Off The Shelf - "Sybil"

by Marcus Pan

Chain Border

SybilIt's been a while since I've read non-fiction. Sure I've read some items that aren't exactly "fiction" per se - i.e. Burroughs' stream of consciousness, Acker's rants, etc. - but it's been some time since I read anything remotely resembling biographical or study-like works in years. Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber was my first foray into this territory in very long. This book has sat on my shelf for some time as well. Partly because it's quite long and partly because I wasn't sure of the enjoyment I'd get from reading it. I'm always up for learning new things (I have this daunting fear that my brain will melt if I don't keep pouring stuff into it, hence my upcoming forays into Perl programming manuals, Chaos Theory/Magic and my discovery of the old cyberpunk Mondo 2000 - don't expect to see me reviewing a Perl manual though) but the book seemed to take on a stale, dry look for some reason. But let's get on with the review of Sybil, yes?

It seems I was wrong with my opinion of the book that I somehow devised prior to opening. The book flows well, is quite well-written, and didn't take on the pure analytical/medical tone I expected. It took a much more biographical stance, as it was written by a friend of the psychologist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, and the patient, Sybil Isabel Dorsett. Sybil Dorsett, commonly known only by her first name, to this day remains one of the greatest documented cases of multiple personality disorder (MSD) in the psychology field. The first ever case to be psycho-analyzed rather than simply treated, and one of the largest personality collections ever contained within a single human being (sixteen differentiating "selves"), Sybil is an amazing case and one that has spawned a major look at previously-discredited MSD afflictions in the medical field. Due to the years that Dr. Wilbur spent with Sybil and the huge collections of data and psycho-analysis information that she collected on her, it was Sybil's case that brought about a revolution in the psychology field - and spawned revelations on the idea of "I" ("id") and theological discussion as well.

Sybil's case is absolutely remarkable. The book itself is also well-written and since it was written from the standpoint of a friend to the case and not the psychologist who treated her, it is easy to follow, read and rife with laymen's terms that most would have no difficulty in following. It opens with one of Sybil's "awakenings," that is the re-claiming of her body by her "waking self." Lost in an industrial area of Philly (though not yet aware of this), she finds her way back home in New York City and once again to her friend and psychologist, Dr. Wilbur. From that point you are treated to the years of history between the doctor and her patient as well as tracings back to original traumas that caused the dissociation that began her movement into other selves. The movement and break-out of other personalities within Sybil was a defensive maneuver against emotions and situations that the waking self was not equipped to handle due to unresolved experiences in childhood and beyond.

I'm one of the first to wrinkle my nose at the drug-induced nature of today's society. The "Don't feel happy? Prozac is your answer!" cure-alls to which people slip into, providing instead not a cure but a crutch. The "It's not my fault, it's because so-and-so looked at me funny," or "treated me bad in the past" or blah excuses provided for abnormal (And what IS abnormal? Ok, that's a rant that doesn't belong in a book review, dropping it.) individuals. The inability to accept, in some cases, everyday life - too many obstacles to hurdle as a person, dontcha know. So pop your pills and hurdle 'em in your chemically induced state of constant and overpowering euphoria (smacks of Philip Dick's "mood dialing" of Bladerunner, does it not?). But in all seriousness, the things that were supposedly done to Sybil at the hands of a schizophrenic (and diagnosed-as-such, not assumed) mother and an inattentive, distant father combined with the hypocrisy of small-town religious propaganda (and you all know I look for organized religion bashing in just about everything, of course - it's an intellectual thing) are things that I could easily see resulting in true psychotic incapacitation. I'm not going to spoil it for you and tell you - you'll have to read the book to see what kind of fucknugget this chick's mother really was.

The waking self of Sybil was incomplete and unable to deal with everyday situations. If something fearful, nerve-wracking - in short anything out of the ordinary that required a decision or action - occurred to Sybil she would immediately dissociate into one of the other personalities that were created inside herself to deal with the particular emotion or action necessary for display. If assertiveness was required, Peggy Ann or Peggy Lou would slide into control to deal with the situation at hand. If social engineering or conversation (schmoozing, actually) were warranted, she'd slide into Vicky. If anything required fixed or any "handyman" activity reared its head, she'd slide into Mike, Sid or both together - yes, male personalities as well. The amazing part was that all personalities knew of one another, especially Vicky who served as the "memory trace" that held time together for the subconscious/conscious mind components. All but Sybil, the waking self, that is.

Dissociation was traced back to beginning at around 3 ½ years of age for Sybil Isabel Dorsett. Some of the personalities never aged - Ruthie, for example, was still the personality of a child. Lapses into other selves had lasted as long as two years - an entire period of time that Sybil would not and could not remember. She would "wake" someplace different than what her last memory coincided with. Personalities all assumed completely different tones, some different backgrounds, and all had their duties or emotions with which they were "created" (by the mind) to deal with. It got to the point that Dr. Wilbur was able to determine "who" had come to the treatment in the next session based on differences in speech patterns and even movements.

The progression to a cure involved a long an arduous process of integration - the movement of all separate selves into one to create the final, sixteenth, healthy Sybil Dorsett. The original Sybil lacked emotion, almost zombie-like in her activities and near-autonomous in thoughts. The integration of all the selves brought back the "lost" emotions that the original Sybil never had. It also brought back lost memories that "her body" had been a part of but she couldn't remember - the math tables that Peggy Lou had learned in 3rd and 4th grade that Sybil didn't know, because, to put it simply, she never attended the latter half of 3rd grade nor 4th grade and woke up in the 5th to find years were taken from her.

Confrontation of past traumas - confrontation with her mother, religious beliefs forced upon her, hypocrisies that didn't quite "jive" with those religious beliefs she had been fed and horrendous physical and sexual abuses against her from even an early age - these were the key to completion. By first accepting, then confronting, remembering and laying to rest those items she was able to reclaim the personalities that were created to deal with each of those situations and emotional responses. And thus was she cured.

A fascinating case, written about well and with aplomb. Dr. Wilbur went on to be a prime analyst in MPD cases and schizophrenia. Sybil went on to lead a fine life as a teacher. And it brings new meaning to the question: Who the hell do you think you are?

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Buy Sybil

"Sybil" by Flora Rheta Schreiber
Published by Henry Regnery Company
Copyright © 1973 by Flora Rheta Schreiber
ISBN 0446359408

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