Debbie Nathan Uncovers The Real “Sybil”
by Ronald Sklar
A new book reveals that the sensational multiple-personality story was just that — a story.
In 1973, Flora Rheta Schreiber wrote about the treatment of Sybil Dorsett (a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) for multiple-personality disorder (sixteen separate personalities in all!). The disturbing book touched a nerve in the culture and raised questions about the nature of self. Meanwhile, that same year, another girl had personality troubles of her own in The Exorcist. The psychotherapy industry salivated, taking furious notes. The Exorcist went on to earn its own lore, and Sybil helped to create a new psychiatric diagnosis (it’s known today as dissociative-identity disorder). Since then, the Sybil story has nurtured a cult of obsessed fans.
The book sold six million copies. An NBC miniseries, starring Sally Field and loosely based on the book, was seen by one-fifth of the country when it first aired in 1976.
However, Sybil was not all she seemed to be. In her new book, Sybil Exposed [Free Press], investigative writer Debbie Nathan sheds light on how the famous multiple personality case was fabricated, exaggerated and bent to the will of the book’s author, the patient’s therapist [Dr. Cornelia Wilbur] and even the patient herself. This trio of ambitious people rigged and concocted an incredible fiction that reads like fact.
Here, Debbie Nathan gives us a peek into what went down and what went wrong.
Why did Sybil cause such a ripple in the popular culture?
One reason was the sense of power in women, that they could overcome any kind of adversity, that they can make use of untapped talents that they didn’t even know they had. That was a powerful thing. It also made people much more aware of child abuse and the secrets of family troubles. On the other hand, it also gave women the feeling that the only way that they could express themselves was through the splitting of their personalities into a lot of different parts. So it had good and bad effects on the culture, but it was extremely powerful. Emotionally, it was an incredible read back then, but it’s only an incredible read if it’s true.
Multiple personalities were nothing new when Sybil debuted, but it seemed new.
Multiple personalities were always present in western culture — the idea of being possessed, these different people whom you can’t control, as beings inside you. It’s a very central attitude in Christianity, particularly.
So the story was exaggerated and shaped so that it could be more sensational. That’s nothing new, is it?
It happens now in journalism. We see all these scandals with memoirs. And in journalism, we have all these young reporters who are exaggerating like crazy. Sybil might have been one of the first examples of that. [Author Flora Rheta Schreiber] did pretty solid work, but in her research, she couldn’t get what she wanted out of it. It was just too late. She already had the fortune from the advance, and she had sugarplum fantasies of fame. It was a really sexy idea. Of course, the therapist had a lot of ambition because of her upbringing. Her father was a famous chemist and she had started out as a chemist under his thumb. But she ultimately did not become a chemist; she became a psychiatrist and she was always looking for the next big thing in psychiatry. This was definitely the next big thing. I mean, how are you going to walk away from that once you believe in it? Nothing was going to contradict her ambitions.