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Sybil

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Cast
Joanne Woodward, Sally Field, Brad Davis
Released
1976
Sigmund Freud | Shirley Ardell Mason
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Blog entry

If I imagine that I am a patient seeking the ideal psychotherapist, I have found her in Dr. Wilbur, a psychiatrist. I wonder how much disappointment in real-life psychotherapists this film has generated over the years.

The FDA has approved no drug for treating Sybil's condition, Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder), so only psychotherapy promises a cure. Dr. Wilbur declares to her colleague or mentor early in the film that she will use psychoanalysis, but this film portrays no such method. The patient lies on the couch only for hypnosis, usually sitting, pacing or standing instead. Dr. Wilbur violates traditional psychotherapy -- not to mention psychoanalysis -- boundaries in almost every scene. She treats her patient in the kitchen and even takes her on a picnic where alters emerge from behind trees. Dr. Wilbur leaves a party and her own bed to travel to the patient's home in order to rescue her from suicide. She visits Sybil's father and the physician who performed Sybil's tonsillectomy in childhood. She even tells Sybil she loves her, and Sybil reciprocates as the two embrace.

Yet not one of these boundary violations harms the patient or even appears to interfere with effectiveness of the treatment.  In fact one cannot imagine such a successful outcome without these violations. What does that tell us? Is this simply a fantasy which could never occur in reality? Do currently practiced boundaries actually do more harm than good? Do these boundaries only exist to prevent more flawed psychotherapists than Dr. Wilbur from exploiting patients for their own satisfaction? After all, for many psychotherapists, certainly psychoanalysts, is this not a case to die for? Even in the film Dr. Wilbur's friend warns her of the risk that the patient might produce more interesting symptoms in order to increase the psychiatrists's interest in her and her treatment.

Watching the film we might easily pretend that we see the entirety of the treatment, but both Sybil and Dr. Wilbur remind us that it has continued for years. Perhaps we see only the most interesting sessions, those in which dramatic breakthroughs unfold. I found myself wondering whether psychotherapy works any better in the heat of the moment than it does in regularly scheduled sessions in the psychotherapist's office.

Reference in Superstar

*****

The sound of a creaking playground swing precipitates a flashback, and, apparently in a dissociative state, Sybil finds herself standing in the water. The fact that we do not see how she got there suggests to the viewer loss of her own memory of getting there. This device recurs through much of the film. (0:03) [Few clues differentiate psychopathological flashbacks from cinematic flashbacks.]

After Sybil enters her apparently empty apartment we hear two distinct voices conversing. (0:09)

Sybil covers her ears with her hands, grimacing in pain, apparently experiencing another flashback related to memory of a piano teacher. She finds her apartment in a mess, and apparently has no recollection of how it got that way. (0:11)

Sybil, covering her left eye with her hand, talks like a little girl as Dr. Wilbur conducts a neurological examination. (0:13)

Sybil reacts with exaggerated revulsion to the smell of what she identifies as disinfectant as Dr. Wilbur continues the neurological examination. (0:16)

Dr. Wilbur recognizes a dissociative episode when Sybil cannot recall the past 30 minutes of time. (0:17)

Dr. Wilbur asks Sybil, "You always lost time like that?" (0:19)

Sybil tells Dr. Wilbur, "Please don't touch me. It hurts." and "I don't cry tears like people." Dr. Wilbur identifies Sybil's fear as "a kind of hysteria." (0:20)

Sybil tells Dr. Wilbur, "My mother died a while back." (0:22)

At lunch in a museum her father talks to Sybil about religion and implies his church does not approve of "the practitioners of the mind." She purses her lips, breaks her glass on the floor and walks away. When she wakes up later, apparently in her apartment, she takes an unidentified pill from a bottle. She begins to hear voices that disturb her so much that she grabs the ticking alarm clock next to her bed and stuffs it under the mattress, but the voices soon resume. (0:26)

