Sybil is a TV film originally broadcast over two nights in 1976. It is a fictionalised account of Sybil Dorsett, a woman with multiple personality disorder, but based on a book by Flora Rheta Schreiber which detailed the real life case of Shirley Ardell Mason and her psychiatrist Cornelia B. Wilbur.
Troubled Sybil (Sally Field) is an art teacher suffering from blackouts and memory loss. By chance she meets Dr Wilbur (Joanne Woodward), who diagnoses her dissociative identity disorder (DID). She begins to catalogue Sybil’s 16 alternative personalities, all of them children, as they gradually reveal themselves to her. The ‘kids’ are a mixed bunch, from the violent Peggy, to the sophisticated French-speaking Vicky or the suicidal Marcia who is forever trying to throw herself out of the window.
Sybil’s personalities grow to trust Wilbur, voluntarily coming to therapy sessions and passing comment on each other, deriving comfort from ‘the big chair’ (which lent its name to a Tears for Fears album a decade later). Through their revelations and flashbacks we begin to learn of a truly disturbed childhood and an abusive, paranoid schizophrenic mother (a chilling performance from Martine Bartlett). Adding to the tension is neighbour Richard, a widower and mime-artist, serving as a love-interest from whom Sybil seeks to hide her affliction.
The denouement is horrifying without being graphic and is still shocking today. Field is fabulous throughout (she won an Emmy) and though Woodward is convincingly authoritative, I found the character smug and tiresome as the film wore on. And it did wear on. I watched the 198 minute original cut, of which the latter half was slow and the post-revelation ending (cut from later releases) limp.
The original case remains controversial, with doubts cast on all involved, but the film at its best is watchable and gripping.
Here’s a creepy clip of Sybil in the guise of a couple of her personalities.