How The Drama Kin Tries To Do Right To People With Dissociative Identity Disorder
It’s nothing like ‘Split’, okay?
When the soap opera Kin turned one in October, it hit the reset button by jumping ahead five years.
Post-reboot, we see loan shark runner Ah Yoke (Rachel Wan) as a no-nonsense top level exec. Uptown girl Ella (Jasmine Sim) is a naturalised citizen Ah Lian Nation. Zara (Sofia Dendroff) is preggers. Zaryn (Hatta Said) is gone (I miss you, buddy.)
Oh yes, Dr Shen (Brian Ng) has dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as split personality, or multiple personality disorder. Turns out Dr Shen has an alter ego, Yang.
To create off two very distinct personalities, “the production team studied videos of those who have DID,” says Kin executive producer Tan Wei-Lyn.
“They focused on mannerisms of the various personalities and how those transitions happen,” she tells 8days.sg via e-mail. “It could be as subtle as the shifting of the head.”
Can’t tell them apart? The bespectacled Dr Shen is more buttoned up, still and deliberate while glasses-free Yang is more relaxed, open, and animated. Steps were taken to make sure that the audience wasn’t confused.
But confusion was the least of the show’s problems: the viewers didn’t take to the reveal too well. On social media, they griped about the twist, calling it ridiculous, even threatening to quit watching.
The feedback was disheartening but not unexpected. Tan chalked their resistance up to how the affliction has been stigmatised on TV shows and movies (such as M Night Shyamalan’s Split, starring James McAvoy as a man with 23 personalities).
“We chose to handle DID differently from most dramas,” says Tan. “It's important for us to show that people with DID are not dangerous or a menace to society — particularly because the people we know who have DID prefer to keep this very quiet and not talk about it.”
By examining DID on Kin, Tan hopes it’ll “urge people to be more accepting and open to the idea of this condition, so anyone who's hiding this condition feel more empowered to come forward and deal with the underlying trauma that caused it.”
Here, writer Grace Ng, who’s shared her creative process on the show on social media, lets us in how she made sure that Dr Shen’s DID is accurately portrayed.
8 DAYS: Why choose dissociative identity disorder for Dr Shen?
GRACE NG: [Executive produce Tan] Wei-Lyn was the one who came up with the idea but this is my personal take on it.
Why did you 'give' Dr Shen this condition?
We did not plan for Dr Shen to have DID right from Episode 1. But he’s always been written as a character who is very private and controlled, with secrets about his life that he guards at all costs. His story was always going to be about unravelling his past, learning to trust others with his burdens, and finding closure.
Were other medical conditions considered?
One of the core themes of Kin is generational trauma — the ‘inheritance’ your family leaves you. It features in nearly every character’s story, such as how Yoke and Ella were swapped at birth but shaped by their upbringing. With Dr Shen, we wanted to explore this familiar theme from a new angle. But it’s not like we flipped open the DSM-V, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to pick a mental disorder for Dr Shen. DID just happened to be relevant for us.
We have a reference document for this story which starts with the following: “This story is about trauma, closure, and recovery. The condition of DID gives us a device to play with and a mystery to solve, but the story is about Shen as a person, not a medical oddity.”
In choosing to depict DID on Kin, what were the clichés you took great care to avoid?
Honestly, I, personally, was very hesitant to write about DID because it’s been done so badly/harmfully elsewhere, notably in M Night Shyamalan’s films Split and Glass. But Wei-Lyn pointed out that it shouldn’t stop us from doing it — we should just do it better.
The main cliché we avoided was that people with DID are overwhelmingly not violent, murderous, or “Beast”-like — thanks, Split. They are much likelier to be victims than perpetrators of abuse, as are most who suffer from mental disorders.
We took great care to avoid a simplistic “evil alter” story by developing Dr Shen’s alternate personality, Yang, as a full-fledged character in his own right — which was necessary for us to tell a good story, anyway.
A psychiatrist friend told me that the number of suffering from DID in Singapore are “super super low”.
There aren’t many statistics for DID even globally. Apparently the number ranges from 0.01% to 1% of the general population, which is a pretty big number actually. But it is definitely over-represented in North America, and has also sharply increased in prevalence over the years. It’s debated whether this increase is due to increased awareness about the condition, or therapists influencing their suggestible patients into exhibiting DID symptoms as the disorder gets more well-known… but we probably shouldn’t get into that.
As for Singapore, the public knowledge of DID is still very low. I’ve found precisely four public interviews done by Singaporeans with DID, and most of the interviewees either use pseudonyms or don’t provide their full names. Combined with local media’s track record of portrayals of DID so far, it’s not surprising that DID patients don’t really come forward in Singapore.
