This incredible psychological true-story regarding multiple personalities is disturbing to read but highly recommended. Sybil Isabel Dorsett (not her real name) has sixteen separate personalities, two of which are male, and struggles throughout her life to try and live with the frightening ‘dark thing’ which threatens to overcome her.
Sybil’s first dissociation happens when she is but a baby and the major cause of her multiple personalities is rooted in her mother, who was likely, a paranoid schizophrenic. Sybil fights an increasing ‘loss of time’ where she cannot remember why she has ended up in a certain place or why ‘that dress’ hangs in her closet. Knowing she is mentally ill, she begs her father, Willard Dorsett, to allow her to visit a psychiatrist. Her local physician suggests a Dr. Wilbur, a female psychologist, but her parents are skeptical. Highly religious, they believe that such intervention is sinful. Yet, Mr. Dorsett knows there is something drastically wrong and reluctantly allows Sybil to visit the doctor in August, 1958.
Sybil, though desperately needing help, tries to disguise her problem and before she can receive any real help, comes down with a fever and unbeknownst to her, her mother Hattie cancels her appointment. In 1948 Hattie dies and Sybil tries to work but her bouts with ‘lost time’ continue until finally, in 1954, she locates Dr. Wilbur in New York and moves there for therapy. It is months after her first session that Dr. Wilbur meets the first of the many other personalities in Sybil. Her name is Vicky, and she knows what all the ‘others’ do and think, but keeps all knowledge of her other selves from Sybil. Dr. Wilbur is excited. This is a major breakthrough and she reads all she can on dual personalities. Nothing much has been noted except for the highly publicized story of Eve who had three distinctive personalities.
Before long, Dr. Wilbur discovers that Sybil has many more than three personalities. All multiple personalities have one which knows everything and Dr. Wilbur becomes very dependent on Vicky to keep her updated on the actions of the ‘others’. The most notable after Vicky are Peggy Lou and Peggy Ann who reflect Sybil’s unrealized anger and fear against her abusive mother. Dr. Wilbur is gradually introduced to the dramatic Vanessa, the artistic Marcia, and the suicidal Sybil Ann. Lurking inside are also two male personalities, the carpenters, Mike and Sid, who have taken on the traits of Sybil’s father Willard, and her tyrannical Grandfather. Willard Dorsett’s chief sin is that he ignored his daughter’s growing emotional instability and allowed his mentally ill wife to continue raising the child even though he knew Hattie was deeply ill. For two years, Hattie was catatonic, and still Willard did nothing about her condition.
Hattie Dorsett, when alert, was a monster. Sexually and physically abusive, Sybil suffered a broken larynx, dislocated shoulder, a bead up her nose, black eyes and constant bruises, as well as intense sexual abuse involving a shoe hook which resulted in Sybil’s incapability to have children.
Why, asked the doctor, when Willard finally agreed to come in for a ‘chat’ did he allow this to go on? Passive and indifferent, Willard answered he simply felt that a mother should raise her child and that their belief in God was enough. It was not and a shaken Willard agrees that Sybil needs much more therapy and agrees to send his daughter a check each month to make sure she is treated.
Sybil, after three years of intense sessions with Dr. Willard is still reluctant to ‘meet’ her other personalities. She believes that her other selves may have committed ‘sins’ and deeply religious, Sybil is terrified to learn what they might have really done. After the ‘Peggy’s’ flee to the countryside for a holiday, Dr. Wilbur finally convinces Sybil to hear the tapes she’s made about what they did while vacationing. There pastimes were pleasant, even fulfilling and Sybil finally acknowledges their existence and their right to be there. The sixteen personalities were her protectors against the cruel Hattie and the voices that fought back against constant neglect, abuse, and indifference. It is Dr. Wilbur’s duty to try and merge these separate personalities into one new Sybil. It takes eleven years, but finally, after three sessions a week and a financially supportive father, a new Sybil emerges. Sybil realizes her dream to become a college professor and an artist and writes Dr. Wilbur in 1969, after a year of no ‘lost time’ that she is finally not afraid and able to live a full life. Dr. Wilbur goes on to diagnose and treat seven other cases of multiple personalities, though none are as complex and compelling as Sybil’s. The author, Flora Rheta Schreiber, becomes a personal friend of Sybil’s and with her permission, writes a book about her traumatic childhood and dissociations. This book, published in 1972, became an instant best seller, finally resulting in a movie with Sally Field in the lead role. For people who generally do not enjoy non-fiction, this book reads like a sad, yet strangely exhilarating novel and just illustrates how ‘fact really is stranger than fiction.’