You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic*: The Myth of Sybil

More unconscious humour: at one point, the real Sybil (Shirley Mason) wrote a letter to Dr. Wilbur insisting that she did not have multiple personalities. Some critics have made much of the letter and Wilbur’s dismissal of it. But then again, which personality wrote the letter…. (To her credit, Dr. Wilbur published the letter in “Sybil”. )

Multiple Best Seller Disorder

About 25 years ago, I read a book by Flora Rheta Schreiber called “Sybil”. It was about a woman with multiple personality disorder. The good psychiatrist. Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, was able to identify 16 different personalities within the consciousness of one troubled young woman. Some of the personalities knew about the other personalities; some did not. The personalities came into being as Sybil’s way of coping with dreadful abuse at the hands of her own mother. It was an awesome book– I was fascinated.

The book created a sensation. It spawned a television movie starring Sally Field, and host of television talk show episodes. It was a big factor in the gradual popular acceptance of the idea of multiple personalities and repressed memories, both caused by child abuse, which, indirectly, led to a lot of the ideas about repressed memory syndrome and the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1980’s.

Some experts in the field have never accepted the idea of repressed memories, and, as more evidence emerges, many more people are beginning to have doubts. At the very least, most professionals have become cautious about it.

And now it looks like we should start to question the idea of multiple personalities as well: it seems that “Sybil” is a fraud.

First of all, a psychiatrist who worked with the real Sybil, wrote a book questioning the idea that she had multiple personalities. Now a psychologist, after listening to the tapes of the sessions Dr. Flora Schreiber had with Sybil, has concluded that the “multiple personalities” were actually constructions by the psychiatrist to help Sybil explain why her behaviours seemed so strange to herself. It seems that patient, doctor, and writer got carried away with the idea, and, hey, it made good television (and lots of bucks), so why not go with it?

It should be noted that Shirley Mason had read “The Three Faces of Eve”, one of the first books on multiple personality disorder (or Disassociative Identity Disorder, as the DSM called it for a while) before becoming multiple personalities herself.

Well, every time you get tempted to think we humans are pretty smart, it helps to think about something like this. A lot of people, educated and not so educated, were completely fooled by “Sybil”, and, to this day, there are a lot of psychologists out there eagerly diagnosing patients as having multiple personality syndrome or as having repressed memories, on the basis of bad science. And, remarkably, a lot of patients who insist they are MPD– remember– an acronym means it’s true– which of course makes ridiculous the claim that they are…. MPD.

*This title is borrowed from the album by Ian Hunter.

Update April 2008:

An impressive interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel, a psychiatrist who treated Sybil for a short time, and refused to participate in the book. He observes that the idea of Multiple Personality Disorder only took hold in the U.S.

Links to More Information about the Sybil Myth

Other Hollywood Disorders
Recovered Memories

Update: May 2003

Someone reading this website recently asked me a few questions about this story. I confess that I didn’t provide enough details for anyone to check into the facts, or to do an intelligent search on the subject. Here they are:

Sybil’s real name was Shirley Ardell Mason. She was born January 25, 1923 and died of breast cancer February 26, 1998.

Her psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, died in 1992, so she isn’t around to defend herself. But other analysts who have listened to tapes of her sessions with Mason say that Dr. Wilbur was suggestive in her therapy and that she used hypnosis.

Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author, also died in the early 1990’s.

The psychiatrist who also treated her and concluded that the multiple personality disorder label was a fraud was Dr. Herbert Spiegel. I read an interview with him in an interesting article in the April 1997 New York Review of Books, in which he stated that Sybil was merely a “suggestible hysteric”.

Another analyst, Dr. Robert Reiber, actually listened to tapes of the sessions between Sybil and Wilbur and concluded that
Wilbur planted the idea
of “multiple personality”
into Sybil’s head, possibly out
of some kind of misguided
therapeutic strategy, and possibly for dumber reasons.

