Thursday, 07 October 2010


I first read this book in high school. I've had vague memories of it and a desire to reread it ever since. I am aware that there are arguments against its being factual. I'm also aware that there are arguments against the study that found it to be largely fictional. As far as I'm concerned, the only way to solve the problem is for the files to be unsealed and for the case to be studied by multiple experts. I know that there are many experts who do not consider dissociative identity disorder (DID - formerly multiple personality disorder, MPD) to be real. I understand that the majority of cases are found in the US. Either way, this book was written as a true account and that's how I'm going to treat it (mostly).

Sybil is the story of a woman with DID. She has sixteen separate personalities. Quite frankly I don't consider all sixteen to be either complete personalities or completely separate, but that may be simply due to the constraints of the book. Perhaps if I had met them myself, I would have found them to be separate personalities. The reason for Sybil's personalities appears to be the abuse she suffered at the hands of a diagnosed but untreated schizophrenic mother. At one point in the book the abuse suffered by Sybil, and other children, at the hands of the mother is recounted. The abuse, however, is not dwelt on, which I feel is a good thing. It's important to understand the causes, but there's no need to portray it graphically. There are, however, places where I feel that either the causes were not explained well enough, or the cause is simply unbelievable. Two personalities appear simply because a doctor walked away from a two- or three-year old and sent her back to her abusive home? There's either something I don't understand, or there's something missing from this explanation.

The focus of the book is Sybil's psychoanalysis with Dr Wilbur. I have to say that, on many levels, I object to Dr Wilbur. She does not maintain any objective distance from her patient, in fact she befriends a number of the personalities. Possibly this was necessary as the case was exceedingly complex and groundbreaking. I do feel though, that her professional integrity is damaged by this. There is some suggestion that Dr Wilbur manipulated Sybil into believing she had DID when she didn't and I can only feel that it's strengthened by Dr Wilbur's inability to maintain professional distance. Also, she's a Freudian psychoanalyst and I deeply distrust Freudian anything.

At the end of the book, Sybil is reintegrated. She's a whole, single person, though the personalities do in some measure still exist within the confines of her mind. I feel that this whole process is treated far too superficially. Either that, or the entire was superficial because the disorder didn't exist to begin with. I can't decide. Either way, I felt the end of the book was lacking because of this and there is a sense that the happy ending is contrived.

This is a deeply moving story, regardless of whether or not it's true. It gives one the ability to imagine the fear that someone suffering from DID must feel when they come back to themselves and find that they've lost time. It's well written and easy to read, despite a proliferation of technical terms. This is a book that I recommend regardless of the veracity of the account.

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