Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Sybil By Flora Rheta Schreiber

(Click here for information on the 2016 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the June selection, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil.)


Purporting to tell the true story of one of the first documented cases of Multiple Personality Disorder (now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder), it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in Schreiber’s account. In the 40+ years since the books initial publication, and a very popular 1976 TV mini-series, several books have been published debunking the case, and accusing Schreiber of colluding with the subject and her psychoanalyst, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, to create a cottage industry to make money off of the case.  A 2007 TV movie claimed to tell the “real” story of Shirley Ardell Mason, the patient who took the pseudonym of “Sibyl Dorsett” in the book, but further muddied the water by offering contradictory information.

As far as the book goes, it is a fairly good read as a mystery story in the early chapters, from Sybil’s point of view: having long suffered from “missing time”, after “waking up” in an industrial area of Philadelphia with no clue as to how she has gotten there or what she has done for the past week, she seeks out Dr. Wilbur for treatment for what she assumes are recurrent fugue states. Particularly good is a passage in which she recalls an incident after the death of her beloved Grandmother in the third grade,  when after the funeral she abruptly comes to in a fifth grade classroom, with no idea what has happened over the missing two years.

Unfortunately, the book is less absorbing as it progresses, and Dr. Wilbur uncovers the source of Sybil’s trauma and the 16 different personalities that have resulted from that trauma, along with Dr. Wilbur’s meticulous Freudian psychoanalysis.

The former is the abuse that Sybil suffered at the hands of her mother, mainly sexual in nature, and described in a highly sensationalistic manner. Schreiber takes the claims at face value that Hattie Dorsett abused not only Sybil, but subjected most of the children in her hometown to years of bizarre sexual torture, which starts to sound really Satanic Panic-y.

I was pleasantly surprised by the enlightened take on psychiatric treatment for its time (Sybil’s treatment spans from the late 1940s to the late 1960s): even her small-minded, puritanical, parents are initially supportive of her treatment; she prepares for a temporary stay in a state mental hospital (which never comes to pass, but is never presented as a “commitment” or anything permanent); and Dr. Wilbur constantly reassures her patient that her “condition” is treatable, even as she is not certain what that condition is.

However, Dr. Wilbur does seem pretty excited about the prospect of making her fame and fortune out of the Dorsett case. It is mentioned in passing that Sybil and her long-time college roommate and friend have quarreled about Dr. Wilbur fostering Sybil’s dependence on her treatments, and the said friend is promptly written out of the narrative.

Dr. Wilbur claims to have eventually successfully “integrated” the 16 personalities successfully into the “New Sybil” through age progression under hypnosis- the various personalities range in age from 2 to 40, and she believes they can become one if they all become the same age as Sybil.

In the final chapters, Sybil is introduced to John Jay College professor Flora Schreiber, who undertakes, with Dr. Wilbur, the writing of the book, concluding:

Sybil was well, and as her friend I rejoiced in her story’s happy ending.

…which all sounds a little pat.

Three years after the publication of the book (a runaway best seller), Sally Field starred in an acclaimed miniseries adaptation, which she won an Emmy for.


This was the version shown in in my high school health class in the mid-1990s, the sole word on the subject of mental health, which seems pretty bizarre and irresponsible in retrospect. It is also 4 hours long, so I opted for the 2007 remake starring Broadway star Tammy Blanchard as Sybil, with Jessica Lange as Dr. Wilbur and JoBeth Williams as Monster Mom.

While this version touts the fact that it ties in the “Sybil” phenomenon to the real story of Shirley Mason, that material is really only briefly presented in prologue and epilogue as Mason’s home and belongings are prepared for auction after her death; a subtitle notes that Dr. Wilbur’s diagnosis and treatment remains the subject of controversy. It also weirdly states that Mason was a recluse and her “secret” about being the subject of Sybil was only discovered after her death- that doesn’t quite jive with other available information that Mason taught art at the college level and managed a gallery after her treatment, as well as the fact that upon publication a number of people apparently recognized Mason as Sybil.

But the main problem with the 2007 movie is the fact that Blanchard bears an striking resemblance to Abbi Jacobson, so the dramatic scenes take on the aura of a particularly surreal episode of “Broad City”.

Additionally, it contains an unintentionally hilarious pitchfork impalement.

Stray Thoughts and Observations:

Late in the book, Sybil becomes involved with a fellow graduate student named Ramon, who is eager to marry her and move back to Colombia to raise his (Orphaned? Unclear!) nieces and nephews. In addition to complaining about neurotic American women, he woos her thusly:

He embraced her tightly. “When I have an erection,” he told her, “I measure. It’s seven inches. Good?”

So, basically the 1960s equivalent of a dick pic.


The book is still in print and widely available; for readers wanting to go deeper, you can also check out SYBIL in Her Own Words: The Untold Story of Shirley Mason, Her Multiple Personalities and Her Paintings by Patrick Suraci and the Wilbur-detractor volume Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case  by Debbie Nathan.

The 1976 series is available on DVD (earlier VHS releases were edited down to a two hour running time).

The 2007 version doesn’t look to have an official home video release, but is available on YouTube.

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6 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Sybil By Flora Rheta Schreiber

  1. miss amy says:

    I’m so delighted that you read this one! I read it as a freshman in high school (I had my mother’s own high-school copy, which was from around the actual time of its release!) and was completely fascinated by the idea of dissociative identity disorder. (I was also, perhaps a little callously, disappointed that her identity was so secret, because I wanted to know what the equivalent of SID was in reality. Turns out that “personality” was, presumably, called Sam.) The selections of her artwork in my copy were especially compelling to me, though the stories of her mother shitting on people’s lawns and diddling every kid in a ten-mile radius were pretty insane even then.

    Sybil Exposed is also a really enjoyable read, and at its close, Nathan (who was one of the earlier detractors of Satanic panic) draws a clear line between the Sybil phenomenon and incidents like the McMartin Preschool debacle. Really fascinating stuff.

  2. scopypdx says:

    You want to read a really good novel about multiple personality disorder?

  3. Wendy says:

    My mom had the paperback of Sybil around the house when I was a kid and I read it, in bits in pieces. I think I was 11 or 12, so reading it was a really searing experience and I spent years trying to make sense of it. A couple years ago I found the DVD for the miniseries and watched it with my husband… it’s pretty unwatchable at four hours, with terrible pacing, but Sally Field pretty much gives it her all. I’d just read the Debbie Nathan book (which I LOVED) and was curious to see how crazy the movie would get.

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