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Every so often, a book becomes a cultural phenomenon. "Sybil" was one such book. It was published in 1973, billed as the true story of a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder. It was a huge bestseller and became a popular TV movie. Now a new book, called "Sybil Exposed," reveals an even stranger story of the real Sybil. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When "Sybil" first came out, it not only shot to the top of the bestseller lists, it also spawned a psychiatric phenomenon. With a few years of its publication, reported cases of multiple personality disorder leapt from less than 100 to thousands. But, says writer Debbie Nathan, most of the story is based on a lie.

DEBBIE NATHAN: Shirley started acting like she had a lot of people inside her.

NEARY: Shirley is Shirley Mason, the real Sybil. She grew up in the Midwest in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family. An emotionally needy young woman, she decided to seek psychiatric help. Shirley became unusually attached to her psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, and she knew that Dr. Wilbur had a special interest in multiple personality disorder.

NATHAN: And Shirley feels after a short time that she's not really getting the attention she needs from Dr. Wilbur. One day she walks into Dr. Wilbur's office and she says, I'm not Shirley, I'm Peggy - and she says this in a childish voice.

NEARY: Dr. Wilbur believed she had stumbled on a remarkable case. She began seeing Shirley frequently and eventually teamed up with the writer Flora Schreiber to work on a book about her patient. The two women taped a series of interviews. In this excerpt, Dr. Wilbur describes the moment that Peggy first appeared. She uses the pseudonym Sylvia to protect Shirley's identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DR. CONNIE WILBUR: She said, I'm Peggy, and she proceeded to tell me about herself, that Sylvia couldn't stand up for herself and she had to stand up for her. Sylvia couldn't get angry because her mother wouldn't let her, but she got angry. She knew it was a sin to get angry, but people got angry so she got angry.

NEARY: Shirley became increasingly dependent on Dr. Wilbur for emotional and even financial support. She was eager to give her psychiatrist what she wanted.

NATHAN: Once she got this diagnosis she started generating more and more personalities. She had babies, she had little boys, she had teenage girls. She wasn't faking. I think a better way to talk about what Shirley was doing was that she was acceding to a demand that she have this problem.

NEARY: Dr. Wilbur began injecting Shirley regularly with sodium pentothal, which was then being used to help people remember traumatic events that they had repressed. Under the influence of drugs and hypnosis, the very suggestible Shirley uncovered her many personalities. In this excerpt from a recording of one session, Dr. Wilbur talks to Shirley about a new personality who has surfaced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILBUR: What's your name?

SHIRLEY MASON: I'm Shirley.

WILBUR: Uh-huh. She said her name is Shirley. And she said things about my grandma and...

MASON: (Unintelligible) she said it was her grandma and her mother.

WILBUR: Uh-huh. Is this another part of you? Sweetie?

MASON: I'm thinking about - it feels like it's part of...

WILBUR: Yeah, it feels like it's part of another part of you.

NEARY: Reading through Flora Schreiber's papers, Nathan says, it becomes obvious that the writer knew that Shirley's story was not entirely true. Memories of a traumatic tonsillectomy, for instance, morphed into a lurid story of abuse. And Schreiber seemed eager to pump up or even create drama where none existed. If Schreiber had doubts, she suppressed them.

NATHAN: She already had a contract and she already had a deadline. She was in the middle of writing the book. So she had sort of the dilemma that, you know, all journalists have nightmares about - what if my thesis turns out to be wrong as I do my research but it's too late?

NEARY: At one point, Shirley tried to set things straight. She wrote a letter to Dr. Wilbur admitting that she had been lying. I do not really have multiple personalities, she wrote. I do not even have a double. I am all of them. Dr. Wilbur dismissed the letter as Shirley's attempt to avoid going deeper in her therapy. By now, says Nathan, Dr. Wilbur was too heavily invested in her patient to let her go.

NATHAN: She had already started giving presentations about this case. She was planning a book. She was very, very attached to the case emotionally and professionally and I don't think she could give it up.

NEARY: And what about Shirley?

NATHAN: She got the very, very strong impression when she went in and brought this letter of recantation to Dr. Wilbur that if she didn't go with the program, she was not going to have Dr. Wilbur anymore. And Dr. Wilbur was giving her 14, 18 hours of therapy a week. So how could you give up Dr. Wilbur?

NEARY: The book succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, selling some six million copies around the world, and was made into a TV movie starring Sally Field. As that movie draws to a close, Joanne Woodward as Dr. Wilbur describes a happy ending for Sybil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SYBIL")

JOANNE WOODWARD: (as Dr. Wilbur) Today, Sybil lives peacefully in a small college town where she's a professor of art. There's not enough time in the day for her to do everything she wants, but that time in every sense is her own. She tells me she's happy. I know she's free.

NEARY: Shirley Mason almost had that life. But when "Sybil" came out and people began to suspect it was her, she fled, moving to a home near Dr. Wilbur, living in her shadow and dependent on her psychiatrist until the end of her life. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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