Sybil Summary

Flora Rheta Schreiber


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Sybil Summary

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Sybil is a 1973 book by Flora Rheta Schreiber. It tells the story of a woman with a dissociative personality disorder and her treatment by her psychoanalyst. The woman, known as Sybil, was referred to by this pseudonym for many years before more details about her diagnosis and treatment emerged.

Sybil was born to Hattie and Williard Dorsett. Williard was a businessman with strong religious principles and Hattie was a woman with mental illness, bordering on schizophrenia. Williard lived in denial of his wife’s mental illness and refused to acknowledge what Sybil went through in the care of her mother.

Sybil was born after Hattie suffered a series of miscarriages. Hattie believed in strong discipline and demanded a lot of her daughter. By the age of two, she was subjected to cruel and unusual punishments that broke her spirit and caused her to disassociate to cope with the abuse. Hattie experienced periods of high spirits bordering on mania. These manic periods alternated with episodes of severe depression.

Hattie subjected her daughter to daily cold-water enemas, in which she demanded that Sybil hold the water or receive further punishment. She broke her daughter’s bones and tied her up to make her a good girl. Williard was often away, and what he did see of the abuse, he refused to acknowledge, going so far as to deny everything years later.

Sybil began to experience periods of lost time in which she grew confused about her circumstances and how she got to particular places. In college, she had no recollection of a period of five days in which she moved from New York to Philadelphia. The school nurse recommended that she return home to rest and recover, but Sybil’s home had always been a place of trauma. Instead of recovering, the episodes become worse.

On the advice of a family doctor, she seeks the help of a psychoanalyst named Dr. Wilbur. They develop an immediate bond, and Sybil is grateful to meet someone who does not judge her or treat her as if she is strange. Dr. Wilbur uncovers the cause of her lost time. She has developed multiple personalities to cope with the trauma her mother inflicted upon her.

These personalities include Vicky, a self-assured French girl; Peggy Lou and Peggy Ann, who are both assertive and alternately angry and fearful. Mary is a thoughtful homebody, and Marcia is an emotional painter and writer, while Vanessa is a talented musician. Two other personas, Nancy and Clara, are both intensely religious, and Clara is highly critical of Sybil. Helen is fearful, but Marjorie is fun-loving. Sybil also has two younger personalities: The Blonde is a perpetual teenager, while Ruthie is an undeveloped child. A final female personality is Sybil, a woman so listless she barely moves or talks.

Sybil also had two male personalities, and at the time of her treatment was one of the first cases of female multiple-personality disorder to have male personas. The first was Mike who was a builder and a carpenter. The second was Sid, another carpenter and handyman who took his name from her initials.

Together, Sybil and Dr. Wilbur met and talked with each of these personalities, teasing out why they developed and helping Sybil to confront them all. Towards the end of their sessions together, Sybil was able to integrate each personality into a happier, more well-adjusted seventeenth personality.

Sybil remains controversial because some of the records it draws on are suspect. The psychologist and the writer of the story have been accused of exaggerating Sybil’s diagnosis, or of fabricating it for the sensationalist publicity. Many of the records were later destroyed, and the book wasn’t published until after Sybil’s and her psychologist’s deaths.

One of the major themes of the book is that of identity. We do not fully understand how our identities are created, but we know that childhood trauma contributes to mental health issues in adults. Sybil was subjected to severe and continuous trauma from a very early age, and to cope, she split different facets of her personality into different personas. As she experiences this lost time, it further adds to the trauma and isolation she feels.

To some extent, religion is a pressing theme throughout the book as well. Both Hattie and Williard are very religious, and yet they lack the characteristics we feel are important for those who belong to the church and who follow their faith. Several of Sybil’s personalities are religious as well and are critical of Sybil. This in turn suggests a connection between her mother’s faith and the abuse she suffered at her hands.

Whether her diagnosis is factual or sensationalized, Sybil’s story is intriguing for anyone interested in identity and how our childhood shapes our lives as adults. Sybil was looking for acceptance and love but did not receive either in her childhood. It wasn’t until her psychologist showed her the acceptance she craved that she could face her past and the things she did to cope.