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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Henry was a Borderline, How Did I Miss That?

I read a really interesting article today on author Susan Bordo's blog questioning how Henry could bring himself to execute Anne Boleyn.  You can read it here: (it is actually an excerpt from her upcoming book on Anne Boleyn.)

I thought that the best part was the exploration of Henry as someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.  As I was reading her description of his behaviors I was thinking "He is a Borderline," and I have to say I was thrilled that she addressed this issue.  I have discussed some of Henry's behavior on this blog before but I really want to look at him and his behavior using the checklist for Borderline Personality Disorder from the DSM IV.  The DSM V is condensing several personality disorders into "types" one being Borderline type.  This is because people who have this disorder usually exhibit symptoms of more than one type of disorder.  You can read about that here:

Previously I have looked at Henry from the standpoint of other authors such as Suzannah Libscomb (also mentioned by Susan) who theorize that Henry went off his rocker after the horrible events of 1536.  (These being the deaths of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy as well as Anne's unborn child.)  I don't discredit this theory, I was not there and I have to admit that it did not occur to me that Henry was a borderline personality until I was reading the description of Henry's behaviors on Susan's blog.  It sort of slapped me in the face and my inner voice was saying "Duh, how did you miss that one?".  Borderline Personality Disorder usually manifests in young adults and some who study it effectively think that people "grow out of it."  I do not agree.  People who truly develop the traits of a borderline do not grow out of them.  It can be controlled, managed, repressed, but it does not go away.  If not correctly medicated the borderline traits re-emerge.  Cognitive behavior therapy is usually recommended but is not always helpful. * I wanted to add that BPD is not usually found to be responsive to medication. Nell Gavin, author of "Threads" pointed this out to me.  In the comments below she talks about her own experience with BPD.  But for some, with symptoms of BPD in conjunction with depression medication is an option and it does help.  For a long time it was the kiss of death as far as psychological diagnosis.  Patients labeled as borderlines faced a lifetime of a disorder that no one effectively knows how to treat.  Then "Girl Interrupted" was made and it became trendy to have BPD.  Now, according to the DSM V it does not exist and is only one disorder among many that patients may exhibit symptoms of simultaneously.  I wish someone would loan me the magic wand that made it disappear.

So, the checklist and Henry,  I am only covering the first three criterion in this entry because there are nine, and that makes for a blog entry that is too long to read. So here goes-the symptoms of BPD are:

1.Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in (5).
I do not believe that this behavior is usually a conscious thought process.  I don't think that people affected with BPD generally go around thinking "I must not be abandoned!".  It is more subtle than that.  Let's examine Henry's treatment of Cardinal Wolsey.  Wolsey was his friend and chancellor for many years.  He more or less ran the kingdom while Henry played.  When Wolsey could not do what Henry wanted, that is he could not procure papal approval for his divorce Henry turned on him.  In his mind Wolsey was betraying him, emotionally abandoning him and Henry could not take it.  A person with BPD cannot deal with pain.  They are often described as having no emotional skin.  Anything that hurts hurts so badly that it must be eradicated.  Often this pain turns to anger and the person who caused pain suddenly becomes a total anathema to the borderline.  (See #2 below.)  This pattern repeated throughout Henry's life with people such as Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and most obviously Anne Boleyn. 

Henry's whole courtship of Anne was one desperate ploy after another to keep her from "abandoning" him.  When he could not have her as his mistress he tried to divorce his wife rather than lose her.  When that failed he declared himself head of the church of England and married her anyway.  Anything to get what he wanted and to keep her from losing interest and marrying someone else.  Not that anyone else would have been willing to marry her, everyone knew that she belonged to Henry and that to touch her would mean they would forfeit their life. "Noli me tangere (touch me not) for Ceaser's I am."  These words were written by Thomas Wyatt, acknowledging that Henry had won Anne's heart and that he knew she was off limits to him.

One person who seems to have survived and avoided Henry's rage was Katherine Parr.  This is undoubtedly because she discovered her arrest warrant by accident and came to Henry to beg his forgiveness before it was signed.  This much is well known.  But if you look at this incident through the lens of Henry having BPD you see that Katherine Parr avoided death by seeking Henry's emotional companionship.  She wanted his forgiveness, his approval (so she could keep her head) and was therefore not abandoning him.  His tactic seems to have been one of striking first.  If he decided to abandon someone then it was his choice, they did not abandon him.  This would have made sense to him, but probably not to anyone else.

2.A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. This is called "splitting."

