Reactions to Sybil (2008)

I watched the 2008 remake of Sybil last night (for background, see here). Here are some reactions:

1. At the beginning of the movie, we are told that a discovery was made in 1998 at the home of Shirley Ardell Mason. “1998?,” I thought. “The movie Sybil was made in 1976!” The discovery turned out to be two things: that Shirley Ardell Mason was Sybil, and that her house contained paintings that were painted by the same hand, yet had different styles. The movie treats the latter as evidence that Sybil had multiple personalities. Strangely, wikipedia does not mention the paintings, but it merely states that Sybil’s psychiatric records have been sealed (see here). That brings me to (2.):

2. As far as I remember, the 1976 movie did not deal with the controversy over whether or not Sybil had multiple personalities. It just assumed that she did. But the 2008 remake does address it. Prior to the film’s discussion of the controversy, I could tell that its author had the issue in mind. Before Sybil introduced her multiple personalities, she showed erratic behavior, as she abruptly changed the subject whenever she talked. That prompts Dr. Wilbur to ask her, “You are not really Sybil, are you?” This scene reflects why some may have concluded that Sybil was creating her “multiple personalities” in response to Dr. Wilbur’s suggestion.

3. Sybil developed her multiple personalities earlier in the 2008 version. In the 1976 one, she manifests them years after her mother’s death. In the 2008 one, she has them while she is still living with her mother.

4. The 2008 movie got some aspects of Seventh-Day Adventism right, and some clearly wrong. Sybil’s parents were obsessed with the end times, which is a salient feature of Seventh-Day Adventism. They also appeared to be perfectionists, for they expected Sybil to feel, think, and behave perfectly. Not all Adventists are like that, but there is a sinless perfectionist movement within the denomination. Where the movie was wrong was in its presentation of the Adventist view on hell. Sybil’s family assumed that non-believers or lapsed Christians experienced conscious torment immediately after their death, but that is not the Adventist position. Adventists believe that people are unconscious when they are dead, and that the ultimate fate of the wicked is annihilation (not eternal torment) after their resurrection.

5. The movie got me thinking about religion, therapy, and wholeness. Because of her religion, Sybil did not feel that she could hate or be angry with her mother, so she created a multiple personality (Peggy) that vented that emotion. A key part of Sybil’s healing was for her to express her anger, since, once she did so, Peggy’s existence would be unnecessary.

Does religion aid in healing, or is it an impediment? Many assume that people would have no inner problems if they simply accepted Christ as their personal savior and became religious, but Sybil and her family were religious, yet they still had clear problems. There are even wife-beaters who are deacons in their church! I acknowledge that there are many cases in which religion makes people better, but there are also cases in which it does not.

At the same time, I did not appreciate Dr. Wilbur’s smug attitude towards religion in the 2008 movie. She was open to Sybil going to church after her healing, and she seemed to believe in God, even though she wasn’t too crazy about organized religion. But she used the term “ignorant” when discussing religion, and she dismissed the possibility that schizophrenia could be healed through prayer. I’m not a Christian scientist, but who is she to set limits on the great, almighty God?

But I think that Dr. Wilbur and Christianity have the same goal: for Sybil to become a well-integrated, whole, and loving person. Dr. Wilbur may not have liked the “Do not hate” rule in Christianity, but she did not want Sybil to remain hateful. Rather, her desire was for Sybil to express her anger and deal with it. Then, Sybil could hopefully recognize that her mother was a sick woman, and she would be on the path to forgiveness and inner peace.

Christianity is mixed on the anger issue. The Sermon on the Mount says that those who hate or are angry with their brother will be subject to judgment (Matthew 5:22). Ephesians 4:26 tells us not to let the sun go down on our wrath, as if all of us can deal with our anger in one 24-hour period! At the same time, there are biblical characters who could be quite open and honest with God about their anger and hatred: David in the imprecatory Psalms, Jeremiah, Moses, etc.

I prefer to see forgiveness and inner peace as a journey with God rather than a commandment from him. If I see it as the latter, then I may very well develop my own Peggy! As Dr. Wilbur said in the movie, emotions are like air: they will eventually come out!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Reactions to Sybil (2008)

  1. Eva says:

    Hi,
    I read what I believe to be one of the first books published on (DID or MPD) although as I am no academic, there is obviously chance for error. Not a light read for anyone interested and leaning towards the stagnant scientific methods of the time. If memory serves me correctly, they were the assessments made by the doctors following the case of the woman who later became best know for the book and film ‘The Three Faces of Eve’.
    If you have not read it and think it might be of some interest drop me a line and I think I could dig out a title.
    Regards,
    Eva

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks, Eva. 🙂

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