Readers Corner

Readers Corner: Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan

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Sybil, published in the early/mid 1970s introduced society to the concept of multiple personality disorder, as well as the long-term ramifications of childhood abuse. The book was an overwhelming sensation, spawning a mini-series and a new therapeutic specialty. Problem is, according to author Debbie Nathan, the whole thing was pretty much a fraud.

For certain people, Sybil’s story resonates so strongly that no amount of ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ will sway their opinion. These people have taken to attacking Ms. Nathan: as unqualified (as if Flora Schreiber was any more of an expert when she wrote ‘Sybil’), for knowingly perpetrating errors, for judging Dr. Willis for using (at the time) acceptable treatment techniques, or for writing with an obvious agenda (again, as if Schreiber and were neutral on the topic). The only proof this book’s detractors seem to produce is “Sybil” itself, which was never fact-checked by the publisher (as the subsequent lawsuits illustrate), or an assertion of having DID/MPD (I have it, so it must be true!) ,or an alleged relationship with Shirley Mason (aka Sybil), which is quite convenient considering Ms. Mason can’t confirm or deny due to her pre-existing condition as dead.

The medical profession has a spotty history where women are concerned, and the advent of MPD (now known as Dissociative Personality Disorder) is no different. As we now know, boys and young men are not exempt from molestation and abuse, yet MPD/DID (as well as hysteria, and borderline personality disorder) are primarily women-only diagnoses. It is not unreasonable to question the origins and purposes of such labels, and such queries do not necessarily render the entire paradigm erroneous or moot. In other words, “Sybil” as fabrication does not negate DID/MPD as a real disorder.

Yes, Dr. Willis was a practitioner of her time, but paying Shirley’s rent, taking her on trips, allowing her to sleep over – those things were as unethical in the 1950s as they are now. She allowed Shirley to develop an unhealthy dependence on her, and despite evidence of falsehood and suggestibility, she continued administering barbituates and other ‘truth’ serums. Willis was a psychiatrist – a physician – she knew what drug addiction looked like, yet she watched Shirley’s function deteriorate and never questioned the role of the medications?

One undisputable fact is that Willis sold out her patient for the sake of Shreiber’s book. No ethical practitioner would ever have suggested she participate in such a thing, and no responsible journalist ever would’ve exposed a woman as fragile as Shirley Mason to the public in such a way. Yet they both did, and they profited greatly from it. Meanwhile, Shirley was hounded, lost her job, her house and her hard-fought independence and contentment in the world. And when the pressure mounted, Willis told her to cut all ties with her loved ones, which she did without explanation, much to their hurt and confusion.

In truth, I think it was unnecessary for Ms. Nathan to lump in the story of “Sybil” with 21st century attitudes toward DID and/or memories of childhood abuse. Yes, mistakes were made in the 1980s and 90s, but I’d like to think we’ve all learned quite a lot since then (and by ‘we’, I mean mental health practitioners, law enforcement, and the public). Nathan’s prior coverage of false memories clearly establish her opinions on the matter, and frankly, hurt her journalistic integrity in regards to “Sybil’s” veracity. It is the one weak point of her argument, and the one her detractors have successfully seized upon.

In closing, “Sybil: Exposed” is an worthwhile examination of mid-century gender struggles, evolving definitions and treatment of mental illness, and the power of narrative to affect change. Ignore the zealots and read it with those things in mind.