Black Swan is a psychological thriller by Darren Aronofsky about a ballerina who slowly goes insane during the time of repetition for the ballet performance Swan Lake. The movie is made very well in terms of psychopathology. The main heroine, ballerina Nina, is so immersed in her own perception of the ballet performance that she begins to identify real life with the plot of the ballet, and herself with a swan: firstly, with White — Odette and then with Black — Odile. Finally, the latter prevails. Nina suffers from dissociative identity disorder. Speaking of everyday language, it is a split personality.
Dissociative Identity Disorder in Black Swan
Psychologists are well aware of this kind of disease, and nowadays it is thoroughly studied. Several features inherent to dissociative identity disorder are shown accurately in Black Swan. Meanwhile, the other psychological disorders were used to create an atmosphere of the film and do not correspond to the disease symptomatology.
Without a doubt, among dissociative disorders, the most “cinematic” type of the illness is a split personality or multiple personalities. The patient has several “alter personalities” that exist in parallel, each one in its own reality. Drama potential of the problem was proved in Black Swan. Apparently, authors of the film are clearly impressed by the fact that an infantile girl and a brutal killer can peacefully coexist in the one person. Severe stress experienced by the individual often becomes the cause of the syndrome of “splitting” (Bruch, 2015). In the thriller Black Swan, it is clearly demonstrated what happens when the “realities” of the two personalities accidentally begin to come into contact.
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The main heroine gets the lead role in the ballet. It is the role of Swan Queen, and it involves two opposite sides. Nina must fulfill the role of the White and Black Swan. First one fits her perfectly because Nina was like White Swan: modest and shy, nervous and fearful. However, Black Swan, the other part her performance, turned out to be an overwhelming task. Since it embodied dissolute and evil forces of human nature, Black Swan was the opposite of her own character. Therefore, to immerse in the role, Nina had to change herself, to become a “black”, as well as awaken own dark and evil nature. Eventually, the acting exercise turned into a real obsession or paranoia. Black Swan moved into Nina, displacing White. She has become an embodiment of evil for the role that ultimately she performed undoubtedly perfect. However, White Swan and its light essence could not exist in Nina anymore. It would not be a mistake to suggest that Nina suffers from dissociative identity disorder.
Dissociative identity disorder is a very rare psychiatric disease from the group of dissociative disorders in which an individual’s personality is split, and it seems that there are several different characters (or ego states) in the body of one person (Ross, 2000). In the certain moments, there is a “switch” in a person, and one person replaces another one. These “individual” may have a different gender, age, nationality, temperament, intelligence, philosophy, respond differently to the same situation. After the “switch”, the currently active person can not remember what happened during the time another person was active (Ross, 2000).
This disorder is an extreme manifestation of dissociation. It is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person begins to perceive what is happening to him or her as if it is going on to someone extraneous (Goldberg, 2014). This mechanism is useful because it allows a person to be protected from excessive, unbearable emotions. However, in cases of excessive activation of this mechanism, dissociative disorders appear. Contrary to popular belief, these disorders are not associated with schizophrenia (Goldberg, 2014).
The parts of the patient’s self-identity resulting from separation (dissociation) from his or her personality can not be considered independent integrated personality. Usually, the person is not aware of the other people’s presence in the body (Lawrence, 2010). According to DSM-IV, dissociative identity disorder is diagnosed if the following criteria are present:
In the patient, there are two or more distinct identities or personality states at the same time. Each of them has a sustainable model of attitude, outlook, and their own approach to reality.
At least two of these identities alternately take control over the behavior of the patient.
The patient could not recall important information about him- or herself, and it goes beyond the ordinary forgetfulness (Lawrence, 2010).
In addition to the symptoms listed in the DSM-IV, in patients with dissociative identity disorder depression, suicide attempts, sudden changes in mood, anxiety, and anxiety disorders, phobias, panic attacks, sleep and nutrition disorders, and other dissociative disorders, hallucinations may also occur (Kihlstrom, 2005).
Dissociative identity disorder is closely related to the mechanism of psychogenic amnesia. The latter is a memory loss that has a purely psychological nature without physiological disturbances in the brain. This is a psychological defense mechanism by which a person can displace the traumatic memories from consciousness. However, in the case of identity disorder, it helps individuals to “switch” (Kihlstrom, 2005). Excessive activation of this mechanism often results in the development of common everyday problems with memory in patients suffering from the identity disorder.
Dissociative identity disorder is believed to be caused the by the combination of several factors: intolerable stress, ability to dissociate, a lack of care, and concern in relation to the child in traumatic experience, or lack of protection from subsequent undesirable experience. Adults with this disease often describe the situation of violence in childhood (Lawrence, 2010). These data indicate that the abuse in childhood acts as the main cause of identity disorder among patients. Some of them may not experience violence, early loss (e.g., death of a parent), serious disease, or other extremely stressful event (Lawrence, 2010).
