Reflection/Diffraction: “Russian Doll” (2019) and the Phenomenology of Being Borderline

Mirroring the previous post on Russian Doll, guest author Francesca Lewis is reflecting on another layer of meaning, arguing Russian Doll provides a glimpse into the experience of Borderline Personality Disorder. 

Russian Doll on Netflix

When we talk about Borderline Personality Disorder, we often focus primarily on the behavioural and the affective. As seen in such media portrayals as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015), the borderline is typically depicted as intensely emotional, strongly attached and self-destructive. The driving force behind these overlapping ways of being is given only a medical explanation – BPD as mental illness. The borderline is borderline because she is borderline because she is borderline. This kind of representation can be felt by the community it aims to speak for (and often even aims to destigmatise) as a pathologizing labyrinth, to be navigated only with a DBT workbook in one hand and a Zoloft prescription in the other (this is certainly what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend recommends). As a member of this community – a “borderline” woman – whose academic background is in the analysis of texts and selves, I am searching for a way out of this labyrinth. My research looks at the phenomenology of being borderline –the texture of an experiential landscape characterised by fragmentation, shifting realities, and a unique, difficult relationship with mirrors of every kind.

In search of counter-diagnostic meaning (Price, 2009) for the borderline, outside the DSM, I’d like to make a case for the value of presenting borderline experience instead of merely representing borderline personality disorder. Deleuze and Guattari illustrate this distinction well when they describe the difference between a tracing and a map. A tracing is a fixed copy, an attempt to represent (and capture) an object. A map is an open and connective space, an attempt to present (and explore) a process. (2013, p. 12) Capturing an object vs exploring a process. A commitment to the latter means eschewing texts like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which attempts to trace the medicalised definition of BPD in a coherent and explanatory manner, for texts like Russian Doll, which maps aspects of the phenomenological experience of being borderline, while allowing for incoherence and inviting us to explore. The point of looking at Russian Doll is not to diagnose Nadia with BPD – a very easy thing to do to any flawed and complex 21st century heroine (see also Sharp Objects and Fleabag) – but to look and think with it, diffractively allowing borderline experience to shed light on Russian Doll and Russian Doll to shed light on borderline experience.

I use the concept of diffraction here as it has been used by New Materialist scholars, chiefly Donna Haraway and Karen Barad. In classical physics, diffraction occurs when waves are altered by encountering an obstacle – which already has a lot of resonance for understanding our lives and selves, as made of diffractive patterns “of difference that make a difference” (Barad, 2007, p. 72). Barad uses her knowledge of quantum physics however to take this diffractive mode even further, into the very fabric of time and existence. She presents a view of lives and selves as “a nonlinear enfolding of spacetimemattering”, where everything is happening at once and never happening at all. (Barad, 2010, p. 244)

Nadia and Alan, Russian Doll artwork by Xanthe P. Russell

In Russian Doll, Nadia’s actions matter not only in relation to her past and future, but in relation to the pasts and futures that unfurl from the multiple presents that she experienced and yet knows never occurred. For Nadia, these possible-actual experiences of her many 36th birthdays are both part of her past and ever-present. Understanding Nadia’s experience requires us to see it not as a linear progression of events, but as a folding and unfolding, localised around, or perhaps even contained within Nadia herself. Nadia, as the titular “Russian Doll”, holds all of these living and dead possibilities within herself. She struggles to connect with those who belong to the fixed present, because when she speaks to them with wisdom gained from conversations they never had or holds them responsible for transgressions they have never made, she reveals the ways in which her existential reality, her phenomenology, is fundamentally different from theirs. There is a hauntological quality to Nadia’s experience, as it depends quite heavily upon an affective relationship with a past that never happened. Her deepening appreciation for Ruthie comes from her experience of mourning her multiple deaths that never happened and learning from the numerous conversations they have never had. Hauntology, the “always-already absent present”, is a useful concept for thinking about borderline experience. (Spivak, 2016) The present lover is always already absent, the trauma of the past is held in the actions of the present, the self is somehow here and yet not, existing while preoccupied with recurring fears of non-existence. Watching Russian Doll, the viewer enters a phenomenological reality where time and selfhood are experienced differently. As Hamlet would say, “Time is out of joint.”