After a call from a woman named Vicki who identifies herself as a friend of Sybil in the middle of the night, Dr. Wilbur goes to Sybil's apartment in Harlem. She finds only Sybil who seems to awaken from a trance. When Dr. Wilbur asks, "Where's your friend Vicki?" Sybil cowers while squatting on the back of a chair and says, "I hate Sybil." Sybil recalls her childhood in Wisconsin where her mother has tricked her to get her into an operating room in an ordinary looking house where doctors administer ether while she is restrained in a strait jacket in order to perform a tonsillectomy. (0:31)

Sybil identifies herself to Dr. Wilbur as nine-year-old alter Peggy. (0:40)

While walking her dog Dr. Wilbur discusses the case with an older woman, her "friend," with a German accent who asks, "do you think she's really a multiple personality?" (0:40)

When the older woman (Dr. Lazarus?) asks Dr. Wilbur how she plans to treat "them," she replies, "psychoanalysis." She warns Dr. Wilbur not to "fall in love with her illness or she could be obligated to seem just more complex than she is just to keep your approval." (0:41)

When she accepts a ride from her neighbor Richard in his horse and carriage Sibyl smiles broadly and begins speaking French. She assumes this alter at her next appointment with Dr. Wilbur and identifies herself as Vicki. Without obtaining permission, but also without attempting to conceal her action, Dr. Wilbur starts a tape recorder. (A portrait of Sigmund Freud hangs on the wall in Dr. Wilbur's office.) (0:47)

Dr. Wilbur makes a joke about how Sybil could "get yourself together."

Vicki tells Dr. Wilbur that unlike Sybil and Peggy she is not afraid of anything. She avoids answering by changing the subject when Dr. Wilbur asks her about Sybil's mother. (0:51)

Dr. Wilbur has invited Vicky into her kitchen. (0:53)

Dr. Wilbur begins to challenge the separateness of some of the alters, "all pieces of Sybil." (0:54)

As we see an indefinite number of girls (and maybe a boy?) of different ages in a dark room where a woman reads in a rocking chair she tells Dr. Wilbur, "Marcia's going to kill Sybil someday." (0:57)

"When I asked her why she's thought about suicide so excessively she pretended to lock her lips and throw the key away." Dr. Wilbur reviews a series of drawings Sybil has given her depicting her dreams, many of which involve entrapment or pursuit. (0:59)

Alter Vanessa, who shares his interest in music, accepts Richard's invitation to go out. (1:02)

Richard tells Sybil about the loss of his wife in a motor vehicle accident. (1:09)

Seeing people on the street (possibly because their gray hair reminds her of her mother) precipitates another flashback to her childhood and another switch to a different alter who flees along the street (Peggy?). (1:14)

Another session with Dr. Wilbur, this time with Sybil at the piano. Revelation of male alter Mike. (1:20)

Dr. Wilbur plays Easter Bonnet on the piano while Sybil sings and dances. Dr. Wilbur addresses her as Peggy. (1:23)

In a flashback Sibyl cannot see. She tells Dr. Wilbur there are dishtowels covering her eyes and around her wrists. Hands appear to represent a faceless person whom Sibyl fears. Another flashback to the kitchen and people and a button hook. Dr. Wilbur encourages her to draw. (1:25)

Dr. Wilbur explains the drawings that one alter cannot remember, "You do them as other parts of yourself." Sibyl denies it, repeating "It's not true." (1:32)

Sibyl begins to accept that the recording played back to her by Dr. Wilbur reveals "me playing Mozart." Then, when Dr. Wilbur accidentally starts the recording at a place other than what she intended, Sibyl recognizes the voice of an alter as "my mother." Sibyl runs from the room and when Dr. Wilbur finds her she is curled up in a corner sucking her thumb. (1:35)

Dr. Wilbur tells her friend Irma on the telephone that Sibyl has dissociated into a baby and "I can't get her hypnotized." (1:36)

Dr. Wilbur appears to read from her records of the treatment that alter Mary "seems to be a reincarnation of Sibyl's grandmother." (1:37)

As Sibyl walks past shop windows two alters converse. She reveals that she expects alter Marcia to send her to her [deceased] grandmother. (1:38)

Alter Vicki enters Dr. Wilbur's office. "Marcia is constantly thinking of suicide." "We've made you this... for our Dr. Wilbur." Alter Vicki and Dr. Wilbur discuss using hypnosis to uncover repressed memories. (1:39)

