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Mind in the Media: What Moon Knight Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder

Moon Knight stands in sand after a fight

Verywell / Marvel Studios

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first season of the TV show, "Moon Knight," available on Disney+.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the depiction of dissociative identity disorder in "Moon Knight." See Part 1.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly called multiple personality disorder, is a mental health condition in which a single individual has two or more separate personalities, referred to as "alters" or "parts." Many pop-culture stories, from the 1886 novel "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to the 2016 movie "Split," have found inspiration in the condition. However, they've rarely depicted it accurately, instead perpetuating misinformation and sensationalizing DID, especially by portraying people with multiple personalities as violent or dangerous.

Most recently, the Disney+ series "Moon Knight," based on Marvel comics, revolves around a main character who has at least two separate identities: The mild-mannered English gift shop clerk Steven Grant and the self-assured American mercenary Marc Spector, both played by Oscar Isaac.

And while the show includes plenty of over-the-top superhero plot points and action sequences, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, there are many things the show gets right in its depiction of DID. Still, there are also several things the show gets wrong about the condition.

What Does Moon Knight Get Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder?

The filmmakers of "Moon Knight," including Isaac, have done a fairly good job of accurately portraying DID throughout the series while still making plenty of time for the fantastical flourishes we expect from superhero TV. Nonetheless, the show has taken some dramatic liberties with its portrayal of the condition.

Steven chaining himself up at night

The first character we get to know in "Moon Knight" is Steven Grant, who comes across as meek and largely friendless. When he's initially introduced, Grant doesn't know he has alters, but he does know he has a tendency to wake up in strange places, a situation he attributes to sleepwalking. In order to avoid these unconscious night-time strolls, Steven has taken to chaining himself to his bed to ensure he stays there when he falls asleep.

While it's understandable why the character would do this in the context of the story of "Moon Knight," according to Kelly Caniglia, MA, LCMHC, CCTP, a member of the board of the non-profit DID advocacy organization An Infinite Mind, people with DID would be unlikely to chain themselves up at night.

This is because DID occurs as the result of severe, repeated trauma in childhood, and as a result, feeling trapped and unable to escape is frightening for many people with the condition. Of course "Asylum," the fifth episode of "Moon Knight," shows that when Marc created Steven it was with the intention to have a personality that was unaware of the abuse and neglect Marc suffered at the hands of his mother.

As a result, Steven doesn't remember the trauma that led to his creation, and therefore, wouldn't necessarily be negatively triggered by tying himself up at night. However, this points to another inaccuracy in the show.

Steven's lack of awareness of Marc

While Steven is initially unaware of Marc's existence in "Moon Knight," it’s clear that Marc knows about Steven. And given the focus on Steven in the show's premiere episode, at first, it appears as though Steven is the host personality or the personality who is most often presented to the world, and Marc is one of his alters.

By the fifth episode, however, it's confirmed that Marc is actually the host personality and Steven is his alter. And although as Dr. Robert T. Muller, author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up notes, a person with DID may have personalities that are aware of one another and others that are not, Caniglia observes that it's more common for alters to be aware of the host personality while the host personality has no idea there are alters. Consequently, a more realistic scenario would be that Steven would be aware of Marc but Marc wouldn't be aware of Steven.

That said, everyone with DID has a slightly different experience, so Marc's awareness of Steven isn't necessarily wrong, it's just unlikely. This is especially the case when it comes to Steven's lack of awareness of the existence of Marc's wife, Layla (May Calamawy) because as Caniglia points out, even though alters may not know all the ins and outs of the host personality's life, they usually know important details like the existence of a significant other or of children.

Marc appears to make a conscious decision to create Steven

The pivotal fifth episode of "Moon Knight" depicts the creation of alter Steven Grant when Marc was a child. Marc's DID is caused by his mother's repeated and severe abuse. Like real-life children who suffer extreme trauma, Marc creates other personalities to protect himself. However, there are two things that are inaccurate about the show's depiction of the creation of Steven.

First, Caniglia notes that most children develop DID before age 6 because that's when personality is most flexible. Yet, "Moon Knight" indicates that Marc is older than this when his mother starts abusing him. Marc's younger brother drowns when they're children and Marc's mother blames him, leading her to at first neglect and then abuse him.

