Title: “Frankie and Alice” - 2010
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Language and Run Time: English, 102 minutes
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Written by: Cheryl Edwards, Marko King, Mary King, Jonathan Watters, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, Oscar Janiger, Philip Goldberg
Cast: Halle Berry (Frankie), Stellan Skarsgard (Dr. Oz), Chandra Wilson (Maxine Murdoch), Phylicia Rashad (Edna Murdoch)
Frankie and Alice left me with a more than satisfied appetite for drama, intensity, mystery, and quality performance. Halle Berry brilliantly portrayed the real life struggle of a woman (Frankie Murdoch) suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), also known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). I was personally intrigued by this movie from an academic perspective recalling my fascination with psychology, particularly the field of dysfunctional psychology dealing with disorders such as Schizophrenia, DID, and Bipolar Disorder. Even though I knew about the classic DID case of a woman named Sybill, I was surprised to learn about the case of Frankie Murdoch, a story that I found just as interesting and tragic as Sybill’s.
We begin the film at the pre-awareness stage, observing Frankie’s strange behaviors from the mysterious completion of crossword puzzles to sudden fits of violence and panic apparently caused by spontaneous amnesia. After one episode in Frankie frantically dashes through she finds herself in the care of Dr. Osbourne at a local mental hospital. Through various effective nonverbal signals and brief camera shots we find out that the once active Dr. Osbourne has recently reduced his case load, focused intently on his solitary research, and gone about his daily routine with an air of quiet resignation. He has no idea, though, that he is about to embark upon his own personal pilgrimage with Frankie as they dive into the mental journey to her recovery. Dr. Osbourne’s interest in the case and genuine care for Frankie shines brightly as the film progresses, beginning with his dedication to keeping her under his care. Doing what he believes to be best for her requires him to stand up to his superior’s contrary judgment about her condition and withholding specific information from Frankie about her legal obligation, or lack thereof, to reside at the facility for long-term care.
Soon after arriving, Frankie’s gregarious personality and even exotic dancer trade skills are put to good use at the hospital as she invigorates the resident patient population. Later in the film, the extent of that dedication becomes known when two male patients attack the hospital staff to free Frankie after her alternate personality, Alice, comes alive and turns on the nurse cutting her hair. While the display was far from idyllic visions of devotion, such a strong display of loyalty from mentally affected patients illuminates the kindness and energy for which Frankie was known. Additionally, the same female nurse that was attacked by the alternate, Alice, reports to Dr. Osbourne that “she’s (Frankie) her usually charming self this morning.” By reincorcing Frankie’s kindness and friendliness throughout the film, we understand the important point that Frankie is a separate person from the alternate personalities with whom she shares a mind and body. Furthermore, we can sympathize with her much more deeply as we get the chance to see how strongly she impacts people with her kindness and unique personality, making the bizarre, difficult struggle all the more tragic.
Dr. Osbourne discovers the truth of Frankie’s dark affliction during a hypnosis session in which the first alternate, Alice, is discovered. Spurred by recall of painful childhood memories, Alice makes an appearance to the doctor as Frankie’s voice changes to a classic southern drawl and derogatory comments about “negroes” begin to flow during conversation. The doctor’s DID suspicions are confirmed when the southern-accented woman (only later to be identified as Alice) indignantly declares that she never smokes cigarettes, despite the contrary display of Frankie’s chain smoking behavior doctor’s office.
Reinvigorated with passion for his work, Dr. Osbourne sets to work drawing out and identifying Frankie’s two alternate personalities. He eventually discovers that while Frankie is a black, exotic dancer with an average IQ, there exists a 32 year old woman named Alice with a high IQ and a firm belief that she is white. The third personality, dubbed “Genius,” possesses the high, shrill voice of an 8 to 12 year old genius girl with an IQ of about 152, presumably the same personality that completed all of those crossword puzzles.
Dr. Osbourne’s relationship with the three different personalities provide a complex set of relationship obstacles to recovery, a daunting task that he faces with patience, skill, and genuine concern. While treating Frankie, he begins to rediscover his passion for helping others and the ridiculous waste of life that he had given himself over to through solitary withdrawal. I couldn’t help but connect with Dr. Osbourne and genuinely wish the best for him as he progresses in his rediscovery from ceasing the late night drinking sessions to changing his lonely late night meal-to-go routine, and finally calling his ex-wife to tell her about his love for her and the change that is taking place in his life.
All the while, as the doctor navigates these difficult relationships we find out that while poor Frankie is completely unaware of her alternate identities, their thoughts, and their actions, the two other personalities are fully conscious of her every thought and action. This revelation pits the disadvantaged Frankie against an even deeper, darker pit of self-struggle that she must overcome. There is a constant battle between Alice and Frankie (even before she is aware of Alice’s existence) for dominant control, a fight that Frankie gradually loses throughout the movie to an alarmingly dangerous extent. Dr. Osbourne, however, presses on to bring out the truth behind Frankie’s present suffering, one that speaks to the pain of unrealized futures and dashed dreams.
During a climactic hypnotherapy session, Frankie is recorded while all three personalities take their turns presenting themselves. Through the heart wrenching display of obvious emotional and physical pain, Frankie is taken back to those painful memories of the past that caused her to develop the terrible illness. Back in her childhood, the family served as maids to a rich white family where a forbidden romance budded between Frankie and the family’s son, also her best friend Paige’s brother, Pete. Once they were found out by Paige, the cultural taboos on the relationship forced the couple to flee to greater tolerance with the full and loving dedication of white Pete to his black lover, Frankie.
At this point, the first tragedy of unrealized potential and love cut short enters into the equation. On the way out of town another driver hit Frankie and Pete’s car on the driver side, killing Pete instantly. The mere fact that Pete was willing to defy social condemnation of the relationship and that their love seemed to be blessed for future growth was meakes the freak accident even more difficult to bear. The most obstinate and difficult obstacle had been overcome, a victory stolen away by a purposeless accident. Months later, however, the final nail in the coffin would come from a frightened mother attempting to keep her daughter out of the scrutiny of a divided world. In the vision, we find out that Frankie’s mother intentionally killed Frankie and Pete’s child just after birth during a home delivery. Devastated, there was nothing Frankie could do to protect her baby and so she was left with an intense bitterness and anger towards her mother that was never addressed or resolved.
Watching the agonized convulsions and pained face of a broken Frankie reliving those traumatizing experiences is more than enough to soften the hardest of hearts and gain at least a small understanding of the mind’s protective mechanism that takes the form of DID. After the movie, especially when I found out that the film was based on a true story, I felt that I had a better understanding of the affliction – how difficult and frustrating the struggle of dealing with unknown alternate personalities could be, but also how the affliction could possibly come about as the result of incredibly traumatic experiences. The most comforting part about the story, however, is the relationship between Dr. Osbourne and Frankie that continued and brought about the successful integration of personalities that helped Frankie lead a more normal life.
This story is one of teamwork, perseverance, selflessness in helping others, and emphasis on the importance of communicating and dealing with pain when it comes while having the support of loved ones to help bear the burden. Unchecked or buried pain only leads to emotional turmoil, isolation, miscommunication, and even severe mental disorders. If anything, this film provides a strong testimony to the power of perseverance and the necessity of the active love of family and friends in our lives.