Monday, October 31, 2011

Spooky Sybil

A few days ago I discovered that a bestselling nonfiction book from the seventies, one that had a large impact on me as a teen, was apparently based on an elaborate hoax. If you are not familiar with the book, SYBIL, it's about a woman who, having endured the most horrific abuse imaginable, split her consciousness into sixteen, distinct personalities, each largely unaware of the others, and was the first recorded case of multiple-personality disorder.  If I remember correctly, one of her personalities was a male, one was a dominatrix, another a child and a few were fairly normal.   I didn't doubt the truth of it for a minute. Abuse like that could definitely fracture a psyche to such an extent--it made sense.

Learning the whole thing could be a fraud actually made me sad. It wasn't personal offense at having been taken in by a hoax, it was that I liked believing that someone suffering abuse could have another persona to disappear into and keep safe inside of.  It feels like a loss to me if they don't have that option.  Even though I knew it caused Sybil all sorts of problems, it was still a small comfort to me that she'd been able to keep parts of herself intact and untouched during her most horrifying experiences.

The book's impact showed in an early draft of my novel, RAPE GIRL. This excerpt is actually where the title of my book originally came from, though it didn't make it into later drafts.  I had to dig into my dustiest manuscripts to find it, but here it is, from the perspective of my main-character, Valerie:

"I used to be many people in one body.  Not in a psycho Sybil kind of way,  more in an interpersonal relationships type of way.  I was one person to my parents, one to my friends, another to my teachers, and so on.  I always thought that if somebody interviewed everyone I knew about me they'd each describe someone completely different. 
           But now I'm just one person. I'm Rape Girl.”

I also wrote a poem, as a teen, that did make it (so far) into the final drafts of my novel. That poem, as well, has echoes of Sybil's escape from her worst experiences by fracturing parts of herself to keep them safe.  I'm reserving my final judgement about Sybil's nonfiction-status until I've had the chance to read Debbie Nathan's new book “Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case," It will be fascinating to revisit the story from a new angle, no matter what I find.

Because, to quote the article linked above, "Sybil is beautiful and spooky in the same way that angels and ESP are beautiful and spooky", and she's every bit as intriguing.

Happy Halloween, lovely lunatics! Hope it's spoooooky in multiple ways!


  1. I saw that story about the Sybil hoax at the NPR website! I can't remember about the psychology of it (it's been many years since my abnormal psych course), but I suppose that there are those who could hide from the suffering inside another just didn't happen to be this woman.

    This post makes me even more impatient for your book to come out!

  2. Thanks, Teresa. :) I guess it's just that since she's the one they coined the term "multiple personality disorder" for, the chances seem a lot slimmer that it's a real disorder.

    Who knows, though? Not I!

  3. Do you know if there've been other cases of well-documented MPD after her? It's fascinating stuff.


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