Books and articles about BPD often use a woman’s fragmented reflection as an image illustrative of the borderline. Dana Becker’s Through the Looking Glass: Women & Borderline Personality Disorder (1997) explores this connection explicitly, using the mirror as a way to talk about the relationship between borderline experience and socialised femininity. In Russian Doll, mirrors are pivotal – in an almost literal sense, the entire story seeming to pivot around the symbolically rich site of the bathroom mirror. After each death, Nadia returns to this mirror, housed in a cosmic womb-like space, and looks into her own eyes. This is a place of reflection. It is where the self sees the self, and where contemplation is actualised through a visual literal metaphor. This is where Nadia takes a moment to react to the absurdity, unfairness or cruelty of each death, before her birth-like re-entry to the birthday party of life. Until Nadia meets Alan, this seems to be a closed system, doomed to repeat itself.

Eyes, like mirrors, are important in Russian Doll. Ruthie’s work as a therapist involves EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a technique wherein a patient holds in mind a trauma while tracking a finger (or in Russian Doll, a light) with their eyes. The therapy, mostly used to treat PTSD, has been shown to reduce negative emotions associated with traumatic events. The patient’s eyes are a site where trauma lives, while the therapist’s eyes provide a witness for that trauma. When asked why Nadia’s mother was compelled to smash mirrors, Ruthie responds, “Reflection. Proof of existence. Another pair of eyes.” Mirrors, and eyes, make us real. For the borderline patient in therapy, whose dissociative experience of themselves as unreal is a source of both pain and relief, the therapeutic gaze is challenging. The gaze of the other can be annihilating, fixing us in time and space, reducing us to a flat object. According to Ruthie, the therapist’s mirror-like role is essential. “Without them,” she says, “We are very unreliable narrators of our own stories.” This is a thought-provoking and heart-warming sentiment – echoing Farran’s statement that “no one can do anything by themselves” – but, depending on what kind of mirror we are dealing with here, it could also be dangerous. Is the therapist a binary, reflective mirror, claiming to produce an accurate tracing, a definitive representation of our experience? Or is she a diffractive mirror, co-creating a map for us both to explore? A therapist can help us narrate our stories, but we should be very careful not to privilege their eyes over our own.

If the self/self relationship of gazing into a mirror alone in a bathroom is a closed loop of suffering, and the self/other gaze is potentially annihilating and fraught with power imbalances, what is left? Another notion related to diffraction is that of intra-action, described by Barad as “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” (Barad, 2007, p. 33). When we interact, we are two self-contained individuals, acting upon each other. When we intra-act, we become entangled, and our mutual agency emerges. As Haraway puts it, reflection maintains the false binaries of copy/original and me/you, while diffraction is a mapping of interference. (Haraway, 1997, p. 273) In Russian Doll, Nadia and Alan both try to go it alone. Later they try to force some kind of reflective relationship – perhaps they are the same person, perhaps they need to fix this or that in his or her life. It is only when they begin to let themselves collide, overlap, and intertwine that their lives begin to flow naturally again. A central part of borderline experience, the blurring of ego boundaries, is pathologized in most therapeutic engagements, to the point that much of the early psychoanalytic literature cites this trait as the root of all other borderline traits. The self, says the medical industrial complex, should be contained, unified and separate, while the borderline self is boundless, multiple and troublingly enmeshed with other selves. However, one of the most fascinating things about Russian Doll’s intra-active perspective, is its implicit suggestion that individualistic neoliberal thinking is not going to save us. The borderline self may be fragmentary and forever in flux, but this show reminds us that a universal autonomous Cartesian selfhood is not only undesirable but also impossible.

When I watch Russian Doll, I see my phenomenological reality, my relationships with myself and others, and my way of being in the world unfolding, opening up new worlds of possibility and the potential for a meaningful conversation about being borderline. Without attempting to capture or represent the borderline, this show has done something far greater than mirroring my experience. It has given me a point of diffraction, a space where new patterns of light can diverge, perhaps infinitely. In this way Russian Doll reveals itself to be not a mirror at all, but a portal.


Works cited

Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter & Meaning, Durham, U.S.: Duke University Press.

Barad, K. (2010) “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come” Derrida Today, Volume 3, Issue 2.

Barad. K. (2014) “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart”, Parallax, Volume 20, Issue 3.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Derrida, J. (2016) Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, U.S.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Haraway, D. (1997). Modest‐Witness@Second‐Millennium.FemaleMan‐Meets‐OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York, U.S: Routledge.

Price, Margaret. (2009) “Her Pronouns Wax and Wane: Psychosocial Disability, Autobiography, and Counter-Diagnosis”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, Volume 1, Issue 1.


About the Author

Francesca Lewis is a doctoral candidate at the University of York. Her research searches for counter-diagnostic meaning within borderline experience, through creative and diffractive readings of literature, film, TV and art. Her interests include the psychiatric medical humanities, queer & feminist theory, post-humanism, new materialism, and the mystical. You can find out more about her work, including how to get in touch, here.



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