Shirley "Sybil" Mason, c. 1950
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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.
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.