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. 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 transgender struggles. And, the film serves to counteract the still current and often egregious misunderstanding and mistreatment of the transgender population. 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

Different parts of ourselves live in all of us. Some of us, for different reasons or traumas in our histories, live more divided than others. Abuse, judgment, fear of judgment, or severe rejection, often gives 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 split off into autonomous personalities. These alter selves carry 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 trauma causes a split, 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. Einar Wegener’s split resulted first from the cruelty of a parent. Later, he underwent misdiagnosis (accusations of aberrant behavior, delusional thinking, a perversion) by professionals who didn’t understand. This added additional trauma. Wegener wasn’t merely hiding, though. In his case, there was a more severe division of identity.

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. With interest, I watched Lili emerge with such an urgency that she forced herself into existence, overtaking and pushing Einar aside. And, I couldn’t help but think 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 Danish Girl, a dissociated self was what I was watching.

A Self, Trying To Be Known

The Danish Girl is a fictionalized view of a historical situation involving dissociation. But, it shows quite a lot about how split-selves make their existence known. Einar doesn’t 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. One of her life models failed to show up. Putting on the stockings sets in motion the kind of internal battle that exists inside anyone who has split off feelings or parts of themselves. We see the battle clearly as Einar Wegener becomes Lili Elbe.

Horatia Harrod, in her December 8, 2015 piece in The Telegraph, “The Tragic True Story Behind The Danish Girl”, points to Einer’s struggle from her research. He sometimes felt there were two people in his body, each fighting for supremacy. I could see this struggle at various moments in The Danish Girl after Einar’s continues to dress in women’s clothing. Examples follow that show Lili is not a hidden identity but more a dissociated self.

Two In One Body in The Danish Girl

Gerda playfully engages Einar in what she thinks is just the game of cross-dressing. But she panics when he tells her: “There was a moment it wasn’t me, it was just Lili.” Gerda tries to make him stop: “Lili doesn’t exist, we made her up.” Einar gets a headache, a classic sign of a dissociated self, trying to emerge. Sure enough, he becomes Lili, going off to the ballet studio of a friend to dance in a ballerina’s costume.  On the surface, Einer’s a man, but a young girl lives inside him.

Gerda pleads with Lili, in another scene: “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. She has now completely taken over. Letting Einer exist at all poses a threat and Lili blocks him out, stopping his emergence. What has happened to Einar? And, why is no part of him allowed to exist?

Challenges To Living A Full And Real Self

Einer did his best to become Lili. And, he couldn’t have without the sensitive acceptance of his wife, Gerda Wegener. She stepped in where a psychoanalyst was not. Gerda had an intuitive capacity to accept the various aspects of Einar’s identity, including the feelings involved. Transitioning 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 that Einar’s artistic talent was actively rejected. Was that talent a threat? The work of integration, then, hadn’t been done.

Bringing Together Rejected Parts of Self

Was Lili afraid that Einar threatened to take over if his art remained alive? This question doesn’t discount the importance of living the person Einar Wegener was. Finding out who you are is critical. For Einar and any transsexual. Lili Elbe had the chance to do so before her tragic death. Yet, without the therapeutic help she needed, Lili lived in an active struggle between her two identities.

My question has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with what it means to live a complete self. And also how to help anyone transgender, gay, or straight bring together rejected parts of a self. Lili had the courage to be Lili. That was a major feat during the period she lived. Yet, life should never be lived, as the film ends, with barren trees or even a partly barren self. A self depleted by fear that old unintegrated feelings and memories pose a threat.

Lili rejected anything Einar. That must be taken seriously in The Danish Girl. Talking about and resolving the threats of rejected feelings make splits and dissociations, not the only options.  Good therapy must set free all parts of a self. Then, living a whole identity is not impossible.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.