Sybil Summary and Study Guide

Flora Rheta Schreiber


  • 77-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 32 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD
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Sybil Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 77-page guide for “Sybil” by Flora Rheta Schreiber includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 32 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Veracity and Verification and Trauma and Culpability.

Plot Summary

Sybil, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, tells the story of the recovery of the pseudonymous Sybil Dorsett (in real life, Shirley Mason), a woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder because of severe childhood trauma. Published in 1973, the book and the subsequent mini-series caused an immediate sensation, selling millions of copies and bringing the little-known disorder into Americans’ cultural awareness. The story claims to be nonfiction, but critics of the book, such as Debbie Nathan, in her 2011 Sybil Exposed, have raised questions about its accuracy and even Schreiber’s, Sybil’s, and her doctor’s veracity.

When the book opens, Sybil Dorsett has found herself suddenly transported from the halls of Columbia University, where she is obtaining her master’s degree, to a dark, unrecognizable city block. Panicked, she wanders around in the emptiness, trying to figure out where she is, how she got there, where to go. Finally, Sybil discovers that she is in Philadelphia. Using a room key, she finds in her purse and lets herself into a hotel room filled with objects she doesn’t recognize. She realizes she has “lost” five days since she her last memory, which was standing by the elevator at Columbia.

This episode vividly illustrates the unnamed, terrifying, and crippling illness Sybil suffers from, from her own perspective. It recounts a crucial turning point in Sybil’s analysis, the course of which is the subject of the book.

The first part of the book, titled “Being,” recounts events in Sybil’s journey to wellness before this episode in Philadelphia, from Sybil’s first becoming a patient of Dr. Wilbur’s to finally being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.

As a 22-year-old attending a Midwestern teacher’s college for art, Sybil suffers from such “nervousness” that she is asked to leave and not return until she has sought treatment. Sybil overcomes the acute doubts and opposition of her religious and ominously overbearing parents, Hattie and Willard Dorsett, to seek out Dr. Wilbur in January 1946, when Wilbur is a young doctor, still in training, in Omaha. Sybil knows immediately that Dr. Wilbur will help her but one day, when Sybil is sick and asks her mother to call Dr. Wilbur on her behalf, Hattie mimes calling the doctor and only holds her finger over the button. When Sybil is well again, she is bewildered to find that Dr. Wilbur has moved away without saying goodbye to Sybil, cutting off her treatment and leaving Sybil with a bewildered sense of betrayal. Only several years later, when Hattie is dying of cancer, does Hattie tell Sybil that she never called the doctor at all.

Sybil makes it her goal to move to New York, where Dr. Wilbur is now living, to receive treatment from her, but when she finally is able to initiate treatment almost ten years after she saw Dr. Wilbur in Omaha, she puts up massive resistance to exposing her illness. It is too difficult for her to tell Dr. Wilbur about what she calls the “blank spaces” in her life. However, Sybil is unable to prevent two of her other personalities, who take control of her body without her knowledge, from appearing in Dr. Wilbur’s office: Peggy Lou Baldwin, a childlike personality who is emotional, volatile, and often expresses anger; and Victoria Antoinette Scharleau, a composed, worldly woman who possesses all of the sophistication and ease with others that the reserved and easily intimidated Sybil does not, and wishes she did. Vicky is the most omniscient personality, a personality who is intuitive about Sybil’s needs. She becomes Dr. Wilbur’s co-analyst. For several months, Dr. Wilbur struggles to deliver her diagnosis of multiple personality to Sybil, because the news is so traumatic, that another personality takes over to receive the blow, protecting Sybil from hearing the knowledge.

After finally delivering a traumatic diagnosis, Dr. Wilbur decides that it is important to befriend her patient, and show her that she admires her as a person, and doesn’t think less of her. Sybil’s other personalities, seeing that the doctor cares about her, decide to emerge. During this phase of analysis, Dr. Wilbur attempts to figure out which personalities are the central ones, and why they have emerged. She and Sybil plunge deep into her past to try and figure out the source of her illness.

