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:
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment by friends and family.
- Unstable personal relationships that alternate between idealization (“I’m so in love!”) and devaluation (“I hate her”). This is also sometimes known as “splitting.”
- Distorted and unstable self-image, which affects moods, values, opinions, goals and relationships.
- Impulsive behaviors that can have dangerous outcomes, such as excessive spending, unsafe sex, reckless driving, or misuse or overuse of substances.
- Self-harming behavior including suicidal threats or attempts.
- Periods of intense depressed mood, irritability or anxiety lasting a few hours to a few days.
- Chronic feelings of boredom or emptiness.
- Inappropriate, intense or uncontrollable anger—often followed by shame and guilt.
- Dissociative feelings—disconnecting from your thoughts or sense of identity or “out of body” type of feelings—and stress-related paranoid thoughts. Severe cases of stress can also lead to brief psychotic episodes.
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 many viewers have never had a need to clinically diagnose Alex Forrest at all. As described by Desson Howe in The Washington Post, Close’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.
I worked for the Dept. of Justice with Parolees and criminals on Court orders. I was held hostage at knife point by an offender who had a long standing diagnosis of BPD including symptoms of narcissism, serious self harm, Anti-social traits, inability to establish and maintain social/personal relationships, impulsive and compulsive behaviours (notable severe alcoholism and poly substance drug use) inability to accomplish educational and social achievements among a host of other problems. This offender had a history of being treatment resistant and forming inappropriate relationships with treatment providers many times ending in attempts to harm those trying to work with her to improve treatment outcomes. While I realise this was amen extreme case of BPD, it is a treatment resistant psychiatric condition that I believe is underestimated. Being at the hands of this person with two huge, serrated knives initially strapped to her waist who told me constantly that I was going to die for an hour and continually taunted with those knives has ruined my life. With so many people being diagnosed and the range of behaviours from self inflicted to criminally violent, so much more needs to be invested into studying this form of psychiatric condition so that early intervention and new forms of treatment and combinations can be applied.
It’s not treatment resistant. DBT provides good remission outcomes, and while I feel awful that you had to go through such a traumatic experience, the majority of people with BPD will not commit acts like what happened to you. Recent studies have shown that a BPD diagnosis alone does not indicate an increased risk of violent behaviour – it’s most often the comorbidities that come with this condition e.g. substance abuse disorders that cause violent behaviour. Also, narcissism and anti social behaviour are not diagnostic criteria for BPD. To reiterate, there is a treatment specifically formulated for BPD that works well, and back ups like schema therapy. Remission is highly achievable and it is certainly not incurable.
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