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Sybil (1976) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

wilbur mother sybil’s abuse

Principal social themes: child abuse, suicide/depression

Lorimar. PG rating. Featuring: Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, Brad Davis, Martine Bartlett, Jane Hoffman, Charles Lane, Jessamine Milner, William Prince, Natasha Ryan, Tommy Crebbs, Penelope Allen, Camila Ashlend, Paul Tulley, Elizabeth Anne Beesley, Harold Pruitt. Written by Stewart Stern based on the book by Flora Rheta Schreiber. Cinematography by Mario Tosi. Edited by Michael S. McLean, Rita Roland, and Robert Pickarts. Music by Leonard Rosenman. Produced by Jacqueline Babbin. Directed by Daniel Petrie. Color. 198 minutes, original version; 132 minutes revised version.


Sybil is a meticulous adaptation of an amazing true-life case of a woman who had sixteen different personalities, the result of traumatic childhood abuse. The film starred Sally Field in the title role, and Joanne Woodward as her psychiatrist. Woodward previously won an Academy Award for portraying a victim of multiple personalities in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), another true story. Sybil won Emmy Awards for best screenplay, film score, leading actress (Field), and most outstanding special drama. Joanne Woodward and Natasha Ryan (Sybil as a child) were also cited for their outstanding work. Originally shown over two nights on NBC (November 14–15, 1976), the film was revised and edited for overseas theatrical release, syndicated broadcasts, and video release.


Sybil Dorsett is a strange young woman working as a substitute teacher in New York City. She becomes incoherent while having a cut on her arm treated at a hospital emergency room. The psychiatrist on duty, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, examines her and finds her talking and behaving as if she were a nine-year-old child. She suddenly returns to normal, and when the doctor questions her, she admits to having had blackout spells most of her life. Sybil agrees to continue treatment. She asks her father, Williard Dorsett, for financial assistance when he visits New York with his new wife. Instead, he suggests that Sybil return to live at home.

A crisis develops when a stranger called Vicky telephones Dr. Wilbur in the middle of the night saying that Sybil is in a hotel room in Harlem contemplating suicide. The doctor finds her in a depressed state, again reverted to a childlike persona. Dr. Wilbur realizes that Sybil is suffering from multiple personality syndrome. At her next appointment, Sybil arrives in the character of Vicky, a confident and self-assured thirteen-year-old. Dr. Wilbur encounters other personalities through hypnosis: Vanessa, an accomplished pianist; Peggy, the troubled nine-year-old; Marsha, depressed and suicidal; even an old woman who is a surrogate grandmother. Through treatment, the psychiatrist discovers that Sybil’s deceased mother, Hattie, was behind the fragmentation of her personality. When she was growing up in rural Wisconsin, Sybil suffered terrible abuse as a child from her mother, who treated her daughter normally in front of her father and others, but mistreated her continually when they were alone, pushing her downstairs, burning her hand on the stove, and locking her in a storage bin in the barn. Each of Sybil’s personalities has different memories of the abuse, except for Sybil herself.

Another crisis develops when Sybil starts dating Richard, a street musician. After cooking Christmas dinner for Richard and Matt, his young son, Sybil starts acting irrationally. Hearing her say the name “Dr. Wilbur,” Richard calls the doctor, who warns him about her condition and tells him that she may become suicidal in the persona of Marsha. Richard prevents Sybil from jumping off the roof. When Dr. Wilbur arrives, he overhears Sybil telling her that she is in love with Richard but would prefer not to see him again until she is cured. Shortly afterward, Richard moves away. As Dr. Wilbur makes progress in treating Sybil, she encounters resistance just before she plans to leave for Chicago for a medical lecture. Sybil claims that she is faking, that there are no other personalities. After her Chicago conference, Dr. Wilbur drives to Sybil’s hometown in Wisconsin. She searches through her old house and finds purple crayon markings in the storage bin in the barn, confirmation that Sybil’s original story under hypnosis was true. The psychiatrist consults with Dr. Quinoness, the local physician, who reveals a series of shocking events from Sybil’s medical records. He confesses his shame in having taken no action at the time.

Returning to New York, Dr. Wilbur convinces Sybil to confront her most frightening memories. She recalls how her mother gave her enemas, forcing her to hold the water while her mother played Dvorak’s New World Symphony on the piano. When the water leaked out, her mother would tie her up and poke at her genital area with knives and hooks. Screaming, Sybil spoke aloud of her rage about the abuse she suffered. By reliving this most painful event, Sybil accepts all of Peggy’s memories, and the personalities merge. After this breakthrough, Sybil, with Dr. Wilbur’s help, is able to join with all of her other “selves” and become a whole person again.


Sybil was one of the most compelling examinations of child abuse on film, demonstrating that recovery from such trauma is almost a lifelong process. The picture uncovers numerous issues for study. How could Sybil’s mother behave in such a monstrous fashion? She obviously knew her behavior was wrong because she concealed it from her husband and others. Her worse abuse of her daughter was mercurial, performed while she quoted old proverbs and nursery rhymes. Actress Jane Hoffman is brilliant as Frieda Dorsett, the mother, in one of the most terrifying performances of the 1970s. The only individual who could have intervened was Dr. Quinoness, since he had seen the proof of the child’s mistreatment. Charles Lane brings considerable depth to his portrayal of Quinoness, haunted by his memory of his inaction. Joanne Woodward as Dr. Wilbur, also shows considerable compassion by not rebuking Dr. Quinoness during this scene, seeing that his torment is genuine. In terms of prevention, this scene is key to the film, especially since Sybil’s father, Willard Dorsett, seems to have been blind to the abuse, observing little outside his strict religious platitudes. Still, as a parent, he should not be exonerated for his inattention. It is harder to blame Sybil’s grandmother, crippled in a wheelchair, for any responsibility. She was largely confined to the upper floor of the house and played lovingly with Sybil whenever the child visited her room. Yet actress Jessamine Milner portrays the grandmother as having some suspicions. When Hattie trips Sybil on the stairway, she calls out, “What was that?” She does not seem fully satisfied with Hattie’s reply that Sybil had another of her clumsy falls. Could Sybil have asked her grandmother for help? It appears that her mother frightened her into silence lest she be punished for lying. Her suicidal impulse, blaming herself for the treatment she receives from her mother, is another crucial aspect of the story. This is only swept away when Dr. Wilbur unleashes the adult Sybil’s outrage against her dead mother. One interesting point, in 1998, psychologist Robert Rieber wrote a report casting doubt on Dr. Wilbur’s multiple personality analysis, based on a taped discussion between the doctor and the book’s author, Flora Schreiber. Since both Wilbur and Schreiber are both deceased, they could not respond to the criticism. Other psychiatrists found Rieber’s arguments to be weak. Dr. Leah Dickstein, of the University of Louisville, was in contact with the actual patient “Sybil,” who confirmed the book as being entirely factual. In any case, the film remains a powerful one. Sybil is above all a testament to the human spirit, that this fragile young girl managed to find a way to survive despite the worst imaginable abuse.

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over 6 years ago

jamie starich is the best person in the whole wide world ! i hate hearing about children being abused and hurt just because their parents are some stupid crack-headed piece of that has nothing else to do with their kids but beat on them ! STUUUPPIIIDDDD BI\\