Welcome to the third installment looking at psychiatric themes in the TV show Heroes. Today, having looked at the effects of trauma on personality, we will examine the phenomenon of dissociation through the character of Niki Sanders.
Most of the protagonists on Heroes are older than Elle and Claire, and their powers usually manifest in the same age window as psychopathology does in the real world, between twenty and forty years of age. This also happens to be the target demographic of the show itself, and as we will discuss in a later installment, plays into the cultural and generational dynamics of the narrative. In the case of one character, Niki Sanders, the link between powers and pathology is made explicitly. Niki has super-strength, but initially only summons it when she is in an alternate personality named Jessica, who she comes to believe is her deceased sister. When Bob Bishop of The Company finally catches up to the Sanders family, he explains that this is far from coincidental:
NIKI: Who the hell are you?
BOB: Someone who wants to help. Linderman made a mess of things and I'm here to right the ship. So to speak.
NIKI: Okay. You've done that by paying our bills.
BOB: No, I meant helping you with your illness. I know you think Jessica is gone.
NIKI: How do you know about that?
BOB: But we've discovered that when these abilities manifest, the way the mind deals with the new reality sometimes results in a fracture of sorts—a split personality.
NIKI: No, I'm finished with Jessica.
BOB: How do you know a new personality won't emerge? I can get you all the help you need. The best care in the world.
NIKI: Uh-huh. What's the catch?
BOB: The catch is you have to leave your family and enter the program.
NIKI: I just went through hell to get my family back together. I'm not leaving them now.
BOB: There is medication you can try at home, but ...
NIKI: But what?
BOB: It's not without side effects. And as you just said, you've been through so much for your family. Do you really wanna risk ... losing them all again?
-from Four Months Ago, Season 2
As it turns out, Niki’s alcohol dependent father abused her as a child. Her sister, Jessica, shielded her from violence, and eventually gave her life to protect Niki. There is no evidence that Niki’s alternate personality is actually her deceased sister, as the show does not rely on supernatural explanations for the Heroes’ powers. Instead, the alternate of Jessica allows for Niki to re-enact her father’s aggression. This pattern has been documented previously for patients whose dissociative pathology is rooted in earlier abuse or traumas (e.g., Conrad and Morrow 2000; Forward and Buck 1978).
There are several theoretical approaches that have been proposed to help explain this phenomenon. "Identification with the aggressor," as put forward by Anna Freud, is the most well-known of these: aggressive behavior modeled to the child becomes associated with anxiety, and the person then learns to reproduce such behavior in the face of anxiety-provoking situations. However, such identification does not obliterate or fragment a unitary sense of self, as it does for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) patients. Sandor Ferenczi, another contemporary of Sigmund Freud, articulated an alternative concept of “identification with the aggressor” that is a more adequate explanation for Niki’s pathology: the abuser is so overpowering that the child must both surrender to his or her will and attempt to transform the abuser from an external object into an internalized one; this allows the child to survive the momentary trauma, but at the price of conflicting feelings of victimization and responsibility for the abuse, perpetuated by the internalized “object” of the abuser (Frankel 2002; LaValle 1999; Miller 1998). In an attempt to “master” the internal abuser, the person repeatedly takes up the role of compliant victim or inflicts similar abuse on others, or in severe cases like Niki’s, completely dissociates the two roles into separate personalities so as to resolve the conflict between feelings of victimization and culpability. Abuse has been shown to alter the structure and biochemical functioning of the hippocampus and the HPA axis, which may impair the storage and retrieval of explicit memories for traumatic experiences, making it more difficult for the patient to construct a coherent narrative (Green 1998). Without the resources to more fully process Niki’s early experiences or her current feelings, incomplete attempts at “mastery” merely fuel her compulsion to repeatedly assume the same abusive or victimized stances within separate alternates.
