I Am Hungry for Other People – The Intersection of BONES AND ALL and Borderline Personality Disorder
I walked out of Bones and All sobbing and wept the entire drive home. While attempting to write a review, I cried myself sick. If this seems outlandish to you, don’t worry — I can see why. A movie about teenage cannibals reducing someone to tears is a strange notion. To understand why the film touched me so viscerally, you must first know that I have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
BPD impacts your self-image and ability to manage emotions or behaviors. It varies from person to person, but symptoms include fear of abandonment, intense and unstable relationships, and chronic feelings of emptiness. As with many mental health disorders, there are misconceptions. Stereotypes claim that those with BPD are dangerous, manipulative, and ultimately unlovable.
My entire life, I have been hungry for other people: their love, attention, and compassion. I longed to be center stage. To come second in a relationship was an unforgivable betrayal. I formed ill-advised bonds with strangers too quickly, while fearing the inevitable moment they would choose to leave. I was constantly craving other people, chasing the sense of longing that lingered deep inside my gut.
This hunger made me overbearing and obsessive. I was starved not just for human connection, but for control. The only way to satiate this hunger was to fill up all available space, selfishness be damned. This hunger consumed numerous friendships and instigated breakups. When I received my diagnosis at 19, I realized with abrupt clarity how thoroughly BPD disrupted my life.
I’ve since come to terms with my disorder. I no longer seek out reckless situations and I am more cautious about my relationships. I still battle other symptoms — namely paranoid delusions and fears of abandonment — but I’ve learned how to combat them. BPD still plays a significant role in my life, but I like to think I have a better handle on it than before.
I haven’t gotten rid of the paranoia that insists my loved ones are out to betray me, nor have I silenced the voice in my head declaring that I am undeserving of love. Instead, I have accepted them. These symptoms are part of me and that is okay. I have made peace with my diagnosis and what it could mean for my future. Then I saw Bones and All, and it was as though Luca Guadagnino reached into my ribcage and wrapped his hands around my very soul.
As a lover of the cannibal genre films and gore, I was excited about Bones and All. I find cannibal films like Raw (2016) tell us much about the human condition. Before screening the film, I was ready to be dazzled by blood and guts while sighing dreamily over the twisted but sweet coming-of-age story.
I was not prepared for Bones and All to mirror my strongest, most personal insecurities. I didn’t anticipate seeing my worst fears splattered across the silver screen. Watching the tragedy of Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) play out was just as earth-shattering a revelation to me as receiving my BPD diagnosis. Spoilers ahead.
Our main cast of Eaters — the film’s cheeky names for cannibals — so clearly resembles the BPD diagnosis, it’s almost uncanny. Every Eater fears abandonment in some form. Characters like Maren or Lee (Timothée Chalamet) often make rash or impulsive decisions. Sully (Mark Rylance) forms an instantaneous and intensely unstable connection with Maren. Janelle (Chloë Sevigny) locks herself away because she fears her affliction so strongly, and eventually, she turns her cravings upon herself.
Bones and All is built on the notion that Eaters, regardless of the rules they follow or the circumstances of their affliction, are undeserving of love. As Janelle tells Maren, “The world of love wants no monsters in it.” Yet, each character only wishes to connect with others, to be accepted, and to be happy. I deeply relate to this longing. For better or worse, I see myself reflected in each cannibal.
Such a sentiment might seem as ludicrous, but Guadagnino is so careful with his craft that cannibalism no longer feels like a dirty word. Guadagnino is sympathetic to the Eaters’ plight and as a result the cannibals hardly feel like monsters. In turn, he is sympathetic to me as well, and I am no longer a monster. Guadagnino does not ask his audience to declare cannibalism right or wrong. Instead, he asks us to consider the parts of each cannibal, rather than the monstrous whole.
Just as a butcher knows there is no hog without its jowl, loin, or jock, Guadagnino shows us there are no Eaters without their hunger, trauma, or humanity. Though Sully and Janelle serve as the film’s villains, Guadagnino still treats them gently. They are monstrous, yes, but that does not mean they are evil.
Perhaps it’s my own bias, but I can’t find it in myself to consider Sully evil. It’s easy to view his dynamic with Maren as a predatory old man and an unsuspecting young girl. Yet to me, it’s just as simple to view it as the connection of two people ostracized by traits they cannot help and did not choose.
Sully’s attachment is unhealthy, yes, but in his obsession, I see myself. I am reflected in his intensity and rituals. He tells Maren, “I dried off next to you,” recalling their shared meal in Columbus, Ohio. Maren abandons Sully because she doesn’t understand him. Her betrayal, though she doesn’t understand the consequences at the time, is what sets Sully on his destructive path. Before I understood my diagnosis, I found myself as the Sully in many relationships. I latched on with unwavering intensity, and could not make people understand why their perceived wrongs wounded me so deeply.
