Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Batman’s Mental Health, Part 1


This blog post is an excerpt from the book What’s the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader, by Robin. S. Rosenberg.

What’s the matter with Batman? There must be something wrong with him, right? After all, he does things most of us wouldn’t do in a million years: He dresses up in a bat costume and puts his life on the line night after night, without any official status. He’s a billionaire, yet he dedicates a significant portion of his personal wealth to fund his “hobby” of being a crime fighter. He has no real personal life to speak of—at least not one that isn’t directly connected to his work as Batman. (Note, though, that the same can be said of many of us!) He broods, he can be obsessive in his preparations to tangle with criminals, and the fact that he witnessed the murder of his parents must have left a scar. These facets of his life are certainly unusual, but the question I investigate in this book is whether these issues—along with various problems and “symptoms”—place Batman in the “abnormal” range from a mental health perspective. If so, just how bad is his problem (or problems)?
In fact, a fair number of people in our world and in Batman’s world have wondered whether something is wrong with him. I sometimes speak at comic conventions and people are fascinated by the question of whether there is something clinically wrong with Batman. Batman is “different” from other people in the world he inhabits, and people wonder about where the line is that separates “different-normal” from “different-abnormal.” Although people in our world may not be different in the ways that Batman is (for instance, very, very few of them dress up as a giant bat except at Halloween or comic conventions), his stories can lead us to think about what it takes to be considered “abnormal”—whether he is more than simply different, but rather has a mental illness.
After all, at first glance dressing up like a bat in public (or even in private) would seem to suggest a significant problem. Dr. Chase Meridian, the psychologist in the film Batman Forever (1995), is one such person. She remarks “Well, let's just say that I could write a hell of a paper on a grown man who dresses like a flying rodent.”
The book What’s the Matter With Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader (from which this post is an excerpt), in a way, is the fulfillment of Dr. Meridian’s aspiration. It is intended to explore Batman’s issues from a psychological perspective—to determine whether his actions, thoughts, and feelings indicate a mental illness.

Evaluating Batman
Let me state clearly at the outset that I’m going to talk about Batman as if he were a real person. You and I both know that he’s a fictitious character, but part of what makes him such a compelling character is thinking about what it would be like if he did exist, if he were real. So in my discussions about him I’m not generally going to talk about why writers might have written particular stories, added specific characters, or how the Comics Code Authority guidelines might have affected his character, other characters, or the stories. I’m going to take him as he is and try to understand him, contradictions and all.
Part of my goal is to determine whether Batman’s actions and problems reach the level necessary to be diagnosed with any of the disorders in the “psychiatric diagnostic bible” at the time of this writing: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition-Text Revision, abbreviated as DSM-IV-TR.[1] The specific disorders that seem to be the most likely candidates include:

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
My evaluation of Batman is intended both to entertain and to educate. People familiar with Batman stories may find my views on the Caped Crusader’s mental state interesting and illuminating. My hope is that you will also learn something about psychology in the process—something that can be of use to you as you think about yourself or other people.

Clinical Evaluation: A Continual Process
When mental health clinicians are asked to make a clinical evaluation of someone, they do so by talking to the person being evaluated, observing that person and, in some cases, obtaining information from others—family members, referring doctors, the court, or law enforcement agencies if they are involved. In some cases, psychological or medical testing is done to help clarify a question about the person’s functioning, such as whether he or she has delusions (entrenched beliefs that are not based on reality) or whether the person’s cognitive functioning is impaired in some way.
I couldn’t interview Batman directly (folks dressed as Batman at comic conventions don’t count), so how did I evaluate him? My clinical impressions and assessment of Batman are based on the stories that I’ve read or seen. Just like any mental health clinician, then, my conclusions are based on what I observe and what has been reported to me of the person.  
Making my task even more challenging is the sheer number of stories about him: In his many decades of existence, Batman has been featured in an almost countless number of stories in comic books, films, television shows (including cartoon shows), novels, and graphic novels. He’s been featured working solo, with various members of his bat-family (e.g., Robin, Nightwing,[2] Batgirl), and in team-ups with other superheroes, such as Superman. I have not read or seen every story that features Batman. Not even close. So when you read this book, you might find that you disagree with me, based on Batman stories that you know but I've not encountered. Just as mental health clinicians sometimes revise their diagnoses and understanding of a patient when additional information points to symptoms or strengths of which they were previously unaware, I might well revise my conclusions if I knew all of the salient stories.
If you disagree with my conclusions because you know of specific stories that support different conclusions than the ones I reach, please let me know; please send to me the name of the specific story, a brief summary of it, and if possible, the relevant dialogue, narration, or artwork. You can send that information to me at WhatsTheMatterWithBatman@gmail.com. If and when there is enough information to warrant changing my diagnoses and overall evaluation, I’ll revise this book in a second edition, credit you in the revised acknowledgement section, and keep you posted.

Let’s Get Some Issues Out Of the Way
There are a few aspects of Batman’s life that I’d like to address right off the bat (no pun intended): that he dresses up like a bat, that he takes teenage boys as his wards and sidekicks, whether he has a substance abuse problem, that he devotes so much money to his life as Batman, and that he has no real personal life. Let’s see whether any of these things indicate that something is really wrong with Batman.

