Sybil and Dissociative Identity Disorder
The 1976 film Sybil, based off of a book by the same name, is perhaps the most complex and powerful portrayal of DID that cinema has to offer. The dark ambiance is carried throughout the movie, and Sally Field’s depiction of Sybil truly emphasizes the fear and anxiety that come attached to such a disorder.
The movie starts off with Sybil as a teacher who is taking her students on field trip at the park. As her class is about to get back on the bus, she sees an old lady pushing a little girl on the swings, which immediately prompts a violent, unexplainable image of another little girl being hung by her hands in a barn. When the scene shifts back to the park, Sybil is standing in a pond, without any idea of how she got there. With no further explanation, the audience is left to wonder what might be wrong with Sybil.
At home, Sybil dissociates multiple times, waking up each time to a room of scattered and overturned furniture. Finally, she wakes up at a psychiatrist’s office, being told that she cut herself on some broken glass. The audience is introduced to Dr. Wilbur, who through her diagnostic tests elicit multiple identity shifts within Sybil. Sybil confides in Dr. Wilbur about her problems, and after she leaves, meets with her father to ask for money to pay for treatment with Wilbur. When her father refuses, she dissociates violently and storms out.
One night, Dr. Wilbur gets a frantic call from a girl named Vicky, who says that Sybil is going to kill herself. When Dr. Wilbur gets up to Sybil’s apartment, she witnesses several more identity shifts, and decides to take Sybil under her care without payment. A few days later, Vicky (a split identity of Sybil) walks into Dr. Wilbur’s office, claiming that she is Sybil’s friend. When she reveals that there are “others” who live with Sybil, Dr. Wilbur takes the opportunity to extract more information from Vicky. Over the next few months, Dr. Wilbur establishes her relationship with both Sybil and “Vicky”, and is able to make significant ground on her patient.
Finally, Dr. Wilbur confronts Sybil about her problem, and convinces her to undergo hypnosis so she could discover her other personalities. Things seem to be going thoroughly well, until she meets the identity of her mother, upon which she screams and soon after dissociates into a baby. However, she recovers, and the next time she undergoes hypnosis, she recalls an incident when her mother drags up her up to the roof of her barn by her hands, and then locks her in a cabinet.
When Sybil wakes up, she tells Dr. Wilbur that she was making the whole thing up, and that she doesn’t really have multiple identities. She appears to not act negatively towards certain cues, and is a lot more lucid about her own past. However, Dr. Wilbur theorizes that all the identities have “banded together” to keep her from uncovering what is underneath. She decides visits Sybil’s old town and speaks to the doctor that resided over Sybil when she was a child. There, she discovers that Sybil’s mother had paranoid schizophrenia, and the doctor admits that he simply ignored the vast and peculiar nature of injuries that Sybil had received.
When Dr. Wilbur returns and confronts Sybil about these things, she admits to having tried to deceive her before. They undergo their last session of hypnosis, where Sybil recalls her mother having sexually abused her by cutting her vagina with a knife. She awakens to rage and bitterness, which Dr. Wilbur tells her to accept. The movie ends with all the different identities of Sybil walking towards her and embracing.
As with typical cases of DID, Sybil’s disorder spawned from extreme childhood abuse and trauma. Her violent, psychotic mother and neglectful father leaves such a scar in her past that her mind tore itself into several different pieces to isolate the pain. The film is accurate in its portrayal of DID as a psychological coping method; Dr. Wilbur mentions many times that Sybil’s different “friends” are there to protect and take action when she herself cannot. Moreover, the movie does a great job of depicting the symptoms of DID. Sybil’s auditory hallucinations, which the audience can hear, pervade throughout the majority of the film. Furthermore, she is extremely anxious about her amnesia and loss of time – “Once, I went to sleep, and when I woke up, I was two years older”. Sybil also has several negative reactions towards unexplainable phobias, including the color purple, induced by the crayon that she had with her when her mother locked her in the barn. Finally, the film incorporates several brief traumatic flashbacks by shifting from the third person to Sybil’s view; these split-second clips, especially the earlier ones, help set the troubled and ominous tone of the entire film.
The interaction between Dr. Wilbur and Sybil’s different identities presents a fairly accurate portrayal of the diagnosis and treatment of DID. The initial screening tests that Dr. Wilbur performs encourage the young girl’s mind to dissociate; she does this by presenting her with a myriad of questions, pictures, and scents that Sybil might have associated with trauma. In the psycho-therapeutic sessions, she confronts Sybil’s old experiences with questions such as “Why can’t you talk about what happened in the green kitchen?”. Finally, she employs the use of clinical hypnosis to aid Sybil in unlocking her past and her repressed anger and anxiety.
All in all, Sybil is an emotionally charged and highly powerful film that accurately portrays the suffering and eventual treatment of DID. It’s critical acclaim and public recognition gave a face and a story to DID, and shortly after the release of the film diagnoses for the disorder exploded. Whether or not these diagnoses were spurred mainly by media frenzy is still a matter of controversy, but it is undeniable that Sybil played an important role in helping DID victims gain the respect and empathy of the public.