Film / Sybil

Dr. Wilbur: Vanessa, what's the matter?
Sybil (weeping): I'm not Vanessa!
Dr. Wilbur: Oh, I'm sorry, Peggy, but you popped out so fast!

Sybil is a 1976 American drama film that originally aired as a made-for-television miniseries. It stars Joanne Woodward and Sally Field.

Sybil Dorsett (Field) is a shy, quiet, bespectacled young woman who keeps losing time. As Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Woodward), her compassionate therapist, probes her subconscious via hypnotism and talk therapy with her seeming legion of alternate personalities, highly disturbing details of Sybil's past begin to emerge, many of them focused on her Ax-Crazy mother, who subjected her to unspeakable abuse, resulting in the fragmentation of Sybil's personality.

Trope Codifier for the Split Personality trope, and allegedly Based on a True Story, although according to some accounts and specifically the book Sybil Exposed, may in fact be Based on a Great Big Lie, or at least on some extremely sketchy therapeutic practices.

The Selves:

  • Sybil Isabell Dorsett: The original self. A timid but brilliant artist and student.
  • Victoria (Vicky) Antoinette Scharleau: a sophisticated blonde French girl who knows what all the other personalities are doing. She is free of trauma and assists Wilbur in therapy.
  • Peggy Lou and Peggy Ann Baldwin: Two similar personalities. Peggy Lou is the angry little girl who breaks glass and fights Sybil's battles; Peggy Ann is a less aggressive and more tactful version of Peggy Lou.
  • Vanessa Gail Dorsett: A vivacious and outgoing redhead who retains all the musical ability Sybil suppressed as a child.
  • Marcia Lynn Baldwin: A dark, brooding, suicidal personality who believes she deserves to die because she wished Sybil's mother dead. Is best friends with Vanessa and enjoys writing and drawing.
  • Sid and Mike Dorsett: Two male personalities. Sid (who takes his name from Sybil's initials) is a quiet, sensitive boy who identifies with Sybil's father, while Mike is a more assertive young man. Both boys enjoy carpentry and sports, and both suffer under the belief that one day they will develop penises when they grow up. Both were originally created to deal with Sybil's belief that her abused female body was dirty.
  • Mary Lucinda Saunders Dorsett: A gentle, motherly homebody who came to be after the death of Sybil's beloved grandmother.
  • Ruthie Dorsett: The youngest of the personalities at around two or three years old, Ruthie came to be after witnessing her parents having sex in the same room with her for the majority of her childhood.
  • Nancy Lou Ann Baldwin: An intensely religious personality obsessed with the end of the world, stemming from Sybil's fundamentalist upbringing and religious conflicts.
  • Sybil Anne Dorsett: A very young girl who seems to appear whenever the system is physically or emotionally overwhelmed, she is listless and zombie-like, capable of blocking out external stimuli until the others recover.
  • Marjorie Dorsett: One of the lesser-developed personality, she is teasing, cryptic, and claims never to have experienced any abuse at the hands of Sybil's mother. She refuses to acknowledge Sybil as a real person, much less the "original" person.
  • Clara Dorsett: Another lesser-developed personality, she is very critical of Sybil. She is also deeply religious, but not as fanatical as Nancy.
  • Helen Dorsett: A minor personality about whom little is known.
  • The Blonde: An unnamed personality who appeared only once at the end of Sybil's therapy. Not much is known of her except that she represents Sybil's adolescence. Vicky claims that she and The Blonde are the only blonde personalities because of Sybil's idealization of blonde as the most desirable hair color.

Tropes in the film include:

  • Adults Are Useless: Apparently, neither Sybil's father, nor her pediatrician, nor even her grandmother, ever thought to question the various injuries she sustained throughout her childhood at the hands of her psychotic mother.
  • Ax-Crazy: Sybil's mother, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, who Sybil's pediatrician describes as "nervous."
  • Blithe Spirit: The Vanessa personality. Her role in the system appears to be less due to abuse and more a response to the intellectual and emotional repression of Sybil's childhood. Vicky describes her as the only personality with "joie de vivre."
  • Break the Cutie: Sybil's entire childhood.
  • Broken Bird: Sybil herself.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Sally Field's performance is... not understated.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In-universe; Sybil and her various personalities exhibit strong panic reactions to the colors "purple" and "green," which both link back to particularly traumatic experiences in her childhood.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Sybil's mother, who allegedly molested male and female children in her care, had lesbian affairs with teenage girls, and sexually abused her own daughter.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Sybil's mother again. She always has this weird little smile on her face.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sybil attempts this at least twice.
  • Evil Matriarch: Sybil's mother, like whoa.
  • Fish Out of Temporal Water: Many of the selves, but especially Peggy Ann, believe that they are still children and have no knowledge of the intervening years since they left home.
  • Fist of Rage: The Peggy personality, when Sybil is attempting to reintegrate with her.
    Sybil: What's that behind your back, Peggy? Don't you have hands?
    "Peggy": I got fists!
  • From the Mouths of Babes: One of the children in Sybil's kindergarten class, interacting with the Vanessa personality, corrects his father when he addresses "Sybil":
    Matthew: That's not Sybil. Sybil stayed home.
  • The Fundamentalist: Sybil's mother namedrops God, hell, and Armageddon a fair amount.
  • Gratuitous French: The Victoria personality speaks a lot of (broken and confused) French, in an apparent attempt to sound sophisticated.
  • Hide Your Gays: The book introduced the character of Teddy, Sybil's roommate, who was stated to be a lesbian with a lech for Sybil. The real Teddy sued to have the references removed from future editions. Sybil herself was uncomfortable with the idea of lesbians and begged to have several references removed before publication.
  • Impromptu Tracheotomy: A fractured larynx was just one of the many "childhood aches and pains" that Sybil's pediatrician apparently never considered worth investigating.
  • Latin Lover: Sybil attracts one in the book in the form of Ramon.
  • Leaving You to Find Myself: Sybil decides she can't see Richard again "until we get ourselves together."
  • Love Cannot Overcome: And then Richard moves away during the course of Sybil's therapy.
  • Mama Bear: Dr. Wilbur shows her growing love for Sybil in some particularly furious outbursts against Sybil's mother.
  • The Mourning After: Richard Loomis, though interested in Sybil, also clearly has unresolved issues surrounding his deceased wife.
  • The Ophelia: Sybil in therapy has shades of this. There's a lot of singing.
  • Split Personality: The Trope Codifier, as mentioned above.
  • Tantrum Throwing: The Peggy personality punches out a window in her rage and terror.
  • There Are No Therapists: Thoroughly subverted; the entire movie focuses on the heroic, loving, compassionate therapist who helps heal Sybil. Which is perhaps to be expected, considering the original book was written by the "real" Sybil's therapist.
    • The book was actually written by journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, collaborating with the therapist ... but it's still an eyebrow-raiser when the Flora character is suddenly introduced to become the third musketeer with Sybil and Connie out of nowhere, just in time to be present at the climax.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Even Wilbur and Schreiber admitted that many years of therapy had to be condensed, incidents and names were changed for privacy, and many significant incidents were omitted for the sake of creating a more cohesive work. Schreiber in particular claimed that the abuse detailed in the story was not even half of what Sybil had actually suffered. More recent criticism holds that significantly more of the story was exaggerated, if not outright fabricated.
  • You Monster!: Although not directly addressing the monster in question, Dr. Wilbur's reaction on seeing Sybil's most extreme regression (to a preverbal state):
    What did that monster do to you?