Two weeks ago an ABC News reporter called asking if I thought Moammar Gaddafi (aka Gadhafi, or Qaddafi, or Kahadafy, or Khadafi--talk about an identity problem!) might have Borderline Personality Disorder. Naturally it would be inappropriate to speculate about the psychological functioning of unexamined public figures. However, we did discuss in a more general way how certain behaviors could be considered borderline-ish and may suggest BPD.

Defining criteria for BPD include:
-self-destructive impulsivity (drugs, promiscuity,
     reckless driving),
-extreme mood shifts,
-unstable relationships (frequent and turbulent),
-disproportionate rage reactions,
-unstable sense of identity (playing different roles),
-desperate fears of abandonment (maintaining an always - present entourage),
-chronic feelings of emptiness,
-often dramatic suicidal threats or gestures,
-thought distortion sometimes sliding into paranoia.

These prominent characteristic make it most tempting to speculate about the psychological state of people we see in the media. Are actors, who assume many roles, or politicians, who must sometimes adjust theirs, less likely to establish a stable sense of identity?  When a public figure displays illegal or outrageous behavior, our collective Schadenfreude may leak disbelief, superiority, or pity, but also stimulates curiosity about the personality so engaged.

It is a fun, minor activity for people to examine the psychopathology of known figures. In addition to diagnoses of Bipolar Disorder or malignant Narcissism, borderline-ish behavior is suggested in observations of many well-known characters. Some have speculated that Marilyn Monroe, Zelda Fitzgerald, T. E. Lawrence of Arabia, Vincent Van Gogh, and even Hitler displayed borderline-ish behaviors, in addition to other emotional handicaps.

Some biographers have suggested the BPD diagnosis for their protagonists. Alanna Nash's Golden Girl, the story of Jessica Savitch, a TV reporter who eventually suicided, describes a driven woman, handicapped by BPD. In her book, Diana in Search of Herself, Sally Bedell Smith delivers a strong case demonstrating BPD symptoms in Princess Diana. Memoirs, such as Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, deliver a powerful, personalized description of the disorder.

Sigmund Freud was the first writer to attempt to psychologically autopsy prominent figures. He considered the psychology of Leonardo da Vinci, Moses, and others. In modern culture, one of the most striking representatives of borderline-ish behavior is the character Alex Forrest in the movie, Fatal Attraction, in which she morphs from a seductive, independent woman, to a psychotic murdering harridan. Other films present characters who could certainly be considered borderline-ish--Howard Beale from Network ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"); Hedy Carlson from Single White Female (attempting to merge and ultimately take over the life of her roommate); Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver; Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Books and plays provide more characters to investigate: Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire; Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman; Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night; Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind; Willie Stark in All the King's Men; Carmen in Bizet's opera.

If you're bored following Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan on Entertainment Tonight, contribute to this meditation.  Let us know your thoughts on borderline-ish characteristics in literature or public figures.

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When the diagnosis may interfere with treatment