The ballerina has a mental disorder of neurotic character since adolescence. It is an obsessive self-inflicted injury that is confirmed by Nina’s mother. However, one can suggest that it was not self-inflicted wounds. It was just a child’s abuse the true nature of which the mother could not know due to busyness in developing her own ballerina career. Besides, Nina has no father. Perhaps the death of the parent was the cause of the future disorder. The reasons for dissociative identity disorder experiencing by the heroine are not completely clear in the movie. Thus, she already had the disorder. It is likely to worsen by bringing up by the mother, liability, dream, guilt, and the fierce competition.
At the very beginning of the film, the heroine is said that “Perfection is not just about control. It is also about letting go”. Since that time, the split of her personality began. There are two swans: humble and aggressive. Since early childhood, Nina was taught to suppress her emotions, especially aggression. Thus, she is not able to play Black Swan. Emotionally, during the development, she stopped on the level of a small child. It can be evidenced by the look at her bedroom that is full of pink lingerie and many toys. Just killing a humble person, she was able to play Black Swan. So then, realizing what happened, to play a dying person.
The starting point for the emergence of the alter ego was stress and obsession of overvalued idea of perfectionism. Its nature can be twofold: hysterical — then triumphal ballet career is expected, and schizophrenic — psychic catastrophe and professional and life fall. The presence of hallucinations is not a mandatory obstacle to the performance of the ballerina. Thus, the dual personality is created and entered Nina’s life. Its nature can be twofold: hysterical — and then waiting for the actress triumphal ballet career; schizophrenic — ahead of psychic catastrophe and professional life fall. The presence of hallucinations is not a mandatory obstacle to the ballerina’s performance.
The presence of alter ego is shown in the film quite accurately. It is brightly highlighted by the mother phrase in relation to Nina “It is not my Nina”. The Black Swan personality is acting in the following scene. Nina is more and more disturbing by the fear that Lily wants to take away her role. Nina rehearses all the evening before the premiere of the ballet. She suffers from hallucinations. Nina goes to the hospital to Beth, who threw herself under a burning car and was injured. Suffering from depression, Beth takes nail file and begins to pierce her face. After unsuccessful attempts to stop Beth, Nina runs from her chambers and jumps into the elevator. There she suddenly realizes that nail file, with the help of which Beth cut her face, somehow appeared in her hands. In a fit of panic, Nina runs home. One can suggest that alter ego of Nina, Black Swan, hurt Beth. However, Nina should not remember this. This is also a mismatch between the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder.
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In the film, it was not shown that Nina forgot periods when the second person operated. She rather does not understand what is going on when Black Swan is acting. Also, the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder as depression, suicide attempts, sudden changes in mood, anxiety disorders, and phobias were absent. However, they do not always occur in this disease.
A source of horror in Black Swan is the unexplained mutation of the human body. Alien personality, which grows through the skin, changes the way of thinking. However, these shocking scenes of the heroine’s metamorphosis, her moments of going crazy can not be considered completely accurate with respect to dissociative identity disorder. As was mentioned above, the person does not know that another personality is present in his or her body. Nina always thinks that she is bleeding. Germination of feathers through the skin and permanent blood wounds on the body are the attempts of alter ego to come into Nina’s reality. However, it can be considered as a cinematic metaphor and visual means used to deepen the impression of the film (not the features inherent to such mental disorder as personality split).
The scenes in which Nina suffers from a variety of aberration are typical psychiatric symptoms of the hallucinatory-delusional syndrome developing in a stressful situation. The hallucinatory-delusional syndrome may accompany dissociative identity disorder. Nina’s hallucinations are shown the most brightly in the scene when she imagined that she killed her rival by the glass from the mirror. However, in reality, she hurt herself. The wound was deep, but obviously because of the shock Nina did not feel the pain and went to the final stage where danced the last part and then died.
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Negative attitudes towards people with mental disorders begin with prejudice. Familiarity with mental illness leads to a more enlightened view of the problem. However, the main factor is correct information. With the proper image in the movie mental disorders, stigma can be overcome. With regards to treatment, correct and incorrect depictions of disorders do not have significant effect because initially physicians are more aware of the problem.
In fact, Black Swan is a story of the human disease, a split personality, and psychosis. Excellent acting shows the struggle of the individual with her second “I”. In the heavy pursuit of a dream or obsession, White Swan is suffering but fights. Black Swan also goes ahead and does not stop fighting. These swans are two “I” of one person. There are black and white sides of Nina’s personality. All her life is connected with the struggle of these two egos. Feelings and nervous breakdowns are developing in dissociative identity disorder. Nina is struggling with herself. However, she does not know who she is for sure. Identity disorder is extremely difficult for her. Eventually, the role destroys her.