The PD Reader

  Exploring personality disorders in popular culture and real life.

Supermodel Gia Carangi:  Was It Really BPD?



"Gia Carangi was a story all right.  Sex, drugs, rock and roll, 10-car-pile-up beauty, high fashion, Eurotrash, big bucks, fast cars, homosexuality, AIDS, an early death…"

            —Boston Globe review of Thing of Beauty, Stephen Fried's superb biography of the model.



Gia Carangi.  Better known as just Gia, she was arguably the world's first supermodel.  Immortalized in Stephen Fried's 1993 biography and the 1998 HBO movie that made Angelina Jolie a breakout star—not to mention the hundreds of classic fashion photos she left behind—Gia is one of our truly timeless beauties. 


Gia moved from Philly to New York in the winter of 1978 and became the instant darling of Vogue magazine at eighteen.  She seemed poised for greatness—a half million dollar a year modeling career, TV, the movies—the sky was the limit.  But she fell victim to heroin abuse.  Blackballed from modeling for such offenses as tardiness, no-shows, even shooting up while on set, she fell from grace and suffered a horrible death from AIDS at age twenty-six.


The stories about her are legendary:   She once got into a fistfight with Vogue fashion editor Frances Stern.  She walked out on a huge Versace fashion shoot with Richard Avedon.  She shot up during a bathing suit and summer wear sitting for Vogue and appeared in the magazine with track marks on her arms.  Once she shocked everyone on a shoot by appearing on camera with blood running down her arm from injecting heroin.


Openly gay, she pursued women with poetry and bouquets of yellow roses.  She once lured a girlfriend into her car and simply took off with her to parts unknown.  She climbed to another girlfriend's window stories above a New York street—trying to impress her—rather than use the front door.  There are darker tales of violent arguments with girlfriends, of stealing to buy drugs, even from her own mother.  An altercation at an airport over a knife, dangerous car chases with the police…What drove Gia to such extreme and desperate behavior?    


Almost thirty years after her death, her growing cult of fans rivals those of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe for sheer devotion.  But with all the attention that's been given to the details of her life, the PD Reader only wants to know one thing:  Why hasn't Gia's real problem ever been named?  For if her life story isn't screaming out, "Help me, I have borderline personality disorder!" we don't know whose is.




What is borderline personality disorder? 




For that matter, what is a "personality disorder", period?  Borderline PD expert Shari Y. Manning is the author of Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the best borderline books around (remember her name…we'll come back to this author a lot in our discussion of Gia). 


Dr. Manning writes that someone with a personality disorder "exhibits a chronic pattern of behaviors that are based in his or her personality, which means essentially that they affect everything: moods, actions, and relationships."  Personality disorders are classified as "Axis II" on the five "axes" of mental health disorders, meaning they are chronic, usually lifelong.  (The other occupant on this lonely axis is mental retardation.)  This would be opposed to most of the mental health disorders you commonly hear about, such as depression or bipolar, where the symptoms tend to come and go, leaving the person "normal" (if there is such a thing) between episodes.  Often an episode of depression or bipolar mania can be battled into submission with medication.  Not so the personality disorders.


Manning tells us that the central feature of BPD is a biochemical abnormality in the brain that is present at birth.  A borderline person’s emotional response to just about any stimulus flies right off the chart compared to the emotion a person without BPD would usually feel in the same situation.  A BP’s day is full of huge, huge highs and incomparable lows.  A quote from Sharon Beverly, from Stephen Fried’s Thing of Beauty, illustrates well what we’re talking about here.  Sharon was Gia’s first big love; they dated in Philadelphia in the mid-seventies when Gia was still in high school.


