Psychology Paper: Analyzing the Psychological Disorder Presented in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan

Research PaperPsychology
Aug 26, 2021

I. Summary of the Character

Natalie Portman plays Nina in Black Swan,  as a ballerina who is residing in New York City. She lives with her mother, who controls her in a very obsessive and suffocating manner. Nina is the director’s first choice to play in Swan Lake, which requires two characters to be portrayed: a white swan, which is innocent and graceful, and a black swan, which represents sensuality and guilt. However, another ballerina catches the director’s eye, Lily. The character of Nina is in perfect alignment with the white swan and Lily’s character is perfectly aligned with the black swan. The two develop a friendship that is somewhat based on rivalry and, through the friendship, Nina discovers her dark side. The dark side is imbued with recklessness and it begins to destroy her cognition and sense of self. It should be noted at this point that Nina’s desire to get the part is coupled with her mother’s overbearing nature, in addition to which is that her mother is trying to live her ballerina life through Nina by controlling her. The director wants one person to play both swans but tells Nina that she lacks the passion to play the dark swan and that she is mechanical in her movements. The director also emphasizes that perfection is not about control, but rather letting go. Nina develops hallucinations regarding Lily, the director, and another ballerina. One of Nina’s hallucinations occurred backstage of the performance of Swan Lake, in which she sees her face on Lily’s and grabs a shard of glass then stabs Lily in the stomach. After this, she returns to the stage and is able to perform the part of the black swan with the passion that was needed. However, back in her dressing room, she discovers that her fight with Lily was another hallucination and that she had, in fact, stabbed herself.

II. Characteristics Pertaining to Dissociative Identity Disorder

Nina shows signs of having Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) because of having two personalities. This can be seen in the scene backstage, where she sees Lily and kills her, but in the end, only to discover that she had stabbed herself. The scene is very telling: in the scene, Nina has dissociated from her identity, the hallmark of DID, and also hallucinated. According to NAMI, the cardinal feature of DID is that the person has two or more identities, involving distinct personalities, that control the person’s behavior at the time that they are the ones being personified. Formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, DID is also characterized by “some alters [that] may harbor aggressive tendencies, directed toward individuals in the person’s environment or toward other alters within the person” (NAMI). The scene backstage shows that Nina possesses these personalities and that her personality as Nina exhibited aggressive behavior towards her other personality, Lily. Another characteristic that Nina possesses is the inability to remember certain periods of time, or having amnesia. There are time lapses in which she does not remember what happened the night before. Also, confusion and delusions were exhibited by her when she believes that she slept with Lily and that she saw the director and Lily kissing. Amnesia, confusion, and delusions are common symptoms of DID and these are experienced in addition to the multiple personalities (NAMI). Nina’s mother is also overbearing and tries to make Nina as how she had imagined herself to be; that is, controlling her to such an extent that she requires perfection. As the Sociocognitive Model of DID shows, the disorder is composed of “rule-governed and goal-directed experiences and displays of multiple role enactments that have been created, legitimized, and maintained by social reinforcement” (Lilienfield et al. 507). Furthermore, DID patients exhibit role enactments, in which the identities that they adopt are geared towards their aspirations (Lilienfield et al. 508). Nina aspires to be able to play the black swan as well as the white swan. Seeing that Lily is able to portray the black swan perfectly, she enacts Lily’s role because it would suit her aspirational needs. These role enactments, additionally, are not the result of a conscious decision and the person is unaware that these enactments are happening (Lilienfield et al. 508). This can be seen in the character of Nina who, at no point in the film, displays any insight into what has been happening. Furthermore, at no point did she consciously choose to adopt the personality of Lily. The subconscious adoption of Lily’s persona was borne out of her aspirations to be able to play the part of the black swan. Lastly, Nina’s transitions between her own personality and that of Lily’s displays “organismic involvement,” that is, that her two roles virtually become indistinguishable from one another (Lilienfield et al. 508), so as to culminate in her being able to play both swans in the end.

