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Dead Ringers: A Case of Psychosis in Twins

From: American Imago
Volume 56, Number 2, Summer 1999
pp. 181-202 | 10.1353/aim.1999.0008

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American Imago 56.2 (1999) 181-202

Beverly: What are you trying to suggest? That I'm gay? My mother wanted girls? What the fuck is this bullshit psychoanalysis?
Claire: Listen, doctor. I think there's something wrong with you. I don't know what it is. I can't put a label on it but you're subtly . . . I don't know . . . schizophrenic or something.

Dead Ringers

Despite Beverly's opinion on the topic, the study of the "Mantle brothers' case" from a psychoanalytical perspective should allow us to analyze the process through which Elliot and his brother, two identical twins, slowly go into self-destruction and insanity. David Cronenberg , the director, handles his fictional characters in a sensible, sensitive and accurate way, but despite his insight into mental processes, a few points about the way he has transformed the original twins whom he took as models are worth reconsidering.

This essay seeks to assess the psychopathology of the Mantle brothers. To that end, I will have to define precisely the mental (Mantle?) processes they are -- and have been -- undergoing. In a lengthy article on Dead Ringers (1988), Barbara Creed (1990) uses the twins' trauma to comment on the "narcissistic fantasy which lies . . . at the heart of masculinity" (146) and argues for a case of male hysteria, a form of neurosis, to describe their behavior. My intention is to show that what Creed analyzes as the response to male castration anxiety and its connection to the process of duplication is not in fact male hysteria, but rather psychosis. The questions I will ask are: What is the Mantle twins' psychological background? How did they evolve the way they have and what might have triggered their psychological disorders? Do they display neurotic or psychotic symptoms? Or both? To do so, I will consider the issues of "twinship" as a pathological state from the start, and the brothers' relationship, as twins, to what one might call the normal world. My analysis focuses first on the mechanism of neurosis proposed by Creed, along with the mechanisms of identification and their implications. I then examine the question of perversion in the twins' behavior, and finally the issue of psychotic identification connected with schizophrenia and paranoia. The "masculine quest for wholeness and identity" analyzed by Creed in Dead Ringers thus will appear to be more closely related to the psychopathology of twins than to that of males in general. Lastly, I should add that this study, even though part of a discourse constructed on the fictional characters of a fictional text, figures "male anxiety" in a perspective not necessarily linked to hysteria/neurosis, but rather focused on "twin anxiety" as a metaphor for the loss of identity.

Let us look at the Mantle brothers' lives as (almost) normal gynecologists in the first part of the film. Before Beverly, the more sensitive of the twins, meets Claire and falls in love with her, the two brothers seem to enjoy a life in which everything is well organized: their medical clinic brings them money and fame, and they do have sexual relations with women, whom they share as they would a good meal (Beverly himself points this out to Claire: "Elliot and I share everything").

Invoking "male hysteria," Barbara Creed suggests that the two brothers present us with a case of neurosis. We must then try to detect neurotic symptoms in the twins' behavior. Neurosis, according to Freud, "is the result of a conflict between the ego and its id, whereas psychosis is the analogous outcome of a similar disturbance in the relations between the ego and the external world" (1924, 149). Perverse symptoms also imply regressive maneuvers in response to the Oedipus complex. Creed's article, using some of Julia Kristeva's concepts from Powers of Horror, suggests "the workings of a phallic panic, a form of male hysteria which, unlike female hysteria, appears to have emerged in response to male fears and anxieties about the womb as, paradoxically, a site of both abjection and envy" (Creed 1990, 125). Later, she states:

The film provides us with a fascinating study of the representation of male hysteria as a defence against the possibility of symbolic castration...

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