armchair analyst

A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Girls

Girls Photo: HBO

On Girls, Ray (Alex Karpovsky) recently asked Lena Dunham’s Hannah, “Why don’t you place just one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment?” That question could apply more broadly to all of the characters this season. The self-centered, self-sabotaging Brooklynites of the title are starting to seem downright unhinged. Critics have pinned the term sociopath to nearly every character, as noted in our interviews with cast members Jemima Kirke and Colin Quinn. But does Hannah’s quarter-life crisis really justify such an extreme label? And does it even begin to describe Adam’s sister, the disturbing newcomer played by Gaby Hoffmann? Vulture called up UCLA faculty psychiatrist Dr. Paul Puri (who has previously helped us diagnose characters from Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and more) to do some more armchair analysis of Hannah’s anxiety, Jessa’s daddy issues, Caroline’s self-destructiveness, and Marnie’s pathological need to burst into song.

When the previous season ended, we’d just learned that Hannah has OCD.
That seemed like it came a little bit out of nowhere. Many people do manifest OCD in childhood, and it can go into remission and can come back — so that was plausible. But it was very zero-to-60 with Hannah, and then back down to zero by the start of the season. I mean, it’s not hugely consistent with a lot of her character. Hannah doesn’t have a lot of those minor OCD-like traits when she’s functional.

What would be traits that would indicate OCD?
OCD usually goes with what we call “checking behaviors.” The classic ones are checking the stove or checking the locks – the idea being that you have a thought that’s very intrusive, like, “someone’s going to break in because I left the door unlocked,” and this thought is hard to get rid of, and it creates anxiety. And then you do something to reduce that anxiety. You lock the lock. You do it a certain number of times to make sure it’s locked, because it doesn’t feel locked until you do that. It’s not that these checking behaviors feel good; it’s that they reduce anxiety. But there are other obsessive-compulsive traits that people can have, other things that they do repeatedly to seek reassurance or to reduce anxiety. Like a hypochondriac might go into emergency rooms over and over. You might expect that if Hannah had a relatively well-controlled version, that we would pick up on some of that. But I don’t remember a whole lot of that ever being shown with her character.

See, I would say that she exhibits a lot of anxiety, and does irrational things to try and control it. Like that episode where she goes on that crazy partying binge, or the one where she impulsively shacks up with Patrick Wilson.
The anxiety is there, absolutely. Those examples, though, I would put a little more in the “impulsive” aspect. The Patrick Wilson thing I saw as an escape fantasy. There was something obviously impulsive about going into this stranger’s house and kissing him, but it didn’t seem like something that dismissed anxiety, per se. Hannah does have obvious self-esteem issues and can be — not exactly narcissistic, but selfish. She gets so focused on things related to herself and her anxiety that she does do things that are insensitive.

What did you make of Hannah’s selfish reaction to her publisher’s death? Did it prove she’s a terrible person, or is it a reasonable reaction for a person who has no experience with losing somebody?
In many ways, it does come down to empathy, and actually thinking about what other people are feeling. And she doesn’t really do that a whole lot. That’s part of what leads to her supposedly being a good writer, that she goes to these extremes and she’s able to reflect on what she’s feeling — but she doesn’t actually go into what other people are feeling. The death episode seems like it really reflects her self-involvement. Anything that stirs up anxiety is so overwhelming, she has to attend to that, to the point that she’s able to suppress it. And that is consistent with a real anxiety problem.

One criticism of this season is that the characters are so self-involved, to the point where they seem to completely lack empathy.
I’d say Hannah has a very misplaced empathy, which sabotages relationships when things are going well. She tends to be empathic with someone, or with a situation, that goes against what’s working for her. For example, when Adam’s sister shows up, she’s immediately sympathetic to her — but not to Adam, who’s her boyfriend. We see a similar situation over and over again with Hannah. Whenever someone comes in who’s new, even when the people she trusts tells her that they’re bad news, she’s still sympathetic to them, to her own detriment. One thing Hannah should work on is listening to those people that she trusts, and feeling out the situation empathically for times she might need to restrain her own needs — such as the funeral, when she couldn’t stop talking about her book.

Jessa is even worse. Even her friends on the show seem to be wondering if she’s a sociopath. Does that label fit?
A sociopath is basically someone with no conscience, who gets enjoyment from hurting people. Is Jessa enjoying the chaos that she’s creating? Maybe a little bit, but it’s not clear that it’s because she’s making people suffer. The way she portrays it, she has a low tolerance for people’s false selves. That’s how she sees her own identity. But she’s not physically hurting people or doing things like that. It’s more like setting people up to feel close and then sabotaging things.

She seems a little oblivious to the effect she has on people.
Yeah, and when people point it out, she seems very sensitive to it and made changes. Like when Kathryn Hahn’s character, the nanny, confronted her about it, she turned around and married Thomas John. I don’t think that “sociopath” is a fitting label for Jessa. I would say that she has a tendency to escape before she has to deal with any of the consequences of her actions, and therefore people aren’t able to see her emotional side. But they have alluded to it now and then. When Hannah walked in and saw her crying – things like that.

