A Deskraven Book Review
“Sybil Isabel Dorsett knew that she had to get back to New York while she was still herself…”
Page 18, Paragraph 3
Sybil’s true story provides a rare glimpse into the unconscious mind and opens doorways to a new understanding. A reflection of abnormal psychology and of an extraordinary developmental pattern, the case of Sybil Dorsett supplies new insight into the normal. It affords not only a new observation of the uncanny power of the unconscious mind in motivating human behavior but also a new look into the dynamics of destructive family relationships, the crippling effects of a narrow, bigoted religious background, a woman’s identification with the males in her family, and the denial of self-realization. In terms of what not to do, Sybil’s story is a cogent lesson in child care. Implicit in this account, too, are issues relevant to such questions as: What is maturity? What is a whole person?
Sybil’s life story also illuminates the role of the unconscious mind in creativity; the subtle interrelationships of remembering and forgetting, of the coexistence of the past with the present; and the significance of the primal scene in spawning psychoneurosis. There are also certain philosophical questions implicit here, namely, the subtle relationships between reality and unreality and the meaning of “I”.
Medically this account throws light on the genesis of mental illness in terms of heredity and environment and the difference between schizophrenia, which some doctors and the public alike tend to use as a catch-all for a multitude of diverse symptoms, and Grande Hysterie, the little-understood illness with which Sybil was afflicted.
Most important of all perhaps, is the expansion of consciousness that the reader experiences as he or she falls under the spell of Sybil’s internal adventures.
-Flora Rheta Schreiber
New York City
Sybil (1973), the closely examined best-seller by Flora Rheta Schreiber, is an infamous classic case history in psych-literature involving what was formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. The individual with this disorder copes with an often violent and obscene reality by dissociating – or “splitting”- into alternate selves, each with different traits and memory systems. Often times the alters are unaware of one another. The true self often experiences fugue states in which she is unable to recall memories or details during the time she is “underneath.” These are only a few basic features of an often compelling and overwhelming illness. Treatment approaches are controversial and generally phase oriented. The goal is ultimately reconnecting the identities of disparate alters into a single functioning identity with all its memories and experiences intact supported by an emphasis on acceptance- or integration. In this book, Sybil Dorsett claims host to sixteen distinguishable personalities, better known today as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID, and remains the first ever with this condition to undergo psychoanalysis. Her story brings to the forefront the horrors of one of the most debilitating cases of child abuse and mental illnesses in history.
THE REAL SYBIL
After her death, Sybil’s records were released in 1998 and her many truths were revealed due to carefully documented medical records. Shirley Ardell Mason was born January 20th, 1923 in Dodge Center, Minnesota. She was the only child of convicted Seventh-Day Adventists. This fundamental fact often resulted in the twisted logic of her most prominent abuser – her mother, Mattie, who was thought to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia herself. Perhaps less well-known, Shirley was an artist. Her work provides an invaluable reflection of her unique mind, and can be seen by visiting The Hidden Paintings of Shirley A. Mason.
Faced with much controversy, Schreiber’s work has been the subject of skepticism in terms of severity and accuracy. While her story remains a pop culture icon, you can examine the reported embellishments for yourself in the 2011 release of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan.
While Mason herself admits that the facts involving the dynamics of her multiple identities were inaccurate – which may lead the public to question its label as a non-fiction genre release – Schreiber’s story remains unequivocally paramount in developing the early dialogue of trauma related mental health in the American 1970s. During this time, layman and physicians alike held the very notion that this condition even existed with great cynicism. Sybil (1976) can also be seen as an Emmy award winning major motion picture starring Sally Field.
The Family Tree: The Hierarchy of the Sixteen Selves
Cast of Characters and Dates of “Birth”
PART I: Being
1 The Incomprehensible Clock
2 Wartime Within
3 The Couch and the Serpent
4 The Other Girl
5 Peggy Lou Baldwin
6 Victoria Antoinette Scharleau
PART II: Becoming
8 Willow Corners
9 Yesterday Was Never
10 Thieves of Time
11 The Search for the Center
12 Silent Witnesses
13 The Terror of Laughter
15 Battered Child
16 Hattie’s Fury has a Beginning
PART III: Unbecoming
18 Confrontation and Verification
19 The Boys
20 The Voice of Orthodoxy
21 The Wine of Wrath
22 The Clock Comprehensible
23 The Retreating White Coat
PART IV: Reentry
25 Beginning to Remember
26 Independent Futures
27 Prisoners in Their Body
28 Journey to One
29 They Are Me, Too
30 Hate Heals
Epilogue: The New Sybil’s New Time
PRAISE FOR SYBIL
“A moving human narrative.” -New York Review of Books
“Astonishing…it forces you to look at yourself and the people around you in a new way.” -Doris Lessing
“Illuminating…fascinating!” -Chicago Tribune
After eleven years of daunting psychoanalysis, Sybil Dorsett breaks apart, swims through repressed trauma, and eventually achieves a liberating recovery. It is a journey to be had, one that completely assaults the human condition and, perhaps, creates more questions than answers. I found myself laughing, crying, and unable to put it down while simultaneously nauseous and dissuaded. Regardless, I find this ( and its counterpart) to be an essential read within the most basic realm of psychiatry. Both of these books grace my bookshelf providing excellent insight involving ethical psychology with the ever-present reminder that we must be stewards of our own well-rounded research before accepting information as absolute truth. Click below to take a look. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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For more excellent insight and entertainment through a collaborative approach to all things mental health, including a guest post from yours truly, visit the Blunt Therapy Blog by Randy Withers, LPC! For additional perspectives on suicide prevention from master level mental health providers visit, 20 Professional Therapists Share Their Thoughts on Suicide!
In collaboration with Luis Posso, an Outreach Specialist from DrugRehab.com, Deskraven is now offering guides on depression and suicide prevention to its readers. For more information on understanding the perils of addiction visit, Substance Abuse and Suicide: A Guide to Understanding the Connection and Reducing Risk! In addition, for a comprehensive depression resource guide from their sister project at Columbus Recovery Center visit, Dealing with Depression!