Sybil Exposed

In 1956 Shirley Mason (aka Sybil) was a student at Columbia University. She woke up one morning and realized she was in Philadelphia and had no idea how she got there or what she was doing there. The first events she could remember had happened 5 days before - she couldn't remember anything more recent.

Shirley Ardell Mason was raised as a 7th Day Adventist, very strict, no novels, no art both of which she loved. Her mother was very strict, her father not really engaged. Shirley first exhibited strange behavior in 1935 while in grade school. She had terrible mood swings, tended to "zone out," and forget where she was. As a child she was treated for a blood disorder which alleviated most of the symptoms. As a teenager she was brought to Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for therapy. This was a match mad in hell for Shirley.

Dr. Wilbur came from a Christian Scientist background. In 1930 she graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Science. She married and used her husband's money to pay for medical school. Psychiatry was her speciality. Wilbur considered herself on the cutting edge of feminism. Dr. Wilbur believed all of Shirley's symptoms were due to repressed memories and it was up to her to bring them out.

Wilbur had done some experimental work with drugs. Mostly mind altering ones the military was using, notably Pentothal. Wilbur would put Shirley into drug induced trances and hypnotic states that allowed Shirley to "remember" the abuse she allegedly suffered. Soon Wilbur was convinced that Shirley had multiple personalities that were responsible for some of the behavior.

Multiple personality diagnoses were extremely rare at this time and almost never made. The movie "The Three Faces of Eve" had been released and it set off an interest in the area. Most of the people diagnosed with multiple personalities had 1 or 2 other personalities. Shirley had 16. Intensive therapy followed. The professional relationship between the 2 women lasted for years. Shirley developed a serious case of transference. Wilbur continued to pump Shirley full of a cocktail of drugs: Pentothal, Seconal, Demerol, Edvisal and Daprisal. The last 2 drugs were removed from the market because of side effect issues. Any or all of the drugs could cause hallucinations and altered personalities as a side effect of the drug. Dr. Wilbur felt her methods were justified because multiple personality disorder was very rare and understudied.

Dr. Wilbur decided to approach Shirley about writing a book. They, in turn, get together with Flora Schrieber who at the time was writing free lance articles for women's magazines. Schreiber gets the information on "Sybil" from Dr. Wilbur and is immediately hooked. She neglects to verify most of the facts alleged by the doctor. She cobbles enough information together to write the book, although she will later admit to embellishing facts. Schreiber wants a happy ending for the book, so she hesitates to publish it.

Shirley had been keeping her own diary of her treatment sessions which chronicled some of her behavior. The diary showed that she craved positive comments from Dr. Wilbur. In 1975 Dr. Wilbur declared that Shirley's personalities had integrated and she stopped treatment, but by this time Dr. Wilbur was becoming a world renown multi-personality specialist. In 1958 Shirley wrote the doctor a letter saying she had made up the entire history. There were no multiple personalities. Wilbur didn't believe it. In fact she claimed an alternate personality wrote the letter. Therapy started up again along with the drugs.

Sybil was becoming more and more dependent on Dr. Wilbur, who was beginning to worry about this. The doctor was afraid that people would begin to realize that Shirley was actually Sybil. In 1965 Dr. Wilbur once again decides that all the personalities have finally integrated. Flora can now publish her book because she can give it a happy ending. The book was an immediate hit.

The book was turned over to a screenwriter named Stewart Stern. Stern had strong doubts about the story. He didn't believe the facts checked out but when Dr. Wilbur played some of the tapes from Shirley's therapy sessions he was convinced. What he didn't know was that Shirley was under the influence of some mind altering drugs at the time the tapes were made. Stern admitted that he also added some "deliberate fictions" to the screen play. No one could really verify anything with Sybil because no one knew her real name except Dr. Wilbur and Flora and they weren't telling. The fiction continued until the deaths of both Dr. Wilbur when her medical papers became part of a school archive.

This book is sad and horrifying on so many levels. Sad because Shirley had an entirely treatable disease called Pernicious Anemia, which likely caused most of her symptoms. Indeed she seemed to get better when she was treated for this as a child. Horrifying because the doctor who took advantage of Sybil did so for her own purposes and destroyed Shirley's life in the process. What I didn't realize was that this episode led to the fad of repressed memory therapy which in turn led to the wave of sexual assault charges in pre-schools and day care centers in the 1980's. The DSM, the bible of the therapy field, was changed several times because of Wilbur's treatment claims.

The book is written from the position of hindsight. Medical research has led to the banning of several of the drugs used in Shirley's therapy. The treatment method and diagnostic parameters have been changed. But what hasn't changed is the fact the everyone was sucked in to believing something totally unbelievable.

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