They uncover several escalating traumas. The first is the death of Sybil’s Grandma Dorsett, who dies when Sybil is 9. Sybil has a special relationship with her grandmother, who, she is one day surprised to realize, really likes her. The trauma of Grandma Dorsett’s death provokes Sybil to dissociate for two years, so that one minute she finds herself a third grader, standing by her grandmother’s grave, and in the next, she is bewildered to find herself a fifth grader, with no friends. She experiences a secondary dissociative shock when her best and only friend, Danny, moves away.

Soon, Dr. Wilbur uncovers the traumatic relationship with her parents that is the central cause of Sybil’s illness. As a child, Sybil sleeps in her parents’ room until she is 9, subjecting her to the nightly ordeal the “primal scene,” in Freudian thinking, the moment in which a child traumatically confronts the sex of her parents. The conflict between her parents’ daytime assertion that sex is wicked and disgusting, and their demonstrative nighttime activity, confuses, shames, and problematically excites the young Sybil, producing a number of personalities, all with different reactions to and attitudes about her parents’ sex.

Dr. Wilbur discovers that Hattie, Sybil’s mother, is at the center of Sybil’s trauma. Analysis uncovers a slew of psychosexual tortures that Hattie inflicts on Sybil, from forcing Sybil to witness Hattie’s lewd, aggressive, eccentric behavior, such as nighttime walks that include defecating on hated neighbors’ lawns, to inflicting “medical” procedures as punishments on Sybil for the obscure and illusory crime of being a “bad” girl, such as filling her baby daughter’s bladder with an enema and beating her if she goes to the bathroom. Dr. Wilbur concludes that the personalities emerge when the outside world provides no means for Sybil to escape the abuse Dr. Wilbur characterizes as proceeding along a theme of “capture-control-imprisonment-torture.” Though Hattie is at the center of Sybil’s trauma, Dr. Wilbur is insistent that Sybil also acknowledge and accept the culpability of her father, Willard, who was egregiously passive and willfully ignorant of his wife’s incompetence as a mother.

Schreiber returns to the episode in Philadelphia after recounting these discoveries, a turning point in Sybil’s analysis. The terror of the episode in Philadelphia finally shakes Sybil out of her resistance to acknowledging her other personalities, though she technically knows about them. She can no longer continue to think of her illness as a phenomenon of “losing time,” which she resolves to not let happen again. Relinquishing her system of blaming herself for her own illness, Sybil agrees to listen to the voices of her other selves on tape.

Doing so opens up complex new relationships with her personalities, complexities that stall the analysis and block Sybil from truly accepting them. Dr. Wilbur determines that acceptance is the path to wellness: while it once seemed that personalities might be threatening remnants of past traumas that needed to be eliminated, the council of Vicky helps her determine that the personalities represent crucial parts of Sybil’s original personality, banished by the need to protect herself against trauma. Sybil is a “depleted” person, and can only become whole when she accepts the personalities as her own and integrates them. However, the analysis must get worse before it gets better. Though during this period Sybil is able to realize that she shares some qualities with her personalities, that they are not a Jekyll-and-Hyde nightmare, out in the world committing murder in her name, the new relationship with her other selves overwhelms her. She resents their feeling that they have ownership over her body. She is jealous that they carry on relationships with the few loved ones she has made herself vulnerable to. Sybil feels the analysis is taking her backward, to her childhood, while life is passing her by. She attempts suicide.

Sybil is finally able to make significant progress toward wellness when she is able, with the help of Dr. Wilbur’s more aggressive treatment with sodium pentothal, a barbiturate, and hypnosis, to speak aloud and own her hatred of her mother, and then, after his death, her father. Slowly, after “aging” all the personalities to Sybil’s own age, they begin to integrate with the waking Sybil. Sybil is able to sense when she is having feelings that are or were identified with other personalities, and to create opportunities for their fulfillment or release, so that there is no need for the personalities to take over and act out those feelings of anger or desire for her. Sybil achieves final wellness after she is able to fall in love, claiming ownership of the womanhood that trauma withheld from her, and yet not be devastated and forced into dissociation by the loss of that love. Finally, Sybil is able to move to Philadelphia, begin a career, and live in a house on her own, as an adult integrated into society.

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Chapters 1-3