How extensive was your research?
For research, there is a lot of professional and anecdotal material available publicly about DID. For instance, the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation posts their FAQs and treatment guidelines online. Other than that there’s recently been quite a bit of progressive media coverage, such as this documentary which covers the first time an abuse survivor with DID successfully won a court case against her abuser with evidence from her alters. There’s also a large social media community of people with DID who share their experiences first hand on YouTube and other platforms. For the first episode revealing Shen’s DID, I sent everyone this video by a YouTuber with DID who explains the disorder in a way that’s very accessible and easy to understand.
The amount of material available to an average person today — not just from scientific studies, but from a first-hand, personal perspective of what it’s like to have DID — is unprecedented. We really don’t have any excuse to screw this story up, and we’ll try our very best not to.
What is the most misunderstood/surprising aspect of DID?
A lot of viewers have asked me whether DID is a real condition, and not just fictional. I think DID is unique among medical conditions that people know it more as a fictional device than a real, proven thing. It can be very invalidating for an individual who experiences it as their reality, so proper media representation is important.
DID also isn’t as rare/bizarre/unrealistic as one might think. The theory of structural dissociation places DID on the same spectrum as PTSD, in that they both result from the human brain trying to cope with trauma.
It’s important to remember that people with DID are survivors. They’ve been through more than most of us could imagine, and their brain has figured out a way to keep going despite it all. Any story about a person with DID needs to be told with care and respect.
What were the initial viewer feedback like?
The viewer feedback has ranged from curiosity to derision and slurs — “psycho”, “schizo”, “shen jing bing” (‘crazy’ in Mandarin), etc — to just complaining about how boring and badly written it is. This is honestly the most galling (laughs). The response has also been markedly different on Instagram and Facebook. The Instagram crowd is a lot younger and more “woke” about mental illness, while the Facebook crowd is less open-minded. Even though it’s been about [a while] and [the promotion team] has stopped posting about Yoke and Dr Shen completely on Facebook, viewers are still commenting about the story and asking us to end it.
And what was your reaction?
I was disappointed by the lack of empathy from our viewer base at first, but recently I talked to a friend about how local media has historically depicted mental illness and it’s helped me understand where our viewers are coming from. Since 2005’s Beautiful Illusions, Ch 8 has depicted DID/multiple personalities on at least three separate times: 2010’s Breakout, 2014’s Against the Tide , and 2015’s Mind Game. Every single one of these stories involve violence, crime, and/or murder. So it makes sense that our viewers are approaching Dr Shen’s story from that perspective, even though we’re trying to do something very different.
You’d mentioned that a viewer shared a personal story with you.
In the midst of this, I was very surprised and humbled to get an Instagram message from a Kin viewer who wanted to thank us for creating awareness about DID in the show. She messaged Brian Ng, who plays Dr Shen first, and he sent her over to me.
The viewer shared that her husband has DID, and said she’s never seen or talked to anyone who has it or deals with it, or been able to talk to her family about it — she said she felt happy just to see it onscreen. She also offered to answer any questions and give us an anonymous quote if we wanted it.
I was very heartened by the viewer’s message, but I’ve also received other messages that remind me of the responsibility that comes with writing about a disorder that’s already so heavily stigmatised. The thing is, though, we’re not exactly making a medical documentary. We’re a soap opera and this is a love story. How well are we really going to do?
What has this experience taught you about writing?
The personal rule that I've decided to follow: at bare minimum, if you write a story about someone or a group of someones, the story should not promote harmful ideas about that group of someones.
For better or worse, many of our viewers don't know much about DID and are learning about it from our show. Unfortunately, this was also the case with the recent films Split and Glass.Because of those films and other common media tropes, people often assume DID is either not real or very dangerous. Oh you have DID? Oh my God, is it like Split? Which one of you is the Beast? Are you going to hurt me or murder me?
If nothing else, I hope if a Kin viewer ever meets someone with DID, their first comparison won't be the Beast from Split, but our fun little love triangle — square, rather — with characters they've grown to enjoy and love. So hopefully the conversation would go more like, Oh you have DID? Oh my God, I just watched this Ch 5 show, it's a love story! Yang was scary at first but he's actually really interesting and sweet to Ella!
At least that's what I'd like to imagine. I think we have a long way to go in urging our viewers to be open-minded and empathetic about all of Kin’s stories. But we have many, many episodes to go (laughs). We'll keep trying.
Kin airs weekdays, Ch 5, 8.30pm. It’s also on Toggle.
Main photo: Pyron Tan