Rebecca's Reviews > Sybil: The Classic True Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Personalities

Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber
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's review
Oct 10, 2011

it was ok

Sometime in the late 70s, I watched a repeat of a popular TV miniseries aired just a few years before: Sybil. Even though at the time I didn't quite understand what Sally Field's mother was doing to her in the green kitchen (as I recall, network television never came out and actually said the word "enema"), I was thoroughly freaked out. Whenever I ran across it on television in the years since, I remembered Hattie, shuddered, and turned the channel to something else. I had no interest in reading the book until I received a Goodreads newsletter earlier this month announcing the arrival in bookstores of Exposing Sybil , an expose of the hoax behind perhaps the most famous child abuse and multiple personality case of the 20th Century. Intrigued, I picked up Flora Rheta Schreiber's bestselling book to see what all the hoopla was about.

Going into Sybil with the knowledge that the case was a fake definitely changed my perception of the words on each page; I found myself unable to believe anyone in the Seventies took this story seriously. Putting aside the fact that three-and-a-half year old children do not remember entire complicated adult conversations forty years later, whether they're in therapy or not, Hattie's actions came across to this reader as the fevered fantasies of an ill woman who hates her cruel religious fundamentalist parents. Believe me, it's okay to hate your parents. Not everyone gets a good set. But the details? I know things were very, very different in the America of the teens, twenties, and thirties. Nobody talked about child abuse and mental illness outside the confines of the confessional or the doctor's office. No one took to the radio to share with their neighbors and fellow citizens across the country their inspirational stories of overcoming the effects of sexual abuse. However, I find it really, really hard to believe that an entire small town not only ignored a bruised and battered little girl, (Her childhood doctor treated the fractured larynx, the mangled vagina, years and years of hideous injuries, and never thought to reach out to the authorities?) but the neighborhood children Hattie was supposed to have abused never told their parents? The town ignored a wealthy, prominent woman shitting on their lawns in retaliation for social slights? They didn't see her sexual assignations with local teenage girls in semi-public places? Yes, the world was a different place, but town gossips would have talked, busybodies in high places would spoken to her husband about her behavior. There are monsters out there, there always have been, but good people, responsible people, haven't changed that much.

I have no doubt the creative and artistic Sybil Dorsett was a disturbed woman. Even without her sensitive, imaginative mind, it would be hell to be raised by a pair of fanatics. The author of Sybil's expose, Debbie Nathan, seems to have also been responsible for busting another great child abuse myth of the late 20th Century: those Satanic preschools indulging in ritual abuse that were the subject of mass hysteria in California in the 80s. Now that I've read Schreiber's book, I'll be interested to see what she has found.

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