Exposing “Sybil Exposed”

            Journalist Debbie Nathan’s book Sybil Exposed is Ms. Nathan’s effort to prove that Sybil, the best seller and TV movie from the 70’s, was not true.  Ms. Nathan discovered transcripts and plentiful records of Sybil’s therapy sessions collected by the author of Sybil, Flora Rheta Schreiber. These were found in 2008 at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Many older readers remember Sybil, the book and the movie, which recount the struggles of a young woman whose mind, divided by childhood sexual abuse, broke into seventeen personalities. We now know that Sybil’s real name was Shirley Mason and her parents were Mattie and Walter Mason, who lived in Dodge Center, Minnesota.

Ms. Nathan has certainly done mountains of research, which is to her credit. However, it seems to me that she begins with a bias against multiple personality disorder, which never really disappears from her writing.

The main premise of Debbie Nathan’s book is that Shirley’s psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, forced Shirley to remember events that were not true. Ms. Nathan claims that because Dr. Wilbur used overdoses of drugs on Shirley, the girl came up with “false memories.” Ms. Nathan adds that many of Dr. Wilbur’s techniques were questionable, including a deep bonding and close friendship between the doctor and Shirley, which is forbidden by the oath taken to become a psychiatrist and broke the boundaries between patient and doctor.

Ms. Nathan claims that Shirley Mason made up her personalities and her abuse, which seems to be a very callous judgement about a woman who lived most of her life in psychiatric treatment. Since very few people even knew about multiple personality disorder, how could Shirley know how to pretend she had it? At one point in her therapy with Dr. Wilbur, Shirley wrote the doctor a letter saying she had made up all the personalities, so I can see how Ms. Nathan came to her conclusion. But why would Dr. Wilbur continue treatment with these personalities? Ms. Nathan claims it was for the fame and the money.

Ms. Nathan goes on to say that Shirley was diagnosed with pernicious anemia when she was about ten years old, and that the disease was probably the cause of Shirley’s craziness. Ms. Nathan writes,

“Soon Shirley would not know the difference between the bad feelings in her mind and the malfunctions in her body. All would combine, into a performance that eventually would become one of the most dramatic productions in world, with help from Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and her ‘pure science.’” Sybil Exposed, p.220.

Ms. Nathan also includes several pictures of Shirley and notes she wrote calling her mother “good mother, bad mother,” because Mattie was kind to daughter on some occasions and tortured  her on others (Mattie Mason was once diagnosed as a schizophrenic). One picture shows Shirley as a young girl. She is grossly underweight, her right eye looks black and blue and her smile looks like it’s pasted on. In a picture drawn by Shirley, she writes that her mother thought she was “too fat,” and she wasn’t permitted to have lunch. Isn’t that evidence that Mattie was overtly cruel to her daughter?

Since I have Multiple Personality Disorder myself, of course I don’t agree with Debbie Nathan. I felt hurt by this book, which seems to claim that all multiples are just imagining their abuse, that it never happened and that they are making up their alternate personalities. Unfortunately there is no one to ask about the truthfulness of either Sybil or Sybil Exposed. All three women are now dead.

For those who really want to know the truth about Sybil. Dr. Patrick Suraci interviewed Shirley Mason before she died and wrote a book entitled Sybil in her own words: The Untold Story of Shirley Mason, Her Multiple Personalities and Paintings, Nov. 2011. I am planning to read that book soon and I will report on it.

I wonder if Debbie Nathan set out to prove that Sybil was normal, but proved instead that her psychiatrist was crazy. Claiming that multiple personality is a hoax takes away some hope for the children who are being sexually abused now. Are they just imagining it? Are they play-acting to get attention? Are they just making it up to vent their hatred for their parents? Or, are they simply victims of pernicious anemia?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. starkinsanity
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 07:23:56

    My grandad had pernicious anaemia. He was a normal, sensible man, without a mental health diagnosis to his name and no odd behaviour. He was kind and funny and brilliant. I find it revolting that the woman who wrote that sodding book is now happily smearing another disease- one that doesn’t affect the mind at all! I’m glad you wrote this- you’re helping to expose the grave ignorance that a lot of folk have about mental illness and mental health in general. Good on you!! 🙂
    (PS: I hear voices, but have no pernicious anaemia… to that woman, I’d probably be making it all up too! Silly cow! 🙂 )


    • Nancy DeLaval Miller
      Nov 18, 2013 @ 14:41:06

      I’m glad we agree that Debbie Nathan shouldn’t have tried to discredit Sybil’s mental illness as fraud. How can any of us step into someone else’s shoes and judge them harshly without recriminations? I am not aware that Ms. Nathan is now discrediting another disease. What is it?


      • starkinsanity
        Nov 19, 2013 @ 20:29:03

        Sorry, I think I confused you- I meant that she is also discrediting pernicious anaemia as something only “crazy” people have. Pretty stupid, really. I completely agree with you- it would be interesting for Ms Nathan to come and read these blogs. That would really open her eyes.

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