Legion: Marvel’s Freudian Superhero?
If you’re looking for a new series to help you avoid your responsibilities, Marvel’s most recent comic book TV series Legion has you covered. Legion is what you might get if Sigmund Freud and David Lynch had a love child. In a single episode, my emotions range from intrigue to happiness to general fear. After one episode, I found myself checking my closet several times before going to sleep, which maybe says more about me than it does the show.
If you’re wondering whether you need to know anything about comic books or superheroes to get Legion, the answer is no. This show has something for everyone. One of the things that I love about it is how the show could be seen as a metaphor for the way we think in insight-oriented or psychoanalytically-informed psychotherapy. The show is more about self-exploration and the challenges of learning about yourself than it is about fighting crime or super powers. The following are a few of the topics and ideas in psychotherapy that are addressed in the show:
The Destigmatization of Mental Illness
Legion’s first appearance in marvel comics was in 1985, a time when Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) was all the rage and diagnosis of this disorder was at an all-time high. In the comics, Legion is characterized by having multiple different personalities. By using a diagnosis that was popular in the social consciousness of the times, Legion is able to act as a metaphor for mental illness and serves the purpose of challenging our ideas regarding mental illness.
Now the character is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a much more common diagnosis and one more often used in our pop culture lexicon. Legion’s creation almost certainly reflects the growing concern and attention that is being paid to mental illness in the US and our ways of approaching the issue.
The show’s main character, David Haller (Legion), struggles throughout his childhood with behavioral issues and substance abuse. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually attempts to end his life. After this attempt, he’s sent to an insane asylum where he’s rescued by a group of “mutants” (the good kind). At this new facility, called “Summerland”, he’s told he’s not mentally ill and is actually a very gifted and powerful mutant. They also begin to explain that his behavioral issues and substance abuse were likely a way of coping with and managing his confusing and overwhelming powers. This normalization of his experience could be seen as a de-stigmatization of mental illness.
At Summerland, David begins a process called “memory work” which is supposed to help him control and understand his abilities (read: control and understand his mental illness). From this point on, the story essentially takes place within David’s mind and is largely about his own self-exploration and internal conflicts.
Self-exploration and the power of Insight
Memory work seems to be very similar to psychotherapy and, particularly, psychoanalysis. In memory work, David is brought back into his memories and is asked to look around for clues and events that may help him understand what experiences trigger his abilities and how to control this power. In psychodynamic (i.e., psychoanalytic) psychotherapy we do much the same in asking our clients to think about their early childhood experience in an attempt to better understand how those early experiences impact who they are today.
We also look for connections between what you may have experienced growing up and what you are experiencing at the moment. Maybe you spend much of your time working to avoid making mistakes because your parents were highly critical, leaving you with the desire to avoid the way you felt under their criticism. This behavior might have helped you avoid criticism as a child but may now feel more like crippling perfectionism. These unconscious behaviors and patterns are what we work towards uncovering in psychodynamic psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy and self-exploration can be challenging because we often uncover things that we have repressed and don’t want to see. We may be forced to see the flaws in our parents that we worked to avoid or we might see that our unrelenting anger towards our father is our only way of feeling connected to him.
In his memory work, David is confronted by memories that are painful and difficult to look at. David is brought to a memory of his father reading a book to him in bed. At first, David seems nostalgic and tender when seeing his father lovingly read him a story; however, this quickly changes when he realizes that the story is a very dark and clearly inappropriate one to be reading to a child. This challenges his idea of his father as the “amazing dad” who did no wrong and begins to paint a different picture of his parent.
Legion also illustrates what a psychotherapist may do with a client. As his memory work continues, David’s powers begin to block his guide’s ability to see certain parts of his memories. When asked to stop blocking them, David explains that his resistance feels out of his control.
This is much how our defenses work. They help protect us from seeing the things that we’re avoiding and often feel out of our control. In psychotherapy we are often met by our client’s unconscious defenses and we try to work to identify and move beyond those defenses. If we can move past the defenses, we can start to help our clients to uncover the parts that they have hidden from themselves.
Legion gives us a wonderful look at Freud’s ideas on dreams. In an attempt to get around his defenses, David is sedated before the memory work. Typically in David’s dreams, he appears as his adult self, but the group finds that when he is sedated he appears as his childhood self. His guides explain that when he’s sleeping, his inner child is the only part of his mind that is awake.
Much of this relates to what Freud thought about dreams. He believed that when we sleep, our defenses are lowered and our dreams are our unconscious’ way of attempting to communicate with us. The dreams appear as a jumble of images and metaphors because Freud believed that there was still some “censor” at work trying to confuse the messages from our unconscious to our conscious mind. The inner child could represent the part of us that is free of our adult defenses, our vulnerable and open self. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, we use dreams as a way to explore our unconscious fantasies and wishes in order to better understand what drives us.
Id and Superego
Played by actor Aubrey Plaza, one of the characters in the show is a troublemaker who often tries to encourage David to act on impulse. We could say that this character represents what Freud described as the Id. This is the primitive part of our mind whose aim is to fulfill our needs, desires and physical demands, sort of like the devil on your shoulder. This character fights with David’s moral mind (the superego) to have David do things that feel good to him. This sometimes takes the form of acting violently or using substances.
We all have the voice that says, “Charge it to your credit card” or, “Just hit him;” however, we often have another voice that says, “I should save money,” and, “You shouldn’t hit people”. If there isn’t a healthy equilibrium among these voices then one may feel too much guilt about their wishes or desires, or too little control of their impulses. In David’s case, this is exactly what happens. When the Id character’s voice becomes more powerful and domineering, the show begins to go south and David begins to lose control of his impulses. This internal conflict persists throughout the show and is one that his team eventually needs to help him overcome.
We are Legion
We can all connect with David’s experiences in the show because David’s struggles feel very familiar to us. We all have experienced not wanting to know certain things about ourselves or our experiences, or have been confronted with certain realities that require us to either make a difficult adjustment or live in some sort of denial. I think that’s why this show is so special, because we are constantly having a similar struggle to some extent. Whether it be a conflict between wanting attention and hating attention, or wanting to get some work done and wanting to watch more Legion. We all experience conflict on a daily basis. It is easy to like David because we are David.
James Robinson, LMSW
KIP senior Fellow