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Writing Mental Illness: A Good Example (Part 3)

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 9, 2019

Having discussed a general approach to writing characters with mental disorders (with a lot of thoughtful comments by you further enriching what I had to say!) it's only right that we wrap up this very quick analysis with an example of a story that properly portrays them.

I chose to go with one of the most popular categories of mental disorder in writing and storytelling in general: PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and DA (Dissociative Amnesia)

According to the DSM-5, PTSD is a condition that might occur in individuals that have experienced a traumatic event of some sort involving threat of death and/or threat of sexual assault or serious assault, either directly or by association. You can see a full list of criteria required for a person to be diagnosed with PTSD here.

Dissociative Amnesia is a related condition that can be comorbid with PTSD (i.e. it can manifest in tandem with PTSD). It is when a person can't remember events and other things related to an extremely traumatic event, in such an extent that it's impossible to justify as mere forgetfulness. You can find a list of all the criteria (i.e. symptoms) for DA here.

Did you read the criteria? Let's get on with the movie then!

The one that I must admit surprised me with how well it depicted both these disorders is the movie Dark Places starring Charlize Theron.

Here is the trailer for the movie!

The story is a murder mystery. Its actual plot is old as time in how it unravels and how the characters get through the stages of solving the murder and finding who did it. That isn't what makes the movie special. What makes the movie special is how the main character, Libby, who is the one with PTSD and DA, is portrayed.

The story goes that when she was 8 years old, Libby and her older brother were the sole survivors of the massacre of her family. At the time, Libby pointed at her brother as the killer. Jump to the now, at her 33, she is a cantankerous person who seems marginalized in many ways (she can't hold down a job, she smokes heavily and she drinks, she lies about her past for money, etc). She is approached by a sleuthing club that believe her brother is innocent, and they try to get her to remember the night of the murders so they can get to the bottom of the mystery. The problem is that Libby doesn't actually remember- and she may not want to.

Why is the portrayal of the mental disorders in Libby good?

1. Her disorders are never actually mentioned in the story. You get to witness them but nobody spells out what it is she has.

2. Libby comes across as a troubled individual, not a ‘cool’ individual, and she's not always sympathetic to the audience (though as the story walks us through her trauma, and as she gets closer to a chance at therapy, sympathy does grow).

3. Libby has a personality that is distinct from her disorders, but absolutely affected by them. When the disorders' symptoms subside, her personality doesn't change, it simply manifests in better, more constructive behaviors than before.

4. Libby is shown to struggle with her disorders. They present obstacles to her and emotional and mental torment and challenge. In a very big way, her disorders are the antagonist in the story, not the culprit she's looking for.

5. Libby doesn't miraculously heal, nor can she ‘switch off’ her disorder's symptoms if the situation demands it. Whether she likes it or not, she's stuck with them until she deals with the reason the disorders are there (this brings us to why we need to know how a disorder is dealt with in therapy).

6. Though in the story she doesn't get formal therapy, we are shown the process through which she improves, which is in compliance with what a therapist would try to guide the person to work through in order to achieve therapeutic breakthroughs. The process occurs within the process of the plot development, but it does occur.

7. Her environment isn't uniformally and unconditionally supportive. Though some characters are more supportive and facilitate the process of healing to different extents, there are several others that don't. In fact Libby suffers abuse as a child witness that further worsens the conditions she deals with later (e.g. the sheriff forces her 8 year old self to ‘remember’ certain things, and she gets constant publicity and reward for her status as a victim and witness, effectively trapping her in a situation where adults expect a minor to perform in a certain way). Some characters, therefore, help her progress and some others set her back.

Note that the way the movie deals with mental illness isn't the only way or the perfect way to do it. It's just one way that struck me as remarkably faithful to the truth, for a movie that is basically a whodunnit.

The reason I picked it is because I think it illustrated well how to handle the disorder with respect to what it is, without making it into something it isn't- and all the while make it a relevant, organic part of the plot instead of shoehorning it in just as an extra bauble.

What do you think?

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ShaRose49 at 7:43PM, Feb. 10, 2019

Well thought out. I like to write PTSD characters—hopefully I do them justice

Banes at 3:12PM, Feb. 9, 2019

Fascinating insight! Very interesting series you did here!

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