The Truth About ‘Sybil’: Q&A with Author Debbie Nathan

The famous patient "Sybil" is now known to have fabricated her many personalities, but the hysteria in the 1970s surrounding "multiple personality disorder" reveals some interesting truths about society at the time.

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In the mid-’70s, it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about “Sybil,” a woman who was said to have developed multiple personalities after suffering a childhood of horrific abuse. The eponymous book by Flora Rheta Schreiber, detailing Sybil’s story of healing with the help of psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur, became a massive bestseller and spawned a highly rated TV movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward. It also triggered a decade of increasing diagnoses of “multiple personality disorder” (MPD).

The integrity of Wilbur’s diagnosis and Schreiber’s account have since been called into question, and Sybil’s traumatic history and multiple personalities were revealed to be fabricated. The doctor and the author are accused of manipulating Sybil for financial gain; the patient, meanwhile, went along with it in part to please her therapist.

The latest investigation into the truth about Sybil comes from journalist Debbie Nathan, who reports in her recent book, Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case, that what really happened in the case of Shirley Mason — the woman who came to be known as Sybil — was even stranger than the fictional account of her life. Healthland spoke with Nathan.

What got you interested in Sybil?

The book came out in 1973, and I read it just a few months later. Like my friends and many other young women who were in their 20s then, I was obsessed with it.

It was like a delicious horror movie. My friends and I would ask, “What if we, too, had multiple personalities and didn’t know it? And what if our moms or dads tortured us and we didn’t know that either?” Of course, we hadn’t been tortured and we didn’t have extra personalities. But there was something strangely compelling about thinking and talking about these things.

And how did you decide to write about her?

I became very interested in multiple personality disorder while researching Satan’s Silence, my 1995 book about false allegations of Satanic ritual [sex] abuse of children.

Then, in 2007, I got the idea of doing a book based on archival research. I started getting online to find an interesting archive, and I was poking around the John Jay College library site. I saw that they had the papers of Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of Sybil. I noticed that the collection had one box in which everything had to do with Sybil, as well as 36 other boxes about Schreiber’s life in general. I reread Sybil before I made my first visit to the archive.

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What happened when you first saw the papers in those boxes?

In the first half-hour, I realized they were a bombshell. I had just read in the book that Sybil had been a straight-A student. But when she was 8 years old, the book said, her alter personality, Peggy, took over and learned Sybil’s multiplication tables in her absence. When Sybil returned to normal two years later, she had no knowledge of multiplication. Her straight A’s in math plummeted, according to the book.

But one of the first things I saw in the archives were copies of [Shirley’s] report cards. She had B’s and C’s in math all the way through school. Her grades never changed.

So, right away, you knew some things were made up. You also found that Mason’s psychiatrist drugged her with barbiturates for years to get her to “open up” about her childhood abuse and having multiple personalities. Did Dr. Wilbur ever consider the risk of drug addiction or the creation of false accounts of her patient’s experiences?

Dr. Wilbur did eventually realize that addiction was a problem. She tried to make Shirley go cold turkey, which created a lot of conflict between the two women. The material in the archives from this time reads as though Shirley is a junkie pleading for more dope from her pusher.

The drugging went on from 1955 to about 1959. After that, it seems Shirley detoxed in a hospital and stopped using barbiturates. But the drugs caused her stories of childhood to be very garbled and easy to misinterpret.

Was it difficult to find contradictions, especially related to the severe and bizarrely torturous sex abuse that Mason supposedly experienced?

Items showing a history of confabulation are in several boxes of the Schreiber archives and in other collections, too. I almost fell over when I saw some of them, because some of the stories Shirley was telling were so obviously made up. She talked about being repeatedly tortured in a grain crib in her backyard, for instance. But grain cribs are as big as silos. There was no grain crib in her little yard, or anywhere nearby in her little town.

Why did Schreiber keep such incriminating material?

Flora imagined herself to be a very important person. I think she thought it would be good for the world to know about her work after she died. On the other hand, she suffered from very debilitating cancer for the last year of her life. Maybe she just didn’t have time or energy to burn all the bad stuff.

If “Sybil” didn’t have multiple personalities, what was wrong with her?

She was a very imaginative, fantasy-prone child. If she’d grown up in a supportive, secular family, she might have become a fiction writer. But she grew up in a rural, Seventh-Day Adventist subculture that hardly exists today. Back then, they thought that reading fiction and being imaginative were sinful.