But at what appears to be Marc's first birthday following his brother's death, there are nine candles on his cake. If his father is adhering to the tradition that the number of candles on a child's birthday cake reflects their age, that would mean Marc is nine and therefore at an age where his personality is integrated and less capable of forming alternate identities.

Second, in the scene where Steven first appears, young Marc seems to make a conscious decision to create him. Later, he even tells Steven that he invented him so he would have a personality that had the normal childhood Marc didn't. However, the creation of alters isn't something people do on purpose.

According to Susan Hatters-Friedman, MD, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, DID stems from dissociation that happens during trauma where a child splits off their awareness and memory to protect themselves. While some people might simply dissociate without creating alters, the brains of those who develop DID use the subconscious memories formed during dissociation to create distinct identities.

So while Caniglia says it's possible for alters to identify as having different parents, which Steven clearly does, not only is it highly unlikely that Marc would make the active decision to create Steven, it's also unlikely that Marc would be the personality who is most aware of the trauma he experienced in childhood while Steven remains under the impression he had an idyllic childhood with a loving mother.

In fact, many people with DID have difficulty remembering large parts of their childhood precisely because they often have alters within what's referred to as a personality "system" whose job is to protect them from the childhood trauma they experienced.

Violence

In "The Friendly Type," which is the third episode of "Moon Knight," mercenary Marc loses time while fighting men he's hoping to question. When he regains consciousness he finds the men dead around him, and while he initially accuses Steven of killing them, it's clear that neither of them knows how the men met their fate.

Audiences will deduce that the culprit is a third personality that Marc and Steven aren't aware of, and in an after-credits sequence in the show's final episode, this personality is identified as Jake Lockley. Unlike Marc and especially Steven, the sequence confirms that Jake has no remorse about killing anyone who gets in his way. While it's quite possible that Marc and Steven might not know about Jake or remember what happens when he takes over, what is less plausible is that this alter is as deadly as he appears to be.

"Moon Knight" is a superhero show so by its nature it includes a lot of fighting and violence, and because Marc is a mercenary, he's trained to fight and is fairly comfortable perpetuating a certain amount of violence. Moreover, as Moon Knight, the avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu (F. Murray Abraham), he's racked up quite a body count. But it's also clear he regrets what he's done at the god's behest. On the other hand, Jake killed the men Marc was trying to question in a very violent way for seemingly no reason. Plus, in the end-credits scene, he appears to take out the entire staff of a psychiatric facility so he can kidnap and kill the season's villain, Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke). Clearly, Jake is an especially dangerous individual.

Hollywood vs. Reality


The stereotype that people with mental illness are prone to violence has been an especially problematic trope in movies and TV shows including "Split," "Fight Club," and "Psycho" where characters with DID are often shown to have at least one particularly violent or criminally inclined personality. Yet as Muller states and empirical research has shown, people with dissociative disorders including DID are not more likely than anyone else to be dangerous or violent.

In fact, "if they're a danger to anybody, they can be a danger to themselves, and that's because of the trauma history," notes Muller. In order to numb the pain of what they've gone through, people with DID are more prone to self-destructive behaviors, and have high rates of self-harm and suicide attempts. If "Moon Knight" gets a second season, it's likely we'll see a lot more of Jake, and based on what we've seen of him so far, that means any continuation of the show would have the potential to perpetuate the incorrect and problematic association media often makes between violence and mental illness, especially DID.

Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder

Due to the controversial nature of DID and many mental health professionals' lack of training in its diagnosis and treatment, it often takes a long time to be diagnosed with the disorder. However, once a person has been diagnosed, treatment typically involves long-term psychotherapy. Treatment of DID used to focus on the integration of the multiple personalities in a system into a single personality, and some therapists and counselors may still emphasize that as the ultimate goal. However, Caniglia says because people with DID tend to see their system as a family, the idea of completely integrating all of the personalities isn't desirable.

As a result, for newer schools of thought, Caniglia explains, "the focus is more on helping build cohesive communication [between alters] to help regular functioning." Although it can be a slow process, the goal is to get all the alters on the same page and working together so the person with DID can be as functional as possible. Although Muller notes this isn't a cure, it ensures people with DID can live a coherent, productive life.

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  1. Webermann AR, Brand BL. Mental illness and violent behavior: The role of dissociationBorderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2017;4(2). doi:10.1186/s40479-017-0053-9