What can Gollum from The Lord of the Rings teach us about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

gollum

Character Overview:

Most commonly recognized as Gollum, Smeagol is a Hobbit who becomes corrupted by the One Ring, and slowly loses his self-identity while an ulterior, nefarious second personality develops. Though he is widely known as the creepy character bloodthirstily whispering the words “my precious”, Smeagol’s original character was a relatively ordinary Hobbit living in The Shire with his family. Gollum’s persona is particularly interesting throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy, since initially this character does not even seem to be human, but rather a repulsive creature. This case study will explore Smeagol’s slow recovering of his past, his split personality between two opposing identities, and how his behaviors can relate to the prevalence of psychosis today.

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Psychological Underpinnings: 

In The Return of the King (2003), we see Smeagol and his cousin Deagol fishing on a lake, where he first encounters the Ring of Power. Unusually drawn to it, Smeagol feels so overcome with desire, that he ends up strangling his cousin to death in order to take possession of the ring. After he acquires it, we see Smeagol’s slow dissociation into “Gollum”, during a period of years in which he spends isolated from social contact, and even abandons humanly habits such as eating cooked food–after all, we see him catching and eating fish, as he prefers it, “raw and wr-wr-wr-wriggling” (The Two Towers, 2003). During this solitary period under the One Ring’s traumatizing influence, Smeagol increasingly loses sight of his true identity and becomes a mangy creature devoid of regular humanly instincts.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson portrays Gollum as a reclusive, skulking character whose main objective is to regain possession of the One Ring, which he consistently refers to as “the precious”. He is frequently shown talking and arguing with himself, an example being a scene in The Two Towers when Smeagol bickers with himself about wanting to help Frodo, while Gollum, his other personality, convinces him to betray Frodo and steal the Ring (“We don’t need you anymore…leave, now, and never come back!”). On that note, he mostly refers to himself as a plural “we”, referencing both the original Smeagol personality and his developed, alternative personality, Gollum.

“And now the Ring had drawn him here. He will never be rid of his need for it. He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself.
Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

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Suggested Diagnosis: 

Given Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum, and considering the forces of the Ring of Power as a trigger, I would suggest a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This disorder is also commonly known as Multiple Personality Disorder or Split Personality Disorder. According to the DSM-V, DID is characterized by “an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory” (National Alliance on Mental Illness). The chief diagnosis criteria for this disorder is “two or more distinct identities or personality states are present, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to and thinking about the environment and self” (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition, other qualifying symptoms include “amnesia, or difficulty in the recall of everyday events, important personal information and/or traumatic events”, “difficulty functioning in everyday life due to the personality dissociation”, “not due to the psychological effects of a drug or substance”, and “personality states seem as a state of possession” (Dissociative Amnesia: Deeply Buried Memories). These symptoms must not originate from a religious or cultural practices.

Given this criteria, an individual suspected to have DID would usually show two or more contrasting personalities. Transition from one personality to another is typically sudden and can be triggered by stress. In addition, each personality appears to be well ingrained with its own separate memories and identity, making the contrast even more stark, and the self-identity of the individual as a whole difficult (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

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Let’s take a look at how Smeagol and Gollum show these symptoms and meet the criteria for DID.

  • Two or more distinct identities or personality states are present, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to and thinking about the environment and self
    • Evidently throughout the Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy, Gollum is consistently shown arguing with himself, talking to himself, and referring to himself as the plural “we” or “us”. In addition, Smeagol and Gollum are almost polar opposites, as Smeagol seemingly wants to genuinely help Frodo and feels an attachment to this Hobbit who saved his life, whereas Gollum fights against this sense of goodness, desiring to ruthlessly kill and scheme in order to regain possession of the One Ring.
  • Amnesia, or difficulty in the recall of everyday events, important personal information and/or traumatic events
    • In The Two Towers, when Frodo reminds Gollum of his real name (“Smeagol…that was your name once, wasn’t it?”), Gollum initially does not remember this fact, or any of his previous life as a Hobbit (The Two Towers, 2002). Only by Frodo bringing up the past does Gollum slowly recover more of his memories as Smeagol living in the Shire. This shows how not only has Gollum experienced a split in personality, but he also experienced amnesia in the process, forgetting much of his initial life while an alternate personality developed.

