The book and the movie a comparison

Predictably, the stories told in Sybil the book and Sybil the movie are somewhat different. The reasons for the contrasting views may be due to theatrical and artistic differences, as well as the author's and director's wishes to portray a specific story. Although few of these changes significantly affected the overall story they shed some light on the different ways in which this tale was spun. Before I describe some of the similarities and differences between the book and the movie I should mention a conversation that I had with the producer of the TV drama that took place many years after the movie was broadcast.

The producer had called me after he'd seen articles about a talk I'd given in San Diego in which I'd disclosed the existence of hitherto unknown tape recordings of conversations between Wilbur and Schreiber. (How I came to discover these tapes and what they revealed will be discussed a little later on.) The producer asked for copies of the transcripts of the tapes. Although he'd already seen the transcripts of the tapes that Flora had provided him several years previously, he'd known nothing about the ones that I'd found. I told him that I would be happy to forward a copy of an article I was writing about the tapes but I made it clear—politely as possible—that I had no intention of supplying him with the transcripts themselves. (Curious readers now have the opportunity to read them in their entirety by turning to Appendix 1.) As we talked he said that he'd exhaustively studied the case before making the movie and had become convinced that his version of Sybil was the "truer" one—more accurate than the book's. The irony was inescapable; everyone involved in the case was claiming Sybil for him- or herself. It was a little like a quarrel over the correct interpretation of Scriptures.

There are many basic similarities between the stories in both the book and the movie. The names and identities of the major characters and events are the same in both versions. Sybil is the pseudonym of the patient who is afflicted with sixteen personalities—which makes sense since she'd become something of a brand name for MPD—and the names given for each of the personalities remain the same in the movie as well. Wilbur is identified by her real name.

The importance and magnitude of Sybil's childhood relationship with her grandmother is poignantly described in both versions of the tale. Sybil, for instance, is shown in ways that suggest an idyllic life that was soon to be shattered; in one scene, for instance, we see her making Christmas ornaments with her beloved grandmother. Later we see her mother tripping her just after she left her grandmother, causing her to fall down the stairs. As this scene illustrates, Hattie comes off no better in the TV version than she did in the book. In both Hattie seizes any opportunity to mistreat the child; in one case, she crushes Sybil's crayons with her feet while her daughter obliviously continues singing to herself and coloring.

The account of the crayon incident comes from Peggy in a session in 1962 for which no month is given. "I was drawing pictures," says the alter, "and I had the paper on the seat of the chair in the kitchen, and I was singing . . . it was a song my daddy taught to me . . . . And I was making a picture . . .. And mama said, 'Stop that infernal noise!' And I said I was singing a song daddy taught me. And she said she didn't care where it was that I learned it. . . and she did like that [starts to cry] my colors—she threw them all over the floor . . . ." A few minutes later she adds that her mother stepped all over them. In her tears she later says, "But I don't want anybody to take the colors away, and take the music back."

Wilbur assures her that Sylvia/Sybil—that is, the dominant personality—will always have "colors" for her.

"But I'm afraid," Peggy says, "It's not like that. It's not all sunshine and colors when you grow up. Mother said there was always thorns in the rose."

Scenes of other traumas occurring outside of the home are also depicted in the same way in both the book and the movie although there are obviously things that cinema can do more effectively—the forced tonsillectomy at Dr. Quinoness's office, for instance, but it differs from the book only insofar as it's more graphic; the incident is the same in both media. Like the book, the TV version vividly—and touchingly—conveys Sybil's desperation as she pleads with a doctor to be saved from her abusive mother.

Most scenes based on the therapeutic sessions are portrayed in relatively the same way in both the film and book versions of Sybil. Wilbur coaxes one of the personalities out from under the piano in the movie the same way she does in the book. Both versions of Sybil also show Wilbur trying to convince Sybil of her ability to play the piano, a talent already exhibited by one of her alter personalities, Vanessa. When Wilbur first comes face-to-face with one of Sybil's alters, Vicky, her response is more or less the same in both versions.

Not surprisingly, given the constraints of time, there are some scenes which appear in the book that are not in the movie. I have identified some important parts of the book that are not shown in the film which I will describe below.

Several pages at the end of Chapter 11 are devoted to the experience of Dr. Wilbur speaking to two alters occupying the body of Sybil at the same time. It is a very interesting scenario that, while described in depth in the book, is not at all mentioned in the movie. I suspect that its absence is simply explained by the inherent difficulty of showing on screen a body being occupied by two separate alters simultaneously and more difficult still to make it clear to audiences that both alters are aware of each other. Indeed, as the book recounts, the two alters were able to converse with each other as well as hold conversations independently with Dr. Wilbur, as if there were simply two separate people sitting beside each other. Even with very creative camerawork and talented actors, this scene may have proven too challenging to achieve in a relatively low budget television movie.