Jessica is capable of incredible violence, mainly to shield herself or her son, Micah. The viewer is usually provided with Niki’s point of view, coming out of a fugue to discover the gruesome results of Jessica’s actions. Jessica is even willing to frame Niki’s husband, D.L. Hawkins, for stealing money from mobsters that she herself took. This raises the possibility that the traumatic memories that shaped Niki were not limited to her father’s abuse of her or of Jessica, but included the violent relationship between her sister and father that eventually took her sister’s life, and that it is the entire relationship that Niki is reproducing. D.W. Winnicott, who helped to shape “Object Relations” psychodynamic theory in the mid-20th Century, was the first to posit that children could internalize the conflict between caretakers as a single “object” which would return to “possess” the child later in life (1958). The alternate of Jessica plays the role of the deceased sister, with Niki and/or Micah as the defended innocent that justifies Jessica’s aggressive and antisocial behavior. D.L., or any other figure that competes as a caretaker for Niki and Micah, is then viewed by Jessica as akin to the father, a threat that must be violently opposed.
Niki only comes to discover the presence of her alternate over time, although Jessica is completely aware of Niki’s existence from the beginning of Season 1. Niki receives notes from Jessica, attached to items that Jessica has “procured.” She catches glimpses of Jessica in the mirror, the reduplicative paramnesia eventually providing a means of communication between the personalities. Schneiderian symptoms, in which there is confusion between self and external stimuli, are significantly co-morbid among dissociative domestic abusers who were themselves abused as children (Simoneti, Scott and Murphy 2000). Like Niki, many of these abusers report amnesia for their violence, a false memory that someone else perpetrated it before their eyes, or that their physical form or abilities were changed prior to assaulting their partner. Eventually, as Niki begins to accept the totality of what her alternate has been doing to “protect” her, including attempting to murder her husband out of a misandronistic paranoia, she competes for control with Jessica and seeks help. She first attempts the “normal” forensic psychiatric system, and then turns to The Company. As will be discussed later, she does not remain compliant with her treatment after she believes that she has fully rid herself of Jessica. Her inability to fully integrate her drives into her sense of self then results in the surfacing of a different alternate:
GINA: (o.s.) He's gonna know you're not taking the stupid pills.Where does Gina come from? We could see her as a container of other aspects of past aggressors, such as the father as sexual predator or as substance user. Alternatively, she may be the compartment in which Niki has placed her aspirations for unfulfilled desires, things which she was deprived of during her abusive childhood and adolescence. W.R.D. Fairbairn, another early member of the “Object Relations School,” posited that traumatic experiences created bad internal objects to help gain a sense of control over the traumatizer(s), much as Ferenczi thought, but Fairbairn went on to say that this process necessarily split the sense of self (reviewed in Grotstein 1993). The “anti-libidinal ego” attaches itself to the negative aspects of the trauma/traumatizer, and creates tension with the reality-based “central ego,” such as that seen in the struggle between Niki and Jessica. Nevertheless, these two pieces of the ego conspire to repress a third ego fragment, the “libidinal ego” attached to the “exciting object,” which is constituted of all the hoped-for experiences usually denied by the trauma/traumatizer. The aggressor who confines the victim also has the power to allow her to roam freely, and the sexual abuser has the power to allow for pleasurable sexual experiences, and so forth. Both Niki and Jessica would find such a purely hedonistic path fraught with danger, but once the Jessica alternate is tamped down, an alternate based in the libidinal ego fragment (Gina) comes forth to challenge Niki. One might expect a return of Jessica should Niki find herself unable to control her libidinal ego fragment, although it appears that Jessica-Niki-Gina perishes at the end of Season 2.
NIKI: Go away, Jessica. I don't need you anymore.
GINA: (o.s.) What makes you think this is Jessica?
(NIKI turns around and sees a different reflection of herself in the mirror. This one is wearing a white, frilly top)
GINA: Remember me? That summer that you ran away to LA. And told everyone to call you Gina?
NIKI: You're not real.
GINA: Oh, you're gonna sell cars? I'm going back to LA to go play.
