book reveals that the sensational multiple-personality story was
just that ó a story.
In 1973, Flora Rheta Schreiber wrote about the treatment of Sybil
Dorsett (a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) for
multiple-personality disorder (sixteen separate personalities in
all!). The disturbing book touched a nerve in the culture and raised
questions about the nature of self. Meanwhile, that same year,
another girl had personality troubles of her own in The Exorcist.
The psychotherapy industry salivated, taking furious notes. The
Exorcist went on to earn its own lore, and Sybil helped
to create a new psychiatric diagnosis (itís known today as
dissociative-identity disorder). Since then, the Sybil story
has nurtured a cult of obsessed fans.
The book sold six million copies. An NBC miniseries, starring Sally
Field and loosely based on the book, was seen by one-fifth of the
country when it first aired in 1976.
However, Sybil was not all she seemed to be. In her new book,
Sybil Exposed [Free Press], investigative writer Debbie Nathan
sheds light on how the famous multiple personality case was
fabricated, exaggerated and bent to the will of the bookís author,
the patientís therapist [Dr. Cornelia Wilbur] and even the patient
herself. This trio of ambitious people rigged and concocted an
incredible fiction that reads like fact.
Here, Debbie Nathan gives us a peek into what went down and what
Sybil cause such a ripple in the popular culture?
One reason was the sense of power in women, that they could overcome
any kind of adversity, that they can make use of untapped talents
that they didnít even know they had. That was a powerful thing. It
also made people much more aware of child abuse and the secrets of
family troubles. On the other hand, it also gave women the feeling
that the only way that they could express themselves was through the
splitting of their personalities into a lot of different parts. So
it had good and bad effects on the culture, but it was extremely
powerful. Emotionally, it was an incredible read back then, but itís
only an incredible read if itís true.
Multiple personalities were nothing new when
Sybil debuted, but it seemed new.
Multiple personalities were always present in western culture
ó the idea of being possessed, these different people whom you
canít control, as beings inside you. Itís a very central attitude in
So the story was exaggerated and shaped so that it could be more
sensational. Thatís nothing new, is it?
It happens now in journalism. We see all these scandals with
memoirs. And in journalism, we have all these young reporters who
are exaggerating like crazy. Sybil might have been one of the
first examples of that. [Author Flora Rheta Schreiber] did pretty
solid work, but in her research, she couldnít get what she wanted
out of it. It was just too late. She already had the fortune from
the advance, and she had sugarplum fantasies of fame. It was a
really sexy idea. Of course, the therapist had a lot of ambition
because of her upbringing. Her father was a famous chemist and she
had started out as a chemist under his thumb. But she ultimately did
not become a chemist; she became a psychiatrist and she was always
looking for the next big thing in psychiatry. This was definitely
the next big thing. I mean, how are you going to walk away from that
once you believe in it? Nothing was going to contradict her
Sybil herself, while troubled, didnít suffer from
The patient herself bent every which way the wind blew. She was a
very suggestible person and she depended on the love and support of
these women, particularly the psychiatrist. I imagine she had some
of her own ambitions. She was willing to be manipulated at the same
time that she was manipulating them. It was a very interesting
the book and miniseries, Sybil had a monster mother from hell, but
it wasnít quite like that in real life. But did child abuse play a
role in the real Sybilís troubles?
Nobody is saying that terrible things donít happen to kids. My book
doesnít suggest that. What it does suggest is that itís pretty hard
for things to happen to kids on a large scale without anybody
noticing and without kids remembering what happened to them. Her
mother wasnít a schizophrenic. She was probably depressed. She had a
clinical diagnosis from about 1912, what today would be known as
depression. She would probably go into deep depression occasionally.
For a little tiny child, to be around a depressed mother, itís
probably a very bad experience. It creates detachment problems. She
grew up in this very repressive religious background and she was an
artistic kid. I donít think it was a happy experience growing up
with that mom, but the mom clearly wasnít a monster. There is no
evidence of that at all.
Did all three women get what they wanted?
I think the psychoanalyst did. What she wanted was fame and she got
fame. But I donít think the other two did so well. I think in some
ways, Sybilís story was a curse for the journalist. She took the
straw and she spun it into gold. Then, the next time around, she was
expected to write a bestseller that would do equally well. She
couldnít really do that. She spent a couple of years spinning her
wheels. She gets a huge advance to write about anything she wants,
but she canít figure out whatís going to sell. Her need to write a
really sensational bestseller made her see herself as a lay
psychoanalyst. Shirley Mason herself was ruined by this. She was a
teacher doing well. She lived on the border of West Virginia and
Ohio and she had a good job that she was very happy with. She had to
give all that up because of the fear of people learning who she was.
She ended up in the shadow of the psychoanalyst for the rest of her
life. She was like a little mouse. She ended up dying alone.
What lessons should we learn from the
The story is so bizarre that it is more sexy than
enlightening. Yet itís telling us how to think about ourselves,
particularly for women. When you read stories that are so bizarre
that they are not like you or anyone else you know, you should step
back and ask, ďwhatís going on here?Ē Second opinions should be
encouraged. Fortunately, we live in an age now where we are
critical; we go on the Internet, we look up information. We have all
these places now where we can go and check what we are being told.
We need to be constantly critical of medicine.
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