Sybil (1976)

Sybil (1976) Information

Sybil is a 1976 American drama film that originally aired as a made-for-television miniseries. It is based on the book of the same name.


Sally Field stars in the title role, with Joanne Woodward playing the part of Sybil's psychiatrist, Cornelia B. Wilbur. Woodward herself had starred in The Three Faces of Eve, in which she portrayed a woman with three personalities, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. Based on the book Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, the movie dramatizes the life of a shy young graduate student, Sybil Dorsett (in real life, Shirley Ardell Mason), suffering from dissociative identity disorder as a result of the psychological trauma she suffered as a child. With the help of her psychiatrist, Sybil gradually recalls the severe child abuse that led to the development of 13 different personalities. Field's portrayal of Sybil won much critical acclaim, as well as an Emmy Award.

Sybil's personalities

Female Personalities
  1. Vanessa: Holds Sybil's musical abilities, plays the piano and helps Sybil pursue a romantic relationship with Richard. She's a young girl, possibly 12 years old (that's what Richard says and Vanessa does not dispute).
  2. Vicky: 13 year old who speaks French, a very strong, sophisticated and mature personality who knows about and has insight into all the other personalities, though Sybil does not. (states age when she is looking in the mirror at her doctor's home)
  3. Peggy: 9 year old who speaks like a little girl. Holds Sybil's artistic abilities, often appears while crying hysterically due to Sybil's fears. She has many misconceptions; for instance, she does not know that she is in New York City and, instead, thinks she is in the small town that Sybil grew up. Peggy feels the greatest trauma from her mom's abuse, often feeling sad/depressed and unable to find happiness. Her biggest fears include the green kitchen, purple, Christmas, and explosions.
  4. Marcia: dresses in funeral attire and constantly has suicidal thoughts and attempts suicide. Supposedly tried to kill Sybil in the Harlem hotel but was stopped by Vicky. She thinks the end of the world is coming, but what she really fears is the end of Sybil.
  5. Mary: is Sybil's memory of her grandmother; she speaks, walks and acts like a grandmother, and is anxious to meet Sybil's grandmother.
  6. Nancy: who kept waiting for the end of the world and was afraid of Armageddon. She's a product of Sybil's dad's religious fanatacism.
  7. Ruthie: is one of Sybil's less developed selves, a baby in fact. When Sybil hears her mom's voice, she is so terrified that she regresses into Ruthie, an alter that parallels Sybil as a helpless, regressive, pre-verbal baby.
  8. Clara: Around 8"9 years old. No info given.
  9. Ellen: Around 13"14 years old. No info given.
  10. Margie: Around 10"11 years old. No info given.
  11. Sybil Ann: Around 5"6 years old. Very shy.
Male Personalities
  1. Mike: built the shelf in the top of Sybil's closet to hide Vickie's paintings, which she does at night. He and Sid want to know if they can still give a baby to a girl like daddy did even though they are in Sybil's (a female's) body. He's around 9"10 years old.
  2. Sid: wants to be just like his father, loves football. He's around 7"8 years old


  • Joanne Woodward as Dr. Cornelia Wilbur
  • Sally Field as Sybil Dorsett
  • Brad Davis as Richard, Sybil's neighbor boyfriend
  • Martine Bartlett as Hattie Dorsett, Sybil's mother
  • Penelope Allen as Miss Penny
  • Jane Hoffman as Frieda Dorsett
  • Charles Lane as Dr. Quinoness
  • Jessamine Milner as Grandma Dorsett
  • William Prince as Willard Dorsett
  • Camila Ashland as Cam
  • Tommy Crebbs as Matthew
  • Gina Petrushka as Dr. Lazarus
  • Harold Pruett as Danny
  • Natasha Ryan as Child Sybil
  • Paul Tulley as Dr. Castle
  • Anne Beesley as The Selves
  • Virginia Campbell as The Selves
  • Missy Karn as The Selves
  • Tasha Lee as The Selves
  • Cathy Lynn Lesko as The Selves
  • Rachel Longaker as The Selves
  • Jennifer McAllister as The Selves
  • Kerry Muir as The Selves
  • Karen Obediear as The Selves
  • Tony Sherman as The Selves
  • Danny Stevenson as The Selves
  • Gordon Jump as Tractor farmer
  • Lionel Pina as Tommy


Sybil is a shy, unassuming substitute grade school teacher. After suffering a small breakdown in front of her students, she is given a neurological examination by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, a psychologist. Sybil admits to having blackouts and fears they are getting worse. Dr. Wilbur theorizes that the incidents are a kind of hysteria, all related to a deeper problem. She asks Sybil to return at a later date for more counseling.

Later that evening, Dr. Wilbur receives a late night call from someone who identifies herself as Vickie and says Sybil is about to jump out a hotel window. Dr. Wilbur rescues Sybil, who denies knowing Vickie. Suddenly Sybil becomes hysterical and begins speaking like a little girl. This little girl introduces herself as Peggy, and Wilbur recognizes that Sybil is a multiple.

Vickie introduces herself to Wilbur at the next session. Vickie, who knows everything about the other personalities, tells Wilbur about some of them, including Marcia, who is suicidal and wants to kill Sybil, and Vanessa, who plays the piano although Sybil never learned.

Over the weeks, each of the personalities introduce themselves to Wilbur. At the same time, the personality Vanessa falls in love with a charming neighbor named Richard.

Wilbur finally explains to Sybil about the other personalities. As proof, Wilbur plays the session's tape to allow Sybil to hear their voices, but when a voice that sounds like Sybil's mother Hattie speaks, Ruthie, an infant personality, emerges. Wilbur is unable to communicate with the pre-verbal child and must wait until Sybil returns.

