There was a time, only a few decades ago, when multiple personality disorder was sweeping the nation. I mean to use the language of a fad, of a suddenly exciting rock band. After the release of Sybil the book by Flora Schreiber and Sybil the mini-series starring Sally Field, hundreds of thousands of diagnoses were handed out. Gloria Steinem was calling the disorder a “gift” to women. Multiples were guests on daytime talk shows, and they were writing books about the experiences, and celebrities like Roseanne Barr were coming forward with their own struggles with the disorder.
Read the last Bookslut on the new biography of Alice James.
But the case that started it all—Sybil, real name Shirley Mason—did not, it seems, even have the disorder. As Debbie Nathan began investigating the history of the world famous case study, she saw medical malpractice, gross negligence and fraud, but she did not see MPD. Her new book Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case reveals the true story of a fragile, lonely and fantastical woman, her manipulative therapist Dr. Connie Wilbur, and the journalist Schreiber who made them all rich and famous. Nathan also takes a look at the culture of the ’70s and ’80s that so willingly embraced the multiple personality disorder as a gift and as a metaphor for women’s lives.
Nathan agreed to answer a few questions about her book and the intense response she’s received since its release.
Would it be fair to call the Sybil case a fraud? Here we have two women who if they weren't completely conscious of the fact that Sybil did not really have multiple personalities were willfully ignoring information right in front of them. And if not a fraud...a gross negligence?
Flora Schreiber was a seasoned journalist, yet she spent years believing everything that Shirley Mason (aka "Sybil") and Dr. Connie Wilbur told her before she finally began fact checking her book-in-progress. By then she owed a publisher a manuscript, she'd been paid an advance—she couldn't abandon the project. Gross negligence? Sure.
Psychoanalyst Wilbur, who herself had been analyzed, should have known to maintain ethical boundaries when treating Mason. Another example of negligence. And Mason, who often seemed like a passive and confused victim, sometimes consciously lied. She wrote a fake high school and college diary, for instance, to convince Schreiber she'd had multiple personalities before she met Wilbur. That was fraud.
But for me, the larger question is: Why did the public accede so easily, so effervescently, to all this negligence and fraud? What was going on in the 1970s that made us so grossly negligent of our common sense? Why did we want to believe a story as over the top as Sybil? I spend time in Sybil Exposed trying to answer these questions.
You really do feel for Shirley, who just seems so lost. I kept rooting for her to just teach her classes and stay away from her doctor. Dr. Wilbur comes off as almost entirely unsympathetic. How did you feel about these women as you were writing about them? I got the sense, and this is maybe my own projection, as I was reading that you sometimes wanted to yell GET IT TOGETHER, LADIES.
Sometimes I felt completely fed up with the trio I spent three years getting to know. But then I'd meet their friends, kin and colleagues who are still alive. In fact, until I did this book, I'd never run into so many people from 87 to 98 years of age who were so "compos mentis"—sharp as tacks, smart, sensitive, some still going to work every day. I mulled over how much I liked these people. If they're so great, I told myself, the three women could not have been all bad. Even Dr. Wilbur.
There is still a lot of passionate feeling about these strange disorders, from multiple personality disorder to chronic fatigue syndrome. I've noticed some very angry responses to your book online. How are you taking these responses, and what do you think the motivation behind them might be?
The worst harangues are coming from just a handful of people who post over and over. Some are old friends of Flora Schreiber who loved her and have made public claims over the years that Sybil is 100 percent true. These people have zero knowledge of how Schreiber put the book together or how Dr. Wilbur conducted therapy with Shirley Mason, or they're just ignoring the evidence.
There's also a woman who runs an internet support group for people who believe they have MPD, now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Of course she's mad at me. She thinks I'm saying her and her group's illness is fake.
Actually, I'm not saying MPD/DID is fake. I believe it's a cultural construct, just as Catholic belief that one was devil-possessed used to be a cultural construct—complete with "experts" (priests and Inquisitors) interested in diagnosing and treating the problem. I'd be surprised if people with an emotional and career investment in MPD/DID weren't angry with Sybil Exposed.
The irony is that mental health researchers have been arguing for years about what MPD/DID really is, and the archival material I used to write the book has been available for a decade. But until now, it's been written about only in the most academic way. Sybil Exposed lays it out for the public. Naturally I'm getting heat.
What I find amazing about the Sybil case and the day care abuse cases that you also wrote about is how willing everyone was to believe the worst about other people, even their own parents. Looking back, it just seems like madness. So what made you want to revisit this time and try to bring some sense to the disorder?
I didn't go looking to write this particular book. What happened was, in 2007 [while] surfing various library Special Collections sites on the internet, I happened on the papers of Flora Schreiber and immediately remembered her as the author of Sybil, a book that had fascinated me in the 1970s, as it did all my girlfriends. I headed to John Jay College, where the papers are stored, and got hopelessly hooked during the first half hour. I had brought the book Sybil with me, and a page discussed how little Shirley Mason was a straight-A student in math because one alter personality knew all her multiplication tables, but after that personality retreated, her grades dropped precipitously. The first file I opened contained Shirley's report cards from first grade to high school. Year after year after year, her math grades were B's and C's. They never changed. Every file contained revelations like this.
Of course I felt like Dora the Detective or Debbie the Investigative Journalist. But there was another, even headier, part of the research experience. Learning about the lives of each of the three women was like watching episodes of Mad Men that were better than Mad Men. Dr. Wilbur, Shirley Mason and Flora Schreiber were ur-Peggys. Each in her own way was brilliant, ambitious, damaged by the sexism of her time—and ruthless. Each was fractured. And beyond information about these three, the archival material was full of 1970s-era letters from other divided women, Sybil readers who were just beginning to experience the headiness and equality of women's liberation, but who felt pulled apart by the weight of tradition. This divided zeitgeist, I think, is what made us so eager for Sybil.
It still doesn't make total sense. But it seems less disorderly, and I hope readers today will enjoy it not just as a good read, but also as a cautionary tale about how new developments in science and medicine should always be assessed critically, in their cultural and political contexts. That caveat is an answer to the chaos that was Sybil.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.