Fried writes, “It was immediately clear to Sharon that Gia had no emotional middle.  ‘She was an extremist, and she found emotions traumatically hard to deal with,’ Sharon said.  ‘There was a very sad side of her.  It wasn’t a sadness that was really blatant—she was always in a good mood, always joking—but it was there.  She always questioned why she would get upset.  She felt that she had a very rough life and felt that it took a lot of energy to deal with the world as it was.  She could never pinpoint where the unhappiness came from, just something inside of her that she could never satisfy.  I don’t think she was talking about her parents.  I don’t even think she meant anything that tangible was rough.  She just meant living and thinking and breathing and having to mentally deal with waking up and living was a hard thing for her.’”


Sounds an awful lot like Marilyn Monroe and the late Princess Diana, doesn’t it?  These are two other famous women with BPD—also extremely beautiful, also adored for the electricity that comes across to the viewer in their photographs; for the way they communicated exclusively through the printed photograph.  Well-known for that neediness, that wistful quality of sadness and longing that made people around them want to take care of them.  If you have read as much about borderline personality disorder as we have here at the PD Reader, you know that this quote by Sharon Beverly describes the internal experience of BPD perfectly, as well as the feeling BP’s often inspire in those around them.


A BP can become so upset or angry over a relatively small issue that he or she can’t control his or her behavior.  The borderline behaves inappropriately and gets a negative reaction from the people around him or her—people important to the BP, parents, friends, teachers, or employers.  Then the BP feels ashamed.  After all, the message he or she is getting from absolutely everyone is that he or she shouldn’t have felt that way and should be able to control his or her behavior.  But the problem, documented by modern medicine with MRI’s and PET scans, is that the BP can’t.  Maddeningly, BP symptoms are often situational—in this arena or with this person, the BP performs well, but in that arena or with that person, the BP cannot.


People are born with varying degrees of susceptibility to the extreme emotional sensitivities of BPD.  On one end of the spectrum are those whose ability to regulate emotion is so impaired that even the calmest home environment, with the most competent and compassionate parenting, isn’t enough to prevent these children from having severe adjustment and mental health issues in adolescence and as young adults.


Then there are those with a milder susceptibility to the disorder.  If these children experience excellent parenting and a good fit between themselves and their environments at home and school, BPD may never develop to the point that the individual meets the criteria for a formal diagnosis.  But raise the same children in environments where parents are unable to meet their needs—whether through abandonment situations such as illness or divorce, or outright emotional, sexual, or physical abuse—and a child who otherwise could have been fine turns out to have full-blown BPD.


Gia's family history sounds something like this.  From Thing of Beauty:  "...Joey, Michael [Gia's older brothers], and Gia were often left to their own devices.  'It was real peanut-butter-for-breakfast time, at least from the way Gia described it,' recalled one friend.  'Nobody was paying attention to those kids.'


"'We could've used some disclipine,' said Michael.  'Every child needs it.  We were allowed to do what we wanted.  I could stay out as long as I wanted and nobody would know.  I don't think my parents ever talked to us about sex.  In the back of your mind, you want discipline, you want to be told stuff by your parents--just to know that they care and that they know what you might be going through.  Gia was the youngest, the breakup affected her the worst.  And I feel girls need more attention than boys anyhow.'"  Fried also quotes Gia's aunt Nancy Adams:  "Kathleen [Sperr, Gia's mother] was driving up there [to New York, where Gia was just making it big in modeling in the late '70's] to do Gia's laundry...When Gia and her brothers were kids, their mother wouldn't do anything for them.  They had to get up themselves, they had to do their own clothes.  Now Gia's a model, and she's driving to New York to do her laundry for her."


Gia's mother, Kathleen, left the family when Gia was eleven.  When she remarried the next year, Fried tells us, her children did not even find out about it until after the wedding.


Mental health clinicians use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose BPD and all other mental and emotional illnesses.  At this writing, BPD is still diagnosed using the nine diagnostic criteria in DSM-IV-TR, and will be until DSM-V is published in May of 2013.  Until then, the DSM-IV criteria are what we've got, so let's look at them one by one and see if, and how, Gia fits.  Next...Criterion 1. 


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