III. Nature vs. Nurture

Nina’s DID is a result of "nurture", or her environment. First, her mother is overbearing and very controlling, pushing her towards perfection. This suggests that her aspirations were brought on by the fact that she wants to please her mother. The sociocognitive model of DID posits that DID is a result of sociocultural factors that surround the individual and that, at present, there are no genetic factors that account for the disorder (Lilienfield et al. 508). Furthermore, the sociocognitive model also espouses that DID develops as a result of iatrogenic influences that occur due to traumatic childhood experiences (Lilienfield et al. 508). Although Nina’s childhood was not shown, her mother’s treatment of her, coupled with the sociocultural influence to be a perfect ballerina, was responsible for her disorder. Additionally, Nina has adopted the as-if personality , which is typical in disorders wherein there is a decreased integrity of the self. This personality commonly arises as a result of significant changes in the person’s life, such as career changes (Saddock & Saddock 430). The opportunity to play the lead role in Swan Lake was a big career change for Nina and this prompted her to subconsciously develop multiple personalities and to dissociate from her own self. This is further proof that the etiology of DID in Nina’s case is through acquisition or nature. As was previously stated, Nina suffers from bouts of episodic amnesia, which is characteristic of DID and “results from psychogenic rather than organic factors” (Saddock & Saddock 435). A history of trauma is also strongly associated with pathological levels of dissociation found in DID. Furthermore, studies strongly link increased levels of dissociation with multiple sources of trauma. Additionally, high levels of dissociative characteristics in the mother are linked to dissociative characteristics in the child (Saddock & Saddock, 428). The mother is seen as trying to live her idea of a perfect ballerina through Nina, showing that she has dissociative characteristics. Also, the trauma from the obsessive control of her mother, her mother’s dissociative characteristics, and the trauma of possibly losing the part of the black swan to Lily were multiple factors that caused trauma, supporting the fact that her DID is acquired.

IV. Treatment

The first step in helping Nina is for her to be properly and formally diagnosed with DID by a psychiatrist. Thus, two kinds of tests may be used: SCID-D (Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV for Dissociative disorder) and DES (Dissociative Experiences Scale). A clinician will be able to assess the level of dissociation and whether or not it is pathological (Saddock & Saddock 460). The authors additionally state that there are three phases for the treatment of DID: “1) a phase of symptom stabilization, 2) an optional phase of focused in-depth attention to traumatic material and 3) a phase of integration or reintegration in which the patient moves more completely away from a life adaptation based on long-term traumatization and victimization.” For the stabilization of symptoms, Nina should undergo Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is usually performed by a psychologist and involves agreements for the patient to use a variety of therapeutic techniques whenever faced with a stressful situation to prevent dissociation. Additionally, psychotherapy should also be started, typically involving therapy with each of the alternative states. For these purposes, the therapist should place clear boundaries between himself and the patient and should prevent regression to other alter states as much as possible. Thus, the therapeutic relationship with Nina would be very important in order to effectively treat her disorder and to ensure that she does not regress. Long-term goals for her treatment would include an analysis of past experiences, perceptions, and the use of better coping mechanisms when faced with stress (Saddock & Saddock 448). These treatments will be able to help Nina restructure her cognitive landscape in such a way that she does not resort to dissociation as a coping mechanism when faced with high levels of stress.

Works Cited

Lilienfield, Scott, Kirsch, Irving, Sarbin, Theodore….and George K. Ganaway. “Dissociative Identity Disorder and the Sociocognitive Model: Recalling the lessons of the past.” Psychological Bulletin 125(5) (1999). Web. 1 November 2014.

NAMI. Dissociative Identity Disorder. N.d. Web. 1 November 2014.

Saddock, Benjamin and Virginia Saddock. Kaplan and Saddock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Science/Clinical Psychiatry. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007. Print.

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