How Sybil Affected my Main Character

Sybil, written by Flora Rheta Scheiber, is a novel detailing one of the first documented cases of Multiple Personality Disorder, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). It is debated whether or not the main character, Sybil, actually had DID, but that is not important for the reasoning in choosing this book. I chose Sybil because one of my characters, Elizabeth, has DID. Whether or not the book is fully accurate does not matter for the research aspect of my character’s traits because Sybil is believable.

DID is not believed to be hereditary; it is a disorder that is caused by severely traumatic experiences during childhood. No discovery has been made about why this disorder occurs in some victims of extreme abuse and not in others.

While reading Sybil, I found the first half of the novel to be ambiguous when the cause of her disorder is hinted at. It is obvious from the very beginning the main character has DID. The author did not try to hide this information from the reader. But it is not until the reader reaches the halfway point that the graphic details of the abuse is revealed. When reading this section, I needed to put the book down for a few minutes because the things that happened to Sybil as an infant and then throughout her childhood are unfathomable. In order to write about this topic, I must be fully knowledgeable about the severity of what kind of abuse in a person’s life can be so severe that it causes her personality to fragment.

For many years, Sybil did not know she had any sort of disorder. She did not hear voices or show any physical signs of illness. She simply blacked out when her alters took over the body. She thought everyone experienced the same type of lost time. She felt as though she was different but did not know she was until nearly having a nervous breakdown while away at college. Sybil had to start seeing a psychiatrist in order to fix the problem. After approximately twenty years of intensive therapy, Sybil and her alters were finally integrated.

While reading this novel, I asked a few people why they thought this book was so popular. The story is not suspenseful because it takes too long to get to the meat, as it took a long time for the alters to integrate. We came to the conclusion, that Sybil is a train wreck. No one can look away. As humans, our curiosity of evil behavior with tragic outcomes is mystifying. In general, people look for a dead body when passing a car accident, sometimes while saying a prayer that everyone makes it out alive. We are intrigued by the gruesomeness of the world, except (for most of us) when it comes to puppies and children.

If I had not been reading the Sybil for research purposes, I would have put it down about a quarter of the way through because there were many points when it did not hold my attention. The writing style is mediocre at best, and the author has certain ticks I found distracting.

For instance, there is a lot of dialogue, which is to be expected because it is a book detailing therapy, hence a lot of talking. But Scheiber habitually used tags on almost all lines of dialogue. So when approximately half of a 500-page book is dialogue, this becomes bothersome. For example, on page 361 (a random pick), Sybil is talking to her friend, Henry. The tags are, “he said softly”, “he asked”, “she replied slowly”, “he asked”, “she replied firmly”, “he protested”, “she repeated”, “he asked”, “she replied”, “he persevered”, “he asked”, “Vicky was thinking”, “Peggy Lou was fuming”, and “Henry said”.  These take place over the course of fifteen lines of dialogue, one for each.

Another tick evident was when a new alter presented him or herself. Scheiber described each one in the same manner, sometimes describing one and then another successively on the same page: hair color, eye color, shape of nose and lips, and whether they were considered to be thin or thick. What was left out in the description? The age. It is not until the resolution when the reader finds out how old most of the alters are, which I see as an important piece to this book because people of different ages react differently to the same situation and because the alters were created at certain ages when a traumatic event happened, never to grow older.

Aside from the conventions I have learned to avoid while reading Sybil, I found a few aspects that are vitally important to develop in my own novel. Dr. Wilbur, Sybil’s psychiatrist, had to form a trusting relationship with Sybil in order for her to feel safe enough to open up. My novel is not about integrating; it’s about the actions of the different alters and Elizabeth. But she still sees a psychiatrist who tries to help her. Their relationship waxes and wanes throughout the book, therefore their relationship has to be strong. My readers need to be invested in the characters.

It has been documented that people with DID share the same moral code with their alters, therefore it is important to establish Elizabeth’s moral code fairly quickly because one of her alters kills repeatedly.

Hypnosis was used as a method of speaking with Sybil’s different alters when it was

needed. I would like to use hypnosis, therefore, have to research the topic.

Even though I would not qualify Sybil as a great book, it was valuable in my research. I have to find a way for my audience to truly connect with a person with DID.

Should I Feel Sorry for Serial Killers?

While watching the documentary, “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial

Killer”, I realized the film was just what I was looking for. When I first started writing about serial killers and people who have been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, my greatest concern became the possibility of exploiting these people for my personal gain, something I was not interested in doing. I have always believed there is good in everyone, even the ones deemed evil by society. When dealing with the ones considered to be the sickest, I became more interested in finding the good in them. While listening to Aileen Wuornos, who is considered to be America’s first female serial killer, speak, I felt compassion for her, something I hope my audience feels for my serial killer characters.

Aileen Wuornos had a difficult life. Being abused for most of her childhood, she became promiscuous at a young age with her brother then with whomever gave her attention or provided money or gifts in exchange for her services. Due to her wild behavior and having a baby (which she gave up for adoption) at age thirteen, her grandfather kicked her out of the house. With no place to go, she lived on the streets. Knowing only how to please men in a sexual manner for material gain, she turned to prostitution to support herself. This remained her profession for a number of years before she acted out murderously for the first time.

When questioned why she killed her victims, she told investigators it was self-defense. I believe her. Nearly no one else did. A Christian couple read about her in the local newspaper and made contact because they believed her. They ended up emotionally supporting her in her pursuit of avoiding the death penalty. Unfortunately in the end, Wuornos felt as though she had once again been exploited and used by the only people whom she thought cared for her. In the end, they abandoned her, and she was executed in 2002.

Before she was put to death, she gave a final interview explaining what happened and why she felt she should be spared. She freely admitted to killing seven men but said she regretted doing it. She would have rather not killed anyone but did not feel as though she had a choice. According to Wuornos, her first victim intended to kill her after torturing her. She carried a gun for protection, as necessary in her line of work, and when faced with her own murder, she shot him repeatedly.

Wuornos continued to work as a prostitute before she was caught. She stated all of her victims defiled her in some way, usually through some form of torture. According to Wuornos, the murders were not premeditated. She did not dismember them or eat their flesh. She was just trying to survive.

While I do not condone any sort of violence or killing, I do believe there are people who are put in situations, whether through their fault or not, who have to make a difficult decision, killed or be killed, just like animals in the wild. Wuornos had been deeply scarred, even diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder due to the damage done to her during childhood. During her trial, one expert stated she had the mind of a child filled with rage and could not grasp the idea of the finality of death (unknown).

It is widely accepted that abuse begets abuse. Aileen Wuornos was severely abused during her developmental years and most likely developed a disorder because of it. If she had not been abused, she may not have killed over and over again. She may not have even become a prostitute.  She felt murder was her only option.

In my novel, the main character, Elizabeth, becomes a serial killer. She is severely traumatized when she is young by witnessing the murder of her mother and sister. Soon after, she is committed to a mental institution where she suffers under the hand of an abusive orderly. Her personality splits, and eventually, she becomes a vigilante. I am currently researching vigilantes because some people agree with vigilantism, even if they object to serial killing. My hope is to find what is considered by certain sects of society to be acceptable reasoning for killing.