Life becomes more chaotic for Sybil as the other personalities grow stronger. The personalities make Dr. Wilbur a Christmas card, but Sybil made everything purple, a color that frightens Peggy. Dr. Wilbur hypnotizes Vickie and asks about the purple. Vickie relates a memory of a time Sybil's mother locked young Sybil in the wheat bin in the barn. Thinking she was smothering, Sybil used her purple crayon to scratch on the inside of the bin so someone would know she had been there.

Vanessa invites Richard and his son Matthew have Christmas dinner, after which Richard spends the night in Sybil's apartment. Sybil has a nightmare and awakens as Marcia, who tries to throw herself off the roof. Richard rescues her and calls Wilbur. Soon afterwards, Richard moves away, crushing both Sybil and Vanessa.

Wilbur goes in search of Sybil's father, who mentions that Sybil's mother Hattie was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but denies that she ever abused Sybil. Wilbur also seeks out Sybil's pediatrician. The doctor gives Wilbur a frightening account of extensive scarring he found while treating Sybil for a bladder problem. Finally, Wilbur visits the old Dorsett house, where she discovers the green kitchen Sybil's selves have described many times. She also finds the purple crayon scratches inside the wheat bin. She takes them back to New York to prove all the memories really happened.

Dr. Wilbur drives Sybil back to Willow Corners, which triggers Peggy to spill out the horrific abuse she suffered at her mother's hands. After Peggy exhausts herself, Sybil emerges, remembering everything that Peggy has just said. Finally she is able to express her rage against her mother.

Dr. Wilbur hypnotizes Sybil to introduce her to the other personalities. Sybil, who has always been frightened of Peggy, meets her at last and is surprised that she is only a little girl. Sybil embraces a weeping Peggy. A voiceover from Dr. Wilbur explains that after this incident, Sybil recovered her memories and went on to live a full and happy life.


Sybil is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional film. These various elements are evident from the very beginning of the film to the very end. On the surface, it is about multiple personality disorder. This was the subject of all the advance publicity about and much of the overt reaction to the film. However, beginning with subliminal flashbacks in the very first scene, the viewer becomes increasingly aware of specific incidents of child abuse closely related to manifestations of Sybil's illness. That is, most of Sybil's dissociations occur in association with occurrences of music, painting, water, children, knives, buttonhooks, Christmas, or the colors green or purple. By definition, child abuse always involves a child and an abuser; which in Sybil's case was her mother. Therefore, another level of the movie is about mothers and children. There are, in fact, six characters in the film that represent mothers or mother-images. (I) Hattie Dorsett; Sybil's natural mother and the source of all the issues in the film. Related to Hattie thematically are: (A) The white-haired woman. Forty years of age when Sybil was born, Sybil never remembers a time when her mother did not have white hair. Sybil blacks out in two scenes where she sees a plump, middle-aged woman with white hair. (B) The cat. In Sybil's recurring nightmare, she is pursued by a headless mama cat which Dr. Wilbur identifies with Sybil's mother. Curiously, Sybil also owns a cat. (II) Frieda Dorsett; Willard's second wife, and technically, Sybil's stepmother. She appears in only one scene, in which she constantly "babifies" Willard and, to some degree, Sybil. (III) Grandma Mary Dorsett: Willard's mother, and Sybil's beloved grandmother. (IV) Miss Penny; the school teacher on the field trip to Central Park. A school teacher is legally authorized to act in loco parentis (i.e., "in the place of the parent"). She's the bureaucratic mother who runs things "by the book"; spouting platitudes like "Willful waste makes woeful want", and regimenting her students with a game of "Follow-the-Leader". (V) Dr. Wilbur: Sybil's psychiatrist. Of all the "mothers" Sybil encounters in this movie, Dr. Wilbur is the only one who does not abandon or betray her. (VI) Sybil herself. Though presented as the woman who can never have children, Sybil herself is undeniably a mother figure. As an artistic device, the alternate personalities in the movie are all presented as children. The one alternate from the book who was clearly not a child, The Blonde, was omitted from the movie. As becomes increasingly clear throughout the movie, Sybil must become their mother. Early in Part One, Dr. Wilbur sees this, and reluctantly accepts motherhood responsibilities on herself. By the end of the movie, it becomes clear that the dramatic endpoint of the film is for Sybil to accept this responsibility on herself. The idea of Sybil's motherhood is enhanced by inserting the names of Sally Field's two real-life sons, Eli and Peter, into the first scene where Sybil is calling the children at the end of the field trip.

Sybil's motherhood leads to one more level of understanding of the film: as a presentation of mother-daughter relationships. From the very beginning of the film to the very end, Sybil is presented with virtually every type of mother, from the very worst (in the book, Dr. Wilbur literally and explicitly states that Hattie Dorsett is "the worst mother of which I have any knowledge""?"?presumably including professional and historical knowledge) to the very best.

Edited and unedited versions

The film, originally 198 minutes long, was initially shown over the course of two nights on NBC in 1976. Due to high public interest, the VHS version of Sybil was released in the 1980s, with one version running 122 minutes and another, extended version running 132 minutes. Several key scenes, including Sybil's final climactic "introduction" to her other personalities, are missing in both versions. The film is shown frequently on television, often with scenes restored or deleted to adjust for time constraints and the varying sensitivity of viewers. The DVD, however, includes the full 198 minute version originally displayed on the NBC broadcast.


1977 Emmy Awards
Sally Field for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama or Comedy Special
Leonard Rosenmann, Alan and Marilyn Bergmann for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Special (Dramatic Underscore)
Jacqueline Babbin, et al., for Outstanding Special - Drama or Comedy
Stewart Stern for Outstanding Writing in a Special Program - Drama or Comedy - Adaptation

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