6 Beloved Characters That Had Undiagnosed Mental Illnesses
It's unlikely that the writers who created these characters consciously decided they would give them an undiagnosed mental disorder as one of their traits. Maybe they were just borrowing behaviors of a "quirky" friend, or maybe the writers suffered from the disorder and wrote the characters to mimic their own life.
But one way or another, these characters show all the symptoms ...
Sherlock Holmes -- Asperger's Syndrome
It's tough to pin down the exact personality traits of Sherlock Holmes, since his story has been recycled in so many incarnations. He's the most-portrayed fictional character in the world, running the gamut from Basil Rathbone playing a jolly English gentleman who fights Nazis to Robert Downey Jr.'s Victorian Rain Man/MMA fighter. But there are some key characteristics in the original Arthur Conan Doyle version that tend to crop up again and again, and they all indicate a severe case of Asperger's.
"Solving crimes is all well and good, Watson, but I have a Yu-Gi-Oh! forum to moderate!"
The Red Flags
Before you skip down to the comments to submit your passionate defense of Holmes' mental state, we're not the only ones who think he shows up on the autism spectrum. Holmes' hyper-keen observational skills, social mannerisms and overall personality have fueled Asperger's rumors everywhere from Holmes fan forums to Asperger's support forums.
"Holmes, stop looking through my stuff for clues. This is the reason no one else will lodge with you."
The first thing to keep in mind is that the character isn't just portrayed as being really smart -- he is obsessed with certain subjects and totally excludes all others. In one of the Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet, he doesn't know that the Earth revolves around the sun (because, he says, the information doesn't have any effect on his everyday life). These uneven obsessions with random topics -- in Holmes' case, things like tobacco ashes and regional soil consistency -- are not signs of an enthusiast; they are symptoms of a disorder. Or, as the Yale Child Study Center puts it, Asperger's sufferers show "...a narrow range of capacities for memorizing lists or trivial information, calendar calculation, visual-spatial skills such as drawing, or musical skills involving a perfect pitch or playing a piece of music after hearing it only once."
"Care for a 70th rendition of 'Baa Baa Black Sheep,' my dear Watson?"
And most telling is that Holmes' talents are coupled with an inability to interact socially with anyone but Watson. He embarks on long-winded monologues about very specific topics, oblivious to the listener's lack of interest. If you know someone with Asperger's, you're well familiar with this habit.
It's true that the disorder wouldn't be recognized until 70 years after Doyle invented the character. But obviously the disorder existed long before there was a name for it, and Doyle didn't have to know what the disorder was called in order to have known somebody with those quirks, and written them into his fictional detective. Perhaps 70 years from now, experts will have a name for the ability to slow down time and punch people in slow motion.
Ariel from The Little Mermaid -- Disposophobia (Hoarding)
The Little Mermaid is the heartwarming tale of a mermaid who cuts a deal with a cephalopod witch doctor to transform her into a mute nudist so she can seduce a man from another species. And you know what, we're going to give the main character, Ariel, a pass on all that. She's just a teenager, after all, and her quirky desire to be human drives the entire plot of the movie.
"Well, this is totally better than anorexia!"
But Ariel has another glaring, deep-seated issue that should be addressed. Whether it's because she keeps it so well hidden from the other merpeople or because some problems are just too big for a crab and a fish to tackle, no one in the film ever addresses the fact that Ariel is a pathological hoarder.
The whole situation is pretty forked.
The Red Flags
The opening scene in the film depicts Ariel raiding a sunken boat for useless bullshit. She collects everything she can find, despite having no idea what any of it does.
"I don't know what this is, but my teenage rebellion sense is tingling!"
OK, she's just a kid. Kids obsess over weird things: that's not unusual. So it's not until we see her full empire of secret garbage that we know she has a serious problem. She's clearly not throwing anything away:
This teenager has already collected a landfill worth of human trash in her few short years and socked it all away where no one else can get at it. And what do you know, according to the researchers behind the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, the difference between just collecting and hoarding is that, "When people collect things, they typically want to display them to other people .... Hoarders want to keep things hidden because of the shame they have."
"This box is where I keep my toenail clippings and hairballs."
It's a compulsion. Ariel has 20 corkscrews and she doesn't even know what they do. She creates an emotional attachment to every object she finds, and this is another common problem among hoarders: they find sentimentality in random, worthless items.
"That's the only reason you're not a side dish right now."
And Ariel's compulsion does interfere with her normal life -- she lets down her father by hunting for trash instead of going to a concert she promised to attend. And, sure enough, one of the main side effects of disposophobia is obsessing over the collection at the expense of daily obligations.
Ariel, there is a certain reality show we want to put you in touch with ....
Belle from Beauty and the Beast -- Schizoid Personality Disorder
We're going to avoid the obvious fact that Belle's relationship with the Beast who is imprisoning her shows all the signs of Stockholm syndrome (and in fact we've already detailed that here). We're guessing not even Disney would dispute that one.
