CultureWatch Reviews: Sybil Exposed
In this Review: Women, who bought the book [Sybil] far more than men, resonated to the idea that stress could fracture the mind. All this made it possible for Mason, Wilbur, and Schreiber to pull off one of the largest, most shocking cases of publishing deceit in the twentieth century.
Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case
By Debbie Nathan; © 2011
Published by Free Press; Hardback; e-book; paper (June 2012); 297pp.
Reviewed by Jill Norgren
The relationship between the author of non-fiction and her reader demands trust. Flora Rheta Schreiber apparently achieved this rapport with more than six million people in the United States after the 1973 publication of her biography of Sybil, an American woman with sixteen personalities.
Thanks in large measure to Sybil’s psychiatrist, multiple-personality disorder (MPD) became an official diagnosis, and was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)) with important consequences for the medical profession, the insurance industry, and patients. Sybil remains in print forty years after its publication. It is extraordinary, then, that in Sybil Exposed journalist Debbie Nathan is able to argue persuasively that the book was the product of conspiracy and deceit.
Shirley Mason aka “Sybil,” grew up in a small Minnesota town, the only child of Seventh-Day Adventists. She suffered from physical and emotional illnesses until, as a young adult, she met psychiatrist Cornelia (Connie) Wilbur. Doctor Wilbur, smart and charismatic but bruised by her father’s misogynistic pronouncement that she was not sufficiently intelligent to be a scientist or physician, yearned to make her mark. She found it in Shirley, a patient eager to please her psychiatrist. Shirley began treatment in 1954 with Wilbur who, for years, had been intrigued by multiple personality disorder. Wilbur had treated Shirley for five sessions in 1945 but the therapy was discontinued when Wilbur looked for a new job.
Shirley actually did well in the nine years she was on her own. However, in the early 1950s, a move to New York City, and admission to Columbia’s Teacher’s College, brought on old symptoms of unease. Somehow she discovered that Wilbur, now a psychoanalyst, had an office in Manhattan. Shirley booked a few appointments, hoping for the same positive help as in 1945.
In Sybil Exposed Nathan narrates the compelling and well-argued story of how completely Wilbur failed her patient, and how Wilbur and Flora Rheta Schreiber carried out professional fraud and negligence.
Nathan says that when Shirley resumed therapy with Connie Wilbur “her sessions … immediately veered in odd directions.” Wilbur talked about her life and violated established psychiatric ethical norms. Shirley wanted to emulate Connie by becoming a psychiatrist. Connie encouraged her but when her patient’s stress increased under the pressure of these ambitions, Connie prescribed powerful, habit-forming drugs. Shirley spent her days “half zonked,” but the fact was, to Wilbur, she was just a “garden-variety neurotic” who would not require many more sessions. Sensing that her idol’s interest was slipping away, Shirley surprised Wilbur one day with new stories of fugue states. Such behavior was caused by dissociation, the splitting of consciousness, a rare form of hysteria that greatly interested Wilbur. Connie’s commitment was re-established. Ten days later Shirley arrived for a session with her alter “Peggy Ann” speaking for her. “Vicky” followed a week later, and then “Peggy Lou.” Connie Wilbur decided to psychoanalyze Shirley and all of her alters. This would be her ground breaking experiment. Understanding the disorder would establish her as one of the greatest professionals in her field.
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