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Putting Darth Vader on the Couch

Did Star Wars supervillian and deadbeat dad Darth Vader have borderline personality disorder? Dr. Eric Bui and his colleagues at Toulouse University Hospital in France claim that he does. But it's not true: Vader is no more a borderline than he is a ballerina.

Bui and his colleagues have used Vader/Anakin as a case study to teach BPD to their medical students for the past few years. Realizing that a famous fictional example could spread awareness, they wrote a letter to the professional journal Psychiatry Research titled, "Is Anakin Skywalker [Vader's birth name] Suffering From Borderline Personality Disorder?" that is slated to appear in an upcoming issue. (While the letter itself isn't available, a Google search will lead to dozens more articles from both major and minor news sources.)

Bui says that as Vader/Anakin moved from childhood to adolescence, he showed problems with impulsivity, rage, and identity crisis--all of which are consistent with borderline personality disorder diagnosis. Media outlets have seized on the story as if Vader/Anakin were a real celebrity.

While the publicity is great, the example is wrong. BPD is a complex mental illness that's hard to understand and easy to misdiagnose. While Vader/Anakin seems to fit some of the criteria, a closer look shows the traits don't add up to provide a cohesive portrait of a person with the disorder.

At first glance, you might not think this is a vital topic--after all, it's just a movie. But I find it bothersome because Bui and others are using this false example to teach their psychiatric medical students, for gosh sakes. And do we really want a mass murderer to become the newest face of those who suffer from this disorder? There are many others to use, Princess Diana being the best one.

Some Overall Mistakes

If Darth Vader were a real person, Linda Lyons-Bailey would be his biographer. Linda's Star Wars parable, "Midnight in the Garden," was a category award winner at the 2006 Hollywood Book Festival and was deemed a "remarkable achievement" by the Omni Peace Writing Awards in 2007. She also scripted the Star Wars fan audio drama, "Rise of Nobility." Linda is also a member of my Welcome to Oz family member support group community. Linda read this article and contributed mightily to this blog post. Thanks to her, I've been able to take a much deeper look than the media coverage out there. (Fans, please note that this post is based only on the films, not the expanded universe.)

Does Anakin/Vader meet some of these traits some of the time? Yes. But we all do. Also, borderline individuals have a deep sense of unworthiness and self-hatred. But as a young Jedi, Anakin has a sense of self worth. He is good and knows it. He feels the love from his mother and wife: borderline individuals have a hard time letting the love in.

Another big difference between borderline individuals and Anakin/Vader is the motivation or reasons behind the disordered emotions and behaviors. BPs don't have the coping skills or emotional stability most of us do. Their hurtful behaviors are not willful. Anakin/Vader, however, knows what he is doing. He deliberately makes moral choices (or immoral choices) to gain certain advantages. His are criminal acts, not borderline ones.

For an individual to be diagnosed with any of the 10 personality disorders, certain conditions must be met. Two of these are:

The pattern must be 'enduring and maladaptive' over the lifetime of the person.

As UCLA child adolescent psychiatrist Dr. H. Eric Bender points out in this article, Anakin shows borderline traits. But these do not persist into his adulthood. In other words, when Skywalker made the transformation to Darth Vader, he was firm in his identity as a villain (save a last minute change of heart when he saves his son's life). You can find more information about BPD and adolescence in this former blog post.

The pattern must exist across a broad range of situations and with many people.

As you will see later in this article, some of the traits are isolated to specific people (such as his wife) or just certain circumstances.


Why Vader Doesn't Meet Specific Traits

Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment

Article: "Abandonment issues surfaced. Skywalker had a permanent fear of losing his wife, Padme Amidala, and he went so far as to betray his Jedi mentors and companions to try to prevent her death."

It is true that Anakin/Vader murders an entire Order of Jedi Knights and helps the Emperor become a cruel dictator so Anakin won't lose his wife Padme in childbirth. However, there are two reasons why this doesn't meet the BPD criteria:

1. People with BPD fear abandonment when most people don't. They may become jealous over insignificant things, or become upset when an expected phone call is delayed and worry the relationship is over. Anakin/Vader, on the other hand, has real reason: he has vivid premonitions that his wife will die in childbirth. Also, Anakin/Vader handles his months-long war-related periods away from his wife as well as any deployed soldier.

