THE DANISH GIRL: Barren Trees & A Divided Self

Director Tom Hopper’s beautifully conceived film, The Danish Girl, begins and ends with artist Einar Wegener’s paintings of barren trees. The barrenness in these trees tells volumes about the lonely depletion of a self when the real self is split off and hidden. The story of artist Einar Wegener’s courageous transition from male to female, together with Eddie Redmayne’s tour de force performance as Lili Elbe, offers timely support to counteract the still current and often egregious misunderstanding and mistreatment the transgender population suffers. Yet as a psychoanalyst watching the film, I was rivetingly aware of how Lili’s emergence speaks to other identity struggles as well.

A Hidden Self

We all live with different parts of ourselves. Some of us, for different reasons or traumas in our histories, are more divided than others. When there’s been abuse, judgment or fear of judgment, or severe rejection, there is no other choice but to hide who we are and what we feel. Those feelings, the ones that seem unacceptable, weak, or certain to be judged, are hidden deep inside as if they don’t exist. In the most serious of situations, they become split off into autonomous personalities that carry the feelings (anger, terror, a traumatized self) that have no other place to go. Sometimes there is a lost little child. Sometimes, as in Einar Wegener, the other self is a different gender.

A Split & Barren Self

When someone is necessarily split because of trauma or severe anxiety – the self that shows itself to the world is depleted and barren, stripped of much that is real. This is the case of anyone who must live in hiding. For Einar Wegener, we see the obvious reasons – the cruelty of a parent, and later the misdiagnosis (the accusations of aberrant behavior, delusional thinking, a perversion) by professionals who didn’t understand the nature of transsexual issues. Yet, it seems to me that in Wegener’s case, there was a more severe and unconscious division than merely hiding.

I came into the theater to watch The Danish Girl knowing nothing about Lili Elbe’s story except what I’d seen in a trailer. As I watched Lili emerge, with such urgency that she forced herself into existence by overtaking and pushing Einar aside, I found myself thinking about Dissociative Identity Disorder, a diagnosis that until 1994 was known as Multiple Personality. Because I’ve worked with a number of patients with either a split in their personality or multiple selves, I was convinced by more than one scene in the film that a case of a dissociated self was what I was watching.

A Self, Trying To Be Known

How split off was Einar Wegener’s Lili Elbe self from his awareness? The Danish Girl is, of course, a fictionalized view of this historical situation. But, I believe it shows quite a lot about how split selves make their existence known and integration into a whole personality a challenge for those who live with them.

In the film, Einar doesn’t appear to know about Lili or his feminine desires until he is overtaken by what seems, for him, a strange pleasure. This occurs when he dons silk stockings as a stand-in model for his wife Gerda’s (Alicia Vicander) painting, after one of her life models fails to show up. This sets in motion the kind of internal battle that exists inside anyone who has split off feelings or parts of themselves that are trying to be known. We see the battle clearly in the story of Einar Wegener, as he becomes Lili Elbe.

Horatia Harrod, in her December 8, 2015 piece in The Telegraph, “The Tragic True Story Behind The Danish Girl”, points to this struggle from her research. She tells us that sometimes Wegener felt there were two people in his body, each fighting for supremacy. As I watched The Danish Girl, I could see this struggle at various moments in the film, following the scene that set off Einar’s desire to continue to dress in women’s clothing. Here are the indications I noticed in the film, indications that Lili is not a hidden identity but more a dissociated self.

In one scene, following Gerda’s playful engagement with Einar in what she thinks is just the game of cross dressing, he tells her: “There was a moment it wasn’t me, it was just Lili.” Gerda panics, trying to make him stop: “Lili doesn’t exist, we made her up.” Einar almost immediately gets a headache, the classic sign of a dissociated part of the self, emerging. He once again becomes Lili, going to the ballet studio of a friend to dance in a ballerina’s costume.  He’s on the surface a man, with a young girl living inside him.

In another scene, Gerda pleads with Lili: “I need my husband. I need to hold him. Can’t you please get him for me? Can’t you at least try?” Lili refuses. As I watched the film, I could see that Lili had now completely taken over Einar, as if there was a threat in letting him exist at all. I couldn’t help but think of how similar this is to the treatment of dissociative disorders, when another personality blocks out the others. What has happened to any residue of Einar? And, why is none allowed to exist?

Challenges To Living A Full And Real Self

What’s allowed to exist and what isn’t is an important question for therapy with dissociated states. No one can come together as a whole self without help, and Einar could not have become Lili without the sensitivity and acceptance of his wife, Gerda Wegener. She stepped in where a psychoanalyst was not, with an intuitive capacity to accept and understand the various aspects of Einar’s identity, including all the feelings this involves. Yet, as accepting, understanding, and emotionally available as Gerda was, she couldn’t do the work of helping Einar resolve the conflicts within his split and dissociated self.

Einar Wegener’s transition to Lili Elbe was a valiant attempt to live a true self in a time of misunderstanding, misdiagnosis, and hostility. But, was it a whole self she managed to live? It’s not my place to speak to the particular form and expression of Lili Elbe’s feminine desires. Those are personal choices. I can say, though, that I felt saddened the artistic talent of Einar was actively rejected, as if it was a threat, and couldn’t be integrated into her life as Lili.

In order to satisfy his longings to be female, did Einar have to reject everything he’d ever been, including his art? Was Lili afraid that Einar could threaten to take over? I’m in no way discounting the importance of living the person Einar Wegener truly was. For Einar and any transsexual, it’s critical to find who that is, and Lili Elbe had the chance to do so before her tragic death. Yet, I wonder whether, without the therapeutic help she needed, the struggle between the two identities was still active.

My questions have nothing to do with gender. They have to do with how to help anyone – transgender, gay, or straight – bring together rejected parts of a self. It was important and courageous for Lili to be Lili. Yet, a life should never be lived, as the film ends, with barren trees or even a partly barren self, depleted by fear of feelings and memories that seem to pose a threat.

Whatever creates that internal threat, perhaps not unlike Lili’s rejection of anything that was Einar, must be taken very seriously, talked about, and resolved. If that can happen, splits and dissociations in a personality are not the only option. Good therapy must set free all parts of a self; the only way that living a whole identity is made possible.

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