Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family
The multiple personality thriller is on its way to becoming a standard genre. Sybil provides material still more fascinating than The Three Faces of Eve and its successor, Strangers in My Body, and we can reflect with satisfaction that this modern use of psychiatric disorder for popular entertainment is much more compassionate and understanding than its eighteenth-century counterpart of visiting Bedlam to watch the antics of the lunatics. If we can accept the basic truth of this highly novelistic, sometimes novelettish, account, it has extraordinary interest both as a psychological document of a woman who is said to have had sixteen personalities and as a moving human narrative.
With Eve we had the advantage of a preliminary report in a psychological journal by psychiatrists with reputations at stake. In Sybil we are sometimes groping for the facts through imaginative reconstructions, flashbacks, postponed disclosures, and other literary devices. But, in spite of the competence of the book, the untidiness of some parts of the narrative, as more and more of the sixteen personalities emerge, tends to support the publishers’ claim that the story is true.
Born in 1923, Sybil suffered a hideous upbringing by fundamentalist parents in the Midwest, the mother crazily sadistic, the weak father preferring “not to know” what was going on. Taught how wicked it would be not to love the mother who tortured her, Sybil was in one of the all-too-common traps of childhood, in which the victim has no perspective by which to measure the enormity of his treatment. Schreber, the nineteenth-century schizophrenic who is the subject of Dr. Schatzman’s study, was similarly trapped. By doing their damage so early bad parents have the fearful power of discrediting in advance their children’s criticisms, which might arise from comparisons with more fortunate children.
Sybil’s form of breakdown, less disastrous than Schreber’s schizophrenia, was to allow parts of her personality to become autonomous without check from the other parts, so that she became at certain times not Sybil but Vicky, Vanessa, Peggy Lou, etc. Observers noticed only that she was a person of strangely different moods, but for her main personality the flow of living, instead of having a ribbon of memory connecting moment to moment, was broken by incomprehensible discontinuities. This case brings out more vividly than others how normal in most ways the patient was: we are all multiple personalities apart from the decisive difference of not dissociating.
Thus, like many intelligent and fanciful little girls, Sybil crystalized some of her glimpsed potentialities under invented personae, with concocted backgrounds and appropriate names, her most glamorous being the cultured and sophisticated Victoria Antoinette Scharleau, with French parents. Vicky seems (“seems” because one is groping for facts through the snowstorm of fictional art) not to have been prominent in early childhood, though she had her moments and was also able to watch and remember what the other personalities did. But she was waiting when Sybil as a student saw an older and unusually elegant …