The 16 Personalities of Sybil

The book and movie "Sybil" told the story of a woman purported to have Multiple Personality Syndrome.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Health, History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid #361
May 7, 2013
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Shirley "Sybil" Mason, c. 1950
Public domain image

The 1976 TV movie Sybil starred Sally Field as a woman with Multiple Personality Syndrome. The movie, and the book upon which it was based, were fictionalized but were based upon a real person. The most significant impacts of Sybil were to bring the idea of Multiple Personality Syndrome to the general public's attention, and the controversy which followed in psychiatric circles. In her later years, debate raged over whether the woman upon whom Sybil was based indeed had multiple personalities, or was faking the whole thing, or whether she had some other disorder that compelled her to fake them. At the center was a real person who was suffering from a real illness. Today we're going to look at what that condition might have been, and what the true state is of our knowledge of this most shocking of mental illnesses.

Shirley Mason was that woman. She was born in 1923 and died in 1998. She worked as a commercial artist, although from about the age of 30, she spent nearly half of her time in psychotherapy, prompted by emotional breakdowns and outbursts. Most of her sessions were with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. But one day, Mason came into Dr. Wilbur's office and said that her name was not Shirley Mason, but Peggy, and that she was a small girl. Other personalities soon appeared, finally totaling sixteen. Their ages varied, some were boys and some were girls, and there was even an infant. The longer they worked together, the more Dr. Wilbur became convinced that Mason's case was an extraordinary one. She began giving academic presentations on the case, and within a few years it was the foundation of her entire professional career. Dr. Wilbur even teamed up with an author, Flora Schreiber, to document the case. Many interviews with Mason's various personalities were taped. Wilbur determined that Mason's mother, Hattie Dorsett, a psychotic who had been hospitalized with schizophrenia, had subjected the young Mason to years of astonishing sexual and sadistic abuses.

In the mid 1960s, Dr. Wilbur sought out help from colleagues to refine the diagnosis. She believed that Mason was a schizophrenic like her mother, and asked Dr. Herbert Spiegel to give his input. Dr. Spiegel saw Mason over the course of several years. His specialty was hypnosis, and he often hypnotized Mason. It was during these sessions that he began to realize that the various personalities might not be exactly what he'd been told they were. In a 1997 interview with the New York Review of Books, Dr. Spiegel said:

But one day during our regression studies, Sybil said, "Well, do you want me to be Helen?" And I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Well, when I'm with Dr. Wilbur she wants me to be Helen." I said, "Who's Helen?" "Well, that's a name Dr. Wilbur gave me for this feeling." So I said, "Well, if you want to it's all right, but it's not necessary." With me, Sybil preferred not to "be Helen." With Wilbur, it seemed she felt an obligation to become another personality. That's when I realized that [Dr. Wilbur] was helping her identify aspects of her life, or perspectives, that she then called by name. By naming them this way, she was reifying a memory of some kind and converting it into a "personality."

Dr. Spiegel went on to explain how these personalities came to be:

Sybil told me that she had read The Three Faces of Eve, Thigpen and Cleckley's book on a case of multiple personality. She was very impressed with that book... I have the impression that Sybil learned from reading this book that she could express her agonies and her stresses in life through the histrionic display of multiple personalities, especially if it were encouraged by the therapist.

For her 2011 book Sybil Exposed, author Debbie Nathan reviewed Dr. Spiegel's extensive notes and concluded:

Sybil's sixteen personalities had not popped up spontaneously but were provoked over many years of rogue treatment that violated practically every ethical standard of practice for mental health practitioners.

Dr. Wilbur and Schreiber asked Dr. Spiegel to co-author the book with them. They were going to make it into a book because Dr. Wilbur had been unable to get it published in professional journals.

I saw her "personalities" rather as game-playing... So I told Wilbur and Schreiber that it would not be accurate to call Sybil a multiple personality, and that it was not at all consistent with what I knew about her. Schreiber then got in a huff. She was sitting right in that chair there, and she said, "But if we don't call it a multiple personality, we don't have a book! The publishers want it to be that, otherwise it won't sell!" That was the logic behind their calling Sybil a multiple personality.