Dr. Wilbur starts to hypnotize alter Vicki, suggesting to her that she will find clues to the importance of the color purple but that any hurt associated with it is "in the past." After she recalls a pleasant visit with her grandmother, she recalls her mother tripping her intentionally to make her fall down the stairs then close a door in her face. This is followed by other cruel behavior, then, off camera, her mother repeatedly hits Sibyl then kicks her. (1:44)

Still under hypnosis Sibyl recalls her mother tying a dishtowel around her eyes and hoisting her off the ground by another dishtowel tied around her wrists. She then places her in a dark grain bin where Sibyl marks the inside with her purple crayon. (1:55)

Dream of being pursued as adult Sibyl by a beheaded cat while carrying a box of kittens. Richard finds her crying and clutching at the top of her bookshelves. Richard asks, "Is Dr. Wilbur a psychiatrist?" He calls Dr. Wilbur who acknowledges she must "break professional confidence." Although we do not hear all of what she tells him, we do hear her instruct him that he may address Sibyl as Marcia and tell her that she has permission to think about killing herself but not to do so before Dr. Wilbur arrives. Meanwhile alter Marcia climbs to the roof where Richard finds her, and Dr. Wilbur tries to hail a cab to take her to Sibyl's apartment. She tries to jump off the roof, but Richard stops her. (2:07)

Dr. Wilbur arrives, applies a tourniquet, and injects Sibyl's vein with an unspecified drug with prompt sedative hypnotic effect. (2:18) [Assuming the film is set in the late 1960's what drug might she have used? Diazepam? A barbiturate?)

Another session with Dr. Wilbur: "You're thinking about suicide again, aren't you?" Sibyl denies it, "I wasn't thinking about suicide... It's a lie -- the whole thing. I don't have multiple personalities..." When Dr. Wilbur labels it "denial," Sibyl responds, "This simply is not denial or resistance or any of those patient tricks... I know I owe you a fortune..." Sibyl agrees to allow Dr. Wilbur to hypnotize her again to prove that what she has said is true, but the scene changes. (2:24)

While Dr. Wilbur is traveling in Chicago she contacts Sibyl's father who describes Sibyl's mother in positive terms at first, but then he tells Dr. Wilbur that one year "it got so bad I drove her up to the state hospital" where they said she had "the paranoid schizophrenia." (2:28)

Dr. Wilbur visits Dr. Quinones in the same office -- He refers to it as "the surgery" -- where Sibyl underwent tonsillectomy. He admits she had a "nervous mother." She asks him to show her Sibyl's medical records, and he complies with no consideration for consent from the patient. He reads a list of injuries from a surprisingly thin chart. He seems to regret his failure to pursue the cause of injuries that a gynelcologic examination would reveal, such that, "I don't believe that she can ever become a mother." (2:33)

Dr. Wilbur wanders through the now empty house in which Sibyl grew up. She sees items Sibyl had described to her, including purple crayon marks on the inside of a grain bin. She brings back and shows to Sibyl in another session a piece of wood with purple markings. (2:37)

Back in Dr. Wilbur's office Sibyl admits that the events she described were real. Dr. Wilbur tells Sibyl about her own pleasure in being "allowed to express my affection for you... I love you..." Sybil embraces her and sheds tears, "I love you, too." (2:41)

Dr. Wilbur takes Sibyl for a picnic in the country. As she starts painting she re-experiences pain and fear, the green color of the kitchen, the smell of disinfectant, as her mother prepares to give her an enema, having bound her with a broom handle on the kitchen table and suspended her feet from the hanging light and injured her with a button hook and knife, playing Dvorak. "I'm Sibyl and I remember, and I hate her..." (2:50)

Sibyl recalls her mother's words. In the kitchen scene Sibyl's mother alludes to how men will put things inside her when she grows up, providing perhaps the only clue to her mother's own disturbance. "I won't put a flashlight inside of them and say, 'You better get used to it because that's what men will do when you get older. They'll put things inside of you. They will hurt you'." (2:55)

Dr. Wilbur hypnotizes Sybil, suggesting that all the alters, including two boys, meet Sibyl. (2:57)