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Psychological Analysis of Sibil Movie

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A movie review from a Psychological point of view.        

Sybil (1976)

Nishita Kanodia

[pic 1]

Student Name: Nishita Kanodia

Psychological disorder: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Name of movie: Sybil (1976)                                Movie rating: 8/10 (IMDB)

Character’s name: Sybil                                        Actor’s/actress’s name: Sally Field

Dissociative Identity Disorder (earlier known as Multiple Personality disorder) is a type of Dissociative disorder. Dissociative disorders involve disruptions in a person’s memory, consciousness, or identity. Dissociative amnesia and dissociative fugue are other types of such disorders. However, the most controversial one is Dissociative identity disorder (DID), which involves shattering of personal identity into two or more separate but coexisting personalities. Each personality possesses different traits, behaviors, memories and emotions. Usually there is one host personality that is present most of the time, and one or more alternative personalities (alters) that appear from time to time.

‘Switching’, the process of changing from one personality to another, seems to occur in response to anxiety brought on by thoughts or memories of previous traumatic experiences. In many cases, it has been seen that the alters show distinctive patterns of brain activity when they appear which are hard to fake. For instance, some alters are right-handed and others are left-handed; some show allergic reactions to various substances and others do not; and some alters might be color blind and others aren’t. It is widely believed that early traumatic experiences may lead to some kind of dissociation (splitting of identity or consciousness). [Chapter 14, Mental Disorders, Psychology 5th edition, by Robert A. Baron and Girishwar Misra]

As seen in the movie, Sybil has several alters, witnessed by Dr. Wilbur, and each of the personalities seems to be of a different age, with different traits, distinct body language and way of talking. One of the alters was that of a little boy! The host personality, in this case, is Sybil who is present most of the times, except when faced with memories of her past, which is clearly filled with a lot of trauma due to her mother’s abuse of her from an early age. Sally Field’s portrayal of Sybil truly brings out the fear and anxiety related to a person suffering from such a powerful disorder, which can be seen through many scenes in the film:

Scene 1:

Sybil, a teacher on a field trip with her students, sees an old woman pushing a child on a swing and simultaneously, Sybil has visions of a blindfolded little girl being suspended from the ceiling by her hands. Suddenly, after that, she finds herself ankle deep in a pond while another teacher asks her why she ran away. Sybil looks very disoriented, like she has no idea how she got there.

This could indicate amnesia and loss of time; a very common symptom of DID. In my opinion, a way to run away from memories of her troubled past.

Scene 2:

In the subsequent scene, we see Sybil entering her apartment while we hear a conversation between 2 distinct personalities. One seems to be angry at the other for embarrassing her in front of others while the other apologizes profusely. The scene then cuts to Sybil picking up some fruits and chairs strewn around the apartment, while no one else seems to be there in the apartment with her. Right after that, she has a flashback while she’s lying down. She wakes up to see the entire apartment vandalized, a cut on her hand and a sketch she doesn’t seem to remember making.

This episode prompts her to see a doctor who notices her disorientation and asks a psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbur, to take a look at her. Although Sybil refuses to divulge much information, the doctor notices Sybil forgetting what she does for some lengths of time during their meeting and using her watch to tell whether she has been conscious the entire time (which shows that Sybil has developed a mechanism to cope with her black outs over time). Sybil also tells the doctor about the time after her grandmother passed away when she was in the 3rd grade and about how Sybil woke up 2 years older, with no recollection of the two years. After talking to her, Dr. Wilbur’s diagnosis is that the blanking out is her coping mechanism for her childhood trauma.

Although the doctor is yet to notice the multiple alters that appear when Sybil blanks out, I think that the basic diagnosis is correct, i.e. Sybil’s childhood triggers a unique coping mechanism. Her blanking out helps her cope with memories of her past. We also see a symptom of DID; Sybil’s constant anxiety towards her loss of time and amnesia. The conversation that we hear could indicate auditory hallucinations, which are another common symptom of DID. She could be talking to the stronger alters in her mind who were angry at her for embarrassing them in front of the students.

Scene 3:

Dr. Wilbur gets a frantic call from Vicky, one of the alters, warning the doctor of Sybil’s suicidal tendencies (which is the work of another alter). When, Dr. Wilbur comes to save Sybil, she meets a few of her alters formed at different ages. Over the course of time, Dr. Wilbur meets many alters who give her information about Sybil’s past. For instance, Peggy, a 9-year-old alter, has a persistent throat ache, indicating that Peggy was formed when Sybil’s tonsils were forcefully operated on when she was 9 years old. The alters talk about Sybil in third person and are very helpful to understand Sybil’s condition.



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