Written by therapist Ruth Nathaniel

The other day, I tuned into Marvel’s Moon Knight finale, titled Gods and Monsters. Over the years, Marvel has attempted to capture the realities of various mental health issues including grief and depression in its character arcs of Thor and WandaVision, PTSD and generational trauma in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and most recently, childhood trauma and dissociative identity disorder in Moon Knight. It’s been a particularly mind-bending experience watching Moon Knight, so if you’re on this journey like I am, let’s discuss why this series is a great tool in the broader discussion of mental illness. 

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

Marc Specter suffers from dissociative identity disorder. Since the series aired, there’s been quite a buzz around the diagnosis, so what exactly does it mean? Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is an extremely rare mental illness in which a person develops multiple distinctive personalities (each with their own experiences and memories) that causes hallucinations and memory confusion. DID is typically the response to severe trauma, and the mind’s attempt to protect or distance itself from the pain. 

Marc Specter experienced early childhood trauma (witnessing his younger brother Randall’s death), and subsequent emotional and physical abuse at the hand of his mother who blamed Marc for Randall’s tragic passing. Marc’s father did not attempt to protect him from the abuse, and instead focused on maintaining familial harmony after Randall’s death, ultimately failing young Marc. We see Marc take on an alternative personality named Steven Grant during one of his mother’s beatings, characterized by the rolling back of his eyes. 

Who is Steven Grant? Well, he’s Marc’s attempt to comfort and protect himself – a version who does not remember the trauma of Randall’s death or his mother’s hatred. Steven gets to call and leave his mom sweet voicemails, work in a gift shop at a museum, and most of all, is averse to violence. Marc, on the other hand, goes on to be a mercenary, becomes the Egyptian god Konshu’s avatar, and is immersed in violent jobs (Konshu’s “justice”). There is a third personality present as well, Jake Lockley, who turns out to be far more violent than either Marc and Steven, and shocks them both. 

Therapist Insight

First of all, there is a clear supernatural element to Moon Knight, empowering Marc’s physical action. This means that in real life, this rare mental disorder does not necessarily include violent behavior like we see on the show, nor should we associate this disorder with violence. Personality disorders already come with enough stigma, and as is with many movies and tv shows, the nuance in mental health can often be missed, so please keep this in mind! 

What the show does well is show the distinctive differences between Marc, Steven, and Jake – Freud would definitely have something to say about that. Marc represents the ego, the personality who we see the most and the one who tries to mediate between Steven and Jake’s desires. Steven represents the superego, through his innocence and easy-going nature. Jake represents the id through his shocking brutality and is probably the one who deals most closely with their pain. The various personalities present in a person with DID most likely won’t correlate to these three aspects of the self, but it’s a fun psychological easter egg within the show.

Outside the diagnosis of DID, an aspect everyone can relate to in Moon Knight is Marc’s development of defense mechanisms in childhood. We saw young Marc in a situation completely out of his control, in which his little brother died. We saw him attempt to make sense of his mother’s abuse, and his father’s inaction. We saw him contend with the hateful messages he received from his mother, that he was unlovable, evil, and responsible for Randall’s drowning. Just as Marc attempted to create an asylum for himself in his mind through the creation of Steven, many of us turned to our own defense mechanisms as adolescents to cope with our own pain. 

Defense Mechanisms 

Coping can look like denial (putting off important tasks), repression (subconsciously pushing down painful memories), displacement (taking out aggression on a lesser threat), projection (accusing someone of the same thing you are guilty of), splitting (all good or all bad view of something or someone), suppression (consciously pushing down a feeling), or distraction (numbing). For most of us, we carry these defense mechanisms into adulthood, sometimes well after the environment or experience we endured is gone. This is for good reason, simply put, our defense mechanisms protected and preserved us. But while our defense mechanisms may have proved to be useful in the short-term, they are actually detrimental in the long run. Our defense mechanisms can stand in the way of the lives we actually want to live, or conflict with the values we want to consciously embody. 

In the finale, we watch Marc embrace Steven and thank him for saving him. This is a beautiful visual representation of how we might interact with our defense mechanisms as we learn a new way of responding to life’s challenges. But most importantly, Marc and Steven’s embrace represents how we might acknowledge and honor our inner child. They got us this far, and we are grateful, but it’s time for them to release control, take a deep breath, and allow us to take the wheel because we are ready. 

If this piece resonated with you, and you want to process your childhood, defense mechanisms, or even learn how to mindfully incorporate your values in adulthood, I’d be honored to support you. Give us a call about setting up an appointment today.

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