I vaguely recall seeing the made-for-tv movie based on the supposedly true story of Sybil, the woman who had sixteen distinct personalities inside her. The non-fiction blockbuster was published in 1973, two years before I was born, and has sold millions of copies and never been out of print. Now time reveals, through Ms. Nathan’s exhaustive and excellent research, and this well written expose, that much of the story has either been greatly exaggerated or fabricated.
Sybil the book and movie is actually the story of three women. The patient: Shirley Mason, who was given the name of Sybil to respect her privacy, a sensitive artistic soul, struggling with guilt over her artistic desires which were at variance with her strong religious upbringing. The doctor: Cornelia Wilbur, her determination to succeed was forged in childhood when she was told little girls grew up and got married and had babies instead of going to college to become doctors. The journalist: Flora Rheta Schreiber writing SYBIL allowed her to exchange cloth coats for mink.
The true story of Sybil is one of medical malpractice. Over eleven years, in hypnotherapy sessions, Dr. Wilbur drew out the most outlandish tales of sexual abuse at the hands of her sadistic and depraved mother out of her patient, aided by Pentotal injections, to which Shirley (a.k.a. Sybil) became addicted. She also prescribed many other drugs that were dangerous and addictive both on their own and in combination. She set out to become a mother figure to her patient and even socialized with her and let her live in her home. She did not bother to investigate red flags and ignored physical problems, genuine medical causes that were most likely at the root of her patient’s distress. When Shirley tried to confess that she had invented her various personalities to please the doctor, that her episodes of lost time really weren’t, Dr. Wilbur had by that time so much invested in this career-making case that would change perceptions of Multiple Personality Disorder that she refused to accept and in the end her drug-addled and dependent patient, fearing losing her therapist, would recant and go on saying anything to please Dr. Wilbur. And the book, which Dr. Wilbur had made a deal with journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, would make them all famous and provide income for years to come.
This was fascinating to read, but also very sad. I felt the patient was used and abused by the doctor she turned to for help, with a little less ambition and greed she might have had a better life, though she herself was not without blame for the way this story was exploited and blown all out of proportion.