"So now that we've established a relationship based on mutual trust, can I go now? No? OK, cool."
But Belle didn't need to be kidnapped to develop a mental disorder; she comes firing out of the gates with one already fully developed: schizoid personality disorder.
The Red Flags
Don't confuse this with schizophrenia -- we're not claiming the talking monster and sentient candlesticks are figments of her imagination. Schizoid personality disorder "... is characterized by a long-standing pattern of detachment from social relationships," and a sufferer "... often has difficulty ... [expressing] emotions and does so typically in very restricted range, especially when communicating with others."
It's hard to be normal when the town constantly follows you down the road, singing.
So, in Disney's reimagining of the fairy tale, Belle is a beautiful, independent and headstrong bookworm who is unfairly ostracized by the other inhabitants of her little French village simply for being "odd." She ends up befriending and falling in love with a beast before she knows he's secretly a human prince under a spell. This is supposed to show that her heart is so pure that she's able to look past appearances and love someone for who he is on the inside. In reality, Belle would have probably preferred he stay a beast and all his servants stay candlesticks and clocks, though she'd never admit it.
Wait, are these thing humans as well? Is she going to eat them?
Schizoid personality disorder's trademark symptom is self-imposed social isolation. Above all, someone suffering from the disorder will avoid human relationships, especially any that might result in sexual encounters. Belle is pursued throughout the film by Gaston, who wants to marry her, and while her staunch refusal to entertain any of his advances only because he is handsome seems admirable, she is more likely exemplifying the quintessential behavior of someone who has no interest in sex at all. In fact, someone with the disorder is more likely to find stronger intimacy with animals than people, so it's little surprise that Belle develops a relationship with a beast instead of a man.
"In a few hundred years there's going to be an entire subculture based around this."
In addition, her friendships with anthropomorphized teacups and footstools are stronger than any she's ever had with a human (outside of her father). The seclusion of the castle along with the nonhuman inhabitants and a relationship with a beast who isn't a sexual threat is like a dream for anyone with schizoid personality disorder. So it seems ironic that she was responsible for breaking the spell, turning them all back into humans. It certainly changes the tone of the happy ending.
"I think I'm going to be sick."
Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye -- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
America's favorite literary rebel, The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield, has a special place in the hearts of readers. After all, everyone was 17 once, and likely tried really hard to articulate all the things they felt about ... stuff. Holden is intensely contemptuous of the insincerity of the world and people around him (the "phonies"), yet still strives to find his place in a society he ultimately despises. Or to put it simply, he has to grow the fuck up.
Oh boo hoo, you're terrible at baseball. To be honest, we skimmed this bit back in high school.
What no one in the book acknowledges, though, is that Holden isn't acting like your standard-issue Hughesian teen, but actually exhibits classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
No, really. While PTSD is generally associated with people who've experienced horrific events like war, any traumatic incident can cause it. Holden has had to deal with both a brother dying of leukemia and seeing a classmate commit suicide while wearing his borrowed sweater.
"It was from Abercrombie and Fitch ... bastard."
The Red Flags
One of the telltale signs of PTSD is reliving the traumatic event over and over. Holden consistently, almost compulsively, refers to seeing the face of his dead classmate, James Castle, yet he never seems to have any emotional reaction to the event. Instead he concentrates on the visual of seeing the blood and teeth everywhere, or the look on James' face. PTSD causes that kind of persistent emotional numbing, which would explain his distance from the experience.
If Catcher had been written today, Holden would be nursing a Pabst in this picture.
It can also trigger thoughts of suicide, which Holden fully acknowledges throughout the novel ("What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window.")
While some of these symptoms could just as easily stem from depression, it's important to also point out that J.D. Salinger himself likely suffered from PTSD. Following World War II, Salinger was diagnosed with "battle fatigue," which sounds much milder than PTSD (and in fact sounds like it could be cleared up with a quick nap). In reality, it was a primitive way to diagnose the thousands of mental breakdowns following conflict that we now call PTSD.
"You're just tired, J.D. War does that to people."
In fact, The Catcher in the Rye wasn't Salinger's only attempt to write about the disorder. The short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" also deals with the suicidal thoughts of a man trying to live a normal life after traumatic events, and the story "For Esme" parallels his own traumatic experiences in the military (it was published only five years after Salinger was hospitalized in Germany for his nervous breakdown). A lot of fiction gets more depressing when you realize that writers are usually writing about themselves, whether they admit it or not.
Glinda the Good Witch -- Sadistic Personality Disorder
Our only evidence that Glinda the Good Witch is "good" is that she bears that title, and even then we don't know who bestowed it. As we have pointed out before, her actions in The Wizard of Oz involve dropping a house on her rival, blaming it on a teenage child and then encouraging that teenager to assassinate the dead woman's last living relative.
"Congratulations, Dorothy. You've earned your first teardrop tattoo."
