Nathan (Pornography, 2007, etc.) claims that the subject of the 1973 international bestseller, Sybil by Flora Schreiber, and the blockbuster film that followed, was a deliberate fabrication that not only fooled a mass popular audience but shaped the practice of psychiatry, opening the door to mass hysteria and misdiagnosis.
The author first made her mark in 1995 with Satan's Silence, an exposé of hysterical complaints that young children were being abused by Satanists and false charges of ritual child abuse—allegations that were apparently substantiated but proved to be false. Her latest book illuminates how the American cultural climate that made the claims seem credible had been shaped by the earlier mythological account of a young woman with 16 alternate personalities, who suffered from a multiple personality disorder brought on by her mother's brutally abusive treatment. Before the publication of Sybil, the number of diagnosed cases was in the hundreds, while afterward the number jumped to around 40,000. While the Sybil story began to come under attack in the ’90s despite attempts to hide the subject's real name (Shirley Mason) and disguise her hometown, the strength of this book is the way in which Nathan re-creates the context in which this blatant literary fraud succeeded—the frustrations faced by ambitious young women post–World War II and the drugs then used to treat mental patients in the ’50s, many of whom were women. The author explores the co-dependent relationship between Mason and her exploitative psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur, which began in 1947 and continued intermittently until their death. While Mason became increasing disoriented by drugs administered by Wilbur, the psychiatrist claimed that she was revealing multiple personalities. Her collaboration with Schreiber, to whom she gave falsified clinical records, brought her celebrity while continuing the victimization of Mason.
A nuanced, not-entirely-unsympathetic account of the women who perpetrated a sensational literary fraud.