Wilbur claimed that Sybil was “cured”– the book and movie both build up to that startling miracle moment when she “reintegrates” her personalities, but, as in so many similar stories that have been popularized on TV and books, that is not quite the truth. Shirley Mason followed Wilbur to Lexington, Kentucky, and continued to receive therapy for many years.

I would check the archives of the New York Review of Books.   [Wait a minute: has it been removed?  It would not surprise me.]

You could certainly argue that no popular book about mental illness has done more damage to more families than this one: Sybil. With the exception of the infamous medieval text Malleus Maleficarum.

Who profits? The royalties from “Sybil” were split three ways, between Sybil, Schreiber, and Wilbur.

According to the Associated Press, Sybil wrote a letter to Wilbur denying that she had multiple personalities.

“Wilbur had decided she was going to make the Sybil case into a book, because she couldn’t get it published in professional journals…” From an interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel. My emphasis.

But then, Dr. Spiegel “believes” in hypnosis. But then, Dr. Spiegel describes hypnosis as something more like a some kind of self-induced “trance” state– not what you see in the movies.

Incidentally, in the same letter in which Sybil denies having multiple personalities, she also admits to making up the stories of horrendous abuse.

Where do you put that?

What a Karacter!

Robert Sibley, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, tries, as many Republican and conservative Christian leaders have tried, to argue that President Clinton has significant character flaws that make him unfit to govern.

Aside from this rather brazen snub of the electoral process– the voters have consistently indicated that they approve of his job performance– his argument is seriously flawed in one other significant respect: the greatest presidents of the 20th century all possessed character flaws similar to those of Bill Clinton. If you asked most American voters, and most American historians, who the most effective presidents of the 20th century were, they would almost certainly include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy (though his term was cut short). They might also include Ronald Reagan, though he left the office after quadrupling the deficit, and Lyndon Johnson, who, in spite of his unpopularity in 1968, had the most aggressive and successful legislative agenda since FDR. All of these five are known to have been unfaithful to their wives.

Who were the worst presidents? Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and George Bush. Unfortunately for Mr. Sibley’s argument, these four were probably, by his definition, the ones with the most “character”, and are believed to have honored their marital vows. Too bad they couldn’t lead.

Sibley goes on to blame Clinton for the nightly news reports on stained dresses and adulterous liaisons. The fact is that the media in Canada rightly regard such activities by Canadian politicians as outside of the public interest and do not report them. It is Kenneth Starr who has decided that the President’s private life should be invaded, and the U.S. media, especially CNN, dutifully– and gleefully– report the salacious details. The Canadian media, rightly and honorably, respects the fact that even politicians are entitled to private lives.

And by the way, isn’t righteous CNN host Larry King working on wife #5?

Neither Newt Gingrich nor Bob Dole, the leaders of the Republican Party, are married to their first wives. But hey, Mr. Sibley, Dan Quayle is! And he is reportedly optimistic that a Republican candidate can defeat Bill Clinton in the year 2000. That would be remarkable indeed, since Bill Clinton can’t run in 2000, having already served two terms.

Nobody likes what Clinton did, but most Americans at least have the good sense to tell pollsters over and over again that they don’t believe they need to hear about it. Maybe they believe that real character includes other attributes, such as respect for privacy, concern for the environment, sound fiscal management (Clinton has the deficit under control), and respect for the expressed wishes of the electorate. Rome is burning while Starr and his Republican satyrs play their twisted fiddles, hoping and praying that what they could not achieve in a fair election or honest discourse can be won with devious snitches and brazen hypocrisy.

A Coup’d’etat

I haven’t hear the phrase “coup d’etat” used in a headline since the 1960’s, in connection with Greece, Chile, and other Latin American countries. It’s time to bring it back into popular usage. What we are seeing in the U.S. right now is either a coup d’etat, or mass lunacy on an unimaginable scale.

Ask yourself this: does the American public have the right to know details about the sex lives of political leaders? Yes? No? Only if the sex includes criminal behaviour? How do we know if the behavior is criminal? If there is a victim, a plaintiff. Is there a plaintiff in the Lewinsky scandal? Not that we know of.

