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?

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