Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan

October 31, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): Sybil: a name that resonates with legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973. The book rocketed multiple personality disorder 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 outlined in the megabestseller 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 Nathan reveals the trio of women behind the legend: the willing patient, her ambitious shrink, and the imaginative journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

Sybil Exposed draws from an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives and passions of these three women whose story exploded into an epic movement with consequences beyond their wildest dreams. 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, bold but unchecked ambition, runaway greed, utter human vulnerability, duplicity and shared delusion, shaky theories of psychoanalysis exuberantly and drastically practiced, and how one modest young woman’s life turned psychiatry on its head and radically changed the course of therapy—and our culture, as well.

Reaction:

I was born after the original Sybil book was released, so I never experienced the uproar that swept the country in the work’s immediate aftermath. However, I was of course familiar with all the mainstream talk show hosts of the ’80s, including Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Oprah, who did special programs about multiple personality disorder (MPD). Sybil was invariably mentioned in these programs, so I had an inkling of what the original case was about.

Nathan’s book is an extremely exhaustive, well-researched account of how the three women responsible for “Sybil, Inc.” came together and essentially created this blockbuster work out of whole cloth. The doctor and journalist each made a fortune and were able to buy fancy cars and furs, pay for Myrtle Beach house rentals oceanfront property, and keep up a nice lifestyle. Sybil, of course, reaped none of the same rewards.

As the title of the book suggests, Nathan exposes the malpractice, half-truths, and outright lies surrounding Shirley Mason (Sybil’s real name) and the entire MPD claim. Among the compelling evidence Nathan cites are letters written by Shirley herself in which she admits to fabricating the personalities just to please Dr. Wilbur. There are other indications that the various personalities were simply made up, but I won’t get into all that here.

Much of the book was shocking to me — especially the completely unethical way Dr. Wilbur handled her patient. She provided treatment to Shirley on credit, gave her loans, traveled (vacationed) with her, and even ended up living with her. I can’t imagine anyone in the psychiatric community — even back then when ethical guidelines weren’t so clearly delineated — taking Wilbur’s work seriously in light of this professional misconduct (which wasn’t exactly a secret).

I was also shocked — and greatly saddened — to learn that Shirley’s mental problems may not have been very deep to begin with. There is some evidence in Nathan’s book to suggest that Shirley got much worse after years and years of psychotherapy at the hands of Dr. Wilbur, and that her life likely would have been considerably different had she seen a different doctor. Instead of spending 12 years in the prime of her life under the influence of sodium pentothal, barbiturates, and other narcotics, she could have been a productive art teacher.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about Nathan’s book, it’s the fact that she felt the need to give such extensive histories of the three main women involved. I mean, she talked about Flora (Schreiber, the author of the original Sybil) and Dr. Wilbur’s childhoods, which felt like overkill to me. Obviously it was necessary to learn about Shirley’s childhood, but I parts pertaining to the other women could have been excised.

There seems to be some controversy surrounding the various conclusions Nathan draws about MPD (now called DID) itself based on the Sybil scandal. While I can see how her conclusions would outrage some people, I don’t have enough of a stake in that argument to truly care one way or the other.

Rating

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan. What I got was a book that comprehensively covered its stated topic and was more interesting than not along the way. I learned a bunch of things about Shirley Mason, Dr. Wilbur, and Flora Schreiber, and know more about the Sybil scandal than I did before going in. Overall, I’d say this was a worthwhile read and I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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