Mr. Robot: Schizophrenia, Multiple Personality Disorder and the Reality of Art


The USA network’s first ever “golden era” T.V. show, Mr. Robot, is so complex I could write several different posts about it. To start, I decided to talk about the show’s relationship to schizophrenia, or that disorder’s more cinematic cousin, multiple personality disorder.

I hadn’t necessarily considered Mr. Robot to be a show about multiple personality disorder until I listened to Bingeworthy’s recap of the whole season. The host, the very smart Dan Benjamin, makes many remarks linking Elliot’s peculiar quirks to this disorder. He’s not on the wrong track either. Mr. Robot‘s creator Sam Esmail has talked about how Elliot’s disorder was informed by dissociative identity disorder (the modern name for multiple personality disorder) and schizophrenia, although he says he wouldn’t necessarily classify Elliot as schizophrenic.

I’m always surprised to learn that another movie or T.V. plot is about multiple personality disorder. That’s because I was taught, way back in the day, that this disorder is not real, and is actually a troubling construct that leads people to misunderstand schizophrenia. Ever seen novelty T-shirts that read “I’m not schizophrenic and neither am I?” (I also remember hearing a theory that what patients sometimes describe as multiple personality disorder can actually be alcoholism or drug addiction. “I went out last night and somebody else inside me took over. It’s all a blackout after that.”)

The skepticism I learned was probably due to the scandal surrounding the 1976 movie Sybil, about a woman with 16 separate personalities. After the movie came out, the reported cases of the disorder went from less than 100 (in Western medical history) to thousands. Later on, an exposé revealed that the patient dramatized as “Sybil” was most likely being manipulated by her fame-hungry psychiatrist into believing she had MPD.

Since this topic came up, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how movies/T.V. represent mental illness. Here are the three most common ways I’ve noticed:

-Mental illness as a surprise reveal of an unreliable narrator in a story about an individual against society. In this category I would put Fight Club, the movie that Esmail has openly admitted Mr. Robot is heavily influenced by. These stories challenge our tendency to side with and believe the narrator of a story, seeming to question the structure of society but then sneaking in a deeper examination of the self and its relation to others.

-Stories that are blatantly about mental illness, and the challenges that people who experience it face in trying to live a normal life. What comes to mind in this category are Silver Linings Playbook and United States of Tara (which is about multiple personality disorder).

-More artistic stories that feature characters who may have a mental illness, but that’s not the point. These stories intentionally blur the lines between the real and surreal to the point where we are clearly dealing with the abstract nature of consciousness, not actual conditions. Here I think of Michel Gondry movies like The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind or Lars and the Real Girl.

I tend to be most charmed by the second category, which is explicitly about mental illness and the main conflict is trying to fit in with the rest of the world. From my family’s experience with mental illness, this one rings the most true, especially when it comes to the importance of humor in what can often seem like an uphill battle that no one gets to win.

I’m also a bit more wary of stories that pull a bait and switch on you, revealing that the epic world you’re living in is merely a figment of the imagination of a “madman.” Mental illnesses rarely create the kind of ordered, alternative sense of reality that we get to explore in movies like this. Even though they might be killer stories, interpreting them as portrayals of mental illness can glamorize and misconstrue the day-to-day reality many mentally ill people often face.

I’m not sure which of these categories Mr. Robot fits into. The second-to-last episode (“eps1.8_m1rr0r1ng.qt”) was my favorite of the whole season, because it revealed so much of Elliot’s vulnerability. In this episode, we get to see him from the outside as Angela and Darlene become the temporary protagonists. (The show also definitely passes the Bechdel test in this episode.) When we see Elliot talking to his father’s grave, we see how much misguided faith we’ve placed in our troubled and unreliable protagonist. This guy is so dissociated from his own life that he doesn’t recognize his own father or sister.

When I watched this episode, I did feel like Mr. Robot had done a masterful job at painting Elliot as schizophrenic. He’s haunted by voices, he abuses drugs, he has trouble with memory and he’s increasingly paranoid that his medications are trying to dull him.

But then the season finale spun the movie back into Fight Club V for Vendetta territory, and it once again seemed like a story about an empowered but imperfect madman changing the world. But I wasn’t watching Mr. Robot because it was perfect. I liked how it was imperfect, how it asked more questions than it answered and because of how vulnerable and human the characters are.

I think it’s ok to decide not to decide yet what Elliot’s diagnosis is. With stories that are more about the imperfections of consciousness than about an explicit mental illness, it’s almost more productive to use them as a mirror for ourselves. We’re not watching Fight Club or Mr. Robot to gain empathy for the reality of mentally ill people. We’re watching because they’re commentaries on the corruption of society and the way it affects the individual, because we want to see what a hero can look like in a world where the is no clear definition of good or bad. And that’s a good enough reason to enjoy something.

Art itself isn’t a direct reflection of real life. It’s an exploration of the complexities of consciousness, of the things we choose to be blind to. Fictional characters ask us questions about ourselves and who we would be if we chose to act in a way that some might deem irrational. That’s why we’re so intrigued by multiple personality disorder. Not because it’s common, but because we all wonder who else we could be if pushed away from our own lives.

Becky Lang