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Since this seems to be a really popular topic for readers of my blog, I want to take a moment to expand on why the assumption that people or systems with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) look like or are properly represented by the book and movie Sybil.

Unfortunately, when I see or hear people talking about DID, Sybil inevitably comes up. And more often than not, it’s pushed as an oh so great example of how DID affects a person or system. Not only is this outraging in itself, but the fact that this is so often because of college or university psychology classes, it leaves me speechless. These classes and programs contribute to the mentality within the field of psychology that DID follows very specific, clearly visible patterns that stereotype and erase a good chunk of systems with DID and their personal experiences. This in turn leads to assumptions that “you’re all really the host” (which is incredibly watered down) and that if you do not exhibit these obvious signs, you do not have DID. It also contributes to the perception that DID is “one of the rarest” mental disorders out there, when a lot more of us exhibit symptoms of dissociation in relation to their plurality than are noted or recognized.

The thing about Sybil, for those who have not seen the movie/read the book or are not aware of some of the stereotypes portrayed within, is that it holds very strong emphasis on extreme differences when switching and a complete lack of control over switching. There are many more problematic aspects of the portrayal but I’m not going to be going into detail about those right now.

In particular, I want to bring your attention to one scene that emphasizes my point. One of the alters in the system, who is elderly, is walking down the street carrying a painting. She is depicted as hunched over and slow, affected by age in her movements. Vicky, one of the younger alters who is typically portrayed as the “caretaker” of Sybil’s system in the movie, comes out abruptly, offering to carry the painting instead. The dialogue between the two is shown outside the body, and the behavioral differences between the two emphasized to give the audience a distinct impression between the two, so they can more easily differentiate. These changes in behavior include Vicky suddenly standing up straight and walking with perfect posture, a slight sway in her stride. This switching to match the dialogue continues, back and forth, until the end of the scene. You can even see Vicky moving the painting from one side of their body to the other, as if she is physically taking the painting from the elderly woman. [1]

As h.g. at Don’t Call Me Sybil noted in Myth: Multiplicity is Obvious, “[...] DID is adept at concealment. Its purpose is to protect the psyche from experiences and knowledge that severely impede the individual’s ability to function. Drawing attention to itself would undermine that purpose.”

I understand that scenes like the description I listed above are meant to show the audience the distinct differences between each alter, their behaviors, their perspectives on the world, and their interactions with each other. And that these people would not be able to easily comprehend the idea of communicating with each other internally (though this is shown throughout the movie, why they decided to make it different in this specific instance I can’t quite fathom), and that they would not be able to pick up on the subtle differences between the alters unless specific attention is drawn to them.

Which is great, in theory.

But much like media portrayal does for race, culture and disability, intentions can be easily lost in the mists of the effects. Intent does not change the effects of an action or portrayal. Focusing on the intent can ignore the effects, which in turn contributes to erasure of experiences. To quote my grandfather’s most grave insult, “well, they meant well.”

The thing is, you could very well be walking down the street and see someone with DID – but not have any idea. Why? Because that’s the point. Because the function of DID is that if you are in a situation where you are triggered or your environment is problematic for your ability to function, you can still do so. It pulls from internal resources to compensate for the problematic situation so that you can continue to get through major functions in your life such as paying bills, going grocery shopping, going to work, or socializing. Drawing people’s attention to this can, and often will, disrupt that.

Let me give you a personal example. I have had a job off and on for several years now. One of the struggles that I deal with in terms of working is social anxiety, attributed to another disorder I have. This is especially important considering I work in retail, with a constant flow of customers in a high stress environment. Stress makes the social anxiety worse, and social anxiety makes the stress worse. Combine this with other factors of various disabilities I have, work is very, very difficult for me and can lead to breakdowns.

DID allows me to still function in this environment, even when under higher levels of stress, because it allows us to pull from each other. Our differences in personality, our strengths, our unique abilities to connect with people. If we are in a problematic situation with a customer, one of us with less aversion to conflict can step forward and act as a support. For friendly conversations with customers while processing their purchases, one of us can contribute their assertive nature with the polite and hospitable but warm nature of another. Doing this enables us to function, whereas otherwise breakdowns would be inevitable. You would not be able to pick up on these differences if you had met me for just that one transaction of your groceries. You are not meant to. We present ourselves as a conglomerate, a blendy mixture of whatever traits are most beneficial or necessary in order to interact with you (hence the use of things such as “I” and “me” throughout this blog).

But. But but but. This is not to say that we are all just individual traits to contribute to a whole. We all have individual identities, likes and dislikes, relationships and emotions of our own. In the privacy of our own home, or in the presence of trusted friends, one of us may come out specifically and run the body as ourselves instead of a conglomerate. But this takes a strong level of trust that strangers, distant friends and acquaintances and even many family members do not have. Other times, we may just be more comfortable in a “blendy” state where differences in mannerisms will be more subtle or differentiation between the individuals blended together is more blurred, or a state of “co-consciousness” where two or more of us will run the body at once as our separate selves.

Media portrayals of DID that focus on the extreme differences between identities and personalities within a system ignore these very important differences in functionality. They focus on the “crazy” instead of opening a window to the depth and variety in how DID can work for a system. And that, in turn, erases our experiences if we do not match these extreme examples.

Can these extreme examples exist? Yes. Can they happen in a system with DID that otherwise functions differently? Yes. I know mine does, especially during periods of high stress, or when one of us encounters something especially triggering that needs to be addressed immediately. But that is not the entirety of DID. The focus on portrayals such as the movie Sybil, and pushing it as an excellent example of DID, does not address that. And a lot of DID systems and their personal experiences with the disorder and the world are ignored, erased or asserted to be fake because they do not match this stereotyped criteria established.

That doesn’t stop us from having DID.


1. Please note that I have not seen this movie in years, and thus could be remembering the portrayal of the scene incorrectly. My attempts to find a copy of the scene failed (probably because I was rushed to get to work) and thus I could be describing it incorrectly at any point. If you see such a mistake, please let me know about it so I can correct it. Thanks!