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 Dorsett is a shy, quiet
young woman who keeps losing time. As Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, 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 recent book Sybil Exposed
, may in fact be Based on a Great Big Lie
, or at least on some extremely sketchy therapeutic practices.
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, whom Sybil's pediatrician describes as "nervous."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 have 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.
- Genki Girl: The Vanessa personality.
- Gratuitous French: The Victoria personality speaks a lot of (broken and confused) French, in an apparent attempt to sound sophisticated.
- Impromptu Tracheotomy: A fractured larynx was just one of the many "childhood aches and pains" that Sybil's pediatrician apparently never considered worth investigating.
- 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.
- Split Personality: The Trope Codifier, as mentioned above.
- Tantrum Throwing: The Peggy personality punches out a window in her rage and terror.
- The Fundamentalist: Sybil's mother namedrops God, hell, and Armageddon a fair amount.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?