2. The fear of abandonment must be a pattern; a consistent way of relating to many people. Vader/Anakin has fears for just one person (his wife).

A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation ("splitting")

Article: "The future Darth Vader went back and forth between idealizing and devaluing Jedi mentors, such as a humorless young Obi-Wan Kenobi."

Folks with borderline personality disorder tend to see things in black and white, including people. Not being able to see the gray in people is called "splitting." Splitting can happen quickly, as it can in children when they hate mommy one hour and love her the next.

Anakin/Vader's changes of heart toward Kenobi, however, are generally gradual and take place as often as one might see in any other student-teacher relationship. As a Jedi, Anakin is able to see both the good and the bad in his relationship with Kenobi, and has no trouble telling Padme both sides of it at once. Once he becomes a Sith, his attitude toward Kenobi is again stable, for almost two decades. Furthermore, the Jedi has many stable relationships, including that of his wife.

Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self

Article: "Any "Star Wars" fan would recognize Skywalker's identity issues and uncertainty about who he was. His fateful turn to the dark side and change of name to Darth Vader could represent the ultimate sign of such identity disurbance."

In a 1993 edition of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Robert J. Waldinger discusses the issue of "identity diffusion" in BPD. He explains that people with BPD don't feel like they have a "self."

Identity diffusion refers to borderline patients' profound and often terrifying sense that they do not know who they are. Normally, we experience ourselves consistently through time in different settings and with different people. This continuity of self is not experienced by the person with BPD.

Instead, borderline patients are filled with contradictory images of themselves that they cannot integrate. Patients commonly report that they feel empty inside, that there "nothing to me," and that they are different people depending on whom they are with.

Anakin, however, is quite full of himself! He often remarks about how good he is as a pilot or a swordsman; he becomes upset when he is passed over for an honor (such as Jedi Master) that he thinks he deserves.

Over the course of three films (and a decade over Anakin's life) the filmmakers make a strong case for why Anakin makes the choice to change his allegiance from Jedi to Ultra-Evil Sith. In fact, the central question in the prequel films is why he chooses to do so. His reasons may not make sense to us, but they don't meet the standard for BPD.

Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)

Article: The future Darth Vader showed ....anger management issues as an overexcited, lovelorn Jedi.

In her article "Understanding Borderline Anger," Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD writes:

Clinically, anger in BPD is called "inappropriate" because the level of anger seems to be more intense than is warranted by the situation or event that triggered it. For example, a person with BPD may react to an event that may seem small or unimportant to someone else (e.g., a misunderstanding) with very strong feelings of anger and unhealthy expressions of anger (e.g., yelling, being sarcastic or becoming physically violent).

Generally, when Anakin becomes angry or upset, he has his reasons. Someone he loves has been badly hurt or killed, or a mission vital to the survival of the Empire is at stake. While he is angry when he murders (a trait of antisocial personality disorder, by the way) most of the time his murders are strategic or motivational tactics endorsed by the Sith. He is just as capable of not murdering if it would better serve his objective.

Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)

Article: The future Darth Vader showed ...impulsivity ...issues as an overexcited, lovelorn Jedi.

Yes, Anakin is known as somewhat of a daredevil, and his risk-taking in combat unnerves Obi-Wan Kenobi. However, Anakin's skills exceed anyone else's in the known galaxy. When he tries these stunts, he knows he can complete them; he finds his mastery of them exhilarating. He does try one stunt he can't complete safely, but this is just one instance he takes an unwise risk. In Hollywood, stuntmen and women take risks every day.

Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms

Anakin/Vader has one dissociative episode after he slaughters a local tribe of Tuskens responsible for his mother's death. But it is neither a pattern nor the more everyday type of dissociation typical in people with BPD. Finding your mother's killers is rather a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing.

Bui and colleagues do not claim Anakin meets these traits:

  • Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
  • Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness

To sum up, out of the DSM-IV-TR's nine borderline traits, Anakin/Vader has one of them. Five are needed for a diagnosis.

Happily, there are two bright spots in this coverage. Using a popular film character to spread awareness of this disorder is commendable. Plus, attention has been paid to the fact that adolescents can suffer from BPD. (In addition to my blog post, you can look at this one for more info). Perhaps it's a sign that the good side of the force is at work.

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