Case Study 1: Anakin Skywalker

Back in 2007, an article in wired (https://www.livescience.com/10679-psychology-darth-vader-revealed.html) described our favourite star wars angsty tragic hero as having BPD. Since then medical students have been using him as an example of how to identify and diagnose the disorder. Here’s what I found in my own investigation:

Remember, you only need to show at least 5 of the 9 symptoms to receive a diagnosis. If we focus only on the prequels (episodes I through III) we can confirm Anakin Skywalker exhibiting at least 6.

CriteriaAnakin Skywalker
1. Emotional instability Confirmed
2. Angry outbursts Confirmed
3. Feelings of emptiness (Confirmed after becoming Darth Vader)
4. Self-damaging behaviours Unconfirmed
5. Suicidal ideation/self-harm (Confirmed after becoming Darth Vader)
6. Unstable sense of self (splitting) Confirmed
7. Dissociation/paranoia Confirmed
8. Fear of abandonment Confirmed
9. Unstable relationships (splitting) Confirmed

Let’s break it down.

  1. Emotional instability:

Even as a child, Anakin shows signs of impulsivity and recklessness. Yes, he survives, and wins the pod race with his quick-thinking and ingenuity, but he also disobeys Qui Gon Jinn’s orders to keep himself safe during the coup on Naboo. Instead he flies out into battle, pulls off a few lucky coincidental miracles, disables the droid army and blows up the trade federation’s blockade.

In Episode II, Anakin is unable to control his feelings towards Padme. He is constantly making rash decisions, acting on impulse and driving/flying recklessly.

In Episode III, he slowly get manipulated by Palpatine from the hasty decapitation of Count Dooku, to his ultimate turn to the dark side of the force.

2. Angry Outbursts:

This one is easy. Episodes II and III are full of angry moments that define Anakin’s descent into the dark side. Most apparent are his massacre of the Tuskan Raiders village following the death of his mother, and then the massacre on the Jedi Temple, where he kills *gasp* younglings! Not cool, Anakin.

But there are other more subtle instances where his angry outbursts would appear more familiar to us less murder-y folks.

He often yells his frustrating feelings at the nearest person (Padme or Obi-Wan) or makes violent demands when interrogating an enemy. He (and Obi-Wan) don’t seem to be bothered the odd loss of limbs they inflict on others. Even though the Jedi are supposed to be peaceful, they do brandish their lightsabers an awful lot.

3. Feelings of Emptiness:

This criteria doesn’t really become apparent until after Anakin’s full transformation into the heavy-breathing bionic masked baddy we all know and love. By the end of Episode III and through the original trilogy he is presented as a heartless violent monster, master of the dark side of the force, and one of the best goddam villains in film history!

4. Self-damaging behaviours:

This criteria doesn’t seem to fit. Definitely let me know if you find proof, but Anakin never deliberately makes an effort to hurt himself. On the contrary, he seems to have a heightened sense of self-preservation, it’s just that his methods end up being more damaging in the long term, rather than the impulsive short-term self-harm (like cutting, eating disorders, drug use and/or alcohol) usually seen in people with BPD.

5. Suicidal Ideation/Self-harm.

Again, this one doesn’t fit. Even when, at the end of Episode III, when he has lost everything, even his very humanity, he doesn’t consider oblivion as an option. Instead, he takes on his new role as a powerful Sith Lord under Darth Sidious.

6. Unstable sense of self (splitting)

Probably one of the most defining self-image shift in cinematic history is the change Anakin Skywalker makes from Jedi to Sith. Obi Wan Kenobi even describes to Luke that his father Anakin was drawn into a trap and killed by Darth Vader. According to Kenobi, “from a certain point of view”, Anakin Skywalker was destroyed by Darth Vader.

In Episode III Anakin is torn between two opposing viewpoints/forces (see what I did there?) and the confusion slowly tears him apart until his entire sense of identity is bestowed upon him by Darth Sidious. By becoming the Sith apprentice, Anakin completely surrenders his autonomy and allows Darth Sidious to define him and control him.

7. Dissociation/paranoia:

Anakin suffers from very vivid prophetic nightmares. He sees visions of his loved ones suffering and then becomes obsessed with saving them, whether or not his dreams are true. This illustrates a great deal of heroism, but it’s also quite paranoid and the actions he then takes are impulsive and dangerous. His thoughts operate in very black-and-white ways, where good and evil are clearly defined and enforced, leaving no room for any interpretations other than what he has been taught by the Jedi. So, when he meets with conflicting ideas he jumps to conclusions, gets angry, and blames the people closest to him of conspiracy.