NIKI: No, I'm in control. If I can handle Jessica, I can handle you.
GINA: Then why aren't you taking your meds?
(The reflection in the mirror is now wearing the maroon-colored suit. GINA smiles as she turns to leave the room. NIKI pounds on the glass from inside the mirror.)
-from Four Months Ago, Season 2
Niki’s husband and son are influenced by her fractured persona. D.L. also skirts the edge of the law in order to provide for his family, associating with mobsters and taking part in small jobs for them; this makes his being framed for stealing from the mobsters believable enough that he has to go on the lam from the law. Like Niki, he chooses not to fully consider the consequences of his actions or the less desirable drives that motivate them, whether they are his criminal activity or his abandoning his child. He always places these acts within a framework of his being a reliable provider for his wife and son, ignoring how he is actually being the opposite. Wishing to appear to be a good and non-hostile figure, he elects to distance himself from his wife rather than confront the aggressive aspects of her persona, which would also risk his openly divulging his own hate and fear. It is not surprising then that D.L.’s superpower is the ability to phase through solid objects, to make as if he is not a real person. This is consistent with what Winnicott (1958) termed “false self disorder.” Whereas Niki compartmentalizes disturbing thoughts and actions in various personae, D.L. hides his true self from public view. He does not admit to his desire to perform criminal acts, and when he seeks relief through action, he honestly believes himself to have been forced into it by unscrupulous associates who are taking advantage of his desperation. He is compliant, at the whims of the world, with no perceived impact on “external objects” (i.e., people around him). D.L. uses his phasing power to escape danger, to kill, and to literally “walk through fire” without seemingly leaving a mark on him. As Winnicott might anticipate, D.L.’s mother Paulette, his sole caregiver, also demonstrates a profound denial of D.L.’s baser instincts, and probably exercised strong control over him that he not openly deviate from her idealized notion of him as a precious only child:
PAULETTE: You look thin. (PAULETTE HAWKINS steps into the kitchen and pours water from a tea kettle) Look, I know what it's like to raise a boy on your own. To be stretched so far you wished you could be in two places at once. I get it. But that boy needs more than you been giving him. He needs a steady hand and a stable environment. I can give him that.According to the graphic novels that supplement the narrative of the TV program, Paulette Hawkins can augment the abilities of super-powered humans around her (see http://heroeswiki.com/...), a fitting metaphor for the person most directly responsible for enabling D.L. to “phase through” his life. As per Winnicott, if his mother prematurely introduced the world’s expectations upon D.L, it would have impinged upon his development and prevented the full expression of his emotions, hopes and fears, leading to the construction of his false self. The single Paulette probably relied upon D.L. to be the “man of the house,” forcing his maturation in ways that actually stunted his development. In this line of thinking, D.L.’s belief that he does what he must to provide for his family stems directly from having to help provide support to his caregiver as a child, a caregiver who in turn judges him for how well he fulfills her needs rather than for his behavior towards others.
NIKI: Why, because D.L. grew up to be such a model citizen?
PAULETTE: My son, your husband, is a good man.
NIKI: You recognize this? (She places a skull ring on the kitchen counter.) I found it in the desert.
PAULETTE: What's that supposed to be?
NIKI: (surprised) This belonged to one of the men that your son murdered. I took it out of the grave. You know that all of D.L.'s crew wore these.
PAULETTE: D.L. wouldn't murder anybody. (pausing) Ever.
NIKI: You're wrong. He robbed Linderman and got away with 2 million dollars and then he killed his crew.
PAULETTE: My son was framed. And he'd be rotting in some prison if he hadn't escaped. Besides, if D.L. had 2 million dollars...honey he'd be on some tropical island someplace sitting out his years, with Micah.
