“Fatal Attraction”: Another Look At Alex’s Mental Health

When actress Glenn Close participated last week in the White House Conference on Mental Health Awareness she stated to CBS News that her portrayal of Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987) would be different today as a result of her own increased awareness. “I would read that script totally differently.”

Even the two psychiatrists she consulted back then about the role, though, failed to mention that Alex seemed mentally ill.

Close can now see that her character’s depiction has contributed to stigma regarding mental illness, which seems to bother her a great deal. “Most people with mental illness are not violent.”

For a reminder of Fatal Attraction, here’s its trailer:

Since the film, “fatal attraction” has become synonymous with terrorizing and stalking someone, while the term “bunny boiler” has come to indicate, as defined by the Free Dictionary, “a woman who is considered to be emotionally unstable and likely to be dangerously vengeful.” (Due, of course, to what Alex does to the pet bunny.)

Many movie viewers, including scholars, have diagnosed Alex with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Jeremy Clyman, M.A., points out in Psychology Today, though, that the persistent notion that Alex has BPD is highly problematic:

…(B)ecause Glenn played a crazed stalker much more than she played a nuanced, plausible sufferer of BPD. So when people say, ‘You want to know what BPD individuals look like – go watch Fatal Attraction,’ harm is being perpetuated. It’s a sad state of affairs because BPD is a poorly understood diagnosis to begin with and individuals with this label suffer enough stigmas… we don’t need a misguided, over-dramatized prototype of BPD floating around the zeitgeist.

What are the actual characteristics of borderline personality disorder? NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) lists some of the hallmarks. Someone with at least several of these traits might have BPD:

  • Marked mood swings with periods of intense depressed mood, irritability and/or anxiety lasting a few hours to a few days (but not in the context of a full-blown episode of major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder).
  • Impulsive behaviors that result in adverse outcomes and psychological distress, such as excessive spending, sexual encounters, substance use, shoplifting, reckless driving or binge eating.
  • Recurring suicidal threats or non-suicidal self-injurious behavior, such as cutting or burning one’s self.
  • Unstable, intense personal relationships, sometimes alternating between “all good,” idealization, and “all bad,” devaluation.
  • Persistent uncertainty about self-image, long-term goals, friendships and values.
  • Chronic boredom or feelings of emptiness.
  • Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment.

Treatment can include therapy, medication, and support and help for one’s loved ones. The positive news, according to NAMI: “Recent research based on long-term studies of people with BPD suggests that the overwhelming majority of people will experience significant and long-lasting periods of symptom remission in their lifetime.”

Regarding Alex’s diagnosis, others have focused more on her probable erotomania, a condition involving delusions that the object of one’s love interest returns the feelings.

But I think I speak for many viewers who’ve never had a need to diagnose Alex Forrest at all. As described by Desson Howe in The Washington PostClose’s portrayal of the out-of-control stalker was that of a “she-wacko” who “becomes the female equivalent of the vengeance-crazed Robert Mitchum in ‘Cape Fear’ or the robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’.” A dramatic character who terrifies Michael Douglas’s character and family and thus we moviegoers in the process.

Related to her stellar performance, Howe went on to predict a slew of more “she-wacko” scripts for Close. Who knew she’d not only not go on to represent all kinds of screen “she-wackos” but would actually become the founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, a campaign against the type of mental illness stigma that has affected some of her own family members.

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