Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Sybil (1977)


About eight years ago, I read a book by Flora Rheta Schreiber called Sybil. The forensically constructed novel is difficult to read, detailing as it does the trials and tragic life of Sybil Dorsett, a girl suffering from dissassociative personality disorder (also known as multiple personalities). It is a true story based on the recordings of Dr Cornelia Wilbur, Sybil's psychiatrist and ultimately- her healer. I knew when I read the book that it had been made into a television movie starring Sally Field but I hadnt seen it because when it aired, I was too young, and when it re-aired later, my mother deemed it far too disturbing for me. She was right, of course.

First of all, certain aspects of the novel are beyond description here and that is mainly because I couldnt stomach relating it. Sybil was not aware of her disorder until she met Dr Wilbur. Over the course of many treatment sessions and years of evaluation, Dr Wilbur discovered 16 personalities living in Sybil-all with their own ages and talents. They surfaced when Sybil was unable to cope and they remained until they were no longer needed. All sixteen of the personalities were completely aware of one another, however Sybil remained completely ignorant of their existence. Therefore, Sybil lost years of her life, sometimes months at a time, when another personality had taken over. 'Vickey' was the leader-articulate and elegant, motherly and condescending. 'Peggy' was an angry child of 9 that popped out when Sybil felt trapped...she was the firstborn of Sybil's troubled psyche. 'Vanessa' was funloving and pretty, a great lover of art and music. 'Marsha' was suicidal, the voice of doom that resounded in Sybil's head. Of the other personalities there existed an old lady, several other small girls, and even two boys-Sid and Mike. All of these personalities remained the age of their birth, the oldest being 14-Sybil was 29 when she began to see Dr Wilbur.

The most disturbing thing about this story was the not the development of the personalities themselves, but the reason for their existence. Sybil's mother was a violent schizophrenic who subjected the child, from the time of her infancy, to unspeakable acts of abuse. Sybil's father remained blissfully ignorant to his daughter's plight, believing every word that Hattie (his wife) uttered concerning the child's constant injuries. The abuse is detailed throughout the book and for this reason, I cannot recommend that anyone who is a mother read it. I know that I could not stomach it now that I have children of my own. As a medical study, however, it is fascinating.

Sally Field was granted the part of Sybil after a rigorous round of auditions. She had not yet played this type of role and there were those who were doubtful of her abilities. But they became avid fans of the actress upon the film's release to television and you too will be amazed. She so completely dissappears into each of the respective characters she is challenged to represent that it is sometimes very unsettling. Joanne Woodward plays Dr Wilbur and she is also a perfect choice for the role. Having played the notorious Eve White in the 1960's film, The Three Faces of Eve, Woodward was keen to play the role of psychiatrist. Throughout her discoveries and revelations concerning Sybil's illness, you see her constant struggle to maintain a professional relationship w/ this 'child' that she has taken under her wing. In the end, the motherly instinct prevails and though the journey is difficult to watch, it has a very satisfying and warm conclusion. The flashbacks placed strategically through the movie of Sybil's troubled childhood are skillfully handed, depending more on mood than actual visuals. It is a made-for-tv movie, after all, and we are therefore spared the gut-wrenching realism that movie-makers today would no doubt utilize.

The direction is excellent for a small-screen endeavor. There are a few misses concerning dream sequences that seem sadly dated by today's standards. But for the most part, it accomplishes what it sets out to do-convey the deep psychological trauma that resulted from one woman's nightmarish childhood. The score is also very effective-an odd mix of childrens' voices and tuneless notes on the piano.

The odd thing about all this is that regardless of the talent involved, I can't truly recommend it to other mothers. You must fully prepare yourself for what a commitment to watching this 3 hour film involves and expect that you will be greatly disturbed. Even though the movie does not focus solely on the heinous abuse, it is alluded to and this is necessary due to the nature of Sybil's illness and why it seems so hopeless. However, as the book relates, it was not hopeless after all. With Dr Wilbur's help, Sybil Dorsett was able to confront her different selves and eventually bring them into harmony so that she was able to obtain a measure of happiness in her later life. She enjoyed painting and playing piano again and she was able, finally, to completely accept what happened to her.

As a film, it is extrememly well done and as a medical case history, it is remarkable.

My rating: 9/10


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