Oct 17, 2011 7:31 PM GMT
Debbie Nathan’s “Sybil Exposed” is about psychiatric fads, outrageous therapeutic malpractice, thwarted ambition run amok, and several other subjects, but above all, it is a book about a book. Specifically, that book is “Sybil,” purportedly the true story of a woman with 16 personalities. First published in 1973, “Sybil” remains in print after selling over 6 million copies in the U.S. alone.
A work of high Midwestern gothic trash, “Sybil” might have been purpose-built to enthrall 14-year-old girls of morbid temperament (which is probably the majority of 14-year-old girls, come to think of it). I would not be surprised to learn that it is circulated as avidly on middle-school playgrounds today as it was in my own youth. My sisters, my friends and I all devoured it, discussing its heroine’s baroque sufferings in shocked whispers before promptly forgetting all about it until the TV movie starring Sally Field came along.
That should have been the end of “Sybil,” another flash-in-the-pan “true life” paperback shocker that people sorta believe but mostly not — rather like “The Amityville Horror.” Instead, the book, written by journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, became the catalyst for a psychotherapeutic movement that ruined many lives, beginning with the woman whose story it claims to tell.
Nathan, a reporter who was the first to challenge the nationwide panic over the “ritual sex abuse” of children in the 1980s, was already familiar with the damage caused by the enormous upsurge in diagnoses of multiple personality disorder linked to the same scare. In “Sybil Exposed” she has painstakingly pieced together the most comprehensive account yet of the case that did so much to promote that diagnosis — that of Shirley Ardell Mason, the woman on whom the character Sybil was based. Mason; her psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur; and Schreiber were the three principals in an enterprise they called Sybil Inc., founded on a precarious yet strangely long-lived melange of fabrications, exaggerations and downright lies.
“Sybil Exposed” utilizes a cache of Schreiber’s papers archived at a New York City law school, letters collected from a far-flung variety of sources, and even some interviews with (now very aged) friends and relatives of the three women. Mason grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family in small-town Minnesota during the 1920s and ’30s, a painfully thin child whose religion made her a misfit at school and whose imaginative, artistic yearnings were regarded as sinful by her church. She suffered from phobias and other neurotic complaints, but also from a constellation of physical and sensory symptoms that Nathan believes can be attributed to a lifelong and largely untreated case of pernicious anemia. Those symptoms — tingling in the limbs, spatial disorientation and confusion among them — were, as was often the case at the time, blamed on psychiatric problems.