A second scene missing from the movie is Sybil's exposure to the primal scene in which as a very young child she witnesses her parents having sexual intercourse. In fact, the entirety of Chapter 12 is devoted to this traumatic experience; the chapter also intimates at certain incestuous feelings that her father may have harbored for Sybil or that at least was how Sybil seems to have interpreted his behavior.

In a book, as Schreiber well knew, sex sells. But for a primetime movie of the week sex can also be problematic. So it is understandable why the director may have decided to omit the primal scene from the movie. Even if the events being shown are based on reality, a TV movie can't be aired unless it's approved by network censors, and primal scenes generally are usually considered too graphic or taboo to be shown, especially in prime time. Therefore, the director may have thought that it was a lot easier to delete the scene altogether rather than risk a fight with the folks at Standards & Practices.

Similarly erased from the film was any evidence of Hattie Dorsett's paranoid schizophrenia or her catatonic episodes. Chapter 13, for example, describes Hattie's psychotic break that caused Sybil to fear any outburst of laughter but the movie barely alludes to it nor does it trouble to show the troubling scene of Hattie barreling down the snowbank on a child's sled. One can look in vain, in fact, for much exploration of Sybil's mother's illness in the movie version. It is touched on briefly in some places, but not in anywhere as much depth as it is in the book. Time constraints, as I said before, are no doubt one principal reason why these scenes, if they were ever shot, remained on the cutting room floor; the other has to do with the very focus of the movie. The movie is about Sybil, not about her mother, and so the director decided to relegate Hattie to the sidelines in favor of her daughter even at the cost of depriving viewers of an explanation for why Sybil developed her dissociation.

By the same token, the problems of living with DID are also not explored in the movie. Chapter 27 explains the difficulties of many personalities being forced to share the same body, as well as the problems the personalities encounter when they are obliged to deal with other people. The problems these personalities encounter are as basic as choosing what clothes to wear and what food to eat, since each personality has different preferences. The movie leaves such mundane but vexing details to the imagination, probably because they didn't appear especially relevant to the story of Sybil's disorder and treatment. Those people with DID or their family members could presumably turn to other sources for pointers about how to address these problems; the movie had other business to tend to.

In the book Wilbur puts Sybil through an age progression process on the younger of Sybil's alters. Using hypnosis, Dr. Wilbur encourages the very young alters to "grow up" to the age of the other alters, which are closer in age to Sybil herself. Chapter 29 describes how the therapist used this method as a means to confront the traumas that were keeping the alters "stuck" at the ages they were when the experiences originally happened. The age progression, however, is absent in the movie. Most likely, the scene was omitted from the movie because it is a rather insignificant part of the therapeutic process to the layperson, although to someone in the field of psychology it bears further analysis.

Sybil's two male alters are barely touched upon in the movie version. The male alters embodied Sybil's own confused sexuality because after all, they were male but they were living within the body of a female. They had mixed feelings about females and they were afraid that once they were integrated they would lose their masculinity. Their main concern was that they would not "be able to give a girl a baby" and therefore assert their masculinity. The movie doesn't address the problems confronting the male alters, possibly because the director wanted to avoid a touchy, if tantalizing, issue. Focusing on the other female alters instead was a safer bet.

Sybil's relationship with her father is also given fairly short shrift in the movie; there are only two scenes in which her father is even present. He is portrayed as aloof and unconcerned while Hattie is the ogre. The depiction of him in the book is little different, but he is fleshed out more. In the book we learn that Sybil has had a dream about her father and some attention is devoted to the analysis of her relationship with him. His death, which she discussed in therapy, goes unnoted in the movie. Of course, with the primal scene gone, the movie never touches upon intimations of repressed incestuous longing that were raised in the book. However intriguing her relationship with her father might be, it is understandable why the movie would marginalize him and concentrate on his daughter's illness and treatment.

In addition, there are several events and scenes that appear in the book and the movie but are portrayed very differently. I will discuss these discrepancies briefly and then offer a hypothesis to account for why they might have occurred.

One example is Dr. Wilbur's first meeting with Peggy. In the book, it occurs during a therapy session during which Peggy makes reference to the personalities, calling them "the people." She then expresses her need to break glass, as well as her fear of music. She also talks about her life in Willow Corners as if she was still there even though Sybil was living in New York. Peggy discusses the same subjects and voices the same fears in the movie, too, but not at a therapeutic session. Instead the scene occurs in a hotel room when Sybil is on the verge of a suicide attempt. The difference here may be one of dramatic license. While it's true that suicide attempts are mentioned in the book, it is likely that the director combined those scenes with Wilbur's first encounter with Peggy both to save time as well as to draw attention to the changing of alters and the drastic difference between the alter Peggy and Sybil herself.

