Even After Debunking, ‘Sybil’ Hasn’t Gone Away
Turning 50 is rarely easy for a woman, and “Sybil” is no exception.
This tarnished classic — “the True and Extraordinary Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Separate Personalities,” to invoke the most carnival-barker of its various subtitles — has since its 1973 publication been critically dismissed; wedged on the best-seller list between Lillian Hellman and Howard Cosell as if at some nightmare dinner party; made into two different television movies; workshopped as a musical; cited in psychiatric literature; debunked, dissected and defended.
Widely reported to have sold over six million copies, she’s valiantly stayed in circulation all these years, but can’t be blamed for looking a little frayed around the edges.
“Sybil” is part of a long American parade of books about psychologically distressed women, preceded in the 1960s by “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” and “The Bell Jar,” followed in the 1990s — the cloak coming off — by the confessionals “Girl, Interrupted” and “Prozac Nation.” It haunted teenage girls (and surely some boys) from their bedroom shelves, with its distinctive covers of a face divided as if the shards of a broken mirror, or fractured into jigsaw-puzzle pieces.
I, too, was intrigued by that mirror cover, but thoroughly perplexed by the text. Returning to it as an adult, I can only see “Sybil” weighed down with all the scholarship and skepticism that came to surround her, like clanking, oversize accessories. The book is a historical curiosity and a cautionary tale of mass cultural delusion that makes one wonder what current voguish diagnoses — witness the “TikTok tics” — might warrant closer interrogation.
Seemingly overnight, “Sybil” pathologized the idea that one might “contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman wrote in his exuberant “Song of Myself.” Its heroine had suffered extreme childhood trauma and developed a set of different personalities to cope. With the help of an attentive doctor, she would integrate them into one identity and be made whole and mature.
It was a remarkable story — and at this moment of Women’s Lib and changing gender roles, an oddly relatable one: somehow of a piece with “The Exorcist,” released the same year, and that bonkers Enjoli perfume commercial with a spokesmodel bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan and never letting you forget you were a man.
Originally titled “Who is Sylvia?” (the publisher deemed that name too Jewish), “Sybil” was written by Flora Rheta Schreiber in close collaboration with its subject, an artist and teacher who in real life was Shirley Ardell Mason from Dodge Center, Minn., and Mason’s longtime psychoanalyst, Cornelia Wilbur. What did the three women have in common? Magazines: the same bibles of domestic servitude that Betty Friedan so effectively scrutinized in “The Feminine Mystique.”
Forbidden to create fiction by her parents, who were strict Seventh-day Adventists, Mason as a child instead cut out and rearranged letters and words from copies of Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, “like a kidnapper preparing a ransom note,” wrote Debbie Nathan in “Sybil Exposed,” her forensic 2011 investigation of the trio, which draws extensively from Schreiber’s papers at John Jay College.
Schreiber, who aspired to a literary career and at one time was romantically involved with the playwright Eugene O’Neill’s oldest son, wrote celebrity profiles and pop psychology pieces for outlets such as Cosmopolitan. And Wilbur, who had treated the actor Roddy McDowall — Case 129 in a book she co-authored about the causes and “treatment” of male homosexuality — craved the kind of broad audience that magazines then attracted.
Written to women’s magazines’ then-loose reporting standards, with pseudonyms granted and facts changed or completely fabricated, “Sybil” is best read less as a case study in the mode of “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” (the even more famous and interrogated Dora) than as horror story. And indeed Schreiber, admiring the success of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” from the beginning aspired to do a “nonfiction novel.”
Its shocking details of abuse at the hands of a likely schizophrenic mother — cold-water enemas administered while the young “Sybil Dorsett” is hanging upside down from a light bulb cord over the kitchen table are one “matinal maternal ministration,” to use Schreiber’s affected terminology — exceed those in Stephen King’s novel “Carrie.” Sybil supposedly had a bead shoved up her nose; a buttonhook inserted in her genitals; and was blindfolded and shut in a trunk.
Rather than telekinetic powers, she develops a preternatural ability to assume different personas. Struggling in work and love, she finds herself dissociating from reality, “losing time.” At one session she begins speaking with a countrified accent and identifies herself as “Peggy.” The number and variety of these different characters — which include two male carpenters, “Mike” and “Sid” — increase exponentially into an “entourage of alternating selves.”
The real case studies here are of medical and journalistic malpractice. Wilbur by any modern metric crossed the line from transference to enmeshment. She crept into her patient’s bed to administer electroshock treatment with an outdated device, doled out Pentothal (a barbiturate then wrongly thought to act as a truth serum) to the point of addiction, and took her on creepy road trips.
Presented with a rueful letter from Mason that she’d been “essentially lying” about not only the different selves but her mother’s tortures, Wilbur refused to reconsider her diagnosis, Nathan reported. Her patient was in a state of “resistance” to the terrible truth, the psychiatrist maintained.
When Schreiber tried to play Capote, visiting Dodge Center and examining Mason’s medical records, she found discrepancies galore. But all three women were too emotionally and economically invested in the project to abandon it, even forming a company called Sybil Inc.
The notion of multiple personalities has remained big business. During its brief tenure in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from 1980 to 1994, cases mushroomed among the female populace, along with a fever of recovered memories stoked by another since discredited book, “Michelle Remembers.” Perhaps never before or since has the medical profession been so entwined with story. What could be more dramatic, more compelling, than a protagonist and numerous supporting players in one body? (The manual now describes the condition less suggestively, as dissociative identity disorder.)
Hollywood had already harvested “The Three Faces of Eve,” a best seller about the case of Christine Costner Sizemore; the film won Joanne Woodward an Oscar in 1958. (Woodward would play Wilbur in the first TV movie of “Sybil.”) The multiple-personality phenomenon became a mainstay of talk shows, from Schreiber and Wilbur appearing on Dick Cavett’s to Oprah Winfrey declaring it “the syndrome of the ’90s.” One of her guests, Truddi Chase, identified 92 separate personalities, which Chase called The Troops.
Memoirs of the condition, including Chase’s best-selling “When Rabbit Howls,” abounded. Friends of the real-life “Sybil” arrived with sequels, showcasing her paintings. Further cinematic depictions ranged from the sublime (Edward Norton in “Primal Fear”) to the ridiculous (Jim Carrey in “Me, Myself & Irene”).
Few remember Michelle, but Sybil, with all her cautionary addenda, endures. Further footnoting the whole saga, her psychiatrist also figured in the case of Billy Milligan, the acquitted “Campus Rapist” said to have 24 personalities, whose story was told by the author Daniel Keyes.
“The Crowded Room,” a 10-episode mini-series inspired by Milligan, will begin streaming on Apple TV+ next month. The sands of mental health may always be shifting, but when mined for material, they’re bottomless.
Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.” @AlexandraJacobs
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