our thirties, we present well initially, are highly sexualized with a tendency to infantilize ourselves, we’re prone to intense entanglements with unavailable people, abrupt displays of frustration, fears of abandonment, a deep sense of despair when rejected, and episodes of self-harm. Like Girl, Interrupted I had put off watching Fatal Attraction out of fear it would be triggering to me. Unlike Girl Interrupted, it actually was.
Fatal Attraction was released three years before I was born, yet Alex’s dialogue could be ripped straight from any one of my more heart-wrenching relationships. Following a clandestine evening together, Alex calls Dan to say, “I woke up. You weren’t here. I hate that.” How many times have I had some version this conversation with casual lovers? Definitely as many times as I’ve desperately twisted myself into pretzels simply because “I just want[ed] to be a part of [their] life.” Like Alex, the threat of abandonment has pushed me to self-harm and suicide attempts, which is why, when she apologizes to Dan in his office for slashing her wrists, I knew the shame she was soaked in as she sat in that chair, and the deflation she felt when he turns down her tickets to Madame Butterfly. Alex discovers she’s pregnant after their encounter (the audience needs only a passing familiar with Madame Butterfly to know she’s telling the truth). Her attempts to get Dan to take responsibility for his unborn child leads to escalating behaviour on her part (obsessive calls, stalking, and property damage). This brought me back to my own pregnancy. Like Alex, I was pregnant by a man who didn’t want to be in a relationship with me and I was determined he would take responsibility for the pregnancy by accompanying me to the abortion—a necessity since I would be given Fetanyl during it, and wouldn’t be able to navigate the subway ride home high on opioids. Like Dan, he was unwilling or unable to take responsibility for our accident—my dear friend, James, took me instead—but despite the rage I felt toward my ex-partner, I never stalked him, kidnapped his loved one, boiled his bunny, or caused any damage to his possessions. Unlike Alex, when my ex-partner failed to return my calls and texts, I stopped pursuing contact because the silence was too painful. Like most people with BPD, I took feelings of rejection and disappointment and turned them inwards. Unfortunately, the damage that Fatal Attraction did to the perception of women with the disorder as histrionic and calculating created legitimate harm to me when I needed help the most: upon my first voluntary admission, after telling the admitting psychiatrist I had attempted suicide, his first question was: “Did you really want to kill yourself, or were you just trying to get your boyfriend’s attention?”
That Fatal Attraction positions women with BPD as inherently manipulative is only one of the problematic elements of the film. The message of the film appears to be that the only way to handle women with severe BPD is to murder them (without consequences, I might add). In a terrifying scene, Dan bursts through Alex’s apartment door and the viewer has to watch through Alex’s eyes as Dan attempts to choke the life out of her. The audience is meant to witness a man perpetrate horrendous violence against his former partner and still root for him. I understand this film was from the 1980s, but c’mon. Perhaps this is why Alex is ultimately murdered by Dan’s wife, Beth (Anne Archer), after Dan’s attempt to drown Alex doesn’t take.
Director Adrian Lyne pushes BPD symptomology to such extremes that he gets close to turning Alex into the monster he wants the audience to believe she is; however, I simply can’t empathize with the couple who killed a mentally ill pregnant woman, as egregious as her behaviour might have been. What frightened me most about Fatal Attraction was not Alex Forrest but the notion that if my illness ever deteriorates severely enough, I deserve to die.
Since appearing in Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close has reevaluated her portrayal of Alex Forrest due to criticism around making all people with BPD look like monsters. This wasn’t her intent as she made clear during an Oprah segment: “I never saw her as a villain… I always thought she was a human being in a lot of pain and she needed a lot of help.” The original ending of Fatal Attraction had Alex Forrest dying by suicide and framing Dan for her death, but when that didn’t test well with audiences, it was replaced by the bathtub scene. “When I heard they wanted to basically make me into a psychopath where I’d go after someone with a knife, rather than somebody who is self-destructive and basically tragic, it was a profound problem for me…I fought against it for three weeks. I was so mad,” Close said. Last February, Deadline reported a remake of Fatal Attraction is in the works. Here’s hoping the next iteration leaves me with more than hopelessness and something to yell at my partner when he’s distracted by his phone.
The common threads running through all four of these depictions of women with BPD is the space we take up in the lives of our loved ones—media representations insist on instilling guilt in women for merely having this disorder, these works focus primarily on the negative aspects of life with BPD, and inadvertently signal that the disorder only appears in white women.
Filmmakers don’t create cancer narratives about what a burden their symptoms are to family members, so why does the mainstream media continually return to this messaging that people with BPD, or severe mental illness in general, are a burden rather than fighters trying to conquer an illness? This perception trickles down into the general public, which increases stigma and gives neurotypical people permission to treat those with BPD or mental illness as having agency or control over their disorder and how and when it presents.
These depictions also focus on the more painful and destabilizing aspects of living with BPD. This isn’t to say that living with BPD isn’t fucking hard, but it’s not a disorder that operates exclusively in lows or valleys. In the same way the lows of living with BPD can feel ten times as intense as they would for the average person, the highs are just as mountainous. But we never get to see Susanna, Alice, Livia, or Alex experience the true and unfiltered moments of joy that living with BPD can bring. These women also lack the enhanced empathy so commonly found in BPD—we see them struggle with their own feelings, but not as much with the feelings of others, which doesn’t ring true to my own experience, nor research about the disorder.
BPD has long (and erroneously) been thought of as a white woman’s disorder, and though I wouldn’t be too hard-pressed to replicate this essay from a male perspective (Howard Ratner from Uncut Gems, Sy Parrish from One Hour Photo, Scott Carlin from The King of Staten Island, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars), I simply couldn’t find media depictions of BPD in underrepresented communities. This mirrors the dearth of studies that assess rates of BPD in visible minorities; however, of the research that exists, there haven’t been noticeable racial differences when it comes to BPD diagnoses in clinical settings. More recent research has argued that intersectional and compounding effects of trauma due to colonization might actually mean Black and Indigenous people have an elevated risk of BPD compared to white populations. Representation matters. That BPD has been normalized in white women made it easier for me to reach out for help when my symptoms got too severe, and helped my diagnosis land a little easier. Living with a personality disorder is an isolating experience and normalizing the presentation of BPD across a diverse range of lived experiences will only make people with the disorder feel less alone.
So how to create more accurate representations of BPD in the media? Let people with experience living with BPD inform and produce these narratives, rather than relying on mental health professionals or industry executives. The first time I truly saw my behaviour represented onscreen was during a 2015 Vice special called Being Ida, a short based on the full-length documentary Ida’s Diary, a film that follows a young Norwegian woman who lives with borderline personality disorder (BPD) over the course of eight years. The video diary entries that swing between Ida’s low and highs and the cyclical nature of institutionalization perfectly replicate life with BPD—particularly its positives. There’s a scene in which Ida buys and cooks potatoes for the first time in her life. I can’t help but smile through tears as she gets so excited over these fucking potatoes that she jumps up and down, wishes she had someone to hug, and daydreams in the mirror about one day cooking potatoes for a family of her own. This is life with BPD: it’s not just pain and torment. It can be incomparable joy, triumph over adversity, and finding immense beauty in the overlooked. People with BPD aren’t monsters. We’re just human beings.