It was probably a good thing that I’ve waited until now that I’m nearly seventy before watching Sybil. Her insane mother was altogether too convincing. More like my mother-in-law than my mother, but neither of them was anywhere near paranoid schizophrenia. I just fought their efforts to control me and accusations that I was “two different people” -- one who obeyed and one who didn’t.
Paranoid schizophrenia is usually pretty obvious and at that point in history (Seventies movie -- not sure when Sybil was really growing up) it was thought to be caused by bad mothering. In the Seventies or a bit later that changed to being seen as an organic, physical, at least partly inheritable problem. One researcher claimed to “cure” it by cleaning the sufferer’s blood through plasmophoresis, a very thorough form of dialysis. I vividly recall the drawings the person made of a cat, something like the crazy cat-head in the movie. On the first day after the plasmophoresis, the cat was a naturalistic likeness. By the third day it was nearly unrecognizable in its scary jagged lines. One wonders what Sybil’s real grandmother was like and how her mother was raised.
At this time it was also thought that schizophrenia (which means split) could be associated with creative gifts (we were all very much impressed by creativity at that time) such as Sybil’s piano-playing and art. There was little depiction of how she was sane enough to benefit from lessons and college, but her various personalities weren’t bizaare -- they all fit their situations. The time gaps that plagued her were only apparent to herself. The best line in the movie is “multiple personalities are a remarkably creative alternative to insanity.”
The beautiful color scheme of this movie, what House Beautiful called “sweet sharp” at the time, is citrus colors and turquoise. I still have magazine clippings from then. Both Joanne Woodward and Sally Fields are so young they break your heart. A person could get a little jealous of all the hugs and “sweeties.” I mean, no counselor I ever had called me “sweetie!” They were a tough lot! But then no counselor ever had such a posh dwelling either -- complete with an elegant Asian idol which I’m too ignorant to identify!
In fact, there’s a subtle message here: that mental illness is a phenomenon of the pernicious, denying small towns of the Midwest and only Manhattan sophisticates (many fairytale images of the skyscraper horizon) with the help of European geniuses could cure people so they could achieve economic success with their college education. Related to that is the eventual idyllic reconciliation of Sybil with herself in a park setting (tamed nature) while her therapist (the beloved) provides a reassuring lap on a blanket spread under a tree, like an Impressionist painting of a picnic. It is a persuasive vision, even inspiring, but not likely to be real.
I haven’t read the book, so I’m not confident that “Richard” wasn’t an invention for television convention’s sake. Guys like Richard are not just everywhere. In fact, it seems like there were a lot more clown busker single parents with wide blue smiles in those days than there are now. It was a time when we were all making so many discoveries about peoples’ minds and we had such hope that love would save the world. Today’s younger people don’t have a clue about Maslow or Perls. The idea of being saved by art seems not to have reached Montana except in terms of saving the ranch with the money gained. The actor, Brad Davis, who played Sybil’s friend, was killed by AIDS, evidently from drug use. He became a strong activist in the movement that demanded proper government and movie industry response to AIDS and his wife continues the work.
This movie version of multiple personalities was not nearly so gritty as when Joanne Woodward was the patient in “Three Faces of Eve” and her shrink was male. In those days the idea was more often confrontation but in neither movie is there the heavy dependence on drugs we are used to now. “Sybil” was a two-part network television series and since it came into people’s homes was bound to be a little softened and idealized. It’s remarkable that there is no alpha male -- only two incompetent figures, the father and the doctor.
The responses on imdb.com are fascinating as usual. Clearly the movie hit some people right between the eyes. An endearing response is that from a shocked Oxford cleric who saw a version that didn’t have an end! Movies about mental illness hit me hard because I always fuse with actors a little more than is necessarily pleasant. (I still haven’t recovered from thinking I was Piper Laurie in “The Prince Who Was a Thief” though she was quite sane, just asocial. That was 1952 and Piper had that same smooth Jean Shrimpton doll face as these actresses.) Maybe the highest use of drama is to teach us what other people are like inside.
Also it is worthy of reflection to face the uncertain nature of identity/sanity and the degree a person whose brain won’t function needs the protection and intervention of society. I’ve always been suspicious of the motives, methods and goals of the interveners, which sometimes smack of Guantanomo Bay rather than Esalen. What society wants is compliance, or at least the appearance. And authority figures can twist that to mean obedience to their specific goals. Any rebellion or criticism is considered “crazy” or destructive, which can be punished economically. Or silenced.
Sybil was a resourceful woman who saved herself for many years even when she was greatly overmatched. She wasn’t aware that she needed help for a long time and her sense of herself was maintained in part by denial of any dissonance or anomalies like gaps in time. She was low-key rather than flamboyant, which helped her original unconscious strategy, and her various personalities kept her talents from being stamped out. She herself was helped. But what about that mother? Why didn’t anyone at the hospital where she was admitted (at least once) realize what she was doing to her child? Why didn’t anyone follow up? Wasn’t society as sick as she was? And couldn’t it have happened in Manhattan? Probably did? Probably is?