And come out the book did, though it omitted any reference to the substantial role that Dr. Spiegel played in Mason's therapy, and changed or omitted many other parts of the tale that did not conform to the compelling narrative envisioned by Schreiber. The book reassigned credit for Dr. Spiegel's hypnosis sessions to Dr. Wilbur, even though she had in fact never actually done any hypnosis at that point in her career; instead, she'd suggested most of Mason's false memories of abuse using sodium pentothal. The book was, in point of fact, a pop horror story; a sensationalized and fictionalized account that exploited and exaggerated a real patient's condition, painting her as a freakish and frightening psycho. In doing so, author Schreiber even found and included a letter that Mason had written to her analyst in 1959:

I am not going to tell you there isn't anything wrong. We both know there is. But it is not what I have led you to believe. I do not have any multiple personalities. I don't even have a "double" to help me out. I am all of them. I have been essentially lying in my pretense of them. The dissociations are not the problem because they do not actually exist, but there is something wrong or I would not resort to pretending like that.

However, Schreiber flipped this around rather than taking it for the true confession it purported to be, and wrote that this was another of Sybil's hysterical personalities talking, and added (on her own) that Sybil had no memory of the two days during which she'd written the letter.

The book was a hit, selling six million copies in its first four years. Diagnoses of Multiple Personality Syndrome went from 200 worldwide to thousands of new cases each year. It was the disease of the day, trendy and new and flashy.

But the book had other darker effects. Neighbors and acquaintances began to suspect that Mason was actually the "Sybil" of the book, bringing a great deal of unwanted attention as the local crazy lady. So Mason packed up and left, moved to Kentucky, and lived in a house very near to Dr. Wilbur, who had accepted an academic position there. The two remained friends, and Mason began to work as an art instructor and even opened a small art gallery, and lived what appears to have been a relatively normal life. Mason even moved into Dr. Wilbur's house to take care of her when she contracted Parkinson's disease. Dr. Wilbur died in 1992, and Mason followed her friend only a few years later.

In 1980, Multiple Personality Syndrome was a widely known affliction, in part because of the popularity of the book and movie. The diagnosis first appeared in the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It remained in the DSM-IV, published in 2000, though its name had been changed to Dissociative Identity Disorder and its definition substantially revised to recognize that there are no actual alternate personalities.

The DSM-V revises the diagnosis even further, combining it with Pathological Possession Trance, in which patients believe themselves to be possessed by other identities, demons, etc. In short, Dissociative Identity Disorder is the inability to maintain a consistent conscious presence in your true identity. Indeed, finding herself suddenly aware that she had no recollection of the previous few days during her youthful times at Columbia University were the main reason Shirley Mason had initially sought help. Such dissociation with gaps of time are a prime ingredient of Dissociative Identity Disorder.

And so we have Shirley Mason, born 1923, remembered only as the fictitious crazy lady with multiple personalities living inside her, even though we now know that that's almost certainly not the truth. Today she's described by dry language in the DSM which may or may not be her real diagnosis.

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Shirley Mason is no longer around, so she is best served not by the book and movie, but by the true recollections of the person she was. She probably did suffer from a dissociative disorder of some kind. She was an attractive woman with an IQ of 174. She was evidently regarded as a talented artist and teacher. It's entirely possible that Shirley Mason was a victim, both of improper psychiatric care, and of greedy authors Schreiber and Wilbur.

But Schreiber's archives also revealed another surprise. Schreiber, Wilbur, and Mason had collaborated not merely to document and publicize a case study, but had done so with great care and forethought. They had formed Sybil Incorporated, based on a contract that split all profits three equal ways. Debbie Nathan discovered that even before the book had been published, the three sisters of Sybil Incorporated planned an entire brand including "Sybil movies, Sybil board games, Sybil tee shirts, Sybil dolls, and a Sybil musical."

While the book was still being written and no money had yet been made, Mason had been without means of support. Dr. Wilbur bought her clothes and paid her rent. Mason's whole support network existed only because she allowed the charade of phantom personalities and the character of "Sybil" to continue. Wilbur herself had staked her professional reputation, and now an important book contract, on the multiple personality diagnosis. They all had too much invested, and too much at stake, to consider that their preferred diagnosis was wrong.

