Harley Quinn is a fascinating subject. She’s deserving of her own movie, and I hope she gets one because I have a lot to say. For now though, let’s talk about Suicide Squad (spoilers will follow).
The movie was far from perfect. The first 45 minutes could have been more or less chopped off, half of it replaced with more interesting/less superfluous information, and blended into more relevant parts of the film. But of the (mostly) amazing characters, one whose backstory was handled right (except the less-than-necessary scene in the beginning) was Harley Quinn. In fact, we get an expansion of the existing origin of the tragic and fascinating character.
Because of the way this is framed, we now have three distinct phases of the metamorphosis from Harleen Quinzel to Harley Quinn. We initially see Dr. Quinzell, licensed psychiatrist who makes the unfortunate decision to do favors for a patient she is falling in love with. The newly freed Joker then gets his jollies torturing Dr. Quinzel with instruments from her office. Finally, her transformation is completed by intentionally falling into a vat of unspecified chemicals and remaining there until retrieved by the Joker.
It’s easy to see this origin as Quinzel being a healthy, neurotypical woman prior to taking on “Mister J” as a patient. Realistically, this is not the case. She was clearly able to function and probably even pass as neurotypical in professional situations. This indicates that she was probably not psychotic (the medical term used to describe individuals that are likely to have difficulty discerning reality from hallucinations or delusions) at least not to the extent we often see in Harley.
While we can’t discount the possibility that Harley is just off Harleen’s meds, I’m trying to make as few assumptions about Harleen’s psychiatric condition as possible. In other words, this article is adhering as close to the idea of Harleen Quinzel being relatively neurotypical as can be suggested with the evidence in place.
What is clear is that even when she’s in her element, a medical doctor treating a patient, she feels an overwhelming need for the approval of others, even when it goes against every self-preservation instinct and ethical code she has. In Suicide Squad, it is heavily implied that the reason Joker escaped from Arkham Asylum is because Dr. Quinzel supplied him with a machine gun (or several), despite the fact that she expected him to kill her upon his escape.
This is a pattern of behavior that’s largely associated with people who lived in abusive situations growing up. Lacking experience in unconditional positive regard, abuse victims are often obsessed with being abandoned by those they care for, even if that care is a sort of misplaced empathy such as in the case of Dr. Quinn for the Joker. It’s unlikely that “Mister J.” is the first patient that she’s felt such strong feelings for; he just happens to be the one most willing to exploit it to the detriment of all else.
It is most likely that the original Harleen Quinzel suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. Both Borderline and Avoidant Personality Disorders feature occupation with feelings of rejection and abandonment. Avoidant personalities, however, tend to close themselves off to avoid any sort of negative judgment by others. Not only did Harleen seek a profession where she is constantly interacting with others, but her actions as Harley indicate that she has more of an explosive personality. For instance, Borderline personalities have been described as often having emotions that easily change from depression to anxiety to anger, and Harley Quinn is notable for having mood swings beyond those of the average person.
The Joker, by comparison, is more likely to have a Histrionic personality: the need to be at the center of attention and manipulate others, while being excessively emotional. This describes the Joker to a T and you can imagine how harmful the mix of these two personality types can be. The Joker having control over Harleen’s actions is all the motivation he needs to pursue the relationship, and Harleen will do everything in her power to avoid any negative appraisal of her in the Joker’s eyes.
Borderline personalities are also impulsive, which may explain Quinzel acting against her own interest (and her ethical codes as a doctor) in both falling for her patient and doing personal favors for him that lead to his escape.
This leads to the Joker strapping Harleen down, applying electrodes (and likely other implements) to her and bringing us to Phase 2. At this point she becomes relatively catatonic, although it’s hard to tell how much of this is fear of the Joker, how much of it is fear of his rejection, and how much of it is caused by the damage inflicted on her at his hands. She moves very little, and speaks only in direct response to the Joker’s questions or demands. Physical, emotional, and cognitive disorientation are all known side effects of electroconvulsive therapy as well. While watching the film I assumed that her torture (the Jokers’s stated intent was to “hurt [Harleen] really bad”) had done permanent neurological damage, it’s just as likely (if not moreso) that all of the symptoms we see at this stage of the film are merely short-term side effects. It’s possible that some of her symptoms are due to dissociation – the act of convincing yourself that what’s happening is not real, the most extreme and talked about form being dissociative (or multiple) identity disorder, in which you convince yourself that someone else is being tortured and they manifest as a separate identity – but this is very difficult to speculate on based on what we see here.
Much of the evidence for dissociation is what we see in Harley’s actions later in life. She’s described as being “more fearless than the Joker” and we often see her either ignoring or acting ignorantly of social norms that Dr. Quinzel would have been respectful of as a working professional. Her childish personality is either the result of psychologically separating herself from the rest of society, pretending to in order to protect herself from those around her, or her brain chemistry being radically altered, either by the next event or, as we discussed previously, a cessation of unknown antipsychotics.
From here is the final transformative event. The Joker talks Harley into diving into a pool of chemicals. (For those who claim that all of Harley’s actions were of her own accord, please keep in mind that the implied consequence of refusal was death at the Joker’s hand, even if you ignore the fact that rejection by the Joker would be an almost unfathomable consequence for Harley at this point.) Here is another area where it is very difficult to ascertain exactly what happened, on a neurological level. The chemicals are not described, and I’m not finding very many articles on the results of near-drowning on an adult brain.
To me, the combination of dyes and unknown chemicals having an impact on the personality immediately shouts “mercury”. While I’m predisposed to suspect this (the term “Mad Hatter” has a lot to do with my home city’s former industry and was my high school mascot), there are other reasons. Mercury poisoning is associated with mood swings, irritability, and other emotional changes as well as decreased cognition (like reverting to a childish mentality?). A similar chemical (used in paints and other things) is lead, which can also cause cognitive decline and mood disorders.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There are a score of variables I haven’t been able to adequately research, and I’m likely to revise this as I pick up more pieces of the puzzle; I also intend to take a look down the line at Harley’s growing past her relationship with the Joker into a more independent and stable persona down the line.
If you want more articles of this nature, I urge you to check out the “Commissions” link on the menu bar at the top of this blog. For more on Suicide Squad, check out my review on Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ Reviews.