Throughout The Wizard of Oz, Glinda never gives any reason for murdering the witches other than that they're ugly and different and therefore -- according to good ole-fashioned Dust Bowl logic -- completely evil. So maybe Glinda won the title of "good" by default, simply because anyone left who would question her goodness ends up fertilizing those bitchy apple trees who throw things at tourists.
These tortured creatures were Munchkins once.
No, Glinda is by no means good. In fact, she's likely suffering from sadistic personality disorder.
The Red Flags
Sadistic personality disorder doesn't just mean somebody is an evil dick. There are particular aspects that identify it as a disorder. For instance, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders suggests that sufferers are amused by the emotional turmoil of others. Now keep that in mind when you watch the vague, detached, smirking expression on Glinda's face throughout the string of tragedies that open the film.
Note the radically different facial expressions. One of them is appropriate.
As soon as the "Wicked" Witch of the West begins mourning her dead sister, Glinda immediately starts taunting her. Glinda then takes the dead woman's slippers -- the only keepsake by which the Wicked Witch might remember her sister -- and forces Dorothy to wear them. The Wicked Witch even tells Dorothy, "They're of no use to you," but Glinda convinces the girl never to take them off.
"Not when we've put so much effort into prying them off her cold dead feet!"
The Good Witch is so dead set on demeaning the Wicked Witch in front of a crowd that, in a weird magic pissing contest, Glinda calls the Wicked Witch's power into question and throws out the threat that someone might drop a house on her, too. That need to demean people in the presence of others is a primary symptom of sadistic personality disorder, and Glinda's unwavering enjoyment throughout the ordeal is a testament to her sickness.
Also she is blatantly using Dorothy as a human shield.
In addition, the disorder fuels a desire to restrict the autonomy of others, and to lie for the sole purpose of confusion. And sure enough, we find out that Glinda knows from the start how to send Dorothy home, but instead she makes up a ridiculous quest to the wizard with no tangible gain. The fact that Glinda is the one who helps Dorothy get home in the end is almost sickening, given the mortal danger she put the girl through (not to mention the two deaths that are now on Dorothy's hands as a result). Yet Glinda can't stop smiling that vacant Stepford Wives smile. Not ever.
"I wouldn't have believed that the slippers were the key home! Lady, I just dropped a house on someone."
Scarlett O'Hara -- Antisocial and Histrionic Personality Disorder
Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara is one of the most iconic heroines in American film. Living in an era when women weren't considered their most attractive unless their mouths were shut, Scarlett was portrayed as a hard-workin', hard-drinkin', hard-screwin' Southern belle who wouldn't take shit from anyone. In fact, it's probably easier to just think of her as Doc Holiday in a dress.
"You, Miss, are no lady."
Women the world over have cited her as a role model and one of the most prominent feminist icons of all time. However, she has some downright unsavory characteristics as well. Most notable among them are a quick temper, a willingness to show a little skin to get what she wants and a cutthroat determination, regardless of who gets hurt.
The North would probably have run for their lives if she showed up like this.
The Red Flags
One of the chief signs of antisocial personality disorder is the inability to understand the motivations and feelings of other people. That lack of empathy manifests itself right from the start, when Scarlett tries to seduce the engaged Ashley Wilkes, fails, and then seduces his brother instead out of spite.
What man could resist this?
From there, things just get worse. She burns her way through three marriages over the course of a few years, sticking with each man only until he wears out his usefulness. The worst example is Frank Kennedy, her sister's fiance, whom she tricks into marriage only because she needs him to pay the taxes on her plantation. This seductive behavior, the incapacity to maintain enduring relationships and her persistent manipulation are all signs of a disorder that even Civil War-era doctors could have picked up on. You know, if they weren't busy digging bullets out of Confederates and calming night terrors.
One of most telling signs of histrionic personality disorder, on the other hand, is Scarlett's need to constantly be the center of attention and her wild overreaction to every problem she faces.
"LOOK. LOOK AT MY ENORMOUS HAT."
In the beginning of the film, while the men's conversation changes from her to the war, she says, "War, war, war. This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored, I could scream." Psychologists would recognize that desire to be at the center of attention at all times -- the disorder means a person's self-esteem "depends on the approval of others and does not arise from a true feeling of self-worth." Now watch Scarlett collapse into a puddle of melodrama when she is rejected by a man:
It's worth watching just to see him give her a handful of soil in the middle of her crying fit.
She literally needs constant praise, or as Rhett Butler puts it, she "needs to be kissed often." Which makes it all the more sad when characters gradually turn their backs on her and her crazy hurricane of bullshit.
Though we're sympathetic with everyone who leaves her, because if we knew someone like Scarlett in reality, it would be hard after a while to pretend to give a damn.
"He'll be back. I'm sure of it. He left his umbrella."
For for more in depth looks at your favorite characters, check out 9 Beloved Characters Made Horrifying by Japan and 6 Famous Characters You Didn't Know Were Shameless Rip-Offs.
And stop by LinkSTORM to earn you degree in Fictional Character Psychology.
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