by Mike Alvarez
When Sybil Isabel Dorsett comes to, she finds herself not in the chemistry building of Columbia University, where she is a graduate student, but caught in the midst of a winter storm in the streets of Philadelphia. Learning that she had “lost” three days this time, she follows the only clue she could find—a key to a room at the Broadwood Hotel in her pocket—to fill in the gaps in her memory. Inside the hotel room that she had supposedly paid for, she finds a pair of pajamas, “loud and gay, with bright orange and green stripes…the sort a child might select.” She wonders if she had slept in them, for the colors are not in her style. But if she hadn’t slept in them, then who did? The answer is Peggy Lou Baldwin, a spunky and itinerant young girl, and one of the sixteen personalities simultaneously inhabiting Sybil’s body.
Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil is the story of a woman with multiple personality disorder, commonly known as dissociative identity disorder, a grave psychological condition in which the self fragments into separate entities, often as a result of trauma. As the anecdote above shows, its most flagrant symptom, the inability to recall key personal information, described by patients as “lost time,” is not mere forgetfulness, but the result of an “alter” taking control of the waking self’s mind and body. Schreiber’s semi-biographical account, however, is not just about Sybil trying to rid herself of this affliction. It is a tale of sixteen people, whose individual and collective stories hold the key to Sybil’s wholeness and survival. The author’s characterization of Sybil is contingent upon her giving voice to the alters.
Schreiber breathes life into the titular character’s alternating personalities by describing each alter’s “appearance” in painstaking detail, even though in reality they are physically indistinguishable from one another. While Sybil has a lean body, light brown hair, heart-shaped face, gray eyes, and a “serious expression,” Peggy Lou has a “chunky appearance,” straight black hair, round face, “bright blue eyes,” and her trademark “mischievous smile.” Victoria Antoinette Scharleau, nicknamed Vicky, has blonde ringlets and “swift, lithe movements.” Mary Lucia Sanders, the most fiercely religious, is a “maternal little-old-lady type,” plump, with long, brown hair always parted to the side. Vanessa Gail is a tall and “extremely attractive” redhead. Marcia Lynn is frail and has a shield-shaped face. The “boys,” Sid and Mike, representing Sybil’s identification with her father and grandfather respectively, both have dark hair, but the former has fair skin and blue eyes and the latter olive skin and brown eyes.
Appearances aside, each alter has a set of hobbies and interests, a distinct way of talking, and a prescribed manner for conducting him/herself around others. We know when Peggy Lou is speaking from her grammatical tics alone, among them, “awful glad,” “awful interesting,” “jist” instead of “just,” and “‘em” instead of “them.” Mary, the soft-spoken homemaker, likes to put up the drapes and receive workmen to install new windows in Sybil’s apartment. Marcia has her Book-of-the-Month Club to fret over, and Vanessa keeps busy with her part-time job at the laundromat. The author further accentuates each character by giving him/her a detailed backstory. Readers learn, for example, that Sid and Mike grew up in Sybil’s town of Willow Corners resentful that their Dad never took them to a ball game. They also learn that Vicky hails from a big family in Paris, with lots of brothers and sisters and a pair of loving parents.
Schreiber gives us glimpses into the alternating personalities’ relationships to one another. Peggy Lou, who prefers black-and-white charcoal sketches over oil paintings, helps the other alters with a mural done exclusively in oil. Mike and Sid do repair work in and around Sybil’s apartment, and the emotionally labile Marcia aspires to be as confident and as poised as the musically inclined Vanessa. These often lead to inadvertently funny situations, as the following excerpt illustrates:
Peggy Lou and Vicky, halfway across Madison Avenue, with traffic coming toward them from both directions, came to a sudden halt.
“I’m going over to the gift shop over there,” Peggy Lou said, moving forward.
“I don’t want to,” Vicky replied, turning and walking toward the side of the street from which they had come.
Remarked the traffic policeman, “For heaven’s sake, lady, make up your mind.”
The coexistence of the alters is not always harmonious. Jealousies flare, arguments become heated, and more often than not, an alter tries to break away from the rest. Desperate for emancipation, Mary meets with a real estate agent and makes a down payment on a house she really likes. (Fortunately for Sybil, the check bounces.) With this level of characterization, it comes as no surprise to us that the alters demand to be treated as individuals; “We’re people, you know. People in our own right.”
But what about Sybil? We learn so much about the alters that Sybil Isabel Dorsett, the core personality, the waking self, is left to bite the dust.
And that’s exactly the point.
To show how depleted Sybil’s personality truly is, Schreiber’s characterization is deliberately biased towards the alters, to the extent that we care more about them than we do her; at least for the first half of the book. Instead, we get criticisms of Sybil’s failings. “She doesn’t eat enough, doesn’t allow herself to have enough fun, and generally takes life too seriously,” says Vicky. And according to Peggy Lou, “She can’t stand up for herself. I have to stand up for her.” Dr. Wilbur, Sybil’s psychoanalyst, at one point considers making Vicky the dominant personality, effectively supplanting Sybil as the waking self.
