Moon Knight: What Disney’s Latest Series Gets Right and Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
Spoiler alert! This article may contain spoilers for the first season of Moon Knight, available on Disney+.
Disney's new adaptation of Moon Knight is based on the Marvel comic book character of the same name. The show follows Marc (Oscar Isaac), a mercenary who acts as an avatar for the Egyptian god, Khonshu. Canonically, Marc is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID). In the series, he displays at least three different personality states: Marc Spector, Steven Grant, and Jake Lockley.
As a superhero, Marc challenges the stereotypical villain concept surrounding mental illness. Perhaps this is why Moon Knight has continued to gain increased popularity since its debut on Disney+.
As with any marginalized group, representation in the media can play a significant role in perception and available resources. Moon Knight’s depiction of DID is no exception. It's important to understand DID in its entirety before we can analyze how accurately it’s being portrayed in this series.
What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), or what the American Psychiatric Association (APA) previously referred to as “multiple personality disorder” (MPD). It is one of several dissociative disorders that affect a person’s ability to connect with reality.
People with DID have two or more fractured identities that control their behavior at different times. These alternate identities—referred to as “alters”—tend to be very different from each other and the host. When different alters reveal themselves, the process is called “switching.”
What Causes Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?
Most people who experience a traumatic event will have some degree of dissociation during the event itself or shortly thereafter. In these cases, the dissociation generally resolves itself.
However, some people develop a dissociative disorder that requires specific diagnosis and treatment. The severity of a dissociative disorder in adulthood is often directly related to the severity of a given person’s childhood trauma.
According to DID Research, the majority of DID cases have a history of chronic childhood trauma. Examples of chronic trauma include repeated physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect. They can also include events like war and natural disasters.
These unpredictable and frightening environments can cause the child to “dissociate.” Dissociation is a mental process where thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity are disconnected. Alters subconsciously emerge as a form of mental protection.
How Is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) Diagnosed?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM-5) provides the following criteria for diagnosing DID:
Two or more distinct personalities are present within an individual.
Amnesia is experienced by the individual that is inconsistent with normal forgetfulness (blocks of time may be missing from their day).
The individual experiences distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other everyday functioning.
The symptoms are not a part of the individual’s cultural or religious practices. In children, symptoms cannot be explained by fantasy play (imaginary friends).
The symptoms experienced by the individual cannot be due to the physiological effects, like alcohol. Nor can they be from another medical condition such as epilepsy.
These symptoms may be reported by the individual or observed by others.
How Common is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?
According to the National Library of Medicine, DID is very rare, only affecting about 1.5% of the population. Despite its rarity in the real world, DID has a long history of mischaracterization and misunderstanding in fiction.
Is the Moon Knight DID portrayal accurate?
In written works and television, characters with dissociative disorders are made to seem threatening and treacherous. No research has indicated that those with mental illnesses are in any way more violent than others. Yet, alters are almost always villainized. Unfortunately, this harmful representation contributes to the stigmatization of conditions that affect real people every day.
Missing Blocks of Time: Truth Mixed With Fiction
In episode 1 (The Goldfish Problem)introduces the character of Steven Grant. Steven initially thinks he has sleepwalking, so he takes precautions every night to prevent waking up in places he can't remember. Steven, who is later revealed to be an alter of Marc Spector, is unaware that he is actually suffering from DID.
The reality is that most people really don’t know they have DID until the condition has been diagnosed. People often come in for evaluation because they realize they're missing blocks of time that can't be accounted for.
This person may “wake up” in new places or in activities they don’t remember starting. This can be surprising or scary. However, Disney’s adaptation of Steven physically chaining himself to the bed every night is highly unlikely. Most people with traumatic backgrounds avoid situations that would make them feel physically trapped.
Alter Development: Truth Mixed With Fiction
Episode 2 (Summon the Suit) shows that Steven and Layla share a fascination for Egyptian archaeology, hieroglyphics, and French poetry. In episode 5 (Asylum), the audience discovers that Steven Grant originated from a movie character of the same name. It was a character that Marc’s [deceased] brother loved.
While it is common for DID patients to have an alter of a fictitious character that helped them feel safe in childhood, the above examples show signs of mimicry that don’t coincide with DID.
DID has nothing to do with mirroring other individuals, especially those met in adulthood. This is because personality development generally takes place around the age of six.
If a child suffers intense and ongoing trauma during this period of development, their psyche can split awareness into separate personalities. The personalities developed to shield the child may still arise in the future, even when the original trigger no longer exists. However, these alters are subconsciously and internally generated. They are entirely based on what the psyche felt it needed for protection at the time.
Dangerous Alters: False
In the series, when Marc or Steven change alters, the background music stutters and the lights flicker before going black. While this serves as a visual effect for the viewer, real people with DID aren’t necessarily aware of alter switching. This is because alters may take seconds, days, or sometimes weeks to switch depending on the external or mental stressor. Once they have switched, it may not even be all that noticeable to onlookers.
Throughout the series, it is implied that a third alter exists, unaccounted for by both Marc and Steven. This alter’s identity is identified in the post-credit scenes as Jake Lockley. The character is not yet developed. However, he appears to fall into the “dangerous alter” trope made popular by films like Split (2017) and Identity (2003).
This reinforces the negative stereotype that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and likely to hurt people. This is simply not the case. In fact the opposite is true. Studies suggest that people with DID are highly likely to be victims of further abuse and violence.
Intentional Creation of Alters: False
In episode five (Asylum), Moon Knight dives into childhood trauma. The audience discovers that Steven was created to cope with neglect and physical abuse. Marc shares that he “made” Steven so that Steven could have the loving upbringing that Marc couldn’t.
It’s common for people with DID to have missing blocks of time from their childhood. They may even be unaware of childhood abuse. It’s important to recognize that the creation of an alter isn’t a conscious choice.
The host of a dissociative identity disorder can discover that they have alters formed as protection against something tragic. However, this discovery is normally done with the help of a mental health professional.
Individuals with DID don’t have conscious control over the creation of alters and have limited ability to consciously “switch” them. Usually, it takes many years of consistent therapy for someone to even integrate their alters into their core self.
We’re Here to Help!
Past trauma can make you feel alone in the world. One of the things that Moon Knight normalizes is the ability to ask for help. The most successful treatment for trauma-induced disorders, like DID and others, is individual psychotherapy.
Our team at Inner Balance can work to establish safety, stabilization, and reduction of symptoms while confronting traumatic memories.
If you or a loved one has suffered past-trauma or has ongoing symptoms that may indicate dissociation, please contact us!