“And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot…our own name.”
Gollum, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

  • Difficulty functioning in everyday life due to the personality dissociation
    • It can be inferred that Smeagol experiences severe difficulty functioning in everyday life, as he is first discovered lurking a cave living off of raw fish, completely isolated from social contact, after a century of living alone while the persona of Gollum developed. Even after Gollum is rediscovered and joins Frodo and Sam on their journey to Mordor, he still cannot maintain a healthy relationship with either Hobbit, unable to gain the trust of Sam or keep a friendship with Frodo because he eventually betrays him to take possession of the Ring.
  • Not due to the psychological effects of a drug or substance, or from religious or cultural practices
    • As Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s films show, there is no evidence that Smeagol used any hallucinogens or other drugs that could have induced his psychotic behavior. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Smeagol experienced multiple personality symptoms because of a religion or culural norm, given that The Shire’s culture in the Middle Earth universe does not suggest specific links to split personality development in Hobbits (Tolkien, 1954).

Discussion:

An important point of discussion is how DID differentiates from schizophrenia. These two are frequently confused, since people often believe schizophrenia to involve the split gollum6personality criteria that actually uniquely comprise DID. Schizophrenia (stay posted for my upcoming post about River Tam from Firefly) primarily involves hallucinations and delusions, but does NOT explicitly imply multiple personalities. An excellent recommendation for background reading on living with schizophrenia is the autobiography The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks, who writes about growing up with psychosis and learning to live an accomplished life alongside a severe mental disorder. She, too, clarifies the difference between DID and schizophrenia in her book, in one way by describing that “the schizophrenic mind is not so much split as shattered” (Saks, 2007).

Regarding the assessment of Smeagol’s character, this theoretical case study disregards the fictional power that the One Ring has over weak-willed individuals. The Ring’s power is described in Tolkien’s trilogy to be the main controlling factor behind Smeagol’s deterioration and Gollum’s manifestation, and undoubtedly is a fictional entity. However, fantasy aside, Smeagol as a character still exhibits qualifying symptoms and behaviors that fall under the DSM-V criteria for DID. Using this recognizable movie character to illustrate the harmful effects of living with psychosis, Smeagol serves as but one example of the numerous ways that severe mental illness can impede a healthy lifestyle. His deterioration into Gollum can serve as an extreme metaphor of the ways an individual diagnosed with DID could transform emotionally.

The prevalence of DID is around 0.01% in the general population, and around 0.5-1.0% in psychiatric settings, thereby being extremely rare (International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation). Nonetheless, individuals who experience split personality disorder must overcome many barriers and challenges in order to maintain, or restore, a typical lifestyle. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation is a great resource for more information on DID. The National Alliance of Mental Illness is also an informative webpage on dissociative disorders.

Finally, as a disclaimer, this case study is my own opinion based on presented cinematic material. I recognize that there could be numerous other interpretations, and I am open to discussion or additions to this post. Have questions or want to add on to assessment? You can reach me via the Contact page.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Text citation: (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

American Psychological Association, P. W., MD, PhD. (2016, January). What Are Dissociative Disorders? Retrieved May, 2018, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders/

International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. (2015). Dissociation FAQ’s. Retrieved May, 2018, from http://www.isst-d.org/?contentID=76/ 

National Alliance on Mental Illness (n.d.). Dissociative Disorders. Retrieved May 15, 2018, from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/dissociative-disorders/ 

N. T. (2015, May 13). Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/dissociative-identity-disorder/dissociative-identity-disorder-did-signs-and-symptoms/ 

Jackson, P., Osborn, B., Walsh, F. (Producers), & Jackson, P. (Director). (2002). The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers [Motion Picture]. California, The United States, New Line Home Entertainment, Wingnut Films Studios. 

Jackson, P., Osborn, B., Walsh, F. (Producers), & Jackson, P. (Director). (2003). The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Motion Picture]. California, The United States, New Line Home Entertainment, Wingnut Films Studios. 

Saks, E. (2007). The Center Cannot Hold. New York: Hyperion.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954). The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Part 2). Houghton Mifflin Co. 2nd Rep Edition. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955). The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Part 3). London: Allen and Unwin.

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Copyright Disclaimer: This character, their photos, and storyline references are all copyright by J.R.R Tolkien and Wingnut Films. All information and content presented in this assessment are solely analyzed for general information and reference purposes. 

© Post material by Juliann Li and The Character Clinic, 2018.
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