Dressing Up
He dresses up like a bat. I grant that it is weird, but the issue at hand is whether it’s more than that—whether it’s a sign of mental illness. My answer is that in Batman’s case it is not, for several reasons. First, Bruce Wayne didn’t decide to walk—or swoop—around the streets of Gotham in a bat costume because he actually thought he was a bat. Wayne started dressing as Batman because he had a specific purpose in mind: to disguise his identity when he fought criminals. Sounds like a good idea to me, and one that is used by military personnel when necessary (though not the bat part). Wayne also wanted his disguise to serve another function: to evoke fear in criminals. As Wayne noted to himself in Batman’s origin story in 1939: “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot… so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible..."[3] Thus, Wayne intentionally set out to wear a disguise that did more than hide his identity. In this sense, his choice of disguise—of costume—was effective because it met his objectives. Yes, we can argue whether a snake costume would have been more effective, but that would have been harder to squeeze into.
Additionally, Batman’s use of his attire is analogous to police officers wearing their uniform, or butlers wearing their uniform, when on duty. Uniforms (of which his costume is one) signal what the wearer’s role is. If you see someone in a police uniform, you expect certain kinds of behavior: If the officer pulls a gun and points it at someone running, it will likely mean something different to you then if the gun-holder wasn’t wearing that uniform. The uniform immediately conveys context to understand the wearer’s behavior.
In a sense, dressing as a bat is akin to dressing as a Ninja or a Navy Seal: the color—black—enables him to hide in the shadows until he wants to emerge, the bats’ wings enable him to glide short distances, and the overall appearance achieves its ends. It’s scary. His willingness to wear this unusual costume (for most of Batman’s existence, he wore tights on his legs with “underwear” on the outside, which most people find weird) speaks to his dedication to his mission and how important he thinks the costume is. And, as we see, it is.
In what cases might Wayne’s costume be considered a possible indication of mental illness? If Wayne actually believed that he was a bat (that is, if he had delusions), it would certainly suggest a mental illness such as schizophrenia or delusional disorder. If Wayne wore his batsuit for sexual excitement, it might indicate a sexual fetish. Another red flag would arise if Wayne thought he was a different person—a different identity—when he dressed as Batman; if he did, he might be suffering from dissociative identity disorder, discussed in the next chapter. (On a related note, in the book I refer to “Batman” and “Bruce Wayne” somewhat interchangeably, but I typically I refer to him as “Batman” when he’s fighting crime or in other ways functioning in his role as the Caped Crusader. I’m more likely to refer to him was “Wayne” when discussing his pre-Batman days or his life as a “regular man” rather than a crime-fighter.)

Why Wards: Taking Youngsters Under His Bat-Wing
Batman has taken five youngsters under his wing to become Robin: Dick Grayson (the original Robin, who as an adult went on to become Nightwing), Jason Todd (who later took the name the Red Hood), Tim Drake (who as an adult went on to become Red Robin), Stephanie Brown (who later became the fifth Batgirl), and Damian Wayne (Bruce’s previously unknown son, whose mother is Talia al Ghul—she is the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul). It’s a curious thing for a romantically unattached man with a dangerous lifestyle to assume legal responsibility for a young teen—as he did with Dick Grayson. Also curious is why he trains and accepts minors as sidekicks in a dangerous profession. Might this be an indication of mental illness on Wayne’s part?
To answer that question, we need to understand Wayne’s motives. I think his motives were generative.[4] In this context, the term generative comes from Erik Erikson’s term generativity, which refers to a desire to guide and nurture the next generation.[5] People can be generative in a variety of ways: through formal or informal mentoring at work, creating objects for others to use, or helping to rear children. When Wayne first took in Dick Grayson, I believe he was acting on generative impulses. Grayson’s family was part of a circus act and Dick had witnessed his parents’ murders, mirroring Bruce Wayne’s witnessing his own parents’ murders. Wayne took in Grayson to help someone in pain from growing up alone and isolated. He gave Grayson the gift of a mentor that he himself did not have.
Okay so far, but why put a child in danger by taking him to skirmishes with criminals? That’s a harder question to answer. Initially when Robin first appeared on the scene in 1940,[6] the world was a more innocent place and criminals were much less willing to harm law enforcement officers and children. Nonetheless, exposing Dick to danger was a clear lapse in judgment on Wayne’s part. A very clear lapse. Wayne might have wanted to help buffer Grayson’s loss, but there were many ways he could have done that without putting the youngster directly in harm’s way as they battled criminals. For instance, he could have used Grayson as an assistant who stayed in the Batcave, much as Alfred does, and as does the character Oracle, who helps Batman through her work at her command center.[7]

Look for Part 2 about Batman’s mental health next week.

Copyright 2012 by Robin S. Rosenberg


[1] For brevity’s sake, in the rest of the book I’ll refer to it simply as DSM-IV. It was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2000.
[2] Nightwing is the codename for adult crimefighter Dick Grayson; when Dick was younger, he was the first Robin, Batman’s sidekick. Nightwing is primarily based in Bl├╝dhaven but comes back to Gotham City from time to time to help Batman.
[3] The story, written by Bill Finger, is in Detective Comics #33.
[4] Although some people have read sexual motives into Wayne’s relationship with Dick Grayson (notably Fredric Wertham in the 1950s), I don’t think their relationship had sexual overtones and writers of Batman stories have stated that they wrote Wayne as a heterosexual character without a sexual attraction to Grayson. Their relationship was and is more like that of father and son.
[5] According to Erik Erickson, generativity is a key challenge to the seventh stage of development and stands in contrast to its opposing tendency of stagnation, a self-centeredness in which the individual doesn’t better society in some way. His book on development is Erikson, Erik H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press.
[6] In Detective Comics #38; Robin was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson.
[7] Oracle is Barbara Gordon’s codename; Barbara Gordon had originally been Batgirl, but after the Joker shot her at her home she was left without the use of her legs and is wheelchair bound. (Note: The relaunch of the DC Universe in 2011 had Barbara Gordon with full use of her legs and in the role of Batgirl.)

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