“Sybil” by Flora Rheta Schreiber


Cheers!! This is to resuming blogging after ages to celebrate revival of my reading habit, thanks to my weekly 6 hours metro ride.

Sybil was a book I had stumbled upon at my all time favorite bookstore – Midland (Aurobindo Market, New Delhi) on my birthday. One may buy a zillion books online, but nothing beats the pleasure of random browsing at a bookstore. Given my latest fetish for mental illness thanks to my recent project, the book summary really fascinated me. After reading few reviews online and getting a confirmatory nod from the bookstore owner (who thankfully does know his books!!), I made this purchase. This 400 pages book or rather Sybil became a part of my life as the story unfolded and was actually sad when it came to an end as if a part of my life had been taken away.

The book was based on a true story of Shirley Ardell Mason who suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder, written by a journalist- Flora Rheta in close consultation with Sybil’s psychiatrist: Dr Cornelia Wilbur. It was the first documented case of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The book and the movie became a huge hit in 1970s and many cases of multiple personality were diagnosed post it. Reading reviews online, I discovered perhaps the psychiatrist and the journalist had fabricated the whole story to earn quick fame and the multiple personalities had been created only under the effect of drugs. Irrespective of whether or not it was true, the book was a very interesting read, especially since it presented the syndrome from a psychiatrist point of view and not the weird mystical way it had been presented in most Hollywood movies I had seen thus far.

The book describes in detail Sybil’s therapy spanning about 11 years. Initially, her conscious personality had been too tightlipped about her problems but the other personalities made appearances to help the doctor diagnose the disorder. It was disturbing as the book slowly unfolded the shocking extent of childhood abuse by her schizophrenic mother that had triggered her unconscious mind to develop 16 different personalities, each equipped with a unique trait of coping with a particular situation. It was very interested to know the symptoms of Sybil’s syndrome. It was interesting that the main personality- Sybil was not aware of the other personalities but all the other personalities knew each other. Sybil just knew she couldn’t account for time and many things in her wardrobe or paintings.

The book forces you to question your own sanity as you do hold repressed memories and develop different traits to cope with challenges life throws at you and society doesn’t allow you to express. It truly makes you question if there is another unconscious personality beneath our conscious one, doing things inaccessible to our waking self. Time and again I had to put the book down, get my sanity back and then resume reading the book.

I could personally relate to Sybil more because she was an artist with a quiet reserved personality like me. Only, I would have preferred if some of the sketches/ paintings described in the book, had been included. I would definitely include one sketch from my side soon!

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A dreamer, spoilt by the world of literature trying to find her expression through Art and her sanity through traveling !!

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