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 fellow student coming to share her cafeteria table. Where many girls would have mustered their cultural resources and put on a bit of an act to meet the standards of the new acquaintance, Sybil simply quit and knew nothing of the way Vicky performed or of the friendship that grew up with the older woman. Again, where any girl with sedate and mousy standards in dress might take a momentary glance at something gay, Sybil was likely to find gaudy pajamas inexplicably there among her clothes, bought by another self, Peggy Lou.
For any of us a character in fiction, a role in a play, a film star’s performance may sharpen some potentiality of our own, make us feel for a time like a different person—one of the various processes concealed under the blanket term “identification”—but the “normal” achievement is to keep these passing phases united through a controlling structure of a daily routine of work and leisure, with stable social relationships and continuous memory. And although it may rely heavily on repression and the denial of potentialities, this everyday integration is a considerable achievement.
For one thing, most of our skill and knowledge is accessible to us all the time. Sybil’s was parceled out. Vanessa could play the piano better than any of the others, Sid and Mike could do the carpentry and handiwork, Vicky had much of the cultural knowledge and painted in a different style from Peggy Lou, and since Peggy Lou had been in control between ages nine and eleven, she possessed the good command of basic arithmetic that Sybil needed and lacked in some of her university work. But even this is not without its shadowy parallel in the ordinary personality. The bad teacher of mathematics may produce in a promising student a frightened and resentful subpersonality who can no longer cope with the subject. There are people who can’t dance because they can’t let themselves go. Obscure factors of mood and personality produce days when our handwriting is stiff and awkward and refuses to flow, and we take it for granted that high levels of skill, whether playing the violin or putting at golf, will be disturbed by the wrong mood.
The multiple personality simply locks away its skills in more sharply segregated structures of mood and outlook. So, too, ordinary conflicts between one set of impulses and another become conflicts between personae; the grain of truth in the aphorism that in suicide he who dies and he who kills are never the same person is expressed dramatically when Sybil in deep depression wanted to throw herself into the Hudson River and Vicky, alarmed, took over and called the psychiatrist.
It remains a question how far the clear definition of a new, named personality for each hidden aspect that emerges as psychiatric treatment proceeds may be an artifact. Once multiple personalities have been diagnosed they may become to some extent a convention of communication between patient and doctor, the readiest way of bringing to light a previously hidden set of interests, impulses, and emotions. The method of treatment may have bearing on this question. Although described by the publishers as psychoanalysis, analysis played only a part, possibly a small part, in what was firmly directive psychotherapy of an eclectic kind, employing reassurance, strong persuasion, argument, E.C.T. after the suicidal impulse, pentothal trances, and hypnosis. A straightforward technical report in which some of these points might have become clearer would to me have been more fascinating and no less moving, but the premise of this book is that the reading public pays the publisher and calls the tune.
The supposed standards of its readership have evidently affected Dr. Schatzman’s book too, and not to its advantage. Although it has excellent material and two important subjects, it remains superficial, content with challenges, hints, suggestions, and questions, all stimulating, but without the penetration and grip that could have made it first rate. Nevertheless it presents a fascinating and valuable document in what Dr. Schatzman calls the micropolitics of the family, the basis of social organization on a national and an international scale. It illuminates the tyrannous family of the nineteenth century that underlay the authoritarian state and that in Germany especially led rationally to the totalitarian regime of army, police, and bureaucracy. The foundation of the book is one more study, workmanlike and extremely interesting, of the Schreber case, from which Freud developed his theory of paranoia; the superstructure has too much appliquéed profundity with ambiguous hints of cosmic perspective in the manner of Laing’s school of psychiatry at its worst.
Schreber (1842-1911) was a German judge who had a “nervous illness” at forty-two, recovered after six months in a clinic, and went on successfully with his career for eight years until he became president of the senate of the supreme court in Saxony, when he broke down again and remained in asylums from age fifty-one to sixty; he was discharged, but after some five years he broke down again and spent the last four years of his life once more in a mental hospital. He was a paranoid schizophrenic and, like Zelda Fitzgerald, was for much of the time intact enough to write competently. During his long second period in hospital he wrote an account of his illness, still without recognizing the delusional quality of his central experiences, notably his direct contact with God, whose “rays” affected him and who inflicted many miraculous discomforts on him, from back pains that prevented a relaxed posture to “little men” who tweaked his eyes open or shut with fine filaments attached to the lids. What Dr. Schatzman does is to show how remarkably these delusions parallel the childhood experiences that Schreber actually suffered at the hands of his father.
