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Batman v Superman: Lex Luthor, Mental Illness And Me

Shannen Murphy Shannen Murphy
Expert Contributor
September 20th, 2016

I'm a writer and blogger who's been focused on analyzing representation of LGBT and disabled folks in superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy media since 2014.

Batman v Superman created some fascinating characters, with Lex Luthor being one of the most hotly debated. Here, we use Lex Luthor to dive into issues of metal health from one fan’s perspective.

Batman v Superman: Lex Luthor, Mental Illness And Me

Batman v Superman Lex Luthor

Credit: Warner Brothers

My name is Murphy, and I have a neurological disability. This disability — temporal lobe epilepsy — comes with a couple of friends: undiagnosed ADHD and something called Geschwind syndrome. My epilepsy affects my day to day life — not just because of my medication, but because those undiagnosed friends affect who I am as a person. They create parts of my personality, and show in my behavior in social situations — and I see that behavior mirrored in the DCEU‘s version of Lex Luthor.

First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that Lex necessarily has my disability. But, given his symptoms, he could. He could also have a number of other disorders, and definitely has one I, luckily, do not: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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But for the most part, our behaviour and our symptoms mirror each other. Allow me to explain, by taking you on a tour of my brain, and by interpretation and extension, Lex’s:

ATTENTION-DEFICIT HYPERACTIVITY DISORDER

People write this disorder off as ‘overdiagnosed’ or ‘a lack of willpower.’ However, in reality, ADHD exists as an obstacle in many people’s lives, and goes particularly unseen in adults.

Symptom categories include:

  • Inability to focus
  • Hyperfocus
  • Impulsivity
  • Emotional problems
  • Hyperactivity/restlessness.

(source: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/adult-adhd-attention-deficit-disorder.htm)

I display all of these, and Lex particularly shows symptoms in the impulsivity, emotional problems, and hyperactivity/restlessness categories.

For impulsivity, listed symptoms include talking over people/interrupting and having trouble behaving in socially appropriate ways.

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Lex shows these symptoms in his scenes with Senator Finch, and while on top of LexCorp tower. He invades people’s personal space and dominates conversations. His way of comporting himself obviously makes people uncomfortable, but he doesn’t seem to notice or care.

Emotional problems, for ADHD folks, can include a sense of underachievement, frustration, a hypersensitivity to criticism, and having a short, explosive temper.

Lex displays these symptoms particularly in concert with his abuse trauma. When speaking about his father, or in situations that bring his father to mind, Lex loses what stability he has. He also loses his temper when told no by the senator. Jesse Eisenberg plays these moments beautifully, and this instability creates an undercurrent through the rest of his performance.

Finally, we come to hyperactivity and restlessness. The body language Lex exhibits pretty much speaks for itself. He moves in short, sharp bursts and flurries, and speaks that way too.

Additionally, his speeches very much mirror the jostled and unfocused thought patterns of many ADHD people, including mine. Watching him during his library fundraiser speech actually made me embarrassed, because I realized that that’s what I sound like. My brain works that way, and I know it shows.

Overall, Lex’s behaviour really mirrors an ADHD person, and that really gets to me. However, it’s not the only reason I relate to him.

GESCHWIND SYNDROME

Geschwind Sydrome comes comorbid with temporal lobe epilepsy. First categorized by Norman Geschwind, the syndrome consists of ‘chronic, mild, interictal (i.e. between seizures) changes in personality, which slowly intensify over time.’ Not all Geschwind people show all of the symptoms, of course, but I exhibit most of them.

The five changes:

  • Hypergraphia — the tendency for extensive and compulsive writing.
  • Hyperreligiosity — intense religious feelings and ‘philosophical interests’
  • Atypical sexuality — about half of the people with Geschwind report having a decreased libido.
  • Circumstantiality — people often speak around the point, but always circle back around to it.
  • Intensified mental life — ‘deepened cognitive and emotional reactions.’

(sources: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2003418 , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geschwind_syndrome)

Lex Luthor shows the hyper-religiosity, intensified mental life, and circumstantiality symptoms particularly strongly. He fixates on deifying and demonizing Superman, and uses religious metaphors constantly. His ADHD amplifies the circumstantiality somewhat, too.

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And as for the intensified mental life?

Lex developed about four different concurrent plans to take down Superman that he could switch between at will. Lex’s genius is probably inextricably linked to how his brain functions so differently from a ‘typical’ brain.

I exhibit hyper-religiosity in the same way that Lex does. For me, I don’t believe very strongly in the reality of ‘God,’ but Christian religious symbolism fascinates me and appears often in my speech and my writing. Circumstantiality also defines a lot of my speech. I talk at length, and because my brain moves the way it does, I add ‘unnecessary’ detail a lot of the time. But, the way my thought processes work, that contextual detail is necessary to understanding the point. And I’ve learned that just because that detail might seem obvious to me, that doesn’t mean it is to other people.

