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Young Adult: The New Borderline Personality Disorder in Cinema

Fatal Attraction 2.0

What's the most significant thing about "Fatal Attraction?" I would argue it's not the memorable ending when Glenn Close leaps out of the bathroom and almost kills Michael Douglass. The most significant outcome of this film is that it gave birth to an associative link between Glenn Close's character, Alex Forrest, and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Viewers watched Alex Forrest and began to link the behavior and inner life of this troubled figure with BPD in a process that continues to cement in the mainstream mindset to this day.

This is a big problem, because 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.

Fortunately, the recently-released to DVD (very much under the radar) "Young Adult" has arrived to provide an incrementally more sensitive, specific and fairer portrait of Borderline Personality Disorder.

"Young Adult" shows us a chapter in the psychologically painful life of Mavis, a character that I believe lies at the intersection of stereotype and prototype for BPD more completely and accurately than any other cinematic portrait to date.

Before we break down the character of Mavis we have to understand how BPD operates. In an overly-simplistic nutshell BPD is the result of a developmental process in which an emotionally dysregulated temperament (a propensity to have very intense feelings) is combined with an invalidating environment (having caretakers or experiences with significant others that range from disinterested/rejecting/subjugating to outright abusive). This interaction fosters a personality structure that experiences life with a heightened sensitivity to rejection and threat, and a host of problematic beliefs and attitudes about life that create inevitably shaky environments (whether at work or at play). A classic example is the black-and-white 'you're either my friend or my enemy' attitude that the BPD mindset takes into most interpersonal situations. Try creating cohesion, unity and good feeling with this sort of fixed world view!

Psychologically, BPD adults are like abandoned children searching for their parents. Their core emotional needs continue to go unmet because they did not have those needs met in childhood and they never learned how to appropriately meet those needs for themselves. Consequently, they pursue core emotional needs in unskillful ways while healthier, more adaptive personality structures move through life engaged in more 'advanced' psychological endeavors like building long-term marriages and conducting philanthropy. BPD individuals are "needy not greedy." You can perhaps see the appropriateness to a BPD-film being entitled "Young Adult."

DSM-IV diagnostic criteria on this subject, which can be thought about as the common themes to a BPD life story, are as follows:

An individual with BPD tends to suffer from a (self-imposed) chaotic social life - relationships are very important but they are superficial, unstable and conflict-filled bonds, marked by intense emotions, fluctuating perceptions of others, and constant (real or imagined) fears of abandonment.

And the relationship to one's self and, in turn, one's emotions is pervasively threatened by invisible, internal forces as well. BPD individuals tend to report a chronic sense of emptiness, and they experience a frightening fluctuation of idealization and devaluation when looking in the mirror. A cloud of diffuse, inexplicable anger/distress seems to hang over their heads as well.

The other hallmark feature of BPD, which tends to come as a response to the emotional and interpersonal upheaval, is the formulation of impulsive, destructive coping habits (ways of trying to contain and manage the psychic pain). Self-mutilation like cutting, and suicide attempts are the most maladaptive manifestations, but drug abuse and other short-term fixes are also common.

So, let's meet Mavis, or should I say Alex Forrest 2.0...

She's in her early thirties and living the professional life of a ghost writer in Hollywood -an endeavor that seems more glamorous than it really is. Mavis lives alone. She doesn't give herself much structure. Self-care is a notion that seems overwhelming much of the time, and social support seems like a distant memory. She chugs Diet Coke for breakfast, begrudgingly exercises, and all too often treats her fluffy dog like an afterthought. And when she encounters strangers, like a hotel clerk, the default mode is to be detached and rude. This stems from a "you're guilty until proven innocent" rule of thumb that BPD individuals have for most people (a logical survival strategy stemming fromo their history of abuse/deprivation).

As the opening scenes unravel we start to get a more intense of Mavis (if I had used the word "better" here that would imply that I'm attaining a more accurate understanding of Mavis' inner world and BPD individuals can be a particularly hard-read). Mavis doesn't just live like an adolescent whose parents are away for the weekend. She feels alone and aimless on the inside in a profound, existential sort of way. She sleeps with men for whom she feels little or nothing. It's why she wakes up in the middle of the night and looks at the hairy body lying next to her with observable disgust. Even her job as a writer - the facet of life that we might expect to be more successful and fulfilling - is much more empty and destabilizing upon closer inspection. Mavis has writer's block, and she's responding to the writer's block by hanging up on her agent and drinking even more than usual. Oh yeah, she's an alcoholic. She declares this to her parents halfway through the film but all we need are the few brief moments in which we observe Mavis gulping (not sipping) her hard liquor, and awakening each morning with a painful groan of despair.

In these opening sequences, we start to get the sense that Mavis is living an uninspired, fairly dysfunctional life. But it's more than that. There's something uncomfortable about watching her, observing the intricacies of her life unfold. Everything about her is cold and aggressive. Looking into her eyes, as pretty as they may be, feels the same as staring into a fixed scowl of anger. "Being" with her is starting to feel tiresome, alienating and a little bit suspenseful - like a shoe is going to inevitably drop from somewhere. This isn't going to be one of those movies where we fall in love with the protagonist. This is going to be one of those movies where, despite a few flashes of appeal, strength and resilience, we're going to struggle to identify with and understand why she's doing what she's doing.

Now that we're getting a sense of the labile, volatile emotions, the unarticulated misery, and the impulsive coping habits that characterize BPD, it's time to grapple with Mavis' interpersonal struggles. This comes into play as the plot thickens and an old flame, Buddy Slade, from her hometown sends out a mass email alerting everyone to the fact that he is now married and just had his first child.