Where does Jessa’s dysfunctional relationship with her father come in?
There’s a theory for psychodynamic therapy called control-mastery theory, which is the idea that we re-enact relationships with our parents all the time, and that we can take two roles. And what will happen is when we’re trying to connect with someone – this is usually acted out in therapy, but it could really happen in any relationship – we treat another person like our parent towards us. If that person’s not getting how we feel, we treat them like we felt we were treated as a kid. I think that Jessa does that a lot of the time – sort of like, oh, you don’t understand how I feel, so she abandons her friends or creates the chaos so that other people can feel how she feels. She ends up sabotaging those relationships, but in a way that makes other people understand how she probably felt as a kid, which was abandoned and without stable relationships.

So what would be a way for her to heal? Was leaving rehab the worst thing she could do?
Leaving rehab wasn’t great. But then, she wasn’t really taking them seriously as authority figures. What would help Jessa is having what we call a reparative experience, or a corrective emotional experience. So, she builds a relationship with someone like her father, but that relationship stays close and the person is reliable. Her relationship with Richard Grant’s character, the older man at the rehab that she took on as a father figure, had potential. Because as flighty as she seems, she was going to him over and over again. But then, of course, he let her down.

Let’s talk about Adam. Lena Dunham has joked that she can tell who has daddy issues by whether or not they think Adam is good for Hannah.
I think what we’ve gotten from him is that he has a little bit of a sadistic nature. He has a lot of anger at himself, and guilt, both of which are very common with alcoholics. And that can come out in different ways, including resentment. And yet he is very clear about spelling out what he needs. He’s pretty verbal about what he wants and what he doesn’t want. So there’s a level of honesty there. What that comes across as, though, is him being callous to his partner’s needs.

It seems like their relationship is actually a little healthier this season, though the writers made a point of mentioning Adam’s semi-sadistic sexual relationship with Natalia. So maybe that was supposed to be a reminder that Adam is not a good guy who swept her off her feet.
What’s interesting about that is, he actually showed a lot more relationship sensitivity when he was with Natalia than he did with Hannah. He was a nicer guy, he was able to be more social and make appropriate jokes at dinners. All of these things, very clearly, were to try and satisfy her and be what she wanted him to be. And that showed a lot more range with him than he ever showed with Hannah. But then he started to let out that he had a darker side, and so he would do things that were more degrading towards her, either to see whether it might scare her off, or to purposely ruin it.

Adam’s sister Caroline is a piece of work. Do you have a label for what’s going on with her?
My eyeball diagnosis, meaning my impression without knowing all of her background, is that she probably has a personality disorder, and it’s probably in the range of borderline-personality disorder. And that just generally means that you have very unstable relationships, and you have an unstable sense of self. You have emotional fluctuations that can be up and down and very dramatic. You can do self-injurious behavior like breaking a glass on yourself, sometimes just to get attention and sometimes to feel calmer. Those are some of the characteristics of borderline, off the top of my head, that are fitting for her. There are other things that tend to go with that, like something we call projective identification: the idea being that someone has a false belief about how other people feel about them, and then they will create a situation that reinforces that false belief. So if someone is saying, “You hate me, you hate me,” and the other person keeps saying, “No, I don’t,” and then they say it so much that the person yells at them, “Stop saying I hate you!” And then they say, “See? You yelled at me. You hate me.” They provoke a reaction that reinforces this fake belief about themselves and this false identity, so to speak. So Caroline does a lot of things that provoke responses from people. Which would fit with a general cluster-B personality disorder: borderline being one, antisocial personality disorder being another, and histrionic personality disorder being another, which is like your drama queen that has to be the center of attention. We can transition to Marnie …

You think Marnie has a histrionic personality disorder?
No, I’m joking. But she herself is very much without grounding at this point in the season, and she’s floating around looking for attention anywhere she can get it, probably because she feels so alone and without any real relationships. Twice, we’ve seen her sing in front of people, ostensibly as a tribute to someone else, when she’s really just trying to get attention for herself. The comedic parallel of that would be Jenna on 30 Rock, who is very histrionic. And Marnie is like a very minor, minor version of that. But only when she’s in crisis form, because in the first season, I don’t think we saw that at all. In general, we try to diagnose personality disorders only when we see something that’s persistent for a long period of time. Because some people can revert to bad coping strategies when they’re in crisis.

Back to Caroline. We get the impression that Adam spent a lot of his life trying to take care of her.
I would put it as either taking care of her, or keeping her chaos in check. So when she has some destructive aspects, he’s putting out the fires. And that can be extremely exhausting on people, and a reason why someone with borderline personality disorder burns their bridges throughout life. People just get exhausted and they’re like, “I’m not putting up with this anymore. You need to change.” And many people with that don’t know how to change, and so they just kind of rinse, repeat. And people end up pulling away and getting distant and not wanting to get involved in the drama over and over again.

Do we need to talk about Shoshanna or Ray?
There’s less to talk about with Shoshanna, because she doesn’t seem in crisis. She’s someone who is actively pursuing her goals, and even though she’s pretty immature, she’s slowly growing. Ray is actually the most interesting guy to me, because he’s pathologically honest, and he can be toxic to other people when he’s angry and can’t regulate it. But he shows, for the most part, an amazing amount of insight into himself and other people.

A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Girls