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.
Journalist Nathan (Satan's Silence) has spent much of her career writing about child sex abuse panics and debunking "recovered memory syndromes," in which adults aided by over-zealous therapists suddenly "recalled" episodes of childhood abuse. Here, she tackles one of the most famous of these cases: that of the multiple-personality sufferer known to the world as "Sybil" the subject of the 1970s bestseller and a TV special starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward (who starred in Three Faces of Eve, an earlier film of multiple personality). In this startling expos , she examines the records author Flora Rheta Schreiber left with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, detailing Schreiber's research into the unusual case of the frail, troubled Shirley Mason the real Sybil. The extensive therapy transcripts reveal that Mason's psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, may have cued "memories" of horrific childhood abuse during marathon hypnotherapy and electroshock sessions supplemented with mind-altering drugs. Nathan traces the paths of the three women the patient, the doctor, and the author who publicized the case who formed "Sybil Incorporated." Along the way, she reasons that the concept of the multiplicity of selves and the subsequent popularity of the diagnosis may have become the perfect idiom of distress for a generation of women who, rocked by the feminist revolution, felt confusion at their new and conflicting roles. Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original.
Customer ReviewsSee All
I did like the book, I wish the author could elaborate more details about Shirley with herself and her own thoughts about her inn and feelings that she was thinking was right when we can read its not , maybe her journal would help some how. I'll watch movie maybe I will understand better.
Excellent investigating reporting
The book is excellent investigating reporting. It debunks the Sybil claim and opens the readers eyes to the fraud that was committed. I was sad for Sybil for she was "raped" by her doctor, her own insecurities, the writer of the first book and now this one.
Reading between the lines of "Sybil Exposed."
This was quite an interesting book. But not for the obvious reason.
I vividly remember reading the book "Sybil" as a very young teenager and then later, watching the movie. My Godfather was a criminal psychiatrist and both my parents were in the medical field. They frequently worked together on various projects, and my mom was in charge of the only psych ward we had in town at the time. When my dad and I would pick mom up from work, I would invariably witness some truly bizarre behaviors from my mom's patients while we were waiting around for her to finish her rounds. And there were ALL KINDS of patients' stories that would be discussed and debated around the dinner table (no names mentioned, of course).
Because I was introduced to "mind science" at such a young age, I did find the book, Sybil, fascinating, but I was not so enthralled with it as so many young women supposedly were according to this author's writing. And I sure as hell couldn't relate to it on a personal level. It seemed possible, as anything is possible, even if not probable, but it was so far removed from my experiences growing up, that, to me, it was and would continue to be a very rare case.
There was no heightened sense of "Sybil Mania" or "MPD Mania" that I was ever aware of in my community, nor among my friends, their parents, or among anyone else I knew, for that matter. In fact, I don't know of any of my friend's who read the book, or saw the movie, or had even heard of who this Sybil person was. I actually remember NOT discussing it with them because they knew nothing of it, and probably would have thought it was just another crazy movie that didn't make sense to them. Not that we were ignorant or naive, but we had other "teenager interests and issues."
In the meantime, while I was fully aware of Sybil's story, I was completely unaware of the rest of the world's reaction. I must have been at that age when I was more interested in boys than in reading the New York Times, or watching the news, and I missed all the hub-bub.
Therefore, in reading Sybil Exposed now, as an adult, what I DO find most fascinating about this book is how the rest of the world whipped themselves into such a frenzy over it, and that so many innocent people were accused of doing horrible things to children, while everyone else - cops, lawyers, doctors, judges, and most frighteningly of all, our peers - JURORS - were so willing to accept it as truth and convict these poor people with not a shred of real evidence. That a judge would swear in and hear testimony from each of a woman's 6 "alters" (multiple personalities) and consider it as evidence against a man she accused of raping her with the explanation that it wasn't her "real" self, but her 6 year old alter personality who had sex with the man ~ and that he SHOULD HAVE RECOGNIZED HER CHILD ALTER and not have had sex with her is beyond the scope of my vocabulary to express my utter outrage and disbelief that a judge and jury could be so negligent with a man whose life they held in their hands. And that the man was determined guilty because of the woman's alter witnesses is ... just ... Overwhelmingly absurd!!!
Certainly, child abuse occurs and it has consequences, and we are more aware of it now than we were back then. But the equation of people in our society who are easily conned, highly suggestible, overly dramatic, hysterical, panicked, and just flat out not too bright coupled with people in the field of psychology who are money hungry, selfish, self-promoting, ego driven, fame mongering, dangerous nit-wits, who all teamed up to repeat the Salem Witch Trials, and re-enact The Crucible is sad testament to our existence.
Above and beyond the theme of whether or not MPD is a valid psychological condition, or if any of these atrocities did actually happen to Sybil/Shirley, the message I heard loud and clear in reading this book is that we, as the human race, are a scary bunch of idiots doomed to repeat history over and over again (as in the Witch Trials, etc.) to the detriment of us all. Sybil Exposed made that perfectly clear, although I doubt that was the author's intent. This book's intent was to question the validity of MPD and Sybil/Shirley, but what came out of it instead was the undeniable fact that we simply do not ever learn from our mistakes throughout our history, and THAT is what I find most disturbing ... because ~ WHAT'S NEXT?!