Anyone looking at Henry's life as a whole can see the pattern repeating itself over and over.  Katherine of Aragon was the perfect queen, a storybook princess and he was her white knight.  Fast forward 17 years and she was an old, unwanted wife and a stubborn, unreasonable woman.  She was perfect and then suddenly she was the most horrible creature in England.  His second marriage held true to this pattern as well.  Henry destroyed his reputation with the Pope and threw his country into religious turmoil all to marry Anne Boleyn.  She was his ideal woman, perfect.  In one of his early letters to her in which he is bemoaning her absence from court he says that because of "the great love I bear you" he cannot stand to be "kept at a distance from the person and presence of the woman in the world I value most."  After three years of marriage, when he heard rumors of her alleged indiscretions (emotional abandonment to him) he turned on her, having her executed.  It was a shocking betrayal since she was most likely not guilty.  Sure there were issues between the two of them before this but Henry's love turned to hatred in an instant.  Poor Catherine Howard went from being Henry's "Rose without a thorn" to being banned from his presence and was also sent to the scaffold.  Although she most likely was guilty of adultery, Henry idealized her from the start putting the girl on a pedestal that she fairly dived off of.  Idealization and devaluation-are there any more clear cut examples than these?

3.Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
Although they are likely to hide it from others borderlines do not think highly of themselves.  Their self image changes frequently and is unstable.  Though most of us go through changes in our self image throughout our lives we do not have life size paintings of ourselves put on the walls of our houses.  Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII, the most famous of the many portraits of him shows Henry as the ideal man.  He is handsome, burly, strong, and confident.  His stance (hands on hips) is defiant and a challenge to all who look on the painting.  His gaze dares those who meet it to question his manhood.  Today many pictures of superheros are drawn showing the subject standing in the same way; hands on their hips, challenging the world.  This painting was commissioned and completed after the scandal with Anne Boleyn in 1536.  If Henry in fact believed that he had been cuckolded by his wife then he would have inwardly been questioning his manhood.  The painting was created as a sort of propaganda piece, letting the world know that his manhood was not in question despite what his wife had done to him, if only in his own mind.
Henry's marriage to Catherine Howard is another situation in which we see that Henry's self image was not a steady one.  Henry was around 50 when he married Catherine, who was somewhere around 17.  She was an ornament to him, a signal to his courtiers that he was not the aging old man that they saw, but that in fact he was still manly and virile.  This was pure fantasy of course because Henry was aging, fat, and had a stinking sore on his leg.  None of these things are manly and would not have pleased Henry.  He most likely married Catherine in an effort to shore up his confidence and reassure himself that he was not as old or disgusting as he thought.

Looking back I'm sure we could identify many people who rose to power who had mental health issues, many worse than BPD.  Henry was a tyrant, but was not the worst of them.  So it again brings about the question does power make one crazy or does the desire for power come from being crazy?  The video above gives you a pretty good idea of how ruthless Henry was once he turned on you.  I find it interesting that in the background someone is yelling "You don't care for me, you won't be there for me!"  Maybe it's his conscience trying to justify his actions.


  1. I just wanted to make one point. Borderline Personality Disorder does NOT respond to medication, and it DOES get milder as you get older. When you stated, "If not correctly medicated the borderline traits re-emerge," you may have been confusing it with bipolar disorder, which does require medication. The symptoms are frequently confused.

    BPD is frequently the result of childhood trauma, neglect or abuse. It's a "fracture" more than an illness. Children who experience sexual trauma fare the worst. However, its symptoms vary according to how sensitive and emotional the person is. The more sensitive and the harsher the abuse, the worse the symptoms. So a person with the condition can fall anywhere on a very wide scale.

    I am a Borderline and have not exhibited any symptoms in ten years or more. I still have very mild anxiety issues, but they're manageable and that's the extent of it. It's an entirely different mental and emotional landscape as you get older. The worst years are during young adulthood.

    My latest book, HANG ON, describes a girl with BPD who travels with a famous English rock band. I haven't described all of the symptoms in the book - they're too varied - but it should give you a good idea. I also described the methods I used to gain a handle on it at a time when it hadn't yet been recognized as a condition. Since medication doesn't help, the primary therapy involves retraining your thoughts. I had a sense of that early on, thank goodness. So I was fine.

    Hope that helps,
    Nell Gavin
    Author of Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn and Hang On

  2. Nell, first of all I must say that I am so thrilled that you read this and that we can have a dialogue. I love Threads so much. I bought it years ago and it was so different from everything else out there. It also opened my eyes to beauty of reincarnation and the opportunity one might get to correct their mistakes.
    About the BPD -Although I know BPD does not traditionally respond to medication in my personal experience it helps. As a young adult I suffered from a severe bout of post- partum depression and rage. I had always had borderline tendencies but they were really coming out after my daughter was born. I have never been diagnosed with BPD, but I have found that medication helps me get rid of the anger and desperation I was feeling in regards to my husband. I had to change many of my ways of thinking but without antidepressants I don't know how this marriage or I would have survived. I will clarify that since you pointed it out. Jenny