By Susan Wagner
Recently, I found myself binge-watching United States of Tara, Showtime’s now concluded series. I was reminded of the series because May is Mental Health Month and the series deals with the Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) of Tara, wife, mother and artist. It is a comedy-drama, quirky, well acted and thought provoking.
I love this series. Not just because Toni Collette is wonderful as Tara, though she is. And not just because I’ve had a fascination with psychology for, well, my whole life. But because there’s something as a writer I find fascinating in the ability of the human mind to create not only what it needs to survive, but to develop whole personalities, essentially different people, to live in one body.
Writers know it takes skill to develop characters that are unique, well-rounded and realistic. Good characters need flaws and bad characters need something sympathetic to humanize them to the reader. So we work on our characters’ back-stories or biographies until we know them as well as we know our best friend. We see them in various locations and with various people, some who make it into our work and some who remain unknown to the reader. But we know them, and we hope what we know develops the character as we write our story or novel.
In season one, Tara’s other personalities, or “alters,” take over the body periodically after she stops taking her medication. Her husband and teen children are supportive of her quest to find a way to integrate the alters into a single personality, which is the ultimate goal. Naturally, it’s also the source of the comedy-drama, which gets more intense in each of the three seasons.
It’s one of the joys of binge watching a television show that you get to see the growth and development of characters literally right before your eyes. So, I saw Tara’s husband, sister and children’s reactions to her alters as they went through life changes together. Alters went in and out depending on Tara’s need for them, wreaking havoc sometimes but also growing themselves. It felt like I was watching a master class in personality development as every character and major alter became more mature, more loving and more willing to do what was right for themselves and for the family.
DID is a serious problem and no one should replace real research with a television show. What you can do is marvel at the creative ability of the human mind to find ways to cope with trauma, to laugh at absurdity and to love even those people who make our lives hard.