If it wasn’t the ankle chain tying Marvel’s Steven Grant to his bed, or the unaccounted days spent in foreign countries gunning down and driving off zealot mercenaries, or the baritone of an Egyptian deity in his ear, telling him to wrest control of his body over to another version of himself named “Marc Spector”—if it wasn’t any of these indicators—it was probably the talking hippopotamus at the psych ward, which informed us, and Steven Grant/Marc Spector, that something was very wrong, yes, very wrong, indeed.
In Moon Knight’s penultimate episode, Marc/Steven is lead through an Egyptian underworld crossing, which also doubles as a spatial reconstruction of his memories. In these memory rooms, we learn how Marc first created his secondary identity “Steven Grant” as a defense mechanism for the trauma accompanying the death of Marc’s brother—and the verbal and physical abuse by his mother that followed.
The episode represents another cinematic illustration on mental illness, which has become more prominent in recent years, especially with projects that tackle these conditions impressionistically. Films like Hereditary (which explores generational mental illnesses, believed to be dementia or dissociative identity disorder) and shows like Undone and Russian Doll (both of which depict episodes related to schizophrenia) all seek to convey the subjective impressions of someone experiencing these illnesses.
Marvel’s Marc Spector (played by Oscar Isaac), like the characters in Hereditary, appears to suffer from “disassociate identity disorder,” which was once called “multiple personality disorder” and is now classified in the DSM-5 under dissociative disorders, disorders characterized by “disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior.”
Before further exploring disassociate identity disorder, the particular dissociative disorder Marc Spector is believed to exhibit, it’s worth asking how far we can even take such a diagnosis.
Speculation about the mental health of public personalities—including Kanye West and Donald Trump—has reignited in recent years debate over diagnosis from afar. The “Goldwater Rule” advised psychiatrists not to practice diagnoses on patients whom they have not personally evaluated, though some contend that when the subjects are certain public figures whose decisions impact other’s lives, some speculation might be warranted.
That debate is also had in fictional worlds as well, though with a bit less consequence.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian titled “Don’t Diagnose Fictional Characters,”cultural critic Shirley Dent wrote that—with something like autism, a particular diagnosis she argues has been used to inappropriately characterize the alienation of certain literary figures—diagnosing fictional characters treats mental illness as some momentary character-building device, and not a condition that someone lives with their entire lives. “Having a neat medical tick box in which to place a character and understand them detracts from, rather than adds to, what the story is trying to tell us.”
There does, however, seem to be a distinction between the question of whether understanding mental illness furthers our knowledge of fictional characters—which Dent claims it does not—and whether understanding fictional characters furthers our knowledge of mental illness—which Dent implies is also erroneous. Some psychiatrists, on the other hand, maintain that the practice is a harmless and can actually be helpful. “Diagnosing fictional characters is fun,” clinical psychologist Jared DeFife Ph.D. writes for Psychology Today, “because people love good fictional characters [and it] allows the public to learn about mental illnesses which they may or may not have.”
With Moon Knight, we’re somewhat freed from the to-diagnose-or-not-to-diagnose conundrum; Marc Spector/Steven Grant’s mental illness is already diagnosed in both the comic source material and the series itself—and both Isaac and costar Ethan Hawke have mentioned researching the disorder in preparation for their roles as (at one point in the story) patient and psychiatrist.
But we’re still left with the question of whether this depiction is accurate or helpful—both in the case of understanding Marc Spector and also understanding DID.
What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
According to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5), a collection of the most up-to-date literature on psychiatric diagnosis, dissociative identity disorder is characterized by five diagnostic criteria, including “disruption in identity” (where one experiences two or more distinct personalities, which can affect behavior, memory, and perception), abnormal gaps in memory, and social impairment and distress—all of which cannot be explained by cultural or developmental factors (like children having imaginary friends), or by the effects of substances like drugs.
The DSM-5 also notes the prevalence of this disorder among the U.S. population is small—about 1.5 percent—and only a small portion of these individuals will “present to clinical attention with observable alternation of identities.” In other words, one does not necessarily need to act as if they are separate people to be diagnosed; these identities might present simply as voices, or one may feel as if they are an outside observer of their own actions.
The DSM-5 mentions ways in which the illness can manifest, including “possession-form identities” where it appears as if a “‘sprit,’ supernatural being, or outside person has taken control,” though these may also occur during religious practices and do not necessarily meet the criteria for dissociative identity disorder.
The DSM-5 also describes “dissociative fugues” where gaps in the memory leave a patient suddenly at a different location after having traveled there unconsciously.
Comedian Roseanne Barr, perhaps one of the more well-known public figures diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (“multiple personality disorder” at the time of diagnosis), has described what these experiences can feel like.
“I haven’t had any blackouts for quite a while,” she once said in an interview. “I used to have them minute by minute. I was always in conflict about conflicting parts, but I’ve learned how to get them to listen to each other now. I’ve learned how to get them to know they’re on the same team, that we occupy the same body.” She described the experience as “living in a maze. It’s like that old woman who keeps adding on to her house… But the parts don’t get along and some of them have some real strange ideas about how to defend.”
Does Marc Spector Have Dissociative Identity Disorder?
According to the comics and the show, yes.
According to experts? Probably? Maybe? It’s hard to tell.
In a recent interview with Inverse, Rutgers University’s Anthony M. Tobia, M.D. noted that there were several aspects of Moon Knight’s depiction, which are accurate—to an extent—including the show’s “dissociative fugues” that find Steven waking up without knowledge of previous events.
What’s less realistic is the way Steven interacts with Marc. “That’s overly dramatized and very unlikely,” Tobia said. “The [DID] individual is much more likely to just simply perceive it as a voice and may even present their psychiatrist with auditory hallucinations.”
Tobia also noted that the dramatic liberties the show takes could be somewhat damaging. The series perpetuates a common connection across film and TV between mental illness and acts of extreme violence. (Marc, we should remember, is a killing machine. Research generally discredits any necessary connection between mental illness and violence.)
“The viewer is left to their own devices to draw conclusions and those conclusions can certainly be inaccurate and then even stigmatizing,” Tobia concluded.
But there are also redemptive features of Moon Knight’s depiction of mental illness.
In an interview with Esquire, Isaac explained the thematic importance of Marc’s condition and its depiction in a platform as prevalent as the MCU. “It’s a celebration of the power of the human mind,” he said. “It’s basically saying, We have a superpower and it’s the human brain, particularly for those who deal with trauma and sustained abuse. There’s this thing that the brain can do to allow them to survive.”
This last part is in reference to Marc’s creation of Steven in order to sustain the trauma of losing his brother and enduring his mother’s abuse.
Isaac also said the series has helped people in his own life.
“My uncle suffered with mental-health issues,” Isaac went on to say in the same interview. “He started crying watching an episode of Moon Knight because, I think, it just felt like being seen. There was something there that felt like an acknowledgment of the pain and what people do with pain, and the forgiveness, of how you forgive yourself, and how to come to terms with the child within you.”
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