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Mind Over Pop Culture: Sybil

Sybil is the mother of all multiple personality disorder movies. It was the first one to really catch the public’s imagination (except Jekyll and Hyde).  It helped solidify what dissociative identity disorder looked like to the general public, and how they should feel about people with the illness. My question in watching it is whether it’s any good. As it turns out, it’s very good.

Sybil is a 1976 miniseries starring Sally Field as Sybil and Joanne Woodward as her psychologist, Dr. Wilbur. Sybil is a timid, shy woman who is having blackouts. She meets Dr. Wilbur in the hospital during one of her blackout sessions, and begins to work with her to address her illness. Eventually, Dr. Wilbur sees her switch personalities and diagnoses her as having Dissociative Identity Disorder (which was then Multiple Personality Disorder). Working with all of the different personalities through the trauma that caused their creation, as well Sybil’s relationship with her neighbor, a handsome single father, the two women are eventually able to integrate all of the personalities and get Sybil to a positive place in her life.

Having seen many of movies and television portrayals of dissociative identity disorder that came from Sybil, I was a bit worried about watching it. Many of the newer portrayals are overacted messes, with personalities flying out and little recognition of the trauma involved with their creation. I was pleasantly surprised that Sybil is such a mellow movie. The framework of how the personalities switch is underplayed beautifully. Often, the change is signaled by Sybil taking off her glasses. Field plays Sybil’s personalities as variations on her main personality, instead of completely different people. I’m not sure if that’s more realistic than other portrayals are, but it felt more realistic, and made more sense. In addition, the movie helps by casting children to play her personalities in flashbacks and in mirrors, so we see what Sybil sees. It’s a nice touch that helps educate what the audience is supposed to understand about the illness and about Sybil. The abuse is addressed head-on, in flashbacks that are increasingly disturbing, but never violent, cheap or unnecessary.

Dr. Wilbur is an idealized version of a doctor, one who never makes mistakes and only has her patient’s best interests at heart. She’s a comforting, calming presence for Sybil, and for the movie in general. In fact, there’s a scene where she hugs Sybil, because “people need hugs sometimes.” The movie offhandedly points out that Dr. Wilbur is presenting papers on Sybil while still treating her by wrapping the trip up in a visit to Sybil’s family. (Later, Dr. Wilbur’s work with Sybil, and her diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, would be questioned, and Dr. Wilbur’s influence on Sybil’s life would be reviewed.) All of Sybil’s personalities love Dr. Wilbur, and all of them get along with her, which is unlikely. All of them are willing to do what Dr. Wilbur says without question, which is also unlikely, and a bit troubling. That being said, Joanne Woodward does a good job with the character, making her appealing and kindhearted.

I was amazed at how complete a person Sybil was. As we’ve seen with this blog, most characters are defined entirely by their mental health condition. Here, Sybil’s Dissociative Identity Disorder is the focus of the movie, but we see her relationship with Richard, her neighbor. A young single father, he’s a good influence on her, and they have a happy, if a bit unconventional, relationship. She spends time with his son, and that’s encouraged by Dr. Wilbur. Eventually, Richard saves her from a suicide attempt by another personality, and is too frightened to continue the relationship. Breaking up with him doesn’t set Sybil’s treatment back weeks, or cause her to collapse into depression; instead, the movie uses it to highlight how her treatment is helping her cope with life. We see her substitute teach, paint and play the piano. Overall, Sybil is a complete person who has other personalities that help with the ups and downs of life, just like in real life.

Sometimes, the classics are classic for a reason. Sybil is a better movie than I was expecting, knowing only the cheap knock-offs that have come after it. I don’t think it’s very realistic, but it’s not afraid to address some of the really ugly stuff that goes along with Dissociative Identity Disorder in a way that’s not tawdry or cheap. It might be looking at her with rose-colored glasses, but the movie is still compelling enough with them. I’d say it’s worth a watch.


Next week, we’ll take a look at another classic, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Have you seen Sybil? What did you think?

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