'Moon Knight' and the science behind dissociative identity disorder

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'Moon Knight' and the science behind dissociative identity disorder

Here's hoping Moon Knight is a turning point in popular portrayals of mental illness.

Moon Knight PRESS

The Marvel Cinematic Universe content train keeps chugging along and the latest stop was at Moon Knight station. There are spoilers and discussions of mental illness ahead. If either of those are destinations you'd rather not visit, continue onward at your own peril.

The first episode of the new Disney+ series introduces us to Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), an introverted museum worker with a single pet goldfish and the unusual bedtime habit of strapping himself to the bedposts. Grant has been losing time, waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, and generally bumbling through his life with little control or insight. He's struggling to develop or maintain relationships and he's at risk of losing his job — and that's all before things get really bad.

It turns out Grant isn't himself, at least not entirely. He has dissociative identity disorder (DID) and shares his body with an alter called Marc Spector, also known as Moon Knight, a vessel for the Egyptian god Khonshu. Suffice it to say there's a lot going on.

We don't exactly expect Marvel properties to tow the lines of reality, what with the existence of gods, aliens, and superpowers. Still, we do have to wonder whether their portrayal of DID is accurate — or if it's problematic.

WHAT IS DISSOCIATE IDENTITY DISORDER

Dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality or split personality disorder, is characterized by an individual with two or more distinct personalities. In some cases, a person will have a main personality which captains the mental ship most of the time. Other personalities, commonly called alters, sometimes take the helm as a way of coping with trauma. In fact, it's believed that DID manifests as a consequence of past trauma as a way of allowing a person to cope with or even just survive traumatic experiences. DID is just one disorder among the larger grouping of dissociative disorders which also includes dissociation and derealization.

It's thought about 1.5 percent of the global population lives with DID, though the precise number isn't wholly clear, meaning you've likely met and interacted with someone who has it and didn't even realize. Part of the reason for the fuzziness in the numbers is the challenge of diagnosis. Another cause is the stigma attached to DID, often exacerbated by negative portrayals in the media, and the resulting resistance in seeking medical assistance.

The team around Marvel's Moon Knight was acutely aware of the potential for harm in their portrayal of the character and made efforts to collaborate with mental health professionals to mitigate those risks. Whether or not they were successful remains to be seen and will ultimately be determined by the DID community. Judging from the first episode, the only one which has been released at the time of this writing, the team behind Moon Knight got at least some things right.

MEMORY LOSS OR GAPS IN TIME

Gaps in time and the associated memory loss is a big part of Spector/Grant's character and is a common symptom among those living with DID. If a patient has only one or a few alters and they emerge relatively infrequently, then gaps could be a rare experience. But if the number of alters is higher and they emerge more frequently, gaps could be significant.

DID often manifests as a response to trauma, particularly trauma during childhood. When children experience high levels of fear or stress, they might push those feelings onto inanimate objects or an unnamed other. That ability to remove oneself from the experiences of the moment is an effective coping strategy which can persist into adulthood.

Moon Knight PRESS

If an alter emerges from that dissociation and takes the reigns of the mind, the main personality disconnects and when they come back, they may have no recollection of events which occurred while the alter was in charge. Because DID is a trauma response, handing control to an alter can likewise be triggered by traumatic events.

We certainly see that in Moon Knight, Grant fades into the background, giving control to Spector when things get too hot to handle. When he comes back, he has no recollection of what occurred while he was away, aside from any evidence left on his person or his surroundings.

MERCENARY VIOLENCE

Moon Knight's propensity for violence has most potential for harm, not just to the other characters in the MCU but to the real-world community being represented on screen. Granted, the character was created decades ago when we had a less clear understanding of DID and people weren't as willing to closely consider the consequences of the stories we tell. Still, Marvel is telling the story of Moon Knight now, when it's common consensus that creators have a responsibility to the communities they represent to get this right.

The alter of Spector, particularly when he's channeling Khonshu, is eminently violent. In Moon Knight's first episode, every time Grant returns from an episode of dissociative amnesia, he's met with the carnage left behind by Spector.

Moon Knight Wolf Creature SCREENGRAB

It's a trope we've seen time and time again from movies like Psycho, Identity, and Split. Hollywood has a storied history of casting people living with DID as dangerous villains, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Studies show that those with DID are no more likely to be violent than anyone else and, in fact, are more likely to be victimized themselves. People with DID aren't villains and they aren't violent. Our popular portrayal of DID is one among a long list of groups of people we've turned into monsters in order to avoid reckoning with our own shortcomings and the way we other people even a little bit different from ourselves.

As the series progresses, we can hope that Marvel treats DID with the respect it deserves. One of the things that has made the MCU so enjoyable to watch is the way they continue to bring in underserved communities and represent them onscreen. It's high time people living with DID get to see themselves not as villains, but as heroes.

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