8. Fear of abandonment

It is often the case in BPD that the sufferer experienced great losses in their lives (the death of a loved one, loss of a home, or traumatic change in circumstances). This leads to the fear of loss, or abandonment that the person will go to any lengths to avoid.

Poor Anakin had a rough childhood. Born into slavery without a father-figure, bullied by his peers and his boss, then suddenly ripped away from his home and brought to the Jedi Temple where he is told he is unacceptable for the training. Yes, eventually he finds a home with the Jedi, and a dependable friend in Obi Wan, but it is this fear of losing his loved ones that leads him to the anger, hatred and suffering he experiences later. (Thanks Yoda!)

In Episode II when he hears his master might be in danger he risks his life and Padme’s to mount a rescue. His instinct is almost always to leap into action to save others, and when threatened with the possibility of rejection, he becomes angry and lashes out, blaming, yelling, and threatening others with descriptions of his torment and suffering.

In Episode III Anakin struggles for acceptance into the Jedi order as a master. He is being pulled between his loyalty to the Jedi order and his friendship with Chancellor Palpatine. He is given mixed messages on both sides about his abilities, (or lack thereof) and becomes increasingly fearful of losing his connection to both.

The most glaring example, of course, is the fear of losing Padme and their unborn children. In an effort to save them from death, Anakin becomes more and more attached to Palpatine, and when the Jedi threaten to take him away, Anakin reacts by killing Windu, and becoming Darth Vader. Every decision and action he makes throughout Episode III is to keep the ones he loves from leaving him, whether by betrayal or death.

This is one of the most prevalent symptoms of BPD, and a defining characteristic of Anakin Skywalker. It’s no wonder this example is so popular!

9. Unstable relationships (splitting)

Maybe it’s the writing, maybe it’s the acting, but I think we can all agree that Anakin’s relationships are atrocious. He displays many examples of “splitting” between high idolization and accusatory devaluing of his loved ones in very short spaces of time.

In one conversation with Padme, near the start of Episode II, Anakin describes his relationship with Obi Wan as a very close and respectful partnership. He admires him, feels lucky to be his apprentice, loves him like a brother. Then, unbidden, he starts ranting about the ways Obi Wan treats him unfairly. He becomes angry, yelling and pacing, while poor Padme is left trying to pack her things calmly while this guy she barely knows complains about the way he is treated by his mentor. The shift is jarring, and it’s not the last time we see this behaviour.

Anakin’s obsession with Padme is, at best, uncomfortable. She even tells him this. She repeatedly rejects him and yet he persists. This is a glaring problem with the prequels that I would love to dive into further, but for now let’s focus on the duplicitous nature of Anakin’s love for Padme.  Not only does he display signs of obsessive affection around her, he admits to Obi Wan that he’s been thinking about her every day for years. Once reunited with her he clings to her, forcing an intimacy that she doesn’t want. He moves on his feelings, touching her and kissing her, but later accuses her, saying he is “haunted by the kiss she should never have given him”. Not cool, Anakin, not cool.

Their love will destroy them. Their love is doomed. The Jedi forbid romantic relationships, and a senator can’t become involved with a man (apparently…?). But they can’t live without loving each other so they marry in secret and conceive the famous twins.

Episode III sees Anakins other relationships break down in a similar way. Obi Wan’s love and concern for Anakin is perceived as conspiracy against him. The Jedi he has known and trusted for so long become evil (from his point of view). Darth Sidious goes from the evil Sith attacking democracy that must be destroyed, to the key to his family’s survival who must be protected. Padme goes from love of his life, to co-conspirator with Obi Wan, a betrayal he meets with violence. Seriously, Anakin, not cool.

Conclusion:

Later, when Anakin Skywalker has become Darth Vader, he doesn’t display as many signs of BPD, but he suffers greatly from the pains of his past, preferring to channel that pain and anger into his dark powers. It is arguable, that had there been a system in place for the identification, diagnosis and treatment of BPD available to Anakin Skywalker, he wouldn’t have felt the need to turn to the dark side in order to find peace in his life.

It seems to me that in a society that can identify force-sensitive children might have been able to see the suffering of one of their own, but there is also the Jedi philosophy of emotional detachment at play here, which encourages Anakin to suppress his passions and simply let go of that which he fears to lose.

Anakin’s BPD develops from his experience of abandonment, systemic invalidation of his emotions, and conflicting messages from all sides. It’s no wonder he chooses the dark side. He has no control over his destiny from the very moment we meet him, and he isn’t able to take control again until his final redeeming act of killing Darth Sidious to save Luke.