A second scene that is treated differently in the book and the movie is the trip Wilbur and Sybil take to the country where it is hoped Sybil will be inspired to paint. In the book, this incident happens fairly early in the course of the therapy and it is not described with very much detail; we learn simply that the two went on an excursion in order to help Sybil work on her art. In the movie, by contrast, this scene doesn't occur until the very end of the movie. It is also a very integral part of the film, because Sybil's renewed interest in her art takes place just before Wilbur uses hypnosis one last time to integrate all of her personalities. Again, the major difference between these two portrayals may be explained by the need to save time by combining scenes and perhaps more importantly to underline Sybil's "rebirth" by means of her art after her alters have been successfully integrated.

The movie and the book also part ways in their depiction of a confrontation between Wilbur and one of Sybil's more temperamental alters—that would be Vicky—when Wilbur probes her to find out what she knows about the other alters. In both media, Wilbur tries to reason with Vicky, making the case that although the personalities may have independent minds and personalities, they still share the same body and must, on some level, be aware of each other's presence. Vicky responds the same way in both versions, too, finding herself unable to admit that the personalities are part of the same person and therefore part of herself. The difference again is where the scene takes place. In the book Vicky resists Wilbur's argument within the context of therapy, whereas in the movie, this happens when Wilbur takes Vicky to her house and makes her lunch. The movie version is clearly more intimate. By setting the scene at Wilbur's home an intimate relationship is established between patient and therapist. This way the viewer knows that even if disagreements arise during a therapeutic session their personal relationship is not in any jeopardy.

Both the book and movie show Sybil confronting her fears that her therapy hasn't been productive. These fears express themselves in two ways. In the book, Sybil sees her "multiplicity" as unnatural and her personalities as a type of possession. She doesn't feel that she is getting well after three years of therapy, especially since her personalities are monopolizing even more of her time now than they had been previously. In the movie, Sybil goes further; she not only states that she thinks the therapy is going nowhere, but she declares that she has fabricated her personalities and her stories of abuse. She accuses Wilbur of lying to her. This confession happens in the book, too, but with far less drama—in the form of a letter rather than occurring in the middle of a session and it comes much later on. At no point in the text does Sybil level the accusations at Wilbur that she does in the movie. Again I suspect that the director took the direction he did to save time by combining scenes and to heighten the emotional impact.

The scene in which Wilbur must tell Sybil that she is a multiple personality is also portrayed very differently in the book than in the film. In the book, Wilbur asks Sybil to listen to the tape recordings of their sessions together and to get a better sense of the other personalities by listening to what they have to say. Wilbur has already explained to Sybil that she is a multiple and tried to impress upon her exactly what that means, and now she feels that Sybil is at a point in therapy where she needs to "confront" the other personalities in a more active way. After some coaxing, Wilbur persuades Sybil to listen to some of the tapes. As she listens, Sybil is shocked to hear Peggy's voice because it sounds to her so much like the voice of her mother. That's how the scene plays in the book. In the movie, though, Wilbur has an entirely different motive in persuading Sybil to listen to the tapes. In the movie it's to show Sybil that one of her personalities, Vanessa, can play the piano. Wilbur then accidentally fast-forwards the tape too far and plays an excerpt in which Peggy speaks. As soon as she hears Peggy's voice, Sybil mistakes it for the voice of her mother just as she does in the book and becomes so panicked and traumatized that she dissociates into a preverbal, infantile personality, presumably Ruthie. That's not what happens in the book. I suspect that once again the director made the changes to conserve time and to reveal—more dramatically—the existence of a personality that neither Sybil nor the viewer had been introduced to before.

Then there is Sybil's dream about the cat and the kittens. In both instances, the dream is the same, more or less. In the book, the dream starts off with Sybil riding a subway train, which stops because of some construction that her father is doing. The train cannot continue until her father finishes his project. Then Sybil finds herself inside of a warehouse where she discovers a decapitated cat and some abandoned, starved kittens. After disposing of the dead cat, she takes the kittens home to care for them. In the movie, Sybil also encounters the kittens and the dead cat, but she finds them in a field and in a macabre twist, is subsequently chased by the dead cat, desperate to save herself and the kittens cradled in her arms. Dramatic license surely must have played a part in making the dream so horrific. In the book Wilbur interprets the dream in terms of what it says about Sybil's life and the progress she is making in her therapy. The movie is much less subtle; the cat is Sybil's mother (even dead, a powerful presence), and Sybil must run as fast as she can from her to save herself; the kittens merely symbolize her own feelings of helplessness.