It probably was wrong, but the three were beyond a point where they could consider that. Sybil had a profound effect on psychiatry, and on the thousands of patients (nearly all women) who were subsequently diagnosed with a condition now believed to have been nonexistent. Had it not been for the deep-laid plans of Sybil Incorporated, psychiatry might well have caught up with dissociative disorders before so many women were labeled with Multiple Personality Syndrome.

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

APA. DSM-IV-TR, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Arlington: American Psychological Association, 2000. 519-535.

Borch-Jacobsen, M., Spiegel, H. "Sybil— - The Making of a Disease: An Interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel." New York Review of Books. 24 Apr. 1997, Volume 44, Number 7.

Hacking, I. "Multiple Personality Disorder and Its Host." History of Human Sciences. 1 May 1992, Volume 5, Number 2: 8.

Nathan, D. Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Putnam, F. Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1989.

Schreiber, F. Sybil. Chicago: Regnery, 1973.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The 16 Personalities of Sybil." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 7 May 2013. Web. 10 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 41 comments

Dissociative identity disorder is more often iatrogenic than anything else. Most DID cases need to have damage undone before the actual, underlying issues can be addressed. <1% of practitioners are responsible for >95% of dissociative diagnoses, over 2/3 involving recovered traumatic memories and clinically distressing memory details. In other words, DID has more to do with malpractice than pathology in the general population. Look it up, folks.

Bob, Buffalo, NY
June 12, 2013 12:20am

Quote Macky;

"Today I see GP's and psychiatrists prescribing dangerous psychotropic drugs for even in one case a five-year-old with a sore knee.
It's plain quackery and if you've ever been anywhere near someone who has lost their loved ones to suicide while they were on these quack drugs that have so many side effects it's obviously just a money-making enterprise, then you would know just what I mean.
I committed one of my brothers-in-law to Kingseat and sat in on the psychiatrist's "diagnosis". All he asked was did my BIL think he belonged there and what was his type of work. That was the extent of his diagnosis." Unquote Macky

You keep bringing up the quacks in your area and now you are pinning it on GP's (rather than people dressed up as GP's).

Can we have an example or this persistent problem? Not an example of a single case but a treatment regime for sore knees and psychotropic compounds (or what ever you are trying to get to).

Its boring having to do literature searches. Especially for those that do not do research to their claims.

Its been about 3 months since the carping about sore knees started..

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
July 2, 2013 8:27pm

How many do you want before you're happy that something quite wrong is happening more often than it should, Mud, not that it should happen at all actually ?

I don't move in medical circles, but I think it's fair to say that if I as an ordinary person in the street knows of at least four cases of GP's prescribing psychotropic drugs for unrelated problems, it's likely that the malpractice is going on in a wider scale, wouldn't you think ?

Medical records are confidential so I have no way of determining how often it's happening.

I've posted my experiences of life re the mental health area, most of which was perfectly fine.

Macky, Auckland
July 6, 2013 12:46am

I also mention just to set the record straight that there is a proper place for psychotropic drugs for certain medical problems.

In the cases where GP's are prescribing psychotropic/mood-altering/antidepressants inappropriately then these drugs are no more than dangerous rubbish.

If anyone can tell me why the prescribing of such drugs are appropriate for purely physical problems, please tell me.
Maybe the boy's kneecap was exhibiting symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder.

Much of what I've seen of psychiatrists and their methods is questionable.
The DSM-5's large number of proposed changes to many disorders seems to me to be based on consensus opinion rather than solid research.
The APA's initial mandate for secrecy was heavily criticized.
So many other criticisms of psychiatric practices including diagnostic methods that rely on expected social norms rather than science have been leveled at the DSM protocols, reflecting my opinion that psychiatry is not a proper branch of medical science, only masquerades as such.

69% of DSM-5's task force members report (that is, report) having ties (financial association) to the pharmaceutical industry, up from DSM IV's 57%, a cause for some considerable concern.

With such information in the public arena re psychiatry, and personal experiences such as mine, is it any wonder that psych drugs are viewed by non-professional public as being dangerously over-prescribed to ramp up "Big Pharma" profits ?

