Thursday, June 17, 2010


Psychologically disturbed and mentally ill characters are a staple of Hollywood dramas. While screenwriters can occasionally be quite perceptive about human psychology and family functioning, much of the time their creations do not correspond well with the actual people that come to therapists and psychiatrists for treatment. Sometimes screenwriters are in fact utterly clueless – and in nowhere is this problem more obvious than in the depiction of people who suffer with borderline personality disorder. Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction was a bit of a caricature.

Every so often, however, a movie comes out that absolutely nails a psychological phenomenon. Such is the case with the movie Thirteen, which should be subtitled, How to Turn Your Teenager into a Borderline Without Even Being Abusive.

Many critics saw this as a movie about the dangers that young teens face from peer pressure, rather than as a portrait of family dysfunction. Part of the reason these critics miss the point of this movie is that, ever since certain therapists came up with unscientific and at times observation-free theories of the role of parenting in the genesis of schizophrenia and autism, it seems everyone is afraid to examine the role of family behavior in the genesis of any other psychological disorder. This is political correctness gone amok.

The protagonist of Thirteen, Tracy, starts out with very nice peers and fellow students before she begins to gravitate to the “corrupting” peer Evie. Even though Evie is attractive to the boys at school and thus her behavior might represent temptation for a teenage girl, her other more dangerous behavior would be a signal to less fragile teens to stay as far away as possible. To which peer group a teen is attracted is no accident of fate. Peer pressure is a red herring in the movie because these peers seek one another out.

The most fascinating thing about this movie was that it was co-written by then 15 year old Nikki Reed, and it was reportedly semi-autobiographical. According to Wikipedia, Reed’s parents divorced when she was two, and she grew up with her mother. She describes herself as having been "shy and a bookworm" until the the age of 12, when she became rebellious and emotionally volatile. The relationship between Reed and her mother became strained. At the age of 14, Reed was emancipated; she then moved out and began living on her own.

Nikki Reed and co-writer/director Catherine Hardwicke reportedly finished the script for Thirteen in just six days. Ms. Reed must have had rare insight into her family, especially for someone so young, because the film is just packed with true-to-life details about what growing up in a “borderline” family is like. In the movie, she also acts the role of Evie, although in reality her story was far closer to the story of Tracy.

Tracy’s mother in the movie, Melanie, grew up without a mother in her teenage years, is divorced, and is a recovering alcoholic. She lets her recovering cocaine-addict ex-boyfriend, Brady, back in her life, to which Tracy reacts with utter dismay and a torrent of criticism towards Mel. “Why are you doing this to yourself?!” she scolds her mother in a role reversal. Tracy is also perturbed because Mel allows her friends and customers to take advantage of her financially. Tracy’s sense of helplessness over her mother’s behavior seems to be what triggers her self-injurious behavior, cutting.

At one point after seeing Mel with Brady, she flashes back to Brady becoming sick from drugs. She then goes to the bathroom and starts to cut herself. It appears that she knows exactly where the implements of self cutting are and exactly what to do. The strong implication is that she has done this before – and most likely well before she ever met Evie.

Tracy’s only power with her mother is her ability to induce guilt in a mother who is completely overwhelmed by the responsibilities of parenthood. Mel’s guilt probably stems from issues in Mel’s own family of origin. This power is frightening for Tracy. When coupled with her mother’s covert admiration for Tracy’s freedom, it induces Tracy to begin to follow in her mother's self-destructive footsteps and to exceed them. For example, the mother knows that Tracy has started to steal, but says nothing and looks somewhat approvingly at her stolen clothes. When Tracy finally confronts her mother’s denial, Mel responds that she just did not think it "went that far."

As Tracy begins to act out more and more and to learn more self-destructive behavior from her new friend Evie, Mel tries to set limits. However, Mel always seems to back down in the face of Tracy’s guilt trips, sarcasm, and feigned outrage. At one point Mel completely loses her cool in the face of Tracy’s spoiling behavior and goes into her own rage, starting to destroy her own kitchen until Brady comes in and stops her. Of course, Brady becomes overwhelmed and moves away from Mel.

