Movie Review: Black Swan, posted July 10, 2018
Rating: As a movie, 4 stars of 5; regarding mental illness, only 1 star.
This review of the Oscar winner from a couple of years back may come across as unduly harsh, but I don’t mean to deride here the quality of the storytelling, the cinematography, the directing, the fabulous acting of the entire cast—especially its star, Natalie Portman—or Portman’s dancing. (Exactly what dancing did she actually do? The answer is at the end.)
What disappoints this reviewer is the unrealistic depictions of mental illness in this film. Throughout the making and release of Black Swan, the filmmakers repeatedly said that the main character, Portman’s Nina Sayers, was supposed to be suffering from borderline personality disorder. We in the Welcome to Oz support group for family members of people with BPD had been looking forward to the film.
They did get a few things right. But then, they get so much more so horribly wrong that if I had BPD myself, I’d be insulted. I feel insulted for my family member who has BPD over this film.
What they get right: Nina’s deep sense of panic and despair when anyone disapproves of her, her low opinion of herself, and her poor sense of personal limits. Although she is clearly one of her company’s top dancers, Nina is unable to be happy with her own progress unless the two main authority figures in her life, her mother and the head of her ballet company, are completely satisfied themselves. She measures her self-worth according to their reactions—every little twitch—and if it isn’t good, she has no capacity to find any sense of self-worth on her own. Her anxiety over this has given her an eating disorder and a self-mutilation problem. She also steals from the principal’s dressing room, a thrill-seeking behavior a BP might do. And she doesn’t have the ability to see, as a more independent and enlightened young woman would, that her ballet master’s treatment of her is blatant sexual harassment and should earn him a lawsuit.
Nina also does something that many borderlines do: when someone feels the slightest sense of disapproval toward her, she’s looking for it and she notices it. But in at least one case—that of her ballet master—she misinterprets the reason. Thomás actually is trying to help her out and give her a chance. He’s really in her corner and never wanted to give the starring part to anyone else but her. But he’s an egotistical and harsh person. He cruelly manipulates his dancers, and Nina isn’t able to consider him more objectively and see that he isn’t able to fire her from the part. She can perhaps be forgiven for this, however, as sexual harassment does tend to mask any redeeming qualities a person might have.
Sad to say, this is the extent of what Black Swan gets right about BPD, at least in the character of Nina. The many hallucinations that Nina has present a huge problem; two, in fact. BP’s are said to experience “transient stress-related paranoia”. What this means is that a BP, when anxious about problems in her life, for example, might notice two people talking and assume they’re speaking negatively between themselves about her. Or she might misconstrue an innocent question or comment as a deliberate insult. One example of realistic BP paranoia occurs when Nina begs Thomás not to cast Lily as her understudy because Lily wants her role. (Of course, in this case Lily really may be scheming to get the role herself; in this case, as the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. The movie makes this issue murky. Is Lily really out to do Nina in or not?)
But a BP, unless suffering from some other comorbidity, would not: Glance at someone’s face and mistake it for her own; look at paintings of faces and see and hear them speaking to her; believe that she was growing feathers; believe her own legs were morphing into swan legs (no matter how hard the special effects department was trying for an Oscar); see and feel the actual sensations of fighting someone who wasn’t there; see a person stabbing herself in the face who actually was not; or stab herself with a piece of glass believing she was actually striking away from herself at an imaginary person. Although some of these hallucinations remind me of what Gene Tierney described in her autobiography, even a bipolar or a paranoid schizophrenic generally knows in what direction her hands are moving.
Half these story points seem to be there mainly to confuse the audience, a dirty trick that isn’t even necessary. The story is gripping enough without that. It’s dirtier still when the result is widespread, Oscar-winning confusion about BPD.
Other well-known information about BPD shows up, but the reason for it is misinterpreted. BPD sufferers sometimes do commit suicide, for example, but not because they’re attacking themselves in some fragmented sense of reality that probably doesn’t even happen in real schizophrenia. Rather, they do it by accident, because an act of self-mutilation has gotten out of hand, or they do it deliberately, because the pain of their lives has become too much to bear.
The character whose behavior actually looks a lot more like real BPD is that of Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey. As the child of a BP myself, I know that horrible feeling of having to capitulate quickly to a parent’s will, such as when Nina eats the cake, in order to avoid a frightening explosion of anger. Nina’s mother has completely ruled her child’s life. Nina is her stand-in, the proxy ballerina who achieved what her mother never could in the world of dance, and she allows the girl no privacy. Nina agrees unquestioningly with everything her mother thinks, values, and believes. One can see how Hershey’s character has accomplished this: through threats of withdrawal of the love and approval every child needs, and through threats of the kind of loss of control that strikes terror into the heart of every child. As the thirty-eight year recipient of exactly this kind of behavior, I cheered when Nina finally left the house to go clubbing with Lily, and plucked a pole out of the garbage to bar her mother from her room.
It should be noted that a lot of what I’ve said here that looks like accurate BPD behavior from Nina can also show up in a child who does not have BPD, but was raised by a BPD parent. I had the same low self-esteem, lack of boundaries, and need for approval when I was Nina’s age, before I learned that how your parents see the world is not how you have to see it. Nina Sayers isn't BPD, she's hideously codependent with horrorifically low self-esteem. And while a lot of her behavior in the film conforms to that, the bizarre hallucinations do not.
So there is lots of accuracy here. The sad thing is that BPD is dramatic enough. It doesn’t need all the Hollywoodisms and wild fabrications to dress it up and manipulate and confuse the audience.
Those of us who have BPD, or love someone who does, know: This disease is no joke. It cries out for real understanding among the public, not horrible distortions for the sake of box office. I find myself disappointed that Portman, a Harvard psych major, didn’t use her training to research BPD a little more thoroughly and insist on more accuracy, as much as I admired everything else she did in the film and believe she earned her Oscar.
Oh, and Portman’s dancing? She does all her dances, but she does them on the balls of her feet. The only move she can do en pointe is seen at the very beginning and very end of the film, where she stands in one place, fluttering en pointe and flapping her wings. The rest of the shots where you see a dancer on the tips of her toes are of Sarah Lane or Kimberly Prosa.
An APD allegory in the form of a Star Wars fan fiction begins, on the Fiction page. Prologue up, 10/14/18. Chapter Four up, 11/13/18.
Movie Review: Black Swan from a mental illness perspective, on the Op-Ed page. 7/10/18
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.