Dear Netflix: Mental illness misrepresented in ‘United States of Tara’

In real life, we don’t talk about mental illness at the dinner table.

Dear Netflix,

There’s this funny thing about mental illness: What is very real to the person experiencing it is only as real to his/her loved ones as they allow it to be.

Enter “United States of Tara.”

Tara is a 40-something mother of two, wife of one, mural painter with dissociative identity disorder.

As the show clarifies early on, no, that’s not the same thing as schizophrenia. Tara’s DID, rather, comes to light in moments of great stress. When she gets overwhelmed, she involuntarily transitions into a different persona.

So far (a bit into season one), I’ve encountered three ‘alters’: Buck, T and Alice. But I’ve heard more of them crop up later on.

Tara recently made the decision to stop taking her medication. While the meds suppressed the alters, they seem to have made her feel dead inside.

Her family talks about this decision quite a bit, and about the alters themselves, and I appreciate the realism here — but I question whether this is where it ends.

Tara’s daughter, Kate, resents her mother for her DID. Kate’s already raging teenage angst is 10 times worse around her mom, which in turn often sets off Tara and causes her to change into an alter.

For Kate, while she hates it and wholeheartedly blames her mother for it at times, at least the DID is real. Charmaine, Tara’s sister, thinks she’s faking it.

In an infuriating “let’s talk alone” scene between Charmaine and Tara’s husband, she invalidates her sister’s disorder again, even after having grown up with it.

I know what Tara feels in this moment, or would be feeling if she knew about the conversation. And it’s the worst feeling in the world.

This is what living with mental illness is really like, guys. It’s about hushed conversations across the room about your well-being that you don’t get to be a part of. It’s about your loved ones trying to help the best they can, but getting angry all the same because no matter what they do, things don’t get better. It’s about the people you want to understand most of all refusing to believe anything is wrong.

“But it is real, Charmaine,” Tara’s husband says to Charmaine. “I married it.” With that gorgeous statement, reality was broken.

Where’s the line between glorifying and glamorizing a life with mental illness, and when is it crossed?

I’ve heard that later on Tara gets six alter egos. For someone with DID, this is about average. OK, box checked.

Her alters are extreme. Buck’s a gun-toting, cigarette-in-the-house, back-country man; T is a 15-year-old who likes to show skin and run her mouth; and Alice is a ‘50s-era housewife. The inherent entertainment value in the disease is obvious, but I believe alters can genuinely be this diverse as well.

For me, “United States of Tara” takes it too far with something as simple as talking.

It’s silly, and maybe it’s just me, but the fact that everyone in Tara’s life knows about her DID and discusses it openly is what makes the series feel wrong.

In real life, we don’t talk about mental illness at the dinner table. In real life, our husbands and boyfriends don’t nonchalantly talk about it at work with their friends.

The show’s opener features a lot of paper cut-outs, which I took for a “life is all a construct” metaphor on first glance. What they really mean is that “United States of Tara” is a construct and that life will never be that easy.

In real life, the stigma follows you home. And Tara? I want to stress that her life isn’t easy in the least. But she has a built-in support system that I think unrealistically portrays the lonely realities of living with a mental illness.

Maybe I’m just not the target audience. I’m not a 40-something mom of two; I’m a college student. I seem to be grasping at a “United States of Tara” circa 20 years ago, when she was surely more vulnerable and much more broken, right?

Perhaps she’s always been stronger than I am. I want so badly for her to be broken and she’s not.

In existential crisis mode, Netflix.



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