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Film / Sybil

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The terrifying true story of a woman possessed by sixteen separate personalities
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 starring Joanne Woodward as Dr. Wilbur and Sally Field as the title character. The film was based on the best-selling 1973 non-fiction novel of the same name, and was remade again, with a few alterations from the original film, in 2007, this time with Jessica Lange in the role of Dr. Wilbur and Tammy Blanchard as Sybil.

Ever since childhood, Sybil Dorsett (Field) has suffered periodic blackouts from which she emerges hours, days, or even years later with no memory of the intervening time. Throughout her life, Sybil has struggled to control these strange episodes while keeping them hidden from others, leading her to isolate herself from any potential relationships for fear they will learn her terrible secret. Now in her thirties, she is a shy, quiet, bespectacled student teacher who lives in near-complete seclusion. But after a terrifying incident in which she "came to" lost in a strange city during a deadly snowstorm, she realizes she must seek help.

She finds it in Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Woodward), a compassionate therapist who probes Sybil's subconscious via hypnotism and talk therapy, only to discover that her mild-mannered new client is host to a legion of alternate personalities, more than any other case previously recorded. These personalities range from precocious, self-assured Victoria to fearful, furious Peggy to suicidal, self-loathing Marcia, as well as a little old lady, a pre-verbal infant, and a pair of rambunctious boys.

Wilbur is forced to give up standard technique and rely on her instincts to guide her through what quickly becomes an unprecedented case. The other selves, she learns, possess not only the lost memories of Sybil's past, but an astonishing wealth of talents, including the personality Vanessa, who plays the piano beautifully even though Sybil cannot remember learning how. The story becomes a psychological "whodunnit" as Wilbur investigates Sybil's forgotten past, eventually unearthing disturbing details and the stunning revelation of hideous physical, mental, and sexual torture inflicted on young Sybil by her dangerously schizophrenic mother. Along the way, doctor and patient develop a powerful (and possibly medically unethical) bond, which eventually allows Sybil to reabsorb her separate selves and become whole again.

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. However, Dr. Philip Coons, who's studied multiple personality for many years, concluded Sybil was really multiple. Another doctor who worked closely with and believed her was Dr. Patrick Suraci.

Sybil's real name was Shirley Ardell Mason. She was an art teacher and toy designer, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and endeared member of the Lexington, Kentucky community. She was in touch with cousins including life-coach and inspirational speaker Naomi Rhode, who confirmed her story. Her real life is memorialized and cherished in After Sybil, by her student and friend Nancy Preston.

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. (The two merge early in the integration process to become a single person called Peggy Louisiana.)
  • 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 they will grow 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:

  • Adaptational Personality Change:
    • In the novel, Marcia is a brooding, pessimistic intellectual English girl. Unlike the other selves, she prefers writing to painting, but she certainly has interests, preferences, and a distinct personality outside her depression (there's even an amusing incident where Sybil learns that Marcia's been trying to make extra money by writing and selling brainless little pop tunes; Sybil is mortified that someone might think she's been writing such drivel, while Marcia's only interested in what sells). In the 1976 film, Marcia has no English accent and no apparent interests other than her desire to kill herself (and the others). In the 2007 remake, she's a painter with a strong Noo Yawk accent, a gruff, no-nonsense attitude, and no apparent depressive or suicidal urges at all. Weirdly, she's also coded as a lesbian, judging from her preference for masculine clothing, her habit of wearing her hair tucked into a cap, and her scoffing whenever one of the other selves has a date.
    • In a case of real-life Adaptational Personality Change, Shirley Mason's stepmother Florence (called Freida in the book and movie) was by all accounts a very nice lady who had a warm, cordial relationship with her stepdaughter, particularly when they bonded after the death of Mason's father.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Vicky between Real Life and all of the future adaptations. In Real Life, the Vicky alter claimed to be visiting from England, not France, and while her first name was still Victoria, her surname was not French. It's presumed that this was either a misguided attempt to conceal the real Sybil's identity still further or because it sounded more impressive and mysterious to suggest that a personality could be conversant in a foreign language that the host had never consciously learned.
    • Related: In the book, Vanessa is also said to be English. In the 1976 film, she has no English accent. But in the 2007 version, she's English again.
    • In both real life and the book, Dr. Quinoness was Spanish. In the 1976 film, he's an American with the native Midwestern accent to prove it.
  • Adapted Out: Sybil's seventeenth personality, the Blonde, who in the book appears only briefly at the very end of therapy. She isn't mentioned in either the 1976 or the 2007 adaptation. In fact, all media surrounding the case—including the book in which she appears—stress that Sybil had only sixteen personalities including her own.note 
  • Adults Are Useless: Neither Sybil's father, nor her grandmother, nor the pediatrician who treated her ever considered that Sybil's frequent childhood injuries (everything from black eyes to a fractured larynx) might have been caused by her psychotic mother.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Played Straight and Deconstructed. Wilbur is a classically trained Freudian psychoanalyst who originally attempts to treat Sybil by psychoanalyzing each personality individually. When she realizes how unusual the case is, she is forced to modify her techniques. Yet many of Sybil's (and Hattie's) neuroses are described in classical Freudian terms (Sybil, for example, "displaces" her frustration at being unable to escape her mother's torture into Peggy's need to break glass, which functions as both a pressure release and a symbolic escape. When the root of the frustration is addressed, the glass-breaking behavior stops.)
  • Ax-Crazy: Sybil's mother, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, who Sybil's pediatrician describes as "nervous."
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: In the novel, Sybil's Brazilian boyfriend attempts to seduce her by telling her the size of his penis. (Apparently this was another scene the real Sybil begged to keep out of the book.)
  • Blithe Spirit: Vanessa's role in the system is based less on the abuse and more a response to the intellectual and emotional repression of Sybil's childhood. She is described 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 Motif: In-universe. Sybil and her various personalities connect colors to various emotions, many of which have connections to specific incidents of abuse.
    • Sybil and many of the selves link anxiety and fear with green, the color of the kitchen where much of their abuse took place.
    • Peggy describes anger as purple after an incident in which she was locked in a wheat bin and nearly suffocated. As the air ran out, Peggy scribbled on the inside of the bin with her purple crayon so that someone would know she had been there.
    • The selves associate white with abandonment, stemming from a kind doctor Sybil once hoped would rescue her from the abuse. Instead the doctor returned her to her mother, and the last she saw of him was his white coat retreating as he walked away.
    • Sybil creates a painting entitled "Blue Is the Color of Love" containing all the shades of blue she associates with love.note 
  • Captain Ersatz: Part of the reason Sybil's real identity was uncovered. Flora Rheta Schreiber barely changed the names of some real people, who subsequently either recognized themselves or were recognized by acquaintances. For example, Sybil's childhood housekeeper Dessie Blood appears in the novel as "Jessie Flood," while the real town doctor was tracked down by virtue of being the only doctor with a Hispanic surname in a tiny Midwestern town in a geographical region that had a miniscule Latin population in the 1920s. Sybil's mother, called "Hattie" in the book, was really named "Mattie." In addition, Schreiber described the town's layout in such detail (such as mentioning that Sybil's home was located across the street from her school and next door to her church) that locals very quickly put the pieces together.
