1977’s “Sybil” is a psychological film that investigates the real-life case of Shirley Ardell Mason, an American psychiatric patient of much fame upon having been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. Mason’s case was originally documented in the book Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, though analysis by more contemporary psychologists have labeled the case largely fraudulent.
Well, what an introduction, right? A fraudulent case? Does that mean that this catalyst behind a surge of diagnoses of multiple personality disorder was a fake, and that the dramatization in the film is nothing more than the creative work of an comedic actress turned into a drama queen? Well, we’re not here to question that. Instead, we’re looking at something else – a rare manifestation of human suffering that is utterly creative, freakishly interesting, and unequivocally attractive to those fascinated with the human mind – and whom isn’t?
Is it safe, or right, to believe that the human mind is so creative as to split up different facets of ourselves into wholly different persons with wholly different attitudes, tastes, and names, yet have them all reside in the same body? If we believe in the “truth” of Sybil – and trust me, the excellent acting in the film doesn’t make this a difficult task at all – then can 16 different personalities truly be agents preserving different qualities of the same person? One their creativity, the other their art, the third their extreme emotions, another their musical dedication – each of our pillars of self being rested on different people’s backs. Is it possible?
It’s like a guilty pleasure to think about it, really. I can’t visualize this being a psychological problem as particularly distressing as schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress; I can see it, however, as a creative mental activity. That’s really how I see it – I can imagine my shy self portraying itself in say, Thomas; whilst my excited, outgoing self is shown in say, Danny; my intelligent (well, yes I like to think I’m smart!) and concentrated, studious self being portrayed in Andres; etc. It’s true that Sybil’s condition stems from an abused childhood in turn stemming from a mother dealing with paranoid schizophrenia, but some part of me cannot fathom multiple personality disorder being byproducts of mental turmoil or of physical abuse. Maybe it’s because it’s 10:15 PM and I need to go edit a video, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while and when I sat down to write this earlier this afternoon, I felt comfortable writing about multiple personalities as a creative mental exercise rather than a psychological problem calling for psychiatry and counseling. Dr. Wilbur in the film, who portrays Shirley’s real-world psychologist; even she says Sybil’s multiple personalities were a creative alternative to insanity.
The human mind is capable of some crazy things – it even avoids insanity, it seems!