On fantasy, mythology, and mental health (part II)

I have recently blogged about a most interesting series of conversations that I have participated in. I’ve been one of three members of the “Moon Knight Panel”, discussing the six episodes of this show, Moon Knight, which was released earlier this year on Disney Plus. The three of us—Will in Melbourne, Praxis in Hobart, and myself in Canberra—have recorded a series of seven podcasts that explore the issues that arise in each of the six episodes of Moon Knight. (Seven podcasts for six episodes, as the first podcast is an introduction to the panel members.) See https://open.spotify.com/episode/6acg2hENWopVtWundPpMbM?si=sLPWrMtUQVuLj2VC4M2HlA

In that blog, I noted that it was not only the opportunity to discuss the condition of DID with others, through the medium of commentary on the Moon Knight series, that was what I appreciated about this recent experience. It was also the opportunity to talk at depth about the place of fantasy in our lives, and to explore matters of theology and mythology, the relationship of the divine to humanity, that was valuable.

Integral to the storyline of Moon Knight is the interplay between the divine realm—here expressed through the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt—and the humans in the story. Indeed, Marc Spector is engaged as the avatar for the Egyptian moon god Konshu. Whilst “avatar” is in popular use as the electronic representation of a person in online games, in the Hindu religion it is used to refer to an incarnation, or manifestation in human form, of one of the deities. That’s how it should be understood in Moon Knight.

Konshu, as portrayed in Moon Knight

In this series, as Spector is the human manifestation of the divine Konshu, the moon god, he is known as Moon Knight. His wife, Layla, becomes the avatar of the goddess Tawaret, the goddess of childbirth and fertility, and thus also of determining the onward progression of souls in the afterlife. Tawaret appears to perform this function in episode 5, when she takes the hearts of both Marc and Steven and weighs them to see if they are “in balance”.

Layla as the avatar of Tawaret

Some scenes are set in the “council of the gods”, where the deities debate the actions of avatars and discuss what needs to happen amongst human beings. In theory, the human characters in the story have no choice but to implement the will of their god or goddess; in Moon Knight, the relationship is portrayed in a more complex manner. These scenes provide dramatic tension; the out working of “the will of the gods” amongst humans provides action drama, with some great special effects amongst the conflict and violence that ensues.

National Geographic was apparently consulted with regard to the Egyptian gods and goddesses, and the mythology that has developed around them, as they appear in the Moon Knight series; see https://www.ign.com/videos/marvel-studios-moon-knight-world-builders-featurette

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The relationship of the gods to human beings is heightened by the work of the avatar of the goddess Ammit, whose role is to execute justice by examining the souls of people and assessing whether they are good or evil. Those who are evil are instantly put to death, to avoid them carrying out any future unjust actions.

That, in itself, raises some central ethical concerns; is it in any way right to take a person’s life on the basis of what evil it is believed that person will commit? On the other hand, if you have the power to know how a person is going to harm others, do you not have a duty to interfere with their capacity to do so, to prevent that harm being inflicted on other people? A difficult cluster of dilemmas, indeed.

Arthur Harrow with a portrayal of Ammit on his staff,
which he uses to adjudge the goodness or evil of people

The avatar of Ammit is Arthur Harrow, who behaves very much like a cult leader; in later scenes, however, he appears as Dr Harrow, the psychiatrist who is working with Marc Spector in a mental hospital to help him come to grips with his dissociative identity disorder. Now that’s an intriguing plot twist!

Since Will and I (two of the three-member panel) are both Uniting Church Ministers, the discussion in our podcasts inevitably canvasses the notion of divine judgement, as well as the relationship between humans and the divine, that we both experience in our lives and know about from our reading in Christian (and Jewish) theological traditions. Moon Knight invites its audience to explore how fantasy—storytelling, spinning a yarn, depicting a dramatic plot—helps them to explore the complexities of the human—divine relationship.

This bears many similarities with the way that Christian scriptures employ mythology—storytelling, narrating ancient sagas, recounting dramatic encounters and events—to convey attitudes of faith. Scripture, in my view, is not propositional or mechanical, conveying truth in a direct way through dogma or assertion. Rather, Scripture is a collation of stories which convey truths indirectly, through the art and creativity of myths. So there are many resonances between “interpreting the Bible” and “understanding Moon Knight”!

(On understanding the Bible as a collection of myths, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-can-we-preach-on-passages-in-the-bible-that-are-myths/; on the Christmas story as a myth, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/21/christmas-not-actual-history-but-powerful-myth/)

Connected with this understanding of the nature of much of the Bible is the observation that DID itself is a “fantasy-like” way of dealing with trauma and the associated difficulties. The identities that are formed by dissociation from “the self” in DID are the result of the mind of the person, playing at the edges of reality, creating characters—who then, often take on a life of their own and become a “reality” within “the system” of the host person.

So the Bible, Marvel superheroes, Egyptian mythology, and Dissociative Identity Disorder form a neat cluster of areas in which fantasy, mythology, creativity, and story-telling combine, leaving us with the fundamental existential question in itself: what is real? what is unreal? and how do we make the distinction? Or, even: should we make such a distinction?

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The link to the podcast on Episode Two is at https://open.spotify.com/episode/6acg2hENWopVtWundPpMbM?si=sLPWrMtUQVuLj2VC4M2HlA

For Episode One, see https://open.spotify.com/episode/6acg2hENWopVtWundPpMbM?si=sLPWrMtUQVuLj2VC4M2HlA

For an introduction to the Moon Knight Panel, see https://open.spotify.com/episode/5feSJb2qyVAhzBEfoeHj1x?si=29983b58d694477d

I invite you to have a listen and explore these fascinating (and challenging) issues.

Good information about DID can be found at https://www.sane.org/information-and-resources/facts-and-guides/dissociative-identity-disorder

On fantasy, mythology, and mental health (part I)

I have recently taken part in a most interesting series of conversations, on topics that are quite unlike others that I have participated in. I’ve been one of three members of the “Moon Knight Panel”, discussing the six episodes of this show, Moon Knight, which was released earlier this year on Disney Plus. The three of us—Will in Melbourne, Praxis in Hobart, and myself in Canberra—have recorded a series of seven podcasts that explore the issues that arise in each of the six episodes of Moon Knight. (Seven podcasts for six episodes, as the first podcast is an introduction to the panel members.)

The six episodes were released by Marvel Entertainment, which began life as the publisher of comic books (Spider Man, Doctor Doom, Captain America, She-Hulk, and Wolverine, amongst many others). It has now expanded to be a film production enterprise. Moon Knight is a character in Marvel comics, and this series represents a stepping-up from the role that Moon Knight has had in the printed comic books, for this character to become the star of his own television miniseries. The six episodes contain action, adventure, violence, drama, and suspense—it’s a really well-done artistic creation.

An early appearance of Moon Knight in the comics

Moon Knight first appeared as a character in a 1975 comic, Werewolf by Night #32, where his character was a villain, aiming to kill Werewolf. Moon Knight continued to appear in various comics in subsequent years, in which he turns to become a “good guy”. His first solo series, Moon Knight #1, was published in 1980. There is a whole complex story that has evolved over the decades, as Moon Knight has appeared, as himself and in various guises, in various comic series during that time. I entered into this podcast series, however, in blissful ignorance of that long history of Moon Knight; I was viewing the episodes with Paul Ricouer’s “first naïveté”.

My involvement in the panel has come about, not because I am a Marvel comic aficionado—I am not—nor because I am a Disney Plus subscriber—I am not—and not even because I am an action movie buff—I most certainly am not! It was because the episodes reveal a situation in which the human character who is to the fore at the start of the first episode, mild-mannered British gift-shop employee Steven Grant, is revealed to have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and DID is something that I know about quite closely, from my own lived experience of the condition.

