by Dee Ernst
Sybil, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, was another one of those books I remember as completely capturing my imagination. Published in 1973, it sold millions of copies, spawned a mini-series that starred Joanne Woodward and transformed Sally Field from Gidget into A Serious Actress. I read it over and over. I couldn’t help it. It was such a compelling story – a poor, tortured artist, trying to find herself in the Big Bad City, carefully and lovingly put back together by a dedicated doctor. I loved that book. And now, it looks like it was all a great big pile of hooey.
Debbie Mason’s Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case, published last fall, is yet another face of the woman known as Sybil. From the actual notes and therapy records, given to Schreiber by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and Shirley Mason, Sybil herself, Nathan has put together quite a different story of Sybil, young woman who came to a therapist for help, and ended up creating an entirely new psychiatric phenomenon, Multiple Personality Disorder.
Schreiber’s records, stashed in the basement of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice have since been gone over by researchers and doctors. Although it’s clear that Mason was in fact treated by Dr. Wilbur for years, what her actual issues were remains a mystery. In the process of writing the book, something that all three women wanted desperately for three very different reasons, the truth was not always a prime consideration. Schreiber was very influenced by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which he called a non-fiction novel . Schreiber wanted the same thing – a true story that read like fiction. And she was not at all against writing whatever it took to create a bestseller.
There are so many things in Nathan’s book – Wilbur’s story, of a bright, ambitious woman trying to make it in what was a man’s world, and craving the respect and admiration of her peers. Schreiber wanted to be a famous writer – her career was a series of ups and downs that did nothing to achieve what she thought was her full potential. And Shirley Mason – she was surely a victim, but of what?
Nathan recounts that the therapies Wilbur used, particularly the drugs that she gave Mason, were later found to be addictive and, more importantly, caused patients to hallucinate. Probably not the best course when you’re trying to recall the truth. The therapy took years and years – Wilbur crossed all sorts of ethical boundaries in her relationship with Mason, including paying her rent and allowing her to live with her on and off during treatment. Mason was obviously craving Wilbur’s love and attention, and it’s possible she took Wilbur’s ‘suggestions’ and turned them into what she thought Wilbur wanted to hear. And Schreiber was there at the right time and with the right pitch to pull it all together.
Nathan does a great job, I think, in trying to remain objective throughout a very long and emotional story. And it’s a story with very broad implications. As a result of Sybil being published, hundreds of women can forward with similar stories – of abuse, buried memories, splintered personalities. And many those stories were later found to be false. And Wilbur, after pioneering the therapy for finding and ‘curing’ Multiple Personality Disorder, may have been doing everything wrong.
As for Mason, she finally settled down as an Art Instructor at a small college in West Virginia, but her normal life was shattered when a reporter, following the trail left by Wilbur, tracked down not only Mason. He not only found her, he found her home town, visited places where incidents recounted in the book took place and tried to verify some of the allegations made in the book. He couldn’t.
This is a great book for fans of the original Sybil, because it makes you sit back and shake your head in complete amazement. (Really. All that horrific abuse? Maybe it didn’t happen at all. Multiple personalities? Never witnessed by anyone but Wilbur and Mason’s roommate, who may have had her own agenda.) But even if you don’t know who I’m talking about here, it’s still a fascinating look at the changing roles of women in America during the forties and fifties and on into the age of ‘Woman’s Lib’. And it’s a real eye-opener as an examination of mental illness and it’s treatment, and how the conventional wisdom of psychiatrists could turn with the changing attitudes of society.