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Sybil Exposed

The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

by Debbie Nathan

Hardcover, 297 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 |


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Sybil Exposed
The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case
Debbie Nathan

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Book Summary

Documents the stories of the women behind the famous multiple-personality-disorder case, contending that a large portion of the story was fabricated by a willing patient, her psychiatrist, and an ambitious journalist.

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NPR stories about Sybil Exposed

Shirley Mason was the psychiatric patient whose life was portrayed in the 1973 book Sybil. The book and subsequent film caused an enormous spike in reported cases of multiple personality disorder. Mason later admitted she had faked her multiple personalities.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'Sybil Exposed'


Is there anyone in America who does not remember what started it all? Just in case, here is the abridged version of Sybil. One cold day in winter 1956, a shy and painfully anorexic graduate student in the pre-med department at Columbia University stands outside her chemistry classroom waiting for the elevator. The next thing she knows, she is on a freezing, snow-swept street in a city she doesn't recognize. Eventually she figures out it's Philadelphia, and that between the elevator and the snow five days have passed, days which for the young woman — whose name is Sybil Dorsett — are an utter blank. Sybil catches a train back to New York to see Dr. Wilbur, her steely but superbly kind and caring Park Avenue psychoanalyst. Dr. Wilbur mothers, medicates, and hypnotizes her patient, tirelessly attempting to dredge up memories of the forgotten childhood trauma which she assumes provokes Sybil's flights to other cities ...

At the time the book begins, Sybil has no idea she has alters. All she knows is that she dissociates — or "loses time," as she puts it. She ends up in strange places without the slightest idea how she got there. She discovers dresses in her closet that are not her style and which she does not remember buying. She finds herself chatting intimately with people she has no recollection of ever having met.

Dr. Wilbur decides that the cause of this puzzling illness is some terrible thing done to Sybil during childhood, the memory of which she walled off into other personalities so that she would not have to deal with the pain. But what, exactly, happened? That's what, together, they need to figure out so that Sybil can "integrate" her personalities and be whole again. The only way to do that is for Sybil to remember the trauma, and Dr. Wilbur must help.

Dr. Wilbur puts Sybil into drug-induced and hypnotic trances that finally cause her to remember. The trauma she suffered as a young child turns out to have been abuse — barbaric, gothic, grotesque beyond imagination — inflicted by her psychotic mother, Hattie Dorsett. Hattie once tried to suffocate four-year-old Sybil by locking her into a box filled with grain. Other times, she made her daughter watch as she defecated on neighbors' lawns, held lesbian orgies in the woods with teenagers, and fondled the genitals of babies. If all this weren't enough to destroy a child's psyche, Hattie regularly hung preschooler Sybil by the ankles above a kitchen table, raped her with household utensils, gave her ice-water enemas, and tied her under the piano while banging out crazed versions of Beethoven and Chopin. Could these nightmare memories, recovered so many years after the crimes supposedly happened, really be true? Yes, says the book — undoubtedly.


Now, decades after the abuse and the psychic splitting, Sybil's only hope for cure is her kindly psychoanalyst. Dr. Wilbur does not disappoint. After eleven years and hundreds of pages of heroic ministrations, she convinces all the alter personalities to integrate into a united self. As Sybil lies on Dr. Wilbur's couch, hypnotized, the babies, little boys, and teenagers all grow into adults within minutes, and they dutifully fold back into Sybil's consciousness, promising never to "come out" again. The grown-up alters make a similar pact. Sybil's broken mind is mended; she vanquishes the hell of her mother's mistreatment and finally becomes a whole person. End of story.


Sybil was something completely new. Her history of sadistic incest and her enormous number of alter personalities made her brand of multiplicity unprecedented. After a tiny fraternity of psychiatrists became fascinated with the condition and started hunting for new cases, that brand turned into an epidemic. In 1980, multiple personality disorder was listed as an official psychiatric illness. Soon, mental health practitioners in America were diagnosing thousands of cases a year.

Almost all were female, and when they first entered therapy most had no alter personalities that they knew of. Nor did they remember being raped and brutalized as children. But during MPD treatment they developed just as many alter personalities, and just as many horrific abuse memories, as Sybil had — if not many more.

Many of these patients began filing lawsuits against their parents for having hurt them so terribly. They went on television talk shows to discuss their suffering, and celebrities joined the fray. Every MPD story unleashed more cases and claims of abuse.

Then a new group of patients surfaced, complaining they'd been wrongly diagnosed and suing their therapists for malpractice. In tandem with these lawsuits, thousands of hurt and angry parents said they were being falsely accused by adult children in therapy. Some brought suits against the therapists.

As a result of this backlash, which crested in the early 1990s, the media did a 180-degree turn from their former credulity about MPD. "Is it real or is it fake?" became the new question. Were the patients, and the therapists who treated them, honest and inspiring? Or were they liars and hustlers?

...How, in modern America, could an educated person in distress come to feel she was possessed? How could Sybil have learned to feel and act as though she had multiple selves, when no one else in her world was doing this? An explanation was provided in the early 1990s by a prominent, elderly psychiatrist who had known Dr. Wilbur years earlier and had sometimes treated Sybil when Wilbur was out of town. The old doctor remembered Wilbur telling him that she wanted to write a book about multiple personality disorder. He also remembered Sybil mentioning to him that Wilbur wanted her to act as though she had different selves inside her. He speculated that Wilbur — who had once boasted to her patient that she was "stronger than Mother" — had pressured and coaxed Sybil to develop alter personalities.

In light of this accusation, even more questions arose. What had gotten Dr. Wilbur, herself, so interested in the idea of multiple personalities? And if Sybil — the basis for the modern MPD diagnosis — was a product of therapist suggestion, what about all those tens of thousands of patients who had walked into the offices of other mental health practitioners and walked out thinking they had several beings living inside them? And what about all of us book readers and TV watchers? Why had we found the Sybil story so credible?

Excerpted from Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan. 2011 by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.