Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Sybil – Flora Rheta Schreiber

Sybil is more famous as the movie of the same name starring Sally Field, but it was originally a book, the true(?) story of a woman with sixteen personalities. I kept coming across it when I was searching for a copy of Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli, so I figured it was a sign from the universe that I should pick it up as well.

Sybil - Flora Rheta Schreiber - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Sybil here.
(All of my personalities will be overjoyed if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, because you’ll be supporting this site with a small commission.)

Flora Rheta Schreiber was a journalist with extensive reporting experience in psychology and psychiatry. She was invited to meet Sybil(* a pseudonym, since revealed to be Shirley Ardell Mason) by her psychoanalyst, Dr Wilbur. They requested that Schreiber write a book about Sybil’s case, and granted her unprecedented access to the therapeutic relationship to make it happen. Schreiber goes to great pains to establish her bona fides in the introduction to Sybil, maybe anticipating the shit-storm of controversy that the book would cause.

Sybil was born in 1923, and began seeing Dr Wilbur in 1954, initially for treatment of social anxiety and memory loss. Dr Wilbur was able to establish before long that Sybil was actually experiencing dissociative identity disorder (DID; then called multiple personality disorder). This manifested as sixteen distinct personalities, the most recorded of any DID patient at the time. There was barely any literature or research about DID prior to Sybil entering therapy, so Dr Wilbur had to make it up as she went along. Her files and case notes were destroyed upon her death, so this is really the only complete(?) record of her most famous patient and what transpired in treatment.

Sybil is “a whodunit of the unconscious” (page 104), as Dr Wilbur gradually uncovers the reason for Sybil’s disordered mental state and identifies each of the alternate personalities. The unquestioned goal, once the diagnosis is established, is an “integrated” Sybil, whereby all the selves are merged.

It’s a surprisingly gripping narrative. I made a note as I was reading that it really evoked Truman Capote, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. I later read a New York Times article that says Schreiber idolised Capote, so I guess she was emulating him in some measure. At times, I found myself genuinely frightened, mostly on Sybil’s behalf – her memory loss was completely debilitating, as she had no conscious awareness of anything that happened while one of her other personalities was in control.

Also, Sybil needs a big time trigger warning: the abuses that Sybil’s mother perpetrated against her are truly sickening to read about. I have a strong stomach, but I was deeply disturbed when Dr Wilbur started uncovering the truth of what Sybil had experienced in childhood. There is also instances of Sybil’s suicidality, which are hardly surprising given the impact of the abuse and her disorder on her life, but still warrants a heads-up.

So, ignoring any real-world stuff for a minute: as a book in and of itself, Sybil is pretty good. Some of the language is Of A Time (sure), there’s a lot of outdated commentary and applications of psychotherapy (so don’t take it as any kind of indication of DID treatment today), and I guess I harboured some suspicions that the timeline and Sybil’s progression through therapy seemed a little too neat (ironic, given that confusion and loss of time was her primary complaint).

But we can’t shut out the real world forever: there have been some serious questions raised about Sybil. Her true name and identity were revealed the year she died, 1998, and skepticism of the whole case boomed after that. There seem to be two leading theories: (1) that Dr Wilbur was a quack looking to make a name for herself, and convinced Sybil she had multiple personalities through the power of suggestion; or (2) that Dr Wilbur, Sybil, and Schreiber concocted this story together to turn a profit. There’s mountains of “evidence” on either side – whole books (multiple!) have been written about it – but given that all the major players are now dead and their records destroyed, it’s unlikely we’ll ever establish the “truth”.

Whether it was one conspiracy or another, or completely legit, Sybil had a major real-world impact. The book sold over six million copies, and has since been adapted for film twice. Schreiber is pretty much single-handedly responsible for public awareness of DID and the concept of multiple personalities. The number of DID diagnoses skyrocketed after Sybil hit the best-seller list; whether that’s because of the power of suggestion, or because increased knowledge of the disorder helped doctors to recognise it in patients, the jury’s still out.

So, what we have here is a good book with some minor in-text issues and some major real-world concerns. Whether that sounds like a good thing or a bad thing is up to you!


  1. Great review! I was made to watch the Sally Field adaptation in my high school psych class, and I’m still scarred from the experience! 😬 Don’t think I’ll ever pick the book up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *