The book and movie “Sybil” told the story of a woman purported to have Multiple Personality Syndrome.
By Brian Dunning via Skeptoid
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The 1976 TV movie Sybil starred Sally Field as a woman with Multiple Personality Syndrome. The movie, and the book upon which it was based, were fictionalized but were based upon a real person. The most significant impacts of Sybil were to bring the idea of Multiple Personality Syndrome to the general public’s attention, and the controversy which followed in psychiatric circles. In her later years, debate raged over whether the woman upon whom Sybil was based indeed had multiple personalities, or was faking the whole thing, or whether she had some other disorder that compelled her to fake them. At the center was a real person who was suffering from a real illness. Today we’re going to look at what that condition might have been, and what the true state is of our knowledge of this most shocking of mental illnesses.
Shirley Mason was that woman. She was born in 1923 and died in 1998. She worked as a commercial artist, although from about the age of 30, she spent nearly half of her time in psychotherapy, prompted by emotional breakdowns and outbursts. Most of her sessions were with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. But one day, Mason came into Dr. Wilbur’s office and said that her name was not Shirley Mason, but Peggy, and that she was a small girl.
Shirley “Sybil” Mason, c. 1950
Public domain image
Other personalities soon appeared, finally totaling sixteen. Their ages varied, some were boys and some were girls, and there was even an infant. The longer they worked together, the more Dr. Wilbur became convinced that Mason’s case was an extraordinary one. She began giving academic presentations on the case, and within a few years it was the foundation of her entire professional career. Dr. Wilbur even teamed up with an author, Flora Schreiber, to document the case. Many interviews with Mason’s various personalities were taped. Wilbur determined that Mason’s mother, Hattie Dorsett, a psychotic who had been hospitalized with schizophrenia, had subjected the young Mason to years of astonishing sexual and sadistic abuses.
In the mid 1960s, Dr. Wilbur sought out help from colleagues to refine the diagnosis. She believed that Mason was a schizophrenic like her mother, and asked Dr. Herbert Spiegel to give his input. Dr. Spiegel saw Mason over the course of several years. His specialty was hypnosis, and he often hypnotized Mason. It was during these sessions that he began to realize that the various personalities might not be exactly what he’d been told they were. In a 1997 interview with the New York Review of Books, Dr. Spiegel said:
But one day during our regression studies, Sybil said, “Well, do you want me to be Helen?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, when I’m with Dr. Wilbur she wants me to be Helen.” I said, “Who’s Helen?” “Well, that’s a name Dr. Wilbur gave me for this feeling.” So I said, “Well, if you want to it’s all right, but it’s not necessary.” With me, Sybil preferred not to “be Helen.” With Wilbur, it seemed she felt an obligation to become another personality. That’s when I realized that [Dr. Wilbur] was helping her identify aspects of her life, or perspectives, that she then called by name. By naming them this way, she was reifying a memory of some kind and converting it into a “personality.”
Dr. Spiegel went on to explain how these personalities came to be:
Sybil told me that she had read The Three Faces of Eve, Thigpen and Cleckley’s book on a case of multiple personality. She was very impressed with that book… I have the impression that Sybil learned from reading this book that she could express her agonies and her stresses in life through the histrionic display of multiple personalities, especially if it were encouraged by the therapist.
For her 2011 book Sybil Exposed, author Debbie Nathan reviewed Dr. Spiegel’s extensive notes and concluded:
Sybil’s sixteen personalities had not popped up spontaneously but were provoked over many years of rogue treatment that violated practically every ethical standard of practice for mental health practitioners.
Dr. Wilbur and Schreiber asked Dr. Spiegel to co-author the book with them. They were going to make it into a book because Dr. Wilbur had been unable to get it published in professional journals.
I saw her “personalities” rather as game-playing… So I told Wilbur and Schreiber that it would not be accurate to call Sybil a multiple personality, and that it was not at all consistent with what I knew about her. Schreiber then got in a huff. She was sitting right in that chair there, and she said, “But if we don’t call it a multiple personality, we don’t have a book! The publishers want it to be that, otherwise it won’t sell!” That was the logic behind their calling Sybil a multiple personality.
And come out the book did, though it omitted any reference to the substantial role that Dr. Spiegel played in Mason’s therapy, and changed or omitted many other parts of the tale that did not conform to the compelling narrative envisioned by Schreiber. The book reassigned credit for Dr. Spiegel’s hypnosis sessions to Dr. Wilbur, even though she had in fact never actually done any hypnosis at that point in her career; instead, she’d suggested most of Mason’s false memories of abuse using sodium pentothal. The book was, in point of fact, a pop horror story; a sensationalized and fictionalized account that exploited and exaggerated a real patient’s condition, painting her as a freakish and frightening psycho. In doing so, author Schreiber even found and included a letter that Mason had written to her analyst in 1959:
I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong. We both know there is. But it is not what I have led you to believe. I do not have any multiple personalities. I don’t even have a “double” to help me out. I am all of them. I have been essentially lying in my pretense of them. The dissociations are not the problem because they do not actually exist, but there is something wrong or I would not resort to pretending like that.
However, Schreiber flipped this around rather than taking it for the true confession it purported to be, and wrote that this was another of Sybil’s hysterical personalities talking, and added (on her own) that Sybil had no memory of the two days during which she’d written the letter.
The book was a hit, selling six million copies in its first four years. Diagnoses of Multiple Personality Syndrome went from 200 worldwide to thousands of new cases each year. It was the disease of the day, trendy and new and flashy.
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