The book and movie also differ in other respects where Hattie is concerned. In the book, Sybil grapples with her feelings about her mother in a meeting with Wilbur. Wilbur notices that Sybil seems a bit depressed and hazards the opinion that it may be because Sybil hasn't dealt with her feelings toward her mother. Once Sybil is able to do so, we, the readers, discover she can actually verbalize the hate and anger she feels toward her mother and as a result, is able to heal more fully and cope better with her emotions. In the movie, the moment of confrontation is put off until Sybil "relives" the episodes of sexual abuse that she dredges up from her childhood in her therapy sessions. This confrontation does not occur until near the end of the film. The differences here I suspect are due mostly to a matter of artistic license and choice.

Sybil's suicide attempt is also given a different spin in the movie as compared to the book. In the TV version, Vicky calls Wilbur just after they first meet and warns of Sybil's wish to die, recalling a previous attempt to throw herself out the window of a hotel. Later on in the film version, Sybil again threatens suicide through one of her alters, Marcia, by threatening to jump from the roof of her apartment building. In the book, however, Sybil's suicide attempt doesn't occur until she has been in therapy with Wilbur for some time. In the book, though, Vicky calls Wilbur and implores her to help talk Sybil down before she can throw herself into the Hudson River. Evidently a leap from a building was seen as a more threatening scenario than a short dive off a dock. Once again, the differences are probably due to the time constraints of the film, dramatic impact, and the need to introduce an alter without going through the trouble of an introduction.

Perhaps the most important difference between the versions is the way in which the two media depict the process of integration that Sybil undergoes. In the film, Wilbur takes Sybil into the countryside to paint, and while on their trip, she puts Sybil under hypnosis and completes the process of integration by introducing Sybil to each of her alters one by one. As she meets her alters, Sybil is able to accept them and integrate them into her own personality with the result that she eventually forms one whole personality in the end. The film speeds up the process, for one thing, and takes it out of Wilbur's office where it really happened.

In the book, the integration process is done more slowly as well. Sybil meets one personality at a time as opposed to all of them emerging in a single session. As she meets one, she is able to adapt to that personality and fully integrate it before moving on to the next. As the integration process progressed, the personalities began an integration of their own, maintaining their separate identities but "joining forces" of a sort as they grew closer to becoming one. In both versions, Wilbur begins by integrating the younger personalities. Again, the discrepancies between the two stories are likely due only to time constraints and the demands of storytelling and do not detract from the story as a whole.

There are a few differences, too, in the way in which Sybil's relationships with men are treated. In the movie, Sybil has a romantic involvement with her neighbor who is named Richard Lumis. The two of them date off and on but eventually break up when Richard finds out about Sybil's personalities and is unable to handle the stress of the situation. In the book, Sybil dates a man named Ramon. They get along well—to a point. When Ramon proposes to Sybil, she rebuffs him and he ends the relationship without ever knowing about her illness. The details about the relationship with Richard/Ramon are only incidental to the story, but they illustrate the difficulties that can affect people with dissociative identity disorder. Because this man played such a minor role in Sybil's life the differences in the way they are portrayed have little significance.

There is one further discrepancy between versions that should be cited which relates to one of Sybil's personalities called memorably The Blonde. In the movie The Blonde doesn't make an appearance at all, nor is she ever referred to, even when all the personalities are being integrated in the climactic scene. In the book, The Blonde is mentioned toward the end, when the integration process begins. The Blonde seems to be an iatrogenically created personality. This means that the personality was created as a result of the therapeutic process. While integration was taking place, Sybil may have felt increased anxiety and stress because she feared that the relationship between her and Dr. Wilbur was ending. Therefore, The Blonde arose as a sort of block to ending the therapeutic process. That's because the appearance of another personality would have to be dealt with in therapy and would therefore stretch it out; it was, in effect, a delaying tactic. But to convey the significance of The Blonde's last-minute appearance to a viewing audience was probably thought to be too difficult and a needless complication.

How a book and a movie depict the same events almost invariably differs and that's true for fiction as much as nonfiction; there are technical factors—time, for one—and cultural factors-network censors, the FCC—and there are creative differences. These differences emerge in almost every book that Hollywood brings to the big screen. However, in a case so fraught with emotion, so shrouded in confusion, and so subject to interpretation, the differences between book and TV movie take on greater importance. The movie re-created Sybil just as Schreiber did in her book and Wilbur did before her in her sessions; each version had something interesting, however suspect, to say about Sybil; even the real-life Sybil, Shirley Mason, didn't have an exclusive right to her story. On the contrary, she had no one story, she had many, depending on which personality was telling it. The closer we try to get to the real Sybil, the more we strive for the real story, the more confused we become. How Sybil was created, how Shirley Mason was transformed into Sybil, is the subject of our next chapter.

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