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Sybil: a name that conjures up enduring fascination for legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973 and the TV movie based on it—starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward—about a woman named Sybil with sixteen different personalities. Sybil became both a pop phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the psychotherapy industry. The book rocketed multiple personality disorder (MPD) 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 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 in Sybil Exposed, Nathan reveals what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her ambitious shrink, and the imaginative journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.
From horrendously irresponsible therapeutic practices—Sybil’s psychiatrist often brought an electroshock machine to Sybil’s apartment and climbed into bed with her while administering the treatment— to calculated business decisions (under an entity they named Sybil, Inc., the women signed a contract designating a three-way split of profits from the book and its spin-offs, including board games, tee shirts, and dolls), the story Nathan unfurls is full of over-the-top behavior. Sybil’s psychiatrist, driven by undisciplined idealism and galloping professional ambition, subjected the young woman to years of antipsychotics, psychedelics, uppers, and downers, including an untold number of injections with Pentothal, once known as “truth serum” but now widely recognized to provoke fantasies. It was during these “treatments” that Sybil produced rambling, garbled, and probably “false-memory”–based narratives of the hideous child abuse that her psychiatrist said caused her MPD. Sybil Exposed uses investigative journalism to tell a fascinating tale that reads like fiction but is fact. Nathan has followed an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives and passions of these three women. The Sybil archive became available to the public only recently, and Nathan examined all of it and provides proof that the story was an elaborate fraud—albeit one that the perpetrators may have half-believed.
Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of MPD; within just a few years after, more than 40,000 people would be diagnosed with it. 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, unchecked ambition, and shaky theories of psychoanalysis exuberantly and drastically practiced. It is the story of how one modest young woman’s life turned psychiatry on its head and radically changed the course of therapy, and our culture, as well.
Sybil. It is one of those names that seemingly can’t be spoken aloud without everyone thinking of the young woman with 16 multiple personalities who was the subject of a bestselling book and a television movie starring Sally Field. Every psychology student in America has read the book and/or seen the movie, analyzed the case and discussed it at great length. It is likely one of the most well-known psychological cases in American history…and it was very likely all a ruse.
The information brought to light in Sybil Exposed is both fascinating and morally reprehensible. Dr. Connie Wilbur, Sybil (real name Shirley Mason) was allegedly the victim of unbelievably unethical and irresponsible practices including electroshock, drug abuse and over-prescription, hypnosis, injections of Pentothal (aka “truth serum) despite Dr. Wilbur knowing that they could lead to false memories, leading and suggestive questions, and implanted memories. Dr. Wilbur was so consumed by her own ambition and desires that she refused to see the obvious – Sybil was faking. As you read it becomes clear that the abuse she claimed to have suffered didn’t happen. At one point she even wrote a letter confirming her personalities were faked but Dr. Wilbur refused to accept the truth.
She was broke after the loss of both parents and was financially and emotionally dependent on Dr. Wilbur. It’s not a stretch to say that Dr. Wilbur had also become excessively involved with Sybil as well.
The book is very well-researched and well-documented. Nathan took great care in presenting the facts behind the Sybil case and treatment honestly and accurately rather than manipulating them to fit her own agenda as Dr. Wilbur seems to have done during the original case. There were moments throughout the book where I had issues with Nathan’s writing style, for example: she introduced the background of the author, Flora Schreiber, but then continues on discussing only Sybil and Dr. Connie Wilbur. The timeline was a bit disjointed in places and readers must be careful to pay attention while reading but it isn’t a book that readers will quickly lose interest in anyway.
It’s a well-researched book on a very polarizing topic – is MPD a legitimate condition and did Sybil really have 16 personalities? You’ll have to decide for yourself after reading it.
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Disclaimer: Sybil’s real name is Shirley Mason. For the purposes of this review, I referred to her as “Sybil” only because that is the name used in the original book and film.