Sybil (1976)


Sybil was filmed based on a true story about a woman who suffered from dissociative identify disorder (DID) that is deeply rooted from her childhood abuse. The movie portray Sybil as a kindergarden teacher who experienced several amnesic episodes that later prompted her to visit Dr. Wilbur. Initially diagnosed with hysteria, Dr Wilbur soon realizes Sybil have multiple personality. Each of her personalities were vastly different from the passive and quiet Sybil. Among these, the more dominant ones are, Vicki who speaks French is poised and confident and knows about the presence of other personalities, Peggy who held Sybil’s traumatic fears, Marsha who is suicidal. Using the psychodynamic approach, Dr. Wilbur intend to use hypnosis to reunite all Sybil’s fragmented personalities by reintegrating them. Through hypnosis, Sybil would have to uncover her repressed memories by re-experiencing the abuses. According to Sybil’s father, his wife had paranoid schizophrenia, but he denied the accuracy of the diagnosis. Later, Dr. Wilbur confirmed the validity of Sybil’s memories by retrieving her medical records. After 11 years of therapy with Dr. Wilbur, Sybil finally emerged as a whole and complete person.

Since it was first aired in the 60s, Sybil has brought about much influence into the pop culture in the United States. The numbers of diagnosed DID patients has increased exponentially from 50 cases to approximately 40,000 in the 90s (Carol, 1997).

Sidenote: In a way, these “multiple personality” fad reminds me of Jung’s Persona where it refers to the social face the individual presented to the world – ‘a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual. Don’t we all play different roles at different point of time? Like me, I’m a student, a daughter, a sister, a photographer, a friend, a counseling client (for bonus mark), a mean customer, etc. I behave and interact differently when different role is put to play. Could multiple personality is after all a made-up fad by the clinicians and pop-culture?

In addition, a survey among 125 educators in psychology found that 23% incorporated Sybil as teaching medium, while 40% continue to regard the film as exemplar case study for DID (Rieber, Takooshian, and Iglesias, 2002). Researchers and clinicians were concerned that there may be cases of over-diagnosis and malingering due to the film’s influence on the perception of mental illness. For this, the accuracy of the portrayed diagnostic method used by Dr. Wilbur is thus explored using the concepts and theories learnt abnormal psychology.

In the film, hypnosis was used to reunite all Sybil’s fragmented alters into one person. Through hypnosis, submerged or repressed memories were brought to consciousness. According to the psychodynamic perspective, when memories are highly stressful or terrifying that one becomes incapable to cope with, one will repress these experience as a form of self-defense (Alloy, Riskind, & Manos, 2005).

Repression protect this person from remembering these painful memories, as if they had never happened. As evidence, Putnam (1993) report that 75% of DID patients were abused as children. Therefore, based on the psychodynamic approach on the cause of DID, it is justifiable for Dr. Wilbur to incorporate hypnosis into her treatment.

Having said that, hypnosis technique, when not used properly may influence the validity of the outcome. This is because, when put in the hypnotic states, one is susceptible to the therapists’ leading questions, direction and the focus of the experience, which may distort their actual memory (Lee, 1998). For example, Dr. Wilbur insistently asked Sybil and her alters to elaborate and explain on her childhood and mother in detail, assuming that her disorder originates from her abusive mother, may have left out other issues that precipitates her disease. In addition, Dr. Wilbur’s eagerness and interest to cure such rare disorder may have counter-transference effect on Sybil’s reaction to be compliant in the therapy (Carol, 1997; Lee, 1998), which can be seen more and more alters appear as Sybil’s treatment progressed.

Although Dr. Wilbur did found evidence of Sybil’s injuries through her medical records, some experts were skeptical that Sybil may not have as much as 16 alters prior to her therapy in which Wilbur is able to summon at will (Miller & Kantrowitz, 1999). Therefore, Sybil’s altered personalities could have been exaggerated through transference and counter-transference process.

Despite Sybil was filmed based on a true story, the actual diagnostic technique used by Dr. Wilbur may be flawed. However, this does not mean that such films are not encouraged to be used as teaching mediums in school. In fact, the debut of Sybil had prompted the American Psychiatry Association to investigate further on DID, included in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) and subsequently reduce the chances of misdiagnosis with schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness that may have different treatment paradigm (Carol, 1997). In addition, Sybil may also educate the public on the severity of child abuse and how the trauma can psychologically damage and shred one’s personality into pieces. Nonetheless, Rieber, Takooshian and Iglesias (2002) suggests that instead referring the case study as classic example of DID, it can be used to explore the history of DID, issues of misdiagnosis, as well as understanding the self-correcting nature of scientific inquiry.

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