Steven Grant actually turns out to have been an identity created by Marc Spector, a Jewish-American mercenary who has been implicated in numerous murders. The series provides a gradual revelation of the relationship between Marc and Steven—and by the last episode, leaving us on the expected cliffhanger, we are aware that there is yet another identity, Jake Lockley, lurking in and around Marc and Steven. Jake is a ruthless Spanish assassin; how he figures in the complex scenario will, we presume, be revealed in the second series, yet to be recorded (although readers of the printed comics will have a good understanding of this already).

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Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) was previously known as MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder), and it was MPD that I was diagnosed with about 30 years ago. The process of therapy that led to this diagnosis was a thoroughly challenging and deeply disturbing process for me. The therapy that followed, enabling me to deal with the dissociated identities that were lurking in my being, was a comprehensive and exhausting marathon over some years. I haven’t spoken about this before to many people in my life—and certainly never in such a public way as I have in the podcasts and now in this blog.

The series does a fine job, in my estimation, of portraying the confusion, disturbance, incomprehensibility, and fear that comes with a diagnosis of DID. Although I did not have many dramatic experiences of suddenly finding myself in a foreign and unknown situation—which is what happens, very dramatically, to Steven Grant in the earlier episodes—I certainly had the experience of complete and absolute confusion, of finding myself “gripped” in an intense way by a personality or force that felt quite alien, of enacting behaviours that were completely uncharacteristic for me and deeply troubling for others. All of these things are portrayed with vivid drama in the Moon Knight series—far more dramatically than what my own experiences were, but resonating deeply with the experiences I had, which still remember very clearly.

One of the other members of the Moon Knight panel, Praxis, also has lived experience of DID—although his experience is very different from mine. The “system” of Praxis that he is living with is quite different from the “system” that I identified in my therapy. His personalities identify in ways very different from the ways that mine did, and his “living with a ‘functioning multiplicity’ system of identities” is very different from the process that I undertook, of “fusing personalities piece-by-piece, seeking an ultimate integration into one person”. Talking with one another about our rather different experiences of DID has been mutually beneficial—and even through the differences, there are many key similarities that we have shared.

The series also accurately depicts the sheer exhaustion of the process of “switching” identities—something that was a very real experience for me in the height of the time when my “personalities” were emerging. Such “switching” would happen without warning, many times in a fierce, dramatic way. The sense of suddenly being “taken over” by another identity was an intensely draining experience for me, even when it happened in a relatively “smooth” way. So the dramatic portrayals of this aspect in Moon Knight, whilst not entirely “realistic” for me, certainly convey the intensity and dramatic impact of how such experiences felt at the time.

One critic of the comic book character made this assessment a few years ago: “When you look at Moon Knight’s story as a whole, it appears to be more and more of a story about perseverance, endurance, and coming to grips with who you are. That’s an extremely universal story. That’s something anyone can relate to, in one way or another. It’s a call to believe in yourself, and to never give up. And, really, that’s one of the most heroic tales you can get.” (Matt Attanasio, https://comicsverse.com/moon-knight-mental-health/, 22 May 2018)

That is a very positive and affirming conclusion for me to take from this story, and from my own experience. I hope that this is sensed by those who watch the television series. You don’t need to have experienced the condition of DID to take this lesson to heart.

The link to the first podcast (introducing the Moon Knight Panel) is at https://open.spotify.com/episode/5feSJb2qyVAhzBEfoeHj1x?si=29983b58d694477d

The podcast on Episode One is at https://open.spotify.com/episode/0Rk2PZKSvqKcc7yigju8pn?si=f7tXj0jnRk2ph9o1UpgKSw

I invite you to have a listen and explore these fascinating (and challenging) issues.

Good information about DID can be found at https://www.sane.org/information-and-resources/facts-and-guides/dissociative-identity-disorder