The Republican’s argue that… well, their arguments are so absurd they don’t bear repeating. They always turn the discussion towards the salacious, without offering any details of what exactly the President has done that is so evil that the entire mechanism of government must be brought to a halt in order to confront it. That’s because no such issue exists.

Ask yourself this: do you want the President of the world’s most powerful country to spend his time dealing with the economy, international affairs, and national security, or explaining to a bunch of partisan Republican pit bulls the details of his sex life? This is not as trivial a question as the media would have you believe right now. In fact, this question is an insane question. If you feel that this is a legitimate question, with all due respect, I think you are insane.

I think most people think that this issue really is important because the national media spend all their time and resources covering the story, instead of, say, the fact that Saddam Hussein once again is defying the United Nations arms inspectors. The media cover the story with preposterous obsessiveness because, well, how often do you have a pretense to discuss the President’s sex life on TV? Almost never. But here you have an Independent Prosecutor actually investigating the President’s sexual behaviour and leaking it all over the place– it’s a tabloid’s dream come true. Even Dan Rather came rushing back from Cuba to breathlessly report on the semen-stained dress. Is he insane? Has he lost all perspective? Is he an idiot? I’m beginning to think so.

Yet, most Americans continue to insist that they don’t think it’s important. They’re not sure why it’s in their face every day, but they watch, and then, again, wonder why it is so important? Every time CNN does a “town hall” on the issue, most of the “average” citizens say they don’t care, and the polls confirm that the vast majority of Americans continue to feel that way. Maybe the vast majority of Americans are smarter than you think.

The essential dynamic is this: through the existence of the Independent Prosecutor and their majority in the House and the Senate, partisan Republicans are able to keep the investigation going no matter how utterly, incomprehensibly absurd the whole thing becomes. This is a classic example of what Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, called “the big lie”. You take an absurd proposition, that the President of the United States should be prevented from exercising the functions of his office because an idiot independent prosecutor thinks he may have had consensual sex in the White House, and you simply stand around for seven months and act as if it is unimaginable to think otherwise.

Orin Hatch is now a stand-up comedian. He looks like Buster Keaton with his deadpan face, solemnly intoning into the camera, “Yes, we may have to impeach the leader of the free world if it appears that he has lied about having sex.” I can’t watch him without imagining that the minute the camera goes away, he’s going to collapse into hysterical laughter.

What the Lewinsky scandal and Kenneth Starr’s investigation really means is that the Republicans care so little for the legitimate governance of the state and have so little respect for the electoral process that they are willing to go to almost any lengths to sabotage the Clinton administration. Having lost the election fair and square, they refuse to accept or respect the results. They are using any means at their disposal to destroy the presidency. This is the real story, and the press should be exploring the profound political implications of what is happening here. When is the last time anyone on CNN discussed the following issues:

1. Will the electorate lash out at the Republicans this fall and give the Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress?

2. Will the Democrats take revenge when they do get control of Congress, and thereby chairmanship (and agenda) of the committees that investigate these matters?

3. Will the Democrats bring down the next Republican President the same way? Have you thought about that? The Republicans have established a new benchmark of political brutality. The Democrats are not likely to forgive and forget, and one almost wishes they wouldn’t. Do you think it would be any harder for the Democrats to find a pretense to cripple the presidency of, say, (ha ha) a Dan Quayle?

4. Will the next Presidential campaign focus almost entirely on the sexual behaviour of the candidates?

5. Do you really want a president who can survive this kind of microscopic examination of his personal life?

6. Of the presidents who served in this century, here are the probable or definite philanderers: Franklin Roosevelt,  Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton.

Here’s the “pure” non-philanderers (as far as we know):  Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Walker Bush.

Well? Who do you prefer?

One last absurdist note from the irrepressible Dan Quayle. He thinks that the Republicans should be able to find a candidate in 2000 who can beat Bill Clinton. Well, yes, they might: Clinton can’t run in 2000– he’s already served two terms.