The father is almost incredible. Schatzman follows the lead of an American psychoanalyst, W.G. Niederland, in looking seriously at the extensive writings of this man, a doctor whose books on the upbringing of the young (from five months to twenty years) had immense influence, both in Germany (especially Saxony) and more widely, the Dr. Spock of a century or more ago. The bedrock of his credo was that parents must consistently and from the earliest age break any will of his own that the child may have. With babies of five to six months they must follow the “law of habituation”:
Suppress everything in the child, keep everything away from him that he should not make his own, and guide him perseveringly towards everything to which he should habituate himself.
And before he is a year old:
Our entire effort on the direction of the child’s will at this time will consist in accustoming it to absolute obedience…. The thought should never even occur to the child that his will could be in control, rather should the habit of subordinating his will to the will of his parents or teachers be immutably implanted in him…. There is then joined to the feeling of law a feeling of impossibility of struggling against the law….
But in spite of all this effort, Dr. Schreber noted, rebelliousness may sometimes occur in the two-year-old,
…a vestige of that innate barbarity which leads the developing self-confidence astray…. This could be caused by anything—the most important thing is that the disobedience should be crushed to the point of regaining complete submission, using corporal punishment if necessary.
An essential and dreadful part of the system is the rooting out of any conscious resentment against this treatment. The child must not obey for the sake of praise or reward or because he fears punishment. “And,” says Dr. Schatzman, paraphrasing Schreber, “he must not obey while secretly wishing to disobey; that would be dishonesty—a bad sentiment. He must obey because he knows it is right to obey, no matter how whimsical is his parent’s wish.”
Dr. Schreber practiced his methods with unremitting enthusiasm on his own children, and as they grew older introduced ingenious hardware of his own contriving in order to establish good habits of posture and prevent masturbation (including straps to hold the child immovable in bed). Dr. Schatzman reproduces illustrations of several of them. The Kopfhalter, for instance, was a strap clamped at one end to the child’s underwear and at the other to his hair so that his hair was pulled if he failed to keep his head straight. (Because it produced “a certain stiffening effect on the head” it was only to be used one or two hours a day.) Schreber the son notes among the “miracles” that God inflicted on him the fact that any slight noise in his surroundings, “is accompanied by a painful blow directly at my head, the sensation of pain is like a sudden pulling inside my head.” Again the father had invented a Geradhalter, a crossbar fixed to a table, to make children sit up straight in reading or writing; it pressed against the collar bones and the front of the shoulders (and the vertical support prevented crossing the legs, which is bad for children because of “checks in blood flow and other delicate reasons”). The child could not for long lean against the bar, says Dr. Schreber,
because of the pressure of the hard object against the bones and the consequent discomfort; the child will return on his own to the straight position…. I had a Geradhalter manufactured which proved its worth time and again with my own children….
And the son writes,
One of the most horrifying miracles was the so-called compression-of-the-chest miracle…; it consisted in the whole chest wall being compressed, so that the state of oppression caused by the lack of breath was transmitted to my whole body.
These and many other comparisons between the father’s upbringing and the son’s memoirs of madness do, as Dr. Schatzman claims, “show uncanny similarities.” He has, it is true, to note that in spite of the father’s obsessional insistence on postural symmetry the son in later life always held his head in an extraordinary one-sided position. “Was this,” he asks, “a belated defiance and mockery of his father’s aims?” Like many psychiatrists, he can’t lose, whatever the facts. But there is enough striking evidence to relate the son’s delusions very closely to the father’s methods.
Many readers, seeing this evidence combined with Dr. Schatzman’s references to “some schizophrenics” whose odd experiences and actions “can be rendered intelligible as responses to maddening families” and his belief that Dr. Schreber was “a prime example of a paranoidogenic person,” may be tempted to see Schreber’s upbringing as the cause of his insanity. But when this point comes up explicitly Dr. Schatzman grows wary:
I focus not on why, but on how Judge Schreber came to feel persecuted; not on what caused his feelings, but on events which can be correlated with them.
