Author: Debbie Nathan
APA Style Citation
Nathan, D. (2011). Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case. New York, Simon and Schuster.
In 1953 at the APA convention, the story of Eve Black was revealed in what would eventually become the film, The Three Faces of Eve. The film drew public attention to multiple personality disorder. At the same time, WWII veterans who recently arrived home after witnessing unspeakable horrors sometimes dissociated in an attempt to forget the carnage they had observed. These events would shape the lives of the women who would later play a role in the most noted story about dissociation. In Sybil Exposed, author Debbie Nathan tells the story of three women who worked together to create, treat, and write the infamous book about the woman known as Sybil that changed the course of psychology and became “THE” case study upon which thousands of others were based. Sybil sold almost seven million copies and brought multiple personality disorder (MPD) to the common vocabulary of Americans. Roughly 200 cases of MPD had been diagnosed during the two centuries prior to the publication of Sybil, yet in the four years after the release of the book an additional 25,000 cases were identified, and as many as seven million have been documented through the present. Nathan interviewed those who knew the three women and poured over papers and tapes of therapy sessions to uncover the truth behind the myth.
Shirley Mason (Sybil) was raised in rural Minnesota in a strict Seventh Day Adventist household. Shirley loved art and after giving up her dreams of becoming a doctor, she studied to become an art teacher. In college she became interested in Freud and read about his famous work with the patient Anna O. and other hysterical women. It was not until she met Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, however that there was any indication that she suffered from multiple personality disorder, even according to those who knew her quite well. After beginning treatment, Dr. Wilbur provided Shirley with literature regarding dissociation and multiple personality disorder prior to the official diagnosis being issued.
Dr. Wilbur attended the University of Michigan and it was there she found her calling. She connected well with girls who suffered from “hysteria” (somatic disorders); she empathized with them and became very motherly, which alone helped some of them recover. It was at the University of Michigan that she was also introduced to using barbiturates and specifically Pentothal popularly known as “truth serum” to treat patients. A professor at the University of Michigan medical school was treating women with Multiple Personality Disorder, whom he introduced to Dr. Wilbur. She was intrigued and began reading about the disorder.
Flora Schreiber who would eventually write the book Sybil was a journalist who wanted to create a name for herself as a serious journalist. She had previously written articles about schizophrenic women and other stories about mental illness for popular magazines, which were part fiction and part fact. Dr. Wilber introduced Flora to Shirley and thus the three set about to write a book about this strange disorder.
When Dr. Wilbur and Shirley Mason first met, there was no doubt that Shirley could benefit from psychological treatment. She was painfully shy, often sick, suffered from anxiety and insomnia, and occasionally talked in a strange fashion. Perhaps the most inhibiting symptom was Shirley’s blackouts, in which she would become comatose and suddenly go limp, later forgetting what happened when she blacked out. In Sybil Exposed, Nathan proposes that many of Shirley’s symptoms may have actually been the result of pernicious anemia (inability to breakdown B12 in the body) rather than multiple personality disorder, which Dr. Wilbur could easily have found if she had examined Shirley’s childhood health records.
The traumas described in the book Sybil did not come out right away; it was only after many sessions with Pethonal in which Dr. Wilbur made suggestions regarding possible childhood abuse (similar to the cases she had seen and read about while at the University of Michigan) that this came up in therapy. Dr. Wilbur also prescribed numerous medications for Shirley including sleeping pills, Seconal for anxiety, and Demerol (an opiate) for menstrual pains. Connie also used the same mothering technique that had benefitted her patients in the early years of her practice; she would often come to Shirley’s apartment and climb into bed with her after administering the Penthonal to discuss early traumas. When Shirley expressed an interest in going to medical school, Connie volunteered to pay for tuition as well as room and board. After the publication of Sybil, Shirley essentially lived at Connie’s despite having a home of her own a few blocks away. While the stringent ethical guidelines for relationships between psychologists and their patients did not exist at the time, this was without question overstepping boundaries that should reasonably exist between patient and therapist.
Shirley did attend her therapy sessions dressed differently and speaking differently on some occasions. Dr. Wilbur reported meeting 16 very different personalities during therapy, but many of the claims in the book cannot be substantiated. During a Penthonal session, Shirley described travelling to Philadelphia and waking to find herself in childlike pajamas, which she had purchased in her fugue state. Later, she described her mother’s abuse including being locked in a wheat bin and a childhood friend who accidentally killed himself when playing with a gun. None of these claims could be substantiated by Flora Schreiber as she completed her research for the book Sybil. In fact, Shirley’s home never had a wheat bin; her friend did not die as a child, but rather when Sybil was 17, and the store where she claimed to have purchased the childlike pajamas in Philadelphia never sold pajamas of any sort. Despite knowing this, Flora published the book and Shirley and Dr. Wilbur stood by their statements when questioned about the inconsistencies. No one from Shirley’s hometown, a small tightly knit community where most certainly everyone knew one another’s business ever reported any abuse. In addition, Shirley’s beloved grandmother who lived at the house and a housekeeper claimed never to have known about any abuse. While some claimed Shirley’s mother was a bit eccentric, there was no evidence that she was a paranoid schizophrenic as Dr. Wilbur had suggested.
