WARNING: THIS ARTICLE DISCUSSES THE PLOT TWIST THAT IS REVEALED NEAR THE END OF THE MOVIE FIGHT CLUB. I DON’T WANT TO BE ACCUSED OF BEING A ROSIE O’DONNELL, SO IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE END, PLEASE DO NOT CONTINUE READING FROM THIS POINT.
Fight Club tells the story of the coming to radical consciousness of one character, Jack, after he meets another character, Tyler Durden. Tyler’s influence on Jack is such that Jack comes to reject the consumer-driven behavior of contemporary modern society, and together they and others form Project Mayhem, a group of societal terrorists bent on bringing about world revolution. Only near the end is it revealed that Jack and Tyler are not two separate individuals, but rather the same person, a person clearly suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The Jack/Tyler character in Fight Club cannot but be considered mentally unbalanced when a proper comparison is made to the characteristics of those said to be in good mental health. Jack/Tyler simply does not feel good about himself; he begins the film by pseudononymously attending a series of support groups for people suffering from a variety of health problems. His ambition is to feel something; to escape the numbness of what he is coming to view as an empty existence. Interestingly, neither of his personality manifestations seems to be overwhelmed by emotional responses. In fact, the character seems to exhibit an unusually keen inability to feel deeply about anything, even the outrages against which he plots revolution. Jack/Tyler has no meaningful relationship with anyone; the only romantic relationship is a sexually deviant one with a woman named Marla. The character(s) isolate themselves physically form others at first by living an abandoned house in an abandoned part of town; later, as Project Mayhem mounts, although they are physically no longer isolated, they remain so mentally and emotionally. Jack/Tyler have no trouble laughing at others and themselves, though the laughter usually is of ironically detached acerbic kind. In this mode, Jack/Tyler also express little respect for society as a whole. One would be tempted to say that Jack/Tyler are capable of accepting life’s disappointments better than most because they have lowered their expectations, but in reality though they may live in substandard conditions, they have a much higher expectation of what life should have to offer.
That they don’t accept this disappointment well is really what the movie is all about. The titular fight club itself is their response to handling life’s demands. Jack/Tyler’s struggle is one to make his own decisions, but since the particular brand of DID from which he suffers explicitly contains of an element of dominant/submissive character type to it; clearly Jack is not making his own decisions even when he is Jack. Tyler’s key characteristic is that he attempts not only to create his own environment, but also to coerce or enforce others to accept it.
For that reason, if I were Tyler Durden’s psychiatrist, my DSM IV-TR multiaxial diagnosis for the Jack/Tyler character would be Dissociative Identity Disorder. The reason for this is that at least one of the personalities-Jack-has no idea that he is also Tyler. There is some confusion in the film as to whether Tyler is at all times unaware that he and Jack are not separate.
Jack/Tyler fits many of the assessments for DSM IV-TR Axis 1 diagnosis of DID. Jack’s dissociative disorder does not appear to be exhibited by the character at the official start of his story, following a short prologue which then leads to an extended flashback. Although no specific event is given to indicate that his disorder can be traced back to a single stressor, it is clear that anxiety over his lifestyle and societal demands in general have pushed him into a mentally unbalanced state of mind. Jack does exhibit signs of depression as well as a mild case of obsessive-compulsive order expressed through the purchase of superfluous furniture. He clearly suffers from severe amnestic disorder in that he is incapable of remembering what he does when he is under the influence of the Tyler manifestation of his personality. In the opening of the film, he also appears to be nearing a state of catatonia which he avoids only by engaging in society through visiting support groups.
Jack/Tyler comes close to meeting an Axis II diagnosis of mere antisocial personality disorder in the way that he advances an antisocial agenda, but the fact that he does so through two separate personalities that don’t seem to recognize they are not independent lends credence to the diagnosis that he is suffering from DID. Jack/Tyler both express the cognitive dysfunctions marked by an inability to perceive reality. In addition, the Tyler personality engages in impulsive behavior so deviant as to oftentimes be suicidal or homicidal; indeed, at several points he manages to be both suicidal and homicidal at the same time by risking not only his life but the life of Jack, whom we must assume he views as an independent entity.
Jack/Tyler’s diagnosis with DID does not appear to be heavily influenced by any specific environmental conditions, yet there are indications that perhaps the condition worsens as a result of unhygienic practices that could possibly lead to physiological ill-health. Jack/Tyler live in a house in which they bathe in and drink unclean water, they eschew medical attention, and engage in acts that put them at risk for health-related conditions. It is quite possible, though no evidence for this is ever presented in the film, that Jack/Tyler could suffer from exposure to lead, bacteria, etc.
A global functioning assessment as found in Axis V can only be adjudged to be at the lowest end of the scale for Jack/Tyler, certainly no higher than a 10. Jack/Tyler exhibits persistent opportunities to hurt not only others, but himself. At one point during the film, Tyler applies a chemical burn to Jack (himself). Although the character doesn’t appear to be truly suicidal, he does engage in suicidal activities. He maintains very little personal hygiene, and in fact appears to have little or no interest is his own well-being. Despite the fact that the Tyler side of his personality can inspire legions to take up the activities espoused by Project Mayhem, there is no indication that either Tyler or Jack maintain even the most remote of interpersonal relationships. And finally, due to the fact that both personalities are capable of recognizing the other in the flesh at the same time, their perception is entirely based on delusion.
Fight Club contains so many multiple levels of meaning that for the most part it is not even generally considered a movie specifically about Dissociative Identity Disorder. Part of the reason for this may lie in the fact audiences do not become aware of the mental disorder until near the end of the film and even then it is presented in a manner that exposes it more as unexpected plot twist than as an organic part of the story; at least it does to those on a first viewing who haven’t caught the little hints carefully dropped in throughout the film. In other words, even after the revelation, most audience members probably still tend to think of Jack and Tyler as two separate individuals.
Of course, I’m not a psychiatrist; I’m just a guy with a DSM textbook he picked up at a library sale for fifty cents. And, to be perfectly honest, I believe that attempting to impress a psychological origin behind the split personality characterizations of Jack and Tyler runs counter to what the film is trying to say. I think the beauty of Fight Club and the reason that it is becoming increasingly obvious it is the best movie of the past fifteen years is because it can be read-accurately-from almost every kind of critical theory possible. I imagine it would even make great fodder for a feminist interpretation. I myself prefer to read in Marxist terms as a character coming to class consciousness. But I wanted to kind of push myself beyond a strictly Freudian psychological reading and apply calculated psychiatric logic to Fight Club. If you are a qualified medical professional who has seen the film and you either agree with my diagnosis or can point to holes in it, I would love to hear your comments.