And yet the implied interest in the causative effect is never far away:
It would be of value to know if parents and societies that adopt obedience and discipline as preeminent goals of child education are more, less, or equally likely to drive children crazy than other parents and societies.
These ambiguities are part of the book’s limitation: its failure to grapple explicitly with the problems it raises.
The notion of schizogenic families, rapidly passing into contemporary folklore, is far too facile. No doubt the appalling strains created by Sybil’s mother and Schreber’s father contributed to the children’s breakdowns. Yet with a schizophrenic mother and both parents adept at “doublebind,” Sybil found a form of disorder quite other than schizophrenia; clearly more factors are at work, and prediction from form of upbringing to form of breakdown is impossible.
Again, many people have survived an upbringing remarkably like Schreber’s. A century before Dr. Schreber a famous English mother described methods of child rearing entirely in line with his:
The children were always put into a regular method of living, in such things as they were capable of, from their birth…. When turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly…. They were so constantly used to eat and drink what was given them, that when any of them was ill, there was no difficulty in making them take the most unpleasant medicine; for they durst not refuse it, though some of them would presently throw it up…. In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper…. As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children ensures their afterwretchedness and irreligion; whatever checks and mortifies it promotes their future happiness and piety.
This was the mother of Charles and John Wesley, and though they had their peculiarities they escaped Judge Schreber’s fate.
Moreover we are told that Dr. Schreber, the father, had very great influence, and one would expect other families following his methods to produce similar results. But his other son committed suicide and one of the three daughters became mentally disturbed; at this rate of psychiatric casualty the method should have been self-limiting.
The sinister fact is that most children reared on these principles seem to grow up loyal and efficient subjects of the State. This micropolitical aspect of Dr. Schatzman’s study is potentially more important than the clinical one. He notes that Dr. Schreber was the subject of a laudatory inaugural dissertation by a German academic of 1936 who hailed him as a spiritual precursor of Nazism. He shows how Fichte, helping to create the German conception of the State, demanded an education that
completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate…
and asserted that to influence a child
you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.
These words of Fichte’s define a program that Dr. Schreber found practical ways of carrying out. Dr. Schatzman has quotations to suggest that present day Russian pedagogy puts similar emphasis on obedience in children and sees it as the foundation of good communist citizenship. And from America he quotes B. F. Skinner’s confidence in the similar effects of well-planned conditioning:
We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free…. By a careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, the desires, the wishes.
The curious thing is that in that case the question of freedom never arises.
No cruelty is necessary; all you must have is the gentle arrogance of being sure you know what is best for other people.
But the relation between the micropolitics of the family or nursery school and macropolitics on the national scale invites more thorough investigation than Dr. Schatzman’s fragmentary treatment provides. He shows that pious opinion in nineteenth-century England followed Dr. Schreber’s line at least to the extent of seeing filial disobedience “as one of the most grievous sins a child can commit.” Yet it England the idea of the state as an entity superior to the individual never took hold, a fact lamented by Wilhelm Dibelius in England, the book he wrote during the 1914-1918 war as a contribution to the political re-education of England after conquest (translated into English and published with tactful expurgations after that war had ended differently). And Germany, Dr. Schatzman points out, had produced Froebel shortly before Dr. Schreber. It seems that although we can scarcely doubt that national values, education, and intrafamilial values are mutually reinforcing there must be highly complex processes that intervene to determine whether, say, the Froebels or the Schrebers become the nation’s prototype educators.
In nineteenth-century England, for some reason, the bullying authoritarian public schools evidently took for granted a battle against the unregenerate young, while the totalitarian educators saw that state of affairs as the lamentable consequence of failing to crush the individual will much earlier. And yet Wesley, his will carefully crushed from birth onward, became a reformer who broke with the establishment. Obviously the relation between micro- and macro-social processes is no less complex than important. For any full investigation of it Dr. Schatzman’s study of the Schrebers fixes one cardinal point among the directions education can take.
June 14, 1973