Janelle, Maren’s mother, also goes to great lengths to make her daughter understand why she locked herself away. In a letter, Janelle tells her, “All I ever wanted in this world was love. I tried, I believed, but we can’t have it as we are.” When Maren finally gazes upon her mother, it is impossible to ignore Janelle’s missing forearms. Despite seeing only a small glimpse of Janelle’s life, her screen time is intensely visceral, and I feel the strongest kinship with her.
Janelle has accepted herself as a monster and it’s driven her mad. Rather than hurt others, she chooses to devour herself. Since discovering my BPD diagnosis, I’ve dealt with a similar madness. The stereotypes overwhelm me — I believe myself to be manipulative, conniving, and a monster. The urge to hide myself away so that I won’t hurt those I love is powerful, even when I know it’s wrong. Sometimes, I just want to run away.
After killing his father, Lee is desperate to outrun the guilt caused by his hunger. What Maren considers a road trip, Lee sees as an escape. His hunger for freedom makes him as reckless as his craving for flesh. He fights the drunk in Indiana and feasts upon him only a building away. He picks out a carnie in a crowded festival as his next snack. He lives in the houses of his meals. His entire story is about a high-risk, impulsive lifestyle and these careless compulsions are a direct result of his hunger.
He rationalizes these choices, saying, “Either you eat, you off yourself, or you lock yourself up.” Similarly, prior to my BPD diagnosis, I rationalized my behaviors. I felt interesting, rather than unstable. I couldn’t control my outbursts of anger or my impetuous acts. They were simply part of me and nothing could change that. Lee and I did not accept our flaws — our cannibalism and our BPD — but rather allowed them to control our lives.
Of all the Eaters, Maren wishes to find control over her hunger rather than allowing it to control her. As the film’s main character, she also portrays most, if not all, of the symptoms of BPD in some way. She is abandoned by the only parent she’s ever known due to her cannibalism and fears it happening again. If her own father can’t stomach her affliction, it’s hard to believe anyone else could. BPD isn’t so different, especially since I often end up hurting those closest to me due to my disorder.
Maren knows her hunger is wrong, even if she doesn’t remember feasting on her babysitter or the boy from camp. Once she learns the truth of her past, she wants to understand her affliction. This desire for knowledge is like an emptiness inside. I used to long to understand why I acted the way I did. I knew that my behaviors weren’t normal or healthy but I was powerless to stop myself. While Maren travels to Minnesota in search of answers, my research resulted in my BPD diagnosis. At her core, Maren is not a monster but a scared, lonely girl searching for an identity — just as I was once.
Despite these similarities, it’s the ending that struck me hardest. I am no stranger to unhappy endings in horror. Even sympathetic monsters rarely get a fairytale conclusion. I know this, but the end of Bones and All still devastated me.
I wrapped myself up in Maren and Lee’s hope for their future. I saw my own embrace of BPD in the way they accepted their cannibalism. Being Eaters shouldn’t preclude them from leading a happy life. Their urges shouldn’t deny them a cozy one-bedroom apartment, or a job at the local library. Similarly, my BPD shouldn’t deny me any happiness and comfort. I found myself swept away by the sheer potential of their future together.
Knowing their happiness was too good to be true did not make witnessing the destruction of that life any easier to stomach. For a fleeting moment, I thought the struggle with Sully might end with just one death. But only Maren is left alive, with Sully’s and Lee’s blood on her hands and lips. In the end, I am left alive but heartbroken, obsessing over the film’s conclusion and its meaning.
Guadagnino does not ask viewers to pass a moral judgment on cannibalism. Instead, he asks if we can overcome our deepest fears and darkest flaws. Can we coexist with these grand, terrible pieces that make us who we are? Can we ever escape the pitfalls of our identities to become something more?
None of the Eaters would be who they are without their hunger, and yet they are all so much more than cannibals. Maren is a young girl who craves understanding and belonging. Lee is a troubled boy with a broken family and too much guilt. Janelle wanted nothing more than to be a mother. Sully is lonely and in need of a friend.
We do not see the aftermath of Sully’s attack and Lee’s death. We do not know where Maren goes or who she becomes. It is impossible to say what her life is like after this trauma, another brick in the wall of all the horrible moments that have shaped her.
I want to believe that despite all the pain and anguish, she comes out of it stronger. In fact, I must believe it. I have to, just as I must believe that I am more than my mental illness. I am more than the trauma that led me to where I stand today. My BPD does not make me unlovable, manipulative, or dangerous. My past wrongdoings do not negate my potential for growth, just as Maren’s hunger doesn’t negate her potential for happiness.
Though I wouldn’t be me without this disorder, it is not all that I am. I am capable of love and deserve to be loved in return. I cannot let my BPD consume me as cannibalism ultimately consumed Janelle, Sully, and Lee. Despite the opening and closing of the film, I must believe that Maren’s life does not truly begin and end with cannibalism — just as my life does not begin and end with my Borderline Personality Disorder.
Erin Vaniski is a Pacific Northwest-based writer, film critic, and horror enthusiast.