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Film / Sybil

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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 from 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 young student teacher who lives in near-complete seclusion. But after a terrifying incident in which she "came to" lost in a strange city in a deadly snowstorm, she finally decides to seek out help.

Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Woodward), her compassionate therapist, 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 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 regain her memory and absorb her lost personalities.

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. (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:

  • 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 pediatrician, nor even her grandmother, ever thought to question the various injuries she sustained throughout her childhood at the hands of 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-Coded for Your Convenience: 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.
    • Sybil creates a painting entitled "Blue Is the Color of Love" containing all the shades of blue she associates with love.note 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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: Even Wilbur and Schreiber 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 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?


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