BUT, MURPHY, WHY DOES LEX LUTHOR BEING DISABLED MATTER?

Quite simply, it matters because I’ve never seen any fictional character whose brain works this way. Yes, Lex’s villainy makes him unideal in terms of representation. But for me, seeing him at all is pivotal.

Seeing myself in Lex Luthor, I don’t have to feel alone. And seeing myself in Lex Luthor, I can look at myself more critically. That secondhand embarrassment I feel when Lex has a minor breakdown onstage at his party?

I feel it because I’ve done that. Seeing Lex this way lets me examine my own behavior.

I don’t necessarily think that my disabilities define me any more than being queer or butch do. But I know that without them, I wouldn’t be me.

One thing really bothers me about people’s criticism of Batman v Superman more than anything else. I hate it when people try and say that Lex’s behaviour doesn’t make sense.

Maybe it doesn’t to you. Maybe you don’t deal with the brain stuff that we do.

But when you say that this characterization of Lex Luthor is wrong, or unrealistic, or that people should have seen ‘something wrong’ with Lex sooner…

Basically, you’re telling me that I don’t, or shouldn’t, exist.  Nobody noticed that my epilepsy caused these symptoms, or even that these symptoms were pathologizeable as disorders or disabilities.  It took me years to even feel comfortable recognizing myself as disabled.

People in Batman v Superman didn’t see something wrong with Lex Luthor for the same reason people don’t see my disabilities: people see them as personality eccentricities or flaws, not as symptoms.

When that crowd of people saw his minor breakdown on stage, they didn’t see a man whose trauma was mixing with his other brain things to render him nearly speechless.  They saw a rich, eccentric tech wunderkind with no social skills and maybe a stutter.

And audiences in theatres?

They saw something else: they saw the parts of Lex Luthor that Lex keeps hidden, and those parts aren’t so easily written off — but people do it anyway.

Invalidating the experiences of real-life disabled people — that’s ableism, pure and simple.

I understand that this Lex diverges, superficially, from versions of Lex Luthor that have existed previously. I understand that his behaviour makes people uncomfortable. Hell, I know my behavior can make people uncomfortable.

But Lex gave me a mirror. Don’t underestimate what that means for me.

I realize that people don’t realize the stuff they’re saying is ableist. My disabilities don’t get the airtime that PTSD, anxiety, or depression do. My disabilities don’t get romanticized. My disabilities aren’t pretty or tragic.

But the next time you watch a movie, and a character’s brain doesn’t seem to make sense, I just want you to consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, that character isn’t there for you.

Maybe they’re there for someone like me.

I exist, and deserve to see myself represented in movies. I just want to ask you to be careful the next time you label erratic, restless, or ‘strange’ behavior as ‘unrealistic.’

It might not be your reality, but it might be someone else’s.

 

Shannen Murphy is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @m_leigh_media

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62 Comments

  1. Save....Martha... says:

    So now you assholes are making this shit up to justify that abortion of a character?

  2. Hi, you’re exactly the kind of person who this essay is literally telling to stop. Claiming that I’m ‘making up’ either my own symptoms or the behaviors Lex Luthor exhibits in order to ‘justify’ him is ableist bullshit of the highest order. Please never read one of my articles ever again, and never interact with any of my social media. You are not worth any of my further time.

  3. Sean Gates says:

    Hi Murphy,

    I know I’m late to the party but I just wanted to tell you that was an enlightening read, and made me appreciate one of my favorite movies on a new level. I’m among the proud few who loved BvS and had zero problems with Lex as a character, because to me his story made sense, and while I could not have diagnosed the man the way you did…he always felt realistic to me.

    Also, in case you haven’t encountered it, Jesse Eisenberg actually did say, with regard to his role as Lex, that he tried to approach it form the perspective that the person might be “diagnosable in some way,” which seems to indicate that he knew exactly what he was doing.

  4. Matthew Rocca says:

    A fantastic break-down of Lex Luthor’s mental state! Well very written and also quite fascinating how several of these elements of his mental state mirror your own, and so you could relate to the character. While I do not possess these symptoms, I do feel like I can relate to the character too in a different way, in that he is incredibly quirky and eccentric which sometimes gives him an extroverted exterior, yet at his core he truly seems to be an introvert, who does most of his planning and creating in private. He also has moments where, as you mentioned, his brain sometimes moves at a different rate than others in the room and that can create a slight feeling of alienation, despite his usually bubbly public persona. Anyway, excellent insights. Thank you for posting this great psychological breakdown of one of my favorite portrayals of Lex Luthor.

    And @Sean Gates: I agree with you too, and great point about Jesse’s “diagnosable in some way” comment and how that applies to this article. Jesse has also said that his Lex “would probably be diagnosed as a narcissistic sociopath, someone who doesn’t have empathy”, which, although quite different from the personality disorders described in this article, also gives us some further insight into his unique portrayal of this iconic character.

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