Mel tries to call in Tracy’s biological father to help control her. The father has apparently been a frequent no-show on his days to be with Tracy because he is always busy with his job; Tracy is bitterly disappointed when this happens. After Mel calls him, he comes to see if he can solve Tracy’s problem and demands to know what is going on “in a nutshell” while continually being interrupted by cell phone calls from work. Tracy’s brother throws his arms up in frustration when the father begs him to tell him what is going on. Later Mel speaks of letting the father take over Tracy full time - she says “I’m terrible” under her breath - but Tracy concludes that her mother does not really want her.

Evie comes from an abusive borderline environment. It’s hard to know exactly what is true about her and was is not because of her incessant lies, but Evie says her mother was a crack whore. Her uncle sexually abused her and pushed her into a fire – she has the burn marks and a newspaper article to prove that. Her care has been taken over by Brooke, a cousin, who lets her drink beer, tells her she is not allowed to go certain places but never seems to really care what Evie is doing, and disappears for days at a time.

Evie secretly yearns to be adopted by Tracy's better-by-comparison family. For reasons I will not mention here (so as not to spoil the ending for people who have not yet seen the movie), she induces her denial-filled guardian to make a mistake similar to the one made by a lot of movie critics: the guardian blames Evie's reckless behavior on peer pressure - from Tracy!

There are a lot more details in the movie – and there is not one scene that rings false. Nikki Reed seems to know more about the environment that spawns borderline personality disorder than do most therapists and psychiatrists.


  1. What a great synopsis. I'm learning about family systems therapy and it seems to be a more realistic, rational approach to treatment of abuse victims particularly borderline adults than traditional psychiatry with its focus on quick fix medication

  2. Would Evie potentially be an NPD case?

    1. BPD and NPD are often two sides of the same family dyanmics coin, and traits of both are often seen in any given individual. Both Evie and Tracy are in role-reversals some of the time, frustrated by parental types who always seem to need help from their kids but who won't accept any - which is part of the genesis of a lot of cases of NPD.

  3. I am in a masters of counseling program. I am thinking of doing my case study on this movie. It appears to me that Evie is exhibiting signs of disinhibited social engagement disorder. Any thoughts? I apologize if this was sent more than once, i am not sure if it went through the first time.

    1. Hi Ms. Lee,

      Wow! When the DSM V came out I entirely missed reading or even hearing about this new diagnosis (I did not see children or teenagers as patients).

      Even though they say the criteria are just descriptive, they actually talk about etiology.

      Just off the top of my head, I'm not sure Evie would qualify, although she certainly was being neglected. In the movie, she didn't really attach to any old adult stranger, but to the family of her friend, which was more loving by comparison.

      I wonder if the dx was devised to account for the type of kids that are often easy online prey for pedophiles.

    2. Hi Dr. Allen,

      Thanks for your response. The reason I thought she may qualify is due to her inappropriate and overly familiar interactions with other adults (mainly in Tracy’s family) which is one of the primary criterion for this disorder. For example, she has no problem calling Tracy’s mother by her first name the first time she meets her or telling the mother’s boyfriend that he has a “nice ass”. You’re right that she does not attach to one particular adult, however. I also would say she has some type of unspecified personality disorder since she does not meet the age criteria for antisocial personality.

    3. Evie would probably be diagnosed as borderline personality disorder herself. The more severe ones also have antisocial traits - although more so in males. The girl that played Evie, Nikki Reed, was the co-writer of the movie, although her life was closer to Tracy's. See

  4. Hello Dr. Allen,

    Hypothetically, what treatments would you go about giving for a patient like Tracy. Any medications or just a therapeutic approach?

    1. Hi,

      She wouldn't need any medication. In my opinion individual psychotherapy for a teenager within a highly dysfunctional family system like the one portrayed in the movie is a waste of time. Family therapy would be the best approach. Getting the absent father involved in it would of course be a challenge, although that would be best.