Manipulating Community: Borderline Personality Disorder and Communities of Suffering

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM
Mississippi Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Susan Cahn, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
This paper examines notions of “community making” and Borderline Personality Disorder.  It argues that communities that form around BPD are quite different from communities spawned by other groups that mobilize around a particular disability, whether mental or physical.  Rather than communities of empowered people who live with the diagnosis of BPD, so-called “borderlines,” community formation takes some strange paths, most of them leaving out those persons who actually live with BPD.  

I begin with a brief history that traces the 20th-century development of “Borderline Personality Disorder” into a diagnosis for women (70-80% of cases) whose lack of a well-developed “self” leads to behavioral and psychological problems so severe that they become difficult, disorderly patients with little chance of recovery. 

In researching both the professional and popular literature (as well as some contemporary support networks) there are three dominant perceptions of BPD patients: someone who manipulates people to get whatever she wants to the point of draining them dry; especially effective sexual manipulators who lure men in, including their therapists; and—conversely—someone so difficult to be around that those who love them need to create support systems in order to manage ongoing relationships with “the borderlines” in their midst.  

I will explore these perceptions by discussing the “community of the dead,” or posthumous stars of BPD. I will also analyze the discourse within the therapeutic field about the need for therapists never to go it alone with a BPD; through supervision or “team based” treatment plans therapists form another community surrounding those with BPD diagnoses.  I will briefly examine the “community of sufferers," of spouses, parents, or children of “borderlines.” And i will explore the possibilities and the limitations for creating community among those with BPD diagnoses.