She took her faith seriously; maybe she had some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But she was very serious about religion and she felt very guilty about straying into wrongdoing. That combination could give any kid problems.

As a teen, she developed a tingling numbness in her arms, severe headaches and fatigue. She was also underweight. She started college and began to have blackouts. The school doctor diagnosed her as suffering from hysteria.

You’ve uncovered some medical evidence that suggests she may actually have been suffering from an organic illness.

Yes — and the idea that you feel like you’re a different person is a symptom of the particular organic disease, which I discovered. I don’t want to put in a spoiler here about exactly what it was. But I will say that the disease Shirley had is not so uncommon, and today it’s easily treatable. Yet her psychiatrist did not know she had an organic disease. She assumed Shirley’s symptoms were all psychological.

So, do you think multiple personality disorder is real?

Arguing the “fakeness” or “realness” of MPD doesn’t take us very far in understanding what it is, so I try to avoid those terms. It’s more helpful to recognize that this particular illness, and variations of it, spring up whenever there are experts who are interested in labeling and treating it — whether those experts be priests, shamans or psychiatrists.

MPD also occurs when there are conditions that encourage people to express distress though the “language” of displaying multiple selves. When they do this, their new MPD identity generally feels very real. They get sick, and the illness can spread to other suggestible, troubled people. That’s what happened during the post-Sybil period, when MPD turned into an epidemic.

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But what about the notion that extreme trauma can create experiences of feeling dissociated from one’s body and mind?

When traumatic things happen to people, it’s not uncommon for them to feel outside of their bodies, depersonalized and de-realized. That’s a very real aspect of dissociation — no one argues about it.

But the idea that hardcore MPD proponents cite — that the mind breaks off pieces of consciousness and splits, so that memories are walled off — there’s no scientific evidence that this happens. In fact, a common response to trauma is not problems with remembering, but rather, intrusive memories and an inability to stop thinking about the trauma, even though you want to.

One of the cardinal rules in therapy is that you are not supposed to have “dual relationships.” Most obviously, doctors shouldn’t sleep with their patients, but they are also not supposed to work together or barter services. The whole situation between Dr. Wilbur and Mason violated virtually all of the rules.

Because of the boundary violations, Shirley became something of a slave to the demands of Dr. Wilbur, including when it came to enacting and elaborating on the diagnosis of multiple personality. Consciously or unconsciously, Shirley got the message that she needed to generate more and more selves. Consciously or unconsciously, she complied. Emotionally — and financially, as well — she became extremely dependent on her doctor in very improper ways.

At one point, Mason even “confessed” to fabricating the multiple personalities, in an effort to be honest and to make therapy work. She wrote a long letter describing exactly how she’d created the illusion of multiple personalities and gave the letter to Dr. Wilbur.

That’s right. MPD true believers commonly dismiss that letter; they say that when people get to a stage in their psychotherapy where things are getting difficult, they often say that they’re cured and don’t need any more treatment. They call this “resistance.” But Shirley Mason’s four-page, single-spaced letter of recantation does not say she wants to quit therapy. She says she wants more, but she wants it to be honest. She’s not running away. She’s not manifesting resistance.

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Why do you think the Sybil story captivated so many people?

For two reasons. First, emotionally distressed people in many cultures go though periods when they feel as though they have alien beings inside them. Some examples from our culture are the feeling of being possessed by the devil, or, alternatively, of having the Holy Spirit inside you. There have been times in history when feelings like these have been much more prevalent than at other times.

In the 1970s we got a new version of the “split.” This time it affected mostly women. I think this inner feeling of splitting reflected an outer reality. Because of rapid alterations in the economy and advances in feminism, we young women of the 1970s and 1980s were experiencing huge changes.

And feminists during this period were discovering child abuse and rape. They realized that most of it was going on not out on the street, but among acquaintances and with little girls’ kin as the perpetrators. Sybil is about maltreatment by a parent. The book resonated with women’s growing sense that not all was right inside the family, and things needed to be done to make the family a more just and safer place for females.

On the other hand, of course, Sybil was just out-and-out pornographic. It’s ironic that feminists in the 1970s started to mount a strong critique of images and literature that presented rape and molestation as titillating. Yet Sybil is a blow-by-blow account of a child being sexually assaulted in the most sadistic ways imaginable. Young women readers couldn’t get enough of it. Neither could teenage girls. What was that about?

Sybil may have been filled with inaccuracies, but its truth lies in the boundless appeal that the book held for so many millions of us.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.