The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: Sybil Exposed

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan.

It is impossible to hear the name Sybil without thinking of the poor, confused woman (or many women) from the eponymous book and made-for-TV film. Who could read the book or watch a young Sally Field’s portrayal of Sybil without feeling some empathy—and perhaps wondering whether one or more alternate personalities lurked inside, created by long-forgotten abuse?

Except the entire story—the dozen-plus personalities Sybil hosted, the ritualistic abuse her mother inflicted upon her, the kind yet firm treatment from her endlessly caring psychiatrist—may have been false. In Sybil Exposed, Debbie Nathan demolishes the Sybil myth. (The New York Time Magazine published an excerpt from the book last month.)

Nathan tells the story of three deeply sad, unfulfilled women, each of whom played a role in creating the brief frenzy of multiple personality disorder diagnoses, which went from about 200 in the early ‘70s to more than 40,000 in the years that followed. Sybil Exposed is a virtually Scientology-level catalog of psychiatry gone wrong: an unhealthy relationship between patient and therapist, staggering amounts of mind-altering drugs prescribed with impunity, and treatment not backed by any real science.

Sybil, whose real name was Shirley Mason, was a sickly, rather odd child, prone to strange physical symptoms and disordered mental states that led her to Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. Initially, the two had just a handful of sessions together, and her psychiatrist never noticed that other personalities were lurking beneath Mason’s fragile exterior. But years later, in 1954, they reunited when Mason went through a rough patch. In short order, the young graduate student went from a functioning, if not quite thriving, young woman to a professional psychiatric patient. She rarely worked full-time; she also became a drug addict, thanks to regular injections of barbiturates. Wilbur believed that under the inaccurately named “truth serum,” the multiple personalities could emerge, and Mason could uncover buried memories about horrific abuse she suffered as a child—sadistic, cult-influenced sexual and physical violence that Nathan contends did not occur. (If this sounds like the repressed-memory scandal of the ‘80s, there is good reason: Wilbur also was involved with that discredited movement.)

If Sybil wasn’t an honest portrayal of Mason’s psychiatric disorder, what was going on, exactly? Nathan proposes that an insecure Wilbur was desperate for professional success and fame, and Mason craved for her psychiatrist’s undivided attention; perhaps both were subconsciously influenced by media accounts of a seductive 1953 case study, later turned into the film The Three Faces of Eve, which told the story of a woman with three conflict personalities. Nathan also explores the role played by Sybil author Flora Schreiber, who, along with the TV film’s writer, embellished the already outlandish story.

In the end, Nathan proposes that all three were victims of the era’s turbulent, often confusing times, when gender roles were changing rapidly—and so were women’s ambitions.