Each woman had different reasons for wanting the book Sybil to be published. Shirley was painfully poor; she was unable to work for a good deal of her adult life and after meeting Dr. Wilbur was almost certainly suffering from drug addiction as well as her other ailments. She also owed Dr. Wilbur over $300,000 in bills for psychoanalysis. Dr. Wilbur wanted to become a world famous psychologist and seemed to be willing to do nearly anything (including lying) to insure that this happened. Flora Schreiber wanted to become a respected journalist and had already accepted and spent the advance she had been paid to write the book before discovering the inconsistencies in the “story”. Before writing the book, Flora received Dr. Wilbur’s reassurance that this story would, “have a happy ending” because people would not buy a book with out a happy ending. Dr. Wilbur promised Flora that Shirley would be cured by 1965 and as if on cue, on September 2, 1965 Shirley was declared, “cured” after eleven years of treatment even though by many accounts her condition had not significantly changed. The three women created Sybil, Inc. and agreed to split the earnings equally. The book led to a television series and eventually dolls and board games were added to the Sybil promotions.
Flora and Dr. Wilbur both craved the spotlight and often tried to undermine one another as they engaged in the media blitz following the publication of Sybil. Shirley, on the other hand, essentially became a recluse. Although a pseudonym had been used for the book (purportedly to protect Shirley, but perhaps also to be sure that no one could track down the legitimacy of the claims made in the book) Shirley cut ties with people from her hometown and college friends with whom she had kept up a written correspondence for years. Because the details in the book were changed only slightly and those who had known Shirley or did a bit of investigating deduced that Shirley was Sybil. Shirley also stopped communicating with her stepmother to whom she had been very close.
Shirley had written Dr. Wilbur a note in 1958 proclaiming that she was not a multiple, but Dr. Wilbur interpreted this as an expression of fear about moving forward with therapy and uncovering more horrific experiences. A week later, Shirley recanted the confession. Flora Schreiber knowingly falsified information to make the story more engaging for readers. When she found Shirley’s 16 personalities to be lacking in depth, she asked Dr. Wilbur for details about the physical characteristics and personalities of multiples that had not come up in therapy. For example, the alternate personality Peggy was described as “calm”, but Flora thought this would bore readers and so she decided to make her and the other alternates ‘more interesting’. Even Shirley’s diary appears to have been forged, she claimed it was written primarily in 1941 in ballpoint pen; ballpoint pens were not created until 1944.
Nathan explains that the impetus for writing Sybil Exposed was to tell the real story of Shirley Mason and to try to prevent misleading facts from playing a role in the future diagnosis of patients. While debunking the story of Sybil, it does not prove that dissociative disorders do not exist. It does call into question the hundreds of thousands of diagnoses that were made in the years after Sybil was published. Nathan is highly critical of the validity of repressed memories, especially those revealed in a drug induced state.
In 1983 the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation (ISSMP&D) held its first conference and Dr. Wilbur was one of the main speakers. Today, many psychologists question the validity of multiple personality disorder, which was first included in the DSM in 1980. In the DSM-IV published in 1994, the name was changed to dissociative Identity disorder (DID) in order to make it sound less alluring to the public, because it might be over diagnosed in individuals who are highly suggestible. In the latest rendition, DSM-5, the diagnosis is still included, however, debate continues regarding the validity of DID and other dissociative conditions.
All three women involved in the creation of the Sybil story are now dead. In 1988, investigators publically determined Sybil’s’ identity and claims in the book were questioned however, there was no longer anyone alive to deny the truth. The reprint of Sybil in 2009 included a three-page caution to readers about the truthfulness of the story, but the book is still assigned in many classes and has new readers each year. While Sybil Exposed cannot change the label for the many individuals who may have been misdiagnosed because of Sybil, at least truth has finally been “exposed”.
Other Related Resources
The website for Debbie Nathan’s book Sybil Exposed which includes photos of the women involved in the story, video clips, and a timeline of the events.
NPR Interview with author Debbie Nathan
A college friend remembers Shirley Mason
The audio-slide show in this video was created by the Author of the book Sybil Exposed, Debbie Nathan and includes audio of her interview with Jean Lane who knew Shirley Mason (Sybil) during college.
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