black swans

by Megan Abbott

For a time, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the book (and movie) Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which famously told tale tale of “Sybil,” the psyeudoynm of a young woman treated by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for what the doctor came to feel was multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) .

At around age ten or eleven, the TV movie must have been re-run because I remember many conversations with girls at school, detailing with giddy horror, the terrible punishments Sybil underwent under her psychotic mother’s care, or so the movie relayed. It’s funny to think of it now–I’m embarrassed the palpable excitement we all seemed to feel in the particularly lurid details of the punishments. But it was the nervous laughter of coming upon something deeply secret, or a taboo, or something maybe like our own darkest Grimms-spun nightmares of abuse at the hands of our parents. (If you read Flowers in the Attic, consider the many titillating scenes of maternal and grandmaternal abuse and you will see this particular childhood fascination in full bloom.)

But I wonder if a key part of my interest in the book, as in many books like it (Three Faces of Eve, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) that focused on women in mental health crises, was the notion that these books conveyed something about womanhood that I may have been uninterested in hearing through plainer vehicles (e.g., a book on a female hero, or even feminism!).

The reason I ask is that I recently read an advance copy of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan, which comes out in October. It is an utterly riveting, troubling and troubled book that traces the intertwined fates of the real Sybil (her identity was finally revealed in the 1990s), Dr. Wilbur and the author of the original Sybil, Flora Schreiber.  And it is a harsh exposé that calls into question nearly every aspect of the original book and certainly every aspect of Dr. Wilbur’s treatment of her patient (which apparently involved daily injections of “truth serum” to such a degree that her patient became a full-blown drug addict).

Without getting into the specific charges raised within, Sybil Exposed also stands as a fascinating study of what is was like to be a woman in the midcentury—in particular women who chose alternative paths, or for whom those paths chose them.  The book description notes:

Exposing Sybil combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

That trio of women at the center of the book all suffered mightily under the professional and personal limitations that their era (1940s-60s). Sybil, struggling with mental health issues (mostly, obsessive compulsive disorder, as we might see it now) that were poorly understood in her small town and within her strict Adventist faith, fought the threat of poverty, a sense out outsiderness and strong stigma. Dr. Wilbur faced the challenges of being one of very few women psychiatrists, coming up at a time when female patients much less female doctors faced strong bias and sometimes abuse. And the book’s author Flora Schreiber spent decades trying to make her name in journalism, to move past the women’s magazine gossamer she was repeatedly hired to spin in favor of something meatier, more significant. Something big.  

One can see the crucible stirring. To Nathan, the result was Sybil, Inc., a multi-millionaire dollar business built on a foundation of lies. (Or, at the very least, well-meaning fabrications and half truths.)

Tracing these women’s paths and their crossing—the way their lives interlocked as they became enmeshed (and enmeshed themselves) in something far beyond their dreams or their capacity to control—it is spellbinding. But the response to the original book and movie is perhaps the best part of the story. Thousands of mostly female readers writing letters to all three women for years about how Sybil spoke to them, about how they too felt they were divided into two, three, four or more women. How they too felt split, divided. Lacking a center, a self.

Much like the women in the 1950s, facing that era’s constructions, made Three Faces of Eve a best-seller, the women of the 1970s, living amid a time of dramatic social tumult and changing gender expectations, Sybil struck a nerve. (And while, according to Nathan, the vast majority of those who wrote to Schreber were women, one can see the appeal across many populations, all of whom face constricting social expectations, the pain of feeling you must wear different masks through life.)

Maybe (probably) this is a massive justification for my own dark childhood reading habits, but I wonder now about we school girls tearing through Sybil’s pages behind locker doors. I wonder if it wasn’t just the sharp horror of tales of abuse (though those of you who remember the book have likely never forgotten these scenes, which are rendered vividly and endlessly) that haunted and drew us in. (And perhaps which most of us read the same way we read V.C. Andrews, missing the point entirely.)  I wonder if, somehow, the book was a our preadolescent way of trying to understand the way we, all of us, must prepare to leave childhood behind and take up the various roles we feel are demanded of us, prescribed for us. We must start donning the mask, and then another, and then another. And we want to see how it’s done.


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6 Comments to “black swans”

  1. As a ‘tween, I was absolutely obsessed with Multiple Personality Disorder. The summer I turned 13, I read “Sybil,” “All Around The Town,” by Mary Higgins Clark and “When Rabbit Howls,” by Truddi Chase. The result? I filled an entire blank book diary of fake entries from a fictitious MPD girl, and presented it as my summer reading project for 8th grade. Suffice to say, my new English teacher was rather worried. She called my parents — both PhDs in psychology — and they assured her that I was fine. Um. Yeah. Thanks, Mom and Dad. :)

  2. Oh my golly, Sarah, I read that Rabbit Howls book too! Have you ever looked at those diary entries again?

  3. Yeah, I had a good laugh over them a few years ago. I was impressed (frightened by???) my diligence in writing each entry in different handwriting, e.g. the “child” personality’s writing was very wiggly and misspelled, the “sexualized older woman” personality used lots of ellipses and drew hearts in the columns, etc.

    I do think it’s telling that the people who have read these books were also big V.C. Andrews readers, and what you said about being drawn to these dark tales as instructive guides for dealing with growing up. For me, I do think part of it helped with perspective. When I read all these stories about molestation, incest and psychological disorders, it made my ordinary teenage drama of unrequited crushes and body self-consciousness seem pretty boring.

    • Different handwriting! That’s kind of awesome.
      I know what you mean–also, as terrible as the tales were it felt like the big drama of life and there was some strange (and naive) vicarious pleasure in reading about such tumult.

  4. I too was incredibly, perhaps inappropriately obsessed with Sybil and then When Rabbit Howls in middle school. I remember throughout most of that time in my childhood being kind of an emotional junkie, really engaging in stories of extreme emotional turmoil and torture. I too felt like many women, even though i was a burgeoning male homosexual. I played the piano at that age, and every time I did, I could never get the image of Sybil tied to the piano. That image lived with me. Great article. Provoked a rush of (disturbing) memories…

  5. Thanks, Mark! Gosh, so reassuring somehow to know we all shared these admittedly alarming fixations. I never forgot that piano image either–it seemed to stir something very primal in all of us — and yes, the big emotionalism of it. I too was a fan of melodramas, like the Sirk movies and William Inge (Picnic, etc.)!

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