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.
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.
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.
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:
- A brief summary of the most famous cases
- Details of the persecution of the Amirault family
- The least-known daycare provider case, which marooned Bernard Baran, a gay man, in jail for 22 years.
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.
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.