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 is the first person to have examined all of it and to provide 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 exposé, 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. (Oct.)
While this book lacks elegant prose, it more than compensates for this shortcoming by its captivating subject and Nathan's (Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt) clever presentation—it is riveting. This book uncovers facets of Sybil's history even more bizarre than her spectacular multiple personalities. Nathan explores the upbringing and early psychological problems of Shirley Mason, who was later memorialized by Flora Schreiber in the best-selling Sybil. In seeking psychiatric treatment, Mason became a lifelong patient of Dr. Connie Wilbur, a psychiatrist who supposedly cured Shirley/Sybil by integrating all 16 disparate personalities. In the end, the confluence of characters—Mason, the ambitious Dr. Wilbur, and the equally ambitious author Schreiber—creates a story even stranger than that of "Sybil" herself, as their interpersonal dynamics hurtle well beyond dysfunctional. VERDICT Excellent for general readers interested in psychiatry, especially those fascinated by Truddi Chase's When Rabbit Howls or, of course, by Sybil herself.—Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Sch. of Law, PA
"A gripping history of crackpot psychiatry" --"People" magazine
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 18th October 2011
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 16.0 x 3.4
Weight (kg): 0.499