Sybil the Person within the Person

Published 28 Dec 2016

Sybil is a movie based on the life of a young woman who suffered from blackouts and emotional breakdowns. Within the psychiatric world Sybil is one of the most sensational and controversial cases of Dissocciative Identity Disorder. After seeking therapy the character Sybil was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, DID, but scholars today debate the existence of the disease which they say was projected onto the patient by her therapist’s suggestions.

Sybil, actually named Shirley Mason, was a graduate student at Colombia of University and an artist. Her blackouts and breakdowns finally prompted Mason to seek out medical treatment in 1954 after she awakens from an episode in a lake knee deep in water. She began seeing Cornelia Wilbur, a psychotherapist who worked with Mason for 11 years. Wilbur diagnosed and treated Mason who after treatment went on to teach art in Lexington, Kentucky and run an art gallery out of her home. Mason and Wilbur became lifelong friends. Mason was described by neighbors and community members as quiet and kind. However, before her treatment Mason may have had as many as 16 different personas including that of two males.

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Scenes from the movie indicate that Mason was severely abused both physically and mentally. In one scene a young Sybil makes a Christmas tree ornament, a magazine picture pasted onto a foil covered star. Sybil shows the star to her mother who is making chocolate chip cookies. The mother is singing nonsense songs and acting somewhat curt with Sybil who then goes and hangs the star on the tree. When Sybil asks her mother to come and look, the scene becomes as scary as any horror film. During the next scene we see an adult Sybil reliving the experience in therapy. It is here that we learn that Sybil was kicked repeatedly for hanging the ornament on the tree and then given a candy cane. This cycle of abuse is elsewhere in the movie as Sybil’s mother trips the young girl and then gives her a cookie.

Throughout the movie Sybil is both physically and sexually abused. The horrendous abuse causes her to form distinct personalities which originate from her extreme emotional response to the abuse. According to the book there was Peggy Lou, an assertive, angry personality, Peggy Ann, a similar personality that exhibits more fear than anger, Marcia Lynn, a writer and painter, Marcia Lucinda, a maternal personality, Vanessa Gail, a sexy self, Mike and Sid, Sybil’s two male personalities both were carpenters and handy men one, Nancy Lou Ann, a political personality afraid of Catholics, Sybil Ann, a pale listless persona, Clara, a deeply religious and critical persona, Ruthie, an infant and three other personalities that represent different responses to the abuse Sybil suffered, (Schreiber, 1989).

It is currently not certain if the abuse illustrated in the movie Sybil was representative of Mason’s childhood. However, the personalities that emerged during therapy do appear to represent real emotional responses to events from Mason’s childhood. However, Wilbur and Mason both dies in the 1990s and the books author and last person who was personally involved in the project has also past leaving current scholars only a handful of audio cassettes to evaluate Wilbur’s treatment technique and diagnosis. One doctor, Robert Rieber, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice asserted in a study before the American Psychological Association that Wilbur’s diagnosis was incorrect.

He states that Wilbur falsely led Shirley into creating the characters. Rieber had access to Wilbur’s tapes and after listening to them he made a case that Mason was an extremely suggestible hysteric. Another doctor who had treated Mason in Wilbur’s absence also proclaimed that Mason was a hysteric. Either way the fact is that Mason did exhibit symptom of severe trauma that embodied itself in the appearance of very developed and strong personality traits which developed as result of emotions which the young Mason could not understand or process. According to skeptics Wilbur lead Mason to name the emotional personas. They assert that Wilbur did this initially to allow Mason the opportunity to discuss her abuse through the voice of another so she did not have to acknowledge it herself. This is slightly different from a person who actual has the disorder and their subconscious does the disconnecting.

Rieber and others publicly have stated that Wilbur and the books author sensationalized Mason’s case to sell books. However, a close friend of Mason’s said that she asserted that the book and movie was true. As a possible highly suggestible hysteric patient she probably would believe that the book and movie represented real events. Sybil’s behavior is not typical of a dissociated identity disorder. Most documented cases of DID do not have as many alter selves and they generally do not behave so drastically. According to Rieber, Wibur often asked Mason to speak to her in the voice of “Peggy” or another one of Mason’s so called personas.

He said that by leading the patient in this fashion she implanted the characters and their identities into Mason. The movie, however, does not give evidence to this. In the movie Sybil truly exhibits the symptoms of a DID. Under certain circumstance a psychiatrist may use prolong interviews, hypnosis or drugs during interviews before being able to make a diagnosis of DID, (Real Mental Health, 2006). Rieber criticized Wilbur for using drugs and hypnosis during diagnosis yet in the movie, which may or may not be representative of the real case, Wilbur’s use of these methods was consistent with the description of diagnosis.

“All of these measures encourage a shift of personality states during the evaluation, (Real Mental Health, 2006, ¶ 6).” Personality shifts were present in the film. Sybil would transform into a baby, teenager or carpenter at the mention of certain memories. Some of the symptoms of DID that Sybil experienced were blackouts, which were evident throughout the film, headaches and time lapses. However, there are a few other symptoms that Sybil did not have such as awareness of others. Many DID patients are aware of other personalities which share their body. This can manifest itself in the form of voices or hallucinations, (Real Mental Health).

It is uncertain if Mason actually was a DID case. Investigations by several different doctors uncovered no evidence of abuse at Mason’s hometown. Although people who knew Mason as a child and knew her mother did say that there was something strange about their relationship. There is virtually no mention about Mason’s father and any knowledge he may have had of the abuse but it is certain that after therapy Mason did completely break all ties with her family and hometown.

No matter if the movie was highly dramatized or if it was an accurate portrayal of Mason’s illness one thing is certain the character Sybil was a DID. She showed symptoms of transforming from one personality to another depending on the level of fear, sadness, loneliness or happiness that she experienced. Each emotion was distinctly represented by a fully articulated persona. By the end of the movie Sybil is able to face her personalities after disclosing the final most horrendous abuse memory. Each personality had access to these memories yet none of them were able to share it with Wilbur.

However, in the final scenes of the movie Sybil is able to express to Wilbur the sexual abuse that she endured and thus is able to meet her other personalities which were protecting her from this final piece of her childhood. This too is symptomatic of a DID case. The original personality often creates the personas in an attempt to protect themselves from emotions so extreme they can not process them.


  • Real Mental Health (2006). Signs and Symptoms of DID. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2008, from
  • Schreiber, F. R. (1989). Sybil. : Grand Central Publishing.
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