  • Composite Character: Peggy Lou and Peggy Ann are compressed into a single Peggy for the 1976 film. Likely this was done to avoid the confusion of having two characters with similar names and personalities, but compressing the two Peggys to one means that Sybil would appear to have only 15 personalities, even though the movie repeatedly states that she has sixteen.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Yowza! Where to begin? Sybil has been horribly abused at the hands of her abusive mother. The abuse being physical, emotional, mental, and even sexual. The abuse includes but not limited to, being given enemas and being forced to hold the water in, being binded by her wrists with a heavy rope and hoisted in the air, being locked in a wheat bin against her will and nearly suffocating, and being tripped while going down the stairs, tumbling head-first on the floor.
  • 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: Marcia suffers from depression and attempts suicide (which would naturally kill Sybil as well). Sybil herself also attempts suicide.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: At the end of the movie, Sybil finally finds closure from her Dark and Troubled Past at the hands of her abusive mother and outright states that she hates her mother. Then, she breaks down in tears while telling Dr. Wilbur that she loves her, having bonded with her during her time in therapy with Dr. Wilbur and coming to see Dr. Wilbur as her true mother. Dr. Wilbur, having bonded with Sybil as well and grown to love her as a daughter, tells Sybil that she loves her as well while hugging her back.
  • Evil Matriarch: Sybil's mother, like whoa.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Many of the selves, but especially the Peggys, believe that they are still children and have no knowledge of the intervening years since they left home.
  • Fist of Rage: Peggy Lou expresses her feelings of entrapment and rage by punching windows.
    Sybil: What's that behind your back, Peggy? Don't you have hands?
    "Peggy": I got fists!
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Richard's young son, 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. In the 2007 adaptation, her accent is very pronounced (and very fake), to the point that Sybil's mother scolds her for speaking "that phony French."
  • Hide Your Gays: The book introduced the character of Teddy, Sybil's roommate, who was stated to be a lesbian who attempted to calm Sybil's hysterics by crawling naked into bed with her. 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. Ramon also appears in the 2007 adaptation.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Due to internal injuries from her abuse, Sybil, who loves children, can never bear any of her own. When her Latin Lover Ramon offers to marry her to have a mother for his orphaned niece and nephew, she refuses him in favor of continuing her therapy. The other selves berate her for her decision.
  • 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 Mirror Shows Your True Self: Used both in the 1976 version (in which the selves see their "real" forms, played by different actors, when looking into a mirror) and in the 2007 remake (in which the selves' reflections are represented by Tammy Blanchard/Sybil in different costumes and hairstyles).
  • 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.
    • Marcia wraps herself in a veil, recites some morbid poetry, and scatters flower petals while in the grip of suicidal depression.
  • Parent with New Paramour: It's kind of a sidenote in the face of everything else impacting her, but Sybil must also deal with her father's new wife, who doesn't know how to deal with her new adult stepdaughter's mental issues.
  • The Power of Love: A pretty toned-down, real world example, in that in learning to accept and love her selves, Sybil is literally accepting and loving herself in a way that allows her to heal from her psychological damage. Not to be discounted is Dr. Wilbur's own love for Sybil, which not only helps Wilbur see the therapy to the end, but which gives Sybil an ersatz mother figure to replace her original terrible one.
  • 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.
  • Truth Serum: A lot of Sybil's therapy in the film and (allegedly) in real life was based on treating her with massive doses of sodium pentothal, the original Truth Serum, in order to allow her to speak freely about her repressed memories. These days it's well-known that sodium pentothal doesn't so much allow people to speak only the truth as it makes them believe everything they say is true.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Dr. Wilbur, Flora Schreiber and Shirley Mason herself/ves admitted that many years of therapy had to be condensed, locations 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 the real Shirley Mason had actually suffered. More recent criticism holds that significantly more of the story was exaggerated, if not outright fabricated; however, the research supposedly proving the story to be fake is itself questionable.
    • Schreiber stated very early in Mason's therapy that while she believed a book about the case could be a bestseller, she could not guarantee that such a downer story could be sold without a "happy ending". Wilbur assured Schreiber that if she would agree to write the book, Wilbur would see to the happy ending. And indeed, all Sybil's personalities were integrated just in time for Schreiber's final deadline.
    • As a matter of fact, the real Sybil was so disheartened at the loss of her people, whom she'd come to regard as sisters, that she called them back. Some doctors now admit that forced integrations often end up this way.
  • 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?