Debbie Nathan’s “Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case”

Few journalist/authors possess the courage of Debbie Nathan, who was the first to publicly question the nationwide outbreak of false child abuse cases (ca. 1980-1995) that resulted in hundreds of wrongful convictions, and who later co-authored, with Attorney Michael Snedeker, the most comprehensive contemporary text on the Panic, Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.

Equally important, this time in addressing the myth and madness surrounding diagnoses of Dissociative Identity Disorder (nee Multiple Personality Disorder) is the publication of Nathan’s new book: Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.

from Publishers Weekly:
Journalist Nathan (Satan’s Silence) has spent much of her career writing about child sex abuse panics and debunking “recovered memory syndromes,” in which adults—aided by over-zealous therapists—suddenly “recalled” episodes of childhood abuse. Here, she tackles one of the most famous of these cases: that of the multiple-personality sufferer known to the world as “Sybil”—the subject of the 1970s bestseller and a TV special starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward (who starred in Three Faces of Eve, an earlier film of multiple personality). In this startling exposé, she examines the records author Flora Rheta Schreiber left with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, detailing Schreiber’s research into the unusual case of the frail, troubled Shirley Mason—the real Sybil. The extensive therapy transcripts reveal that Mason’s psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, may have cued “memories” of horrific childhood abuse during marathon hypnotherapy and electroshock sessions supplemented with mind-altering drugs. Nathan traces the paths of the three women—the patient, the doctor, and the author who publicized the case—who formed “Sybil Incorporated.” Along the way, she reasons that the concept of the multiplicity of selves—and the subsequent popularity of the diagnosis—may have become the perfect idiom of distress for a generation of women who, rocked by the feminist revolution, felt confusion at their new and conflicting roles. Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original. (Oct.)

from Barnes & Noble Staff Reviews:
By any standard, Sibyl was a sensation. Flora Rheta Schreiber’s 1973 book about a multiple personality case sold over 6 million copies and the 1976 television mini-series film based on it garnered four Emmy Awards. Just as importantly, it put its subject on the map: Before journalist Schreiber’s account of a therapist’s work with a woman harboring sixteen distinct personalities, dissociative identity disorder was virtually unknown; after the bestseller, it became a cottage industry. Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed places that apparent breakthrough case under new scrutiny, revealing how an implicit conspiracy of patient, psychiatrist, and writer concocted an unforgettable, if fundamentally untrue case history. Based on unprecedented research, this book not only reconstructs Sybil’s creation; it also delves into the deep attraction it held for Americans and, indeed, people worldwide.

from Library Journal
This book uncovers facets of Sybil’s history even more bizarre than her spectacular multiple personalities. Nathan explores the upbringing and early psychological problems of Shirley Mason, who was later memorialized by Flora Schreiber in the best-selling Sybil. In seeking psychiatric treatment, Mason became a lifelong patient of Dr. Connie Wilbur, a psychiatrist who supposedly cured Shirley/Sybil by integrating all 16 disparate personalities. In the end, the confluence of characters—Mason, the ambitious Dr. Wilbur, and the equally ambitious author Schreiber—creates a story even stranger than that of “Sybil” herself, as their interpersonal dynamics hurtle well beyond dysfunctional. VERDICT Excellent for general readers interested in psychiatry, especially those fascinated by Truddi Chase’s When Rabbit Howls or, of course, by Sybil herself.—Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Sch. of Law, PA

Perhaps a future review will also locate Sybil in the context of other widely popular narratives and their authors, whose migration from fiction to psychological theory to courts of law has resulted not only in decades of damaged psyches, but no small number of incarcerated bodies.

Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of MPD; within just a few years after, more than 40,000 people would be diagnosed with it.

In the meantime–unless you’ve already clicked away, to buy the book–be sure to read Nathan’s article in The New York Times, which provides an overview of Sybil Exposed. Here’s a peek:

One May afternoon in 1958, Mason walked into Wilbur’s office carrying a typed letter that ran to four pages. It began with Mason admitting that she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter continued. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. . . . [T]he “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

Mason was the most important patient in Wilbur’s professional career. She was preserving the tape-recorded narcosynthesis interviews she was doing with Mason and preparing to speak about the case at professional meetings. Wilbur told her patient that the recantation was “a major defensive maneuver,” merely the ego’s attempt to trick itself into thinking it didn’t need therapy. But Mason did need it, badly, Wilbur insisted. She was denying that she’d been tortured by her mother; this showed she really had been tortured. . . .

