Nightmare on psychotherapy street

Books I read do not usually give me nightmares, but Sybil Exposed did.

That is not hyperbole. Debbie Nathan’s new book gave me actual nightmares — something I almost never have.

Long ago, when I was in graduate school studying psychology, I was known to say that the problem with a condition like multiple personality disorder (MPD) was that if a psychologist or psychiatrist suspected that a patient might have such a condition, it would be nearly impossible not to imagine the potential gold mine (books, movies, publicity) the patient could provide.

Well, it turns out that in the case of one of the most famous cases of MPD, that is exactly what happened.

Photograph of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, Shirley Mason's psychoanalyst

Dr. Cornelia Wilbur,
in later years

Ambitious, domineering, failed-chemist-turned-psychiatrist Dr. Connie Wilbur meets highly suggestible patient Shirley Ardell Mason, who has both undiagnosed/untreated pernicious anemia and a monstrous crush on her new therapist.

When the two of them run into a flamboyant journalist (Flora Rheta Schreiber) who is comfortable with bending and twisting the truth, Sybil is born. It is hard to resist entirely the inference that some kind of lesbian passion — repressed or not — helped fuel the folie à deux between Dr. Wilbur and Shirley Mason. However Flora Schreiber, at least, should have known better.

The fact that the three of them incorporated their venture as “Sybil, Inc.,” reveals just how baldly the lure of money and fame fueled their collaboration.

Photograph of Shirley Ardell Mason

Shirley Mason,
as a young woman

The one person who tried to derail the Sybil juggernaut was Shirley Mason. At one point she composed a cogent, carefully thought-out, five-page confession, which she gave to Dr. Wilbur and which, years later, turned up among Schreiber’s papers. In it, she admitted to having created her many personalities in an effort to please the doctor.

Dr. Wilbur, employing the circular reasoning popular among Freudian psychoanalysts, explained that the strength of her patient’s denial of the existence of multiple personalities was undeniable proof of their veracity.

Shirley Mason also strongly resisted Wilbur’s efforts to get her to create the alternate personalities, many of which were named for the imaginary friends that populated her lonely childhood. It took years of “truth serum” and other strong barbiturates (enough for Mason to form a monstrous addiction that required hospitalized detoxification), plus Wilbur climbing into her patient’s bed (?!) to administer electro-convulsive shock “therapy,” to wear down Mason’s amazingly robust connection to reality.

Sybil book cover

Sybil, fiction
presented as fact

Why am I so disturbed by this old story when all of the protagonists are long dead? Because MPD begat the wave of people uncovering “repressed memories” of their parents doing things like roasting babies in the back yard. And that hysteria, in turn, led to the social climate that landed a bunch of child care providers in jail for committing crimes that were impossible and for which there was no evidence.

If you are not familiar with the day care provider cases, here are links to information about them:

But there is another aspect of the Sybil story that is tragic: It is also an excellent example of a woman with a very real autoimmune disease (pernicious anemia) being diagnosed as having a psychiatric disorder. This is all too often the way that women’s health issues (especially autoimmune diseases) are handled by the medical system — both then and now.

As much as I enjoyed Toni Colette’s brilliant and funny turn as a woman with multiple personalities, it is important for the public to understand that real cases of MPD/DID are extremely rare — if they exist at all.

I highly recommend Sybil Exposed to anyone who has the stomach to read it. It is as gripping as any fictional page-turner, but the story it tells is ultimately far more horrifying.

Note: This column began its life as a book review I posted on Goodreads.

Reference: Nathan D. Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case. New York: Free Press (Simon & Schuster). 2011. ISBN: 9781439168271.

Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

I am a writer and an activist for people who are disabled by chronic illness. I am also interested in issues related to the LGBTQIA community and to women making music.

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Posted in Autoimmune diseases, Ethics, Psychology
3 comments on “Nightmare on psychotherapy street
  1. Thank you for sharing your journey & realizing that multiple personalities are not as prevalent as some would have us believe.

    I am curious as to why Nathan’s book would give you nightmares? Is it because your hunches were correct?

    Regards, Jeanette Bartha

    • candacevan says:

      Why did the book give me nightmares? For a time, I did psychotherapy, and what that therapist did to that patient was profoundly upsetting to me. I think I have a more-than-passing understanding of how cruel and destructive Shirley’s treatment was — whether or not it was intentional or conscious on the part of her therapist. I had profoundly ambivalent feelings about doing therapy as well as about leaving the field, and I think that the book stirred those up. Also, when I think about how Sybil was the first step on a path that led to gross injustices (like Bernard Baran’s 22-year incarceration), I am profoundly disturbed. We put murderers away for shorter times than some have served for crimes against children that they never committed.

  2. Bob Hunley says:

    Hi Candice I watched Sybil I was in 3rd grade and then again in the early 80s with a buddy back when I was a stoner. Been clean n sober for 16 years now. But I would puff a few doobs and watch Sybil over and over day in and day out in 81. Sometimes I’d sob and cry. Now with this new book I’m a little suspicious about the authors motives. I was in a relAtionship with a woman who had disassociated multiple personality disorder. But 2 of her personalities loved me and one didn’t. Anyway we split up only because the one personality and I got Into an arguement. She provoked me. I know the disorder is true. I went through something simular after being prescribed Vikaden after foot surgery but it all came together. I’m an emulator like when we Are little we have heros. Last year I grew my hair like Jim Morrison , was always in leather had the walk and talk down alwAys cranking The Doors. This year I’ve taken on the John Lennon sgt Pepper look with specs handlebar mustache (which ill shave that soon). But me its hero worship. But I agree this Nathen lady seems to
    Have a Gloria Alred aura about her. I’m not saying Wilbur handled things right but she went up and beyond any shrink would do to help today. It was a different era and time. I have OCD and very intense at what interests me. Bob Hunley

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October 2011
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