- from One Giant Leap, Season 1
Just like Niki, D.L.’s powers and character pathology manage to help him through acute crises, but further fracture the family over the long term. His distancing behavior and strange abilities only exacerbate his wife’s paranoia about his intentions, and force his son to cope with an erratic mother on his own. Eventually, D.L. trusts in his wife’s chances for recovery, seeking to find Gina-Niki in L.A. so as to bring her back to treatment. He is willing to risk confrontation, to admit to his desires and needs, as well as to the fact that his actions influence the people around him. Ironically this act of “remaining solid” is associated with being caught off guard by an assailant with a gun, and he fails to phase in time to save himself.
Micah, like his father, is being pushed into the role of “little man of the household.” Of course, Micah must also deal with the fact that his mother sometimes seems to be replaced by another individual. There is a lack of consistency in parenting style from both the “disappearing” father and the mother with multiple faces. The informed viewer is then not surprised to find that Micah has developed into a socially awkward individual, as he has not had an adult to help assimilate traumatic experiences (Miller 1998) or to strengthen his basic trust in others (Erikson 1950). He prefers a state of withdrawal from the world, his isolation serving to reproduce the emotional absence of his parents, as well as communicating to them that neither of them are needed. In his solitude, he tinkers with machines. Mechanical flaws being simpler than interpersonal fractures, he develops an innate sense of how machines work; unable to utilize thought and word to repair his parents, he eventually develops the superpower to alter machinery and circuitry with his mind. This is consistent with an Object Relations perspective, in which the mother that does not appear to acknowledge her child’s love produces schizoid futility in that child, along with confusion between material and emotional needs, culminating in excessive attachment to physical objects (see Grotstein 1993). Infant studies actually appear to indicate that an atypically affiliative response is the most likely outcome of withdrawn or dissociative behavior on the part of the caregiver, rather than avoidant strategies (Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman and Parsons 1999), but the eventual presentation in a latency age child like Micah is less clear. Micah does attempt to act as an emotional caretaker for his parents, as would be expected in a “tend-or-befriend” response to withdrawn/dissociative parenting. Moreover, when his facility with machines can be of use to other people, he is eager to use it to please them; this hunger for positive feedback makes him vulnerable to being manipulated into everything from stealing cable for a cousin to stealing an election for The Company’s congressional candidate.
Tune in next time for what promises to be an intriguing analysis of Malignant Narcissism and Resilient Empathy, through the character studies of Sylar and Peter Petrelli. For the political junkies here (basically everyone), the dyad of Sylar and Peter might remind them of another pair of figures on the national stage. Don't miss it.
Works cited in this installment:
Conrad SD and Morrow RS, “Borderline personality organization, dissociation, and willingness to use force in intimate relationships,” Psychol Men & Masc 1: 37-48, 2000.
Erikson EH, Childhood and Society New York: WW Norton and Company, 1950.
Forward S and Buck C, Betrayal of Innocence, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
Frankel J, “Exploring Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: its role in trauma, everyday life and the therapeutic relationship,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 12: 101-139, 2002.
Frankel J, “Identification with the Aggressor and the `normal traumas’: clinical implications,” Int Forum Psychoanal 13: 78-83, 2004.
Green AH, “Factors contributing to the generational transmission of child maltreatment,” J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 37: 1334-1336, 1998.
Grotstein JS, “A reappraisal of W.R.D. Fairbairn,” Bull Menninger Clin 57: 421-449, 1993.
LaValle JJ, “Combine group and individual psychoanalysis: an antidote to Ferenczi’s Identification with the Aggressor,” Group 23: 173-185, 1999.
Lyons-Ruth K, Bronfman E, and Parsons E, “IV. Maternal frightened, frightening, or atypical behavior and disorganized infant attachment patterns,” Monographs Soc Res Child Dev 64: 67-96, 1999.
Miller J, “The enemy inside: An exploration of the defensive processes of introjecting and identifying with the aggressor,” Psychodynam Couns 4: 55-70, 1998.
Simoneti S, Scott EC, and Murphy CM, “Dissociative experiences in partner-assaultive men,” J Interpers Viol 15: 1262-1283, 2000.
Winnicott DW, Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis London: Hogarth Press, 1958.