Macky, Auckland
July 7, 2013 3:47am

Maybe Tom Cruse was on to something after all. I've always said I thought everyone was MPS. As someone already mentioned people are one way at work, one way with their buds and really out there on first dates. LOL

Mark, Lost in Cleveland
August 29, 2013 6:38pm

f we are looking critically at Sybil ; 1.Is the abuse suffered at the hands of her mother true? 2. Did the family GP cover it up? 3. Did Sybil's father know of his wife's illness but refused to intervene to protect his daughter?
4. Did Sybil's Grand mother know of her Daughter in laws abuse of Sybil considering she was living with them at the time the abuse was supposed to have taken place?

Not in the book Sybil, the mother was dead before Shirley entered psychoanalysis. 1. No medical records have been maintained so we cannot verify if the GP knew of the abuse. 3. IN the book, the father states his wife was diagnosed with schizophrenia but went untreated because she refused to return to the doctor. 4. The grandparents living area was separate from the Mason's, at the grandmother's insistence. 5. According to the book, Shirleys' mouth was covered with dish towels so the grandparents would not hear her cry.

Child abuse has always been covered up by the perpetrators of that abuse so I don't find fault with Schrieber's not being able to find someone to confirm the abuse. As far as medical malpractice. In the 30's and 40's those practices were widely used by psychiatrists so to say Wilbur was unethical is lying saying the moon is made of cheese.

Much of Nathan's book has been discounted by researchers and I found Nathan's book corresponds with a lot of the Sybil book--just that Nathan refuses to believe there could be multiple personalities.

Christin, NS/Canada
October 19, 2013 3:58pm

Man to be a a multiple personality must be kind of hard some thing that would be hard to be not unless you are one .

marisol salinas, mission tx 78572
December 26, 2013 3:09pm

As a clinical psychology doctoral student, I can say that DID is very real, but that 95% of the cases do NOT look like Sybil (if she was one). Mr. Dunning hit the nail on the head when he described it as a disorder of disrupted consciousness. Each person has "self-states" or varying and usually flexible organizations of emotion, cognition, and behavior. In a healthy person, these self-states seamlessly blend into each other. When a self-state presents that the person finds problematic, dissociation (an automatic process) switches a person to an alternate self-state. Thus, DID is a matter of degree on a continuum, a disruption in the typical changes in consciousness that we all experience everyday. However, due to poor affect regulation in the right temporal lobe, the subjective sense of "another" or that certain self-states (often experienced as intrusions into one's consciousness) are "not me" occurs. The person rationally knows this is not possible (which differentiates them from schizophrenics), but "feels" as if they are, indeed, separate "me's" within them. It is illusion, not delusion. It is a proprioceptive error in the brain due to emotional trauma (which triggered dissociative reactions to begin with) that has inhibited a person from integrating his or her life history into a cohesive narrative. Survivors need to learn how to manage negative and painful emotions and the feeling of "others" will recede as they heal. Thanks for doing a podcast on this topic!

Thomas, Charlotte, NC
April 17, 2014 8:25pm

Dr. Herbert Spiegel, 1.Claim he made films of Sybil that would have support his claims but never could find them.2. Dr. Herbert Spiegel, took an oath that compelled him to report fraud and abuse of patients by other Doctors( Dr. Wilbur) but never a word until nearly two decades later.3.In remaining silent one must question the ethics of Dr. Herbert Spiegel in that he had an obligation to protect his patient(Sybil) from harm and did nothing.

Man in the Moon, Texas
January 2, 2015 7:04pm

There are two "worlds" here, and I could easily visualize either one. The abuse of the psychiatric profession has been recounted numerous times, going back to the Russian KGB and Hitler's mad medicines and SS and Gestapo. This industry has been been walking on the backs of victims for centuries and trying to call itself a "science" (another form of cloaking itself with respectability). as the medical and other human "enterprises" have done for a lengthy period of time. The outcome of their Frankenstein experiments has coincidentally led to many "(more or less) humane" discoveries that have somehow benefited their patients ("victims"): it seems to be the way of the human. This leads to the other world: that of positive accumulation of knowledge. And in this world, psychiatry and neurology are discovering some interesting things about the human brain. First of all, it is very delicate and multidimensional - and nebulous - about as much so as quantum physics; in fact, those two sciences may have met. Unfortunately, the complexity of the "mind" and its subsequent activities can't as yet be quantified or finalized.

Steve Erdmann, St. Louis, Missouri 63111
April 9, 2015 7:08am

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