But as the alters—who are the keepers of Sybil’s memories, and her defenders against unbearable thoughts and feelings—reveal the true story of Sybil’s childhood, readers begin to understand why Sybil is such a shell of a person. Of these revelations, the most horrific is the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse Sybil suffered at the hands of her hysterical mother, Hattie Dorsett, starting at the age of two. These episodes of betrayal and familial exploitation were often accompanied by maniacal laughter, all of which Sybil repressed and consigned to the unconscious:
The laugh came when she was made to stand against the wall. A broom handle struck her back. A woman’s shoe kicked her. A wash cloth was stuffed down her throat. She was tied to the leg of the piano while a woman played. Things were put up inside her, things with sharp edges that hurt. And cold water. She was made to hold the water in her. The pain, the cold. Each time worse than before and always that laugh along with the pain. When she was placed inside a trunk in the attic she heard that laugh. It was with her again when she was buried in the wheat crib and nearly smothered.
The author does not hold back any of the horrific details. She forces us to witness Sybil’s suffering, as a child and as a grown woman, so that we may celebrate the moment in which Sybil finally reclaims her memories and sutures together her disparate selves.
Schreiber reminds readers that Sybil and the alters are essentially one person by showing the role each alter plays in Sybil’s emotional life. Peggy Lou is Sybil’s defense against anger, an emotion snuffed out of her in childhood by the now-deceased Hattie Dorsett. Vicky is the Parisian girl Sybil once imagined herself to be, in order to escape (if only in fantasy) the hell-on-earth her mother had created. And Mary, the “little-old-lady,” is none other than Sybil’s internalization of Grandma Dorsett, the woman who had kept Hattie at bay, and whose tragic death from cervical cancer crushed all hopes of rescue. These alters walk the proverbial mile in Sybil’s shoes, make challenging decisions for her, and alleviate frightening circumstances by dividing her pain amongst themselves, albeit at the cost of her memories.
Sybil has difficulty accepting the existence of the alters when Dr. Wilbur tells her about them for the first time. She criticizes them as they criticized her. The author shows Sybil’s incredulity through dialogue. “But that Vicky you’re so fond of is a blabbermouth,” Sybil complains to Dr. Wilbur. “I can’t have any secrets. She makes me tell you everything. If she doesn’t, one of these other Midwesterners does. They give me no peace, no privacy, no freedom.” Sybil’s protests make Peggy Lou so angry one night that the latter tears up Sybil’s charcoal sketches. “What’s the matter with Peggy Lou?” she asks Dr. Wilbur. “You said she worked in black and white. Doesn’t she like black and white anymore? Or is it me she doesn’t like? If so, the feeling is mutual.”
Over time, Sybil learns to love the other inhabitants of her body, and begins to love those parts of herself that she had once disavowed. One by one, the alters return their memories to Sybil. What emerges is a new and more fully integrated personality, one Sybil had never known. While the traumatic memories overwhelm her at first, the assertiveness that had once belonged to Peggy Lou was now hers, along with Vicky’s confidence, Mary’s tenderness, Vanessa’s self-sufficiency, and Marcia’s openness to pain. They propel her towards wholeness. Schreiber writes, “For buried in the depleted self, whom the world saw, had been this new woman, this whole woman, so long denied.”
In the epilogue titled, “The New Sybil’s New Time,” Schreiber transitions Sybil to a fully formed character by providing snapshots of her post-integration life through letters between her and Dr. Wilbur. The letters describe a middle-aged Sybil partaking in the simple pleasures of life, from driving a car and owning a house, to paying bills and making lasting friendships. On the surface, it might seem as if Schreiber added the epilogue for sentimental reasons, to reassure us that there is indeed a fairytale ending to Sybil’s story. But in reading it, one can’t help but reflect on the years Sybil had lost. What we take for granted, she fiercely cherishes.
The epilogue shows readers that a satisfying ending can underscore the gravity of the tragic events that preceded it. By establishing emotional contrast between Sybil’s traumatic history and her life as an integrated person, Schreiber makes something as mundane as going to the mailbox triumphant. It is inevitable that readers will form relationships with the alters as individual characters. In the following letter from the now forty-six-year-old Sybil, fifteen years after she began treatment with Dr. Wilbur, Schreiber describes how Sybil bids these memorable “people” farewell:
When I walked along the streets of New York, many semi-forgotten memories came back … memories that were not recollections of what had happened to me but rather to one of my former selves. There was the dress shop were Peggy Lou had shopped, the hotel where Marcia and Vanessa had spent a night, and a confrontation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Marian Ludlow, who had been Vicky’s friend. Marian recognized me at once. Remembering her through Vicky, who was now part of me, I chatted with Marian, accepting her as my friend.
Mike Alvarez received his B.A. from Rutgers University, where he won the Charles Flaherty Award for best student and thesis in psychology, and his M.A. from Goddard College. He has worked in a residential facility for people with mental disorders and served as the program coordinator of the Eating Disorders Clinic at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is currently conducting an ongoing research project examining the relationship between suicide and creativity. Mike has presented his research at several venues, including the Creativity & Madness conferences. Before going for his doctorate, he decided to take a detour and enroll in Goddard’s MFA in Creative Writing program, where he is writing a memoir about his past struggle with suicidal depression.