Most people have probably watched, or at the very least heard of, the 1976 movie “Sybil.” In fact, if you have a few mood swings, someone may actually refer to you as Sybil, the woman with sixteen personalities. This extreme example of multiple personality disorder has turned the real-life Shirley Mason into a caricature. However, the story is based entirely on a factual psychoanalysis of a patient, and, as a lover of both books and psychology, I was easily enticed to read about a truth stranger than fiction.
The story is told over a period of 20 years, the two decades in which Sybil Dorsett was treated by Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur. Surprisingly, Sybil doesn’t really seem that strange. She is a quiet, rather nervous young woman, but she is also compassionate and intelligent. In fact, Sybil had an IQ of 170. Her only problem is the “spells” that she suffered from, times during which she couldn’t remember anything. She would “wake up” from one of these episodes, and she would have no idea where she was or how she arrived there.
Through the brilliant writing of Flora Rheta Schreiber, a close friend of both Sybil and Dr. Wilbur, the tale of what happens during those periods of darkness unfolds. When Sybil experiences an episode, another personality actually takes over her body, controlling her thoughts and actions. After in-depth psychoanalysis, we learn that whenever Sybil cannot emotionally cope with a situation, another part of her mind takes the reins. Over time, Sybil unintentionally introduces all sixteen personalities to the doctor, and they each reveal a different aspect of Sybil. Peggy Lou is an assertive and aggressive young girl, while Victoria is a sophisticated and confident version of Sybil. However, Sybil’s personalities aren’t just more intense versions of herself. At times, she becomes a male; occasionally, she returns to her infant stage. Each personality has a unique voice, distinct mannerisms and entirely different memories.
The source of the issue lies in the past, however; a devastating past that Sybil has repressed. Bit by bit, Sybil reveals the abuse she suffered in her childhood at the hands of her psychotic mother and enabling father. In order to ever return to a whole, stable person, Sybil must relive her past and release her emotions, but it’s a long journey to acceptance. The heart of the story lies in the difficulties Sybil faces as she tries to live her life with the burden of having little control over who she will be from one second to the next.
We are reminded that this book isn’t science fiction, nor is it just a psychological study. It is a moving and mind-altering look into the depths of a human on the brink of losing herself entirely because of the pain she cannot face. As Sybil slowly puts the pieces of herself together, as she becomes one again, it is nearly impossible to not question your own idea of sanity. Don’t we all hide our emotions from ourselves? Don’t we all have internal conflicts? The book suggests that hearing voices or adopting personas doesn’t make you “crazy.” In fact, Sybil’s extremely rare coping mechanism was perhaps the only way for her to survive.
So while readers may be entertained by Sybil’s radically different personalities and fascinated by the mysteries of the unconscious mind, it’s important to remember the human being behind the story. And it is certainly a book that will leave you thankful to be able to experience life through the eyes of only one person. “Sybil” is a book that will change your definition and perception of mental illness forever.
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