Wilbur instructed her secretary to schedule five sessions a week with Mason. She started the pentothal again.

Mason developed more and more personalities, ending up with a total of 16. Her “memories” of Mattie’s torture — of being sexually assaulted by her mother with kitchen implements; of seeing Mattie Mason conducting orgies in the woods with teenage girls; of being buried alive in a grain silo in her father’s workshop — were flowing. . . .

[Click here to read the rest of Nathan’s article at the NY Times.]

Readers my also be interested in Laura Miller’s review at Salon, which highlights some of the more disturbing elements uncovered by Nathan. Here are a few snippets:

Nathan, a reporter who was the first to challenge the nationwide panic over the “ritual sex abuse” of children in the 1980s, was already familiar with the damage caused by the enormous upsurge in diagnoses of multiple personality disorder linked to the same scare. In “Sybil Exposed” she has painstakingly pieced together the most comprehensive account yet of the case that did so much to promote that diagnosis. . . .

“Sybil Exposed” utilizes a cache of Schreiber’s papers archived at a New York City law school, letters collected from a far-flung variety of sources, and even some interviews with (now very aged) friends and relatives of the three women. . . .

Mason, like so many patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now rechristened “dissociative identity disorder,” in part to shake the bad rep of MPD), improved markedly under certain conditions — namely, the absence of her therapist. For several years after her therapy concluded, she lived happily as an art teacher at a community college, even owning her own house. But the publication of “Sybil” destroyed that life. . . .

Wilbur, on the other hand, thrived, presiding over the explosion of MPD diagnoses as one of the foremost experts on the condition. She played a key role in promoting the belief that conspiracies of fiendish, sadistic adults were secretly perpetrating murder, child rape and mutilation, human sacrifice, and cannibalism across the country and that repressed memories of such atrocities lay at the root of most MPDs. Innocent people were convicted of these crimes. . . .

Surprisingly, Nathan is not unsympathetic to Wilbur. “She wanted to help, and she did the best she knew how.” . . .

Click here to read the rest of Miller’s review at Salon.

From the publisher:
Sybil: a name that conjures up enduring fascination for legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973 and the TV movie based on it—starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward—about a woman named Sybil with sixteen different personalities. Sybil became both a pop phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the psychotherapy industry. The book rocketed multiple personality disorder (MPD) into public consciousness and played a major role in having the diagnosis added to the psychiatric bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But what do we really know about how Sybil came to be? In her news-breaking book Sybil Exposed, journalist Debbie Nathan gives proof that the allegedly true story was largely fabricated. The actual identity of Sybil (Shirley Mason) has been available for some years, as has the idea that the book might have been exaggerated. But in Sybil Exposed, Nathan reveals what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her ambitious shrink, and the imaginative journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold. From horrendously irresponsible therapeutic practices—Sybil’s psychiatrist often brought an electroshock machine to Sybil’s apartment and climbed into bed with her while administering the treatment— to calculated business decisions (under an entity they named Sybil, Inc., the women signed a contract designating a three-way split of profits from the book and its spin-offs, including board games, tee shirts, and dolls), the story Nathan unfurls is full of over-the-top behavior. Sybil’s psychiatrist, driven by undisciplined idealism and galloping professional ambition, subjected the young woman to years of antipsychotics, psychedelics, uppers, and downers, including an untold number of injections with Pentothal, once known as “truth serum” but now widely recognized to provoke fantasies. It was during these “treatments” that Sybil produced rambling, garbled, and probably “false-memory”–based narratives of the hideous child abuse that her psychiatrist said caused her MPD. Sybil Exposed uses investigative journalism to tell a fascinating tale that reads like fiction but is fact. Nathan has followed an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives and passions of these three women. The Sybil archive became available to the public only recently, and Nathan is the first person to have examined all of it and to provide proof that the story was an elaborate fraud—albeit one that the perpetrators may have half-believed. Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of MPD; within just a few years after, more than 40,000 people would be diagnosed with it. Set across the twentieth century and rooted in a time when few professional roles were available to women, this is a story of corrosive sexism, unchecked ambition, and shaky theories of psychoanalysis exuberantly and drastically practiced. It is the story of how one modest young woman’s life turned psychiatry on its head and radically changed the course of therapy, and our culture, as well.