Sybil Exposed

January 20, 2013 – Sybil Exposed (Debbie Nathan). Journalist Debbie Nathan makes a convincing argument that the woman at the center of the famous "Sybil" multiple personality case did not, in fact, have multiple personalities. And, she raises serious questions about whether the disorder itself really exists.

Nathan begins by giving us a recap of the story that captivated the nation once Flora Rheta Schreiber's book Sybil came out in the early 1970s. It told the story of a woman who, as a child, was sexually abused by her mother. To cope with the abuse, she developed more than a dozen distinct personalities. With the help of psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, Sybil was finally able to become whole.

Nathan's book focuses on the three women at the heart of the story: the author, Schreiber; the doctor, Wilbur; and Sybil herself, a woman named Shirley Mason. Mason, the daughter of Seventh Day Adventists, grew up in a small town in Minnesota. She was a shy child who liked to play with dolls. She was also what could be called a nervous child, but she didn't appear to have any deep psychological problems. Nathan visited the town and talked to people who knew Shirley and her parents. None could recall any instances of abuse or bizarre behavior like those depicted in the book.

Mason's first encounter with Dr. Wilbur came in Nebraska. Wilbur was working at a psychiatric facility there, and she treated many of her patients with the drug Pentothal, also known as truth serum. Several years later, their paths crossed again in New York City, where Wilbur had established an upscale practice that included some famous patients. She began treating Mason with Pentothal and hypnosis. Instead of getting better, Mason became an addict who depended on Wilbur for financial and emotional support. During their Pentothal-fueled treatment sessions, Mason described abuse at the hands of her mother. She also presented herself as different characters with names including Peggy and Vicky. Wilbur began presenting Mason’s case at professional conferences.

Also in New York was Flora Schreiber, a freelance writer who had worked on Madison Avenue. Now she was writing for women's magazines. Her work featured what we might today refer to as "ripped from the headlines" stories. They were based in fact, but often included composite characters and made-up details. No one seemed to mind since they helped sell magazines. Schreiber had contacted Wilbur in the past for material for her articles.

When Wilbur hit on the idea for a book about Mason, she asked Schreiber to write it. Conveniently, Wilbur said that Mason would be cured right around the time that Schreiber said she could start work on the book. Schreiber found a publisher, got an advance, and started doing research. She couldn't find evidence to support Mason's story. So, Nathan writes, she relied heavily on the transcripts of Mason's sessions with Wilbur and filled in blanks as she saw fit.

Sybil was a smash. It spawned a movie and touched off an explosion in reported cases of Multiple Personality Disorder, primarily among women. In turn, some of those cases prompted investigations of alleged sexual abuse by parents and day care operators. As it turns out, many of those allegations were false.

As a whole, Nathan's tale is one in which the principal players were victims, as it were, of the times in which they lived. Wilbur and Schreiber were successful in an era where working, professional women were struggling to come into their own. The root of Mason's physical problems seems to be something that could be easily treated today, but which wasn't able to be properly diagnosed by the doctors she saw.

The story of Sybil is also a cautionary one. It shows what can happen when ambition goes too far; when the professional lapses into the personal; when attraction is misplaced. In the end, Mason, Wilbur and Schreiber all benefitted from the success of Sybil. But, they all paid for it, too.