In response to this Mavis develops a plan for her pursuit of happiness; a mission that she proceeds to commit to with increasing force and fury - she and Buddy are meant to be together, and she's going to make it happen. So, even though she hasn't talked to Buddy in years, and even though he seems to be happily entrenched in his own life, Mavis journeys back to her small town with hopes of seduction and glory. The hatching of such a plot indeed smacks of the kind of lapses in judgment, deficits in grounding expectations, and idealizations of memories that might very well pervade the BPD experience of relationships, particularly ex-romances.

The rest of "Young Adult" depicts Mavis's re-entry into her hometown, and a pursuit of Buddy that really does resemble a predator tracking its prey. That's the feeling one gets in watching Mavis attempt to rekindle her old flame. This isn't about genuine reconnection and a loving, healthy dynamic; this is about a preordained, poorly thought through set of needs that is pursued and viewed through a desperate, biased filter of perception.

We watch Mavis have a series of interactions with Buddy, and they seem to go pretty first. She puts a lot of effort into looking her best - she can look quite stunning - and she flirts with confidence and charisma. Buddy meanwhile is responsive and pleasant in a toned-down sort of way (and the film purposefully plays Buddy as ambiguous in certain key moments to allow Mavis' delusion of love to remain intact). An important note here is that Mavis, like BPD individuals, is quite competent at pursuing her relational goals, it's just that the identification and selection of goals are completely ineffective - attempting to win over a man who is interested in her enough to hang out and reminisce but clearly no more interested than that. As she continues to commit to her rigidly-held need for love and connection, her perception becomes increasingly biased. She never crosses the line into delusional "we're getting married next week!" territory, but she flirts with that line.

It escalates to the point that she corners Buddy at his wife's birthday (again, not the best judgment) and makes an anxiety-ridden proposal that they should get back together. He rejects her, and something shifts in her mind. That "something" had been there all along, and Mavis had felt its uncomfortable presence throughout her day-to-day endeavors, but she'd been effectively dulling it with alcohol and rumination about Buddy. That "something" was her self-awareness. It finally came crashing through in the rejection-scene, and she saw how unhappy she was, and how misguided and counter-productive her solution to her unhappiness has been. Buddy, like everything else in her life, had never emerged in her inner-life as a rich and realistic figure with serious potential for future success. He was merely a momentary distraction from her ongoing, 'been there for as long as she could remember' internal turmoil.

There's a great scene that depicts her inner turmoil. After Buddy's rejection, Mavis flees to the home of her caring, interested friend, Matt Freehauf. She shows her vulnerability. She shows on the outside what she always feels on the inside - that she's a scared little girl who thinks she is too crazy to be loved. Matt has wanted to give her that love, and together they finally achieve that love. It's a genuine moment. Mavis has truly connected, and she's done so with a person who treats her well.

At first you think this is the end. But it's not. And that's a good thing because it's not the most realistic ending to have Mavis skip happily-ever-after into the sunset with a man for whom she seemed to harbor only platonic, fleeting feelings. After their night of healthy connection Mavis skips town, and flies back to her pseudo-celebrity life with some newfound self-insight. Despite some progress we sense that she hasn't gained enough insight to overcome the palpable unhappiness that seeps through her.

"Young Adult" offers a character that clearly meets DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for BPD. More than that, Mavis fits more comprehensive conceptualizations of BPD like Jeffrey Young's Schema Therapy. This approach suggests that four modes of "being" characterize the BPD mindset: Abandoned Child (fragile, child-like, sense of being rejected and thrown away); Angry and Impulsive Child (venting uncontained fury and pursuing instant gratification of needs); Punitive Parent (internalization of a parent, self-loathing in response to all the impulsive, destructive actions); Detached Protector (disconnect, go numb, and white-knuckle it through life). Mavis inhabits each of these modes at various times in the movie, examples of which are outlined below:

Mavis is in Abandoned Child Mode at the beginning of her "rebound" night with matt.

Mavis is in Angry and Impulsive Mode when she gets wasted after watching Buddy's wife perform well as a drummer.

Mavis in in Punitive Parent Mode when she cries into her cat's fur and bemoans her mistaken pursuit of Buddy.

Mavis is in Detached Protector Mode when she has dinner with her parents and senses their disapproval of her life.

Despite the unhappy ending, it's important to note that the many positive traits that sneak through represent the complex, full-range picture of BPD. Like many individuals who fit this diagnosis, Mavis has a lot of skills. She's clearly smart, witty and articulate. She's attractive and talented and clearly capable of achieving professional success. Further, she's seems capable of learning many of the things that more adaptive "adults" need to learn to survive and thrive. We sense that she's within reach of a much more sympathetic, loving, generous, successful and happy version of herself but she can't quite attain it. Don't get me wrong, many people living with BPD can get "there," it's just that Mavis doesn't.

This sad state of affairs is due to the fact that there are intricacies to the BPD mindset that are challenging to excavate. What's in the bloodstream, metaphorically speaking, is a sense of self as being invalid and underserving of love; a belief that other people will inevitable deprive and disappoint you, maybe even harm you; an assumption that the world is an unfair, dangerous place. How can you trust new people, confront frightening emotions, and do all the things that you need to do to build a healthier life with all that going on?

In the end we learn that much of what had been driving Mavis's current "stalker light" scheme was an unresolved and perhaps traumatic past event in which she had a miscarriage while with Buddy. What's particularly challenging about BPD - which this scene captures nicely - is that the problematic set of attitudes guiding the BPD individual through life is often co-constructed and reinforced by legitimately awful, abusive life experiences. Having a miscarriage before breaking up with your first love is a plausible example of the way in which the BPD mindset hardens.

More from Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.
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