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.

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4 thoughts on “How Sybil Affected my Main Character

  1. I’m sure there’s nothing I can say to make you reconsider using someone with d.i.d. for your murderer, is there? My wife has d.i.d. and our experience is NOTHING like what you see from Hollywood. My wife’s defender (typically the one demonized as the murderer for books and movies) was simply a little girl who was so terrified that she puffed herself up larger than life, threatening anything and everyone when she first came out. When I let her vent her anger and hatred on me, within a few months, she transformed into the most wonderful little girl and then she wanted to start dating me and has been growing up and blossoming ever since. I keep talking marriage with her and some day, she has promised to marry me.

    I was NEVER scared of her even when she only spewed vitriol at me and made me cry every time she came out in the beginning. Most people don’t get past that initial stage with the defenders because they have to be willing to take a lot of misdirected anger because of the past abuse. That’s how I wish someone could help others connect with people who have d.i.d. I wish they could see that love can overcome the hatred and pain if someone is willing to help someone so deeply fractured at such an early age.

    Take care and good luck on your book,

    Sam

    • Dear Sam,

      Thank you for your kind response. The focus for my main character was to show how the traumatized people of our society sometimes act in a way that it outside of their core personality. One side of my main character wants to seek revenge and kill the person who murdered her family and others like him, but the mc’s core self struggles with the vengeful one. Ultimately the good core wins and does not have to murder anyone. As I researched more and more, I found that the core personality has suffered enough, and I didn’t want to cause her anymore suffering, even if she just was a fictitious character. I did not finish the novel because it took me to a dark place, and I was not willing to go any further. I hope that your loved one completely recovers someday and that you will be there to see it happen.

      • Hi Emily,

        I’m sorry…I didn’t see the date when you posted the original entry. I’m not sure why such an old post popped up on the wordpress search I do every couple of days about d.i.d.

        I’m sorry that your novel took you to a “dark place.” The healing journey that I have been on with my wife(7 girls in all) these last 7 years is all about bringing light and love into a broken heart and how my girls/my wife has transformed during the journey…and I guess I’ve transformed too, becoming the kind of man who could help her on the journey. Some day I hope writers and Hollywood will reflect that in their depictions of d.i.d. and not just the villain de jour that d.i.d. seems to afford them currently.

        Take care,

        Sam

  2. I had a friend in college who told everyone he had multiple personalities. I never believed him, but others did. He would display these so-called personalities from time to time, usually just as an excuse to be a jackass. So, the question is, is it scarier to think of someone who actually has DID and is doing crazy, psychotic things, or is it scarier when someone has no excuse. They’re just pretending to be crazy. Like my friend from college. He scared the crap out of me because I knew he wasn’t actually crazy.

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