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Can a Ballerina Make Out With Her Alternate Self? An Expert Debunks Multiple-Personality Movie Tropes

By Gwynne Watkins
2/25/11 at 12:45 PM

On Sunday, Natalie Portman is expected to take home the naked statuette for her portrayal of Nina, the ballerina who confronts her dark Ukranian sitcom-star side in Black Swan. While the disease known as Movie Multiple Personality Disorder has been a staple of films and soap operas for years, never before has it been so well honored: Halle Berry got a Golden Globe nomination for playing a stripper with dueling personalities — one of whom is a white Southern racist — in the “based on a true story” film Frankie and Alice. And Toni Collette collected an Emmy this past fall for her multiple-personality mama in Showtime’s United States of Tara. In their portrayals of MMPD, these actresses, like Joanne Woodward and Sally Field before them, distinguish their different “alters” with accents, wardrobe changes, and occasional violent showdowns. But how do these symptoms compare with people who suffer from actual Dissociative Identity Disorder (the preferred term for Multiple Personality Disorder)? To find out, we called Dr. Marlene Steinberg, author of the book The Stranger in the Mirror, who has done groundbreaking work in the field of DID, demonstrating that the disorder is both more common and less extreme than we’ve been led to believe. We went through all of the symptoms that we’ve seen in movies like Sybil, Fight Club and Black Swan and engaged her in a vigorous round of fact-checking.

Many people associate Dissociative Identity Disorder with the cases in movies like Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve. What are the most misleading ideas that we’ve gotten from those movies?
In real life, the symptoms are very subtle. Patients in real life are concealing the symptoms because it was an elaborate way that they could survive. And so often, they are unaware that they’re suffering from multiple personalities. In the movies, the most common symptom is they’re switching from one personality to another. Well, that’s the least common symptom that people ever present with. That’s not a complaint that people are aware of. They complain of having mood changes; they complain of feeling very depressed; they complain of feeling anxious or panic-stricken. So that’s really a very large misconception that results in misdiagnosis.

Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan has signs of dissociative identity disorder, but the other personality doesn’t emerge until she’s in her twenties. Is it possible for a second personality to come out that late in life, as a result of intense stress?
Yes — that is, assuming she was predisposed to dissociating when under stress. If she had split into alters as a child, she would be at increased risk of creating new alters as an adult when under severe stress. The “good girl” versus “bad girl” struggle is common in D.I.D.

Portman and Mila Kunis have possibly hallucinatory sex in the movie. Could one personality believe that it has intimate or romantic relations with another?
This is absolutely possible! People with dissociative disorders are extremely creative. I had a male patient with D.I.D. who reported that he had a female alter inside of him who functioned as his girlfriend. His inner girlfriend would get jealous whenever he dated other women.

In The Three Faces of Eve, there’s a famous scene where one of Eve’s three personalities does a nightclub act. Could one personality just decide to go into show business?
It certainly is possible that different personalities take over for different talents or skills — a musical talent, a writing skill. But only 5 percent of cases have different personalities that have dramatically different appearances or talents. It’s usually much more subtle.

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