The older I get, the more I realize how few people ever seem to take a stand and do the right thing. Even more troubling is why individuals who either know or suspect that something bad is happening decide to turn away and refuse to get involved. Both of the previous statements can be applied to the various people featured in Debbie Nathan's book "Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case" (Free Press), which provides in-depth research into the story of Sybil, the woman who allegedly suffered from what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder, her therapist, and the author of the best selling book they all conspired to write.
Having a background in psychology, I was interested to read a detailed account of Shirley Mason, the woman portrayed as "Sybil" in the phenomenally popular 1973 book by Flora Schreiber, which was made into an award-winning television film starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward. While I am aware of the questionable methods used to treat the mentally ill in the early part of the twentieth century, I found myself becoming very agitated with how Shirley was being cared for by her psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur. According to the research presented here, Shirley was subjected to electroshock therapy, as well as having Dr. Wilbur administer countless drugs into her system, including Pentathol, sometimes on a daily basis, to help "treat" her multiple personality disorder. In addition, Dr. Wilbur continually and egregiously crossed the line in the therapist/patient relationship by being Shirley's friend, employer, and even her roommate! The exact nature of their relationship is not specified, but readers can judge for themselves from the information presented in "Sybil Exposed."
Debbie Nathan explores the early life of the three principal players in this fascinating story, which allows readers to have a better understanding about what may have motivated them to participate in what now appears to be a huge fraud. Clearly there were childhood traumas that the three women never appeared to fully deal with in a healthy way and when allowed to fester, those problems continued to plague Shirley, Connie and Flora throughout their lives. Shirley is portrayed as a victim and she certainly had many serious problems, but she also had the opportunity to tell the truth about herself and Dr. Wilbur, but she decided to remain silent. Perhaps Shirley was afraid of what might happen to her if the person in the world she was closest to was no longer around to "help" her?
I think it is fair to say that Dr. Wilbur knew what she doing to Shirley was wrong, but she was determined to gain notoriety, perhaps to prove to her father that she could do far more than he ever gave her credit for being able to accomplish. When Flora Schreiber entered their lives and agreed to write a book about Shirley's multiple personalities, she knew something was not right after reading through the research, but she decided to write the book anyway, even after confronting Shirley and Dr. Wilbur about her misgivings. When the book was optioned for a movie, even the screenwriter decided to look the other way and make the film, even though he must have known that Sybil's story was not entirely true since he was initially very skeptical.
The author includes 35 pages of notes detailing her findings, so clearly a huge amount of research was conducted in bringing this story to light. Much time is taken to flesh out the three principal players and that information becomes very important as the story evolves over several decades. What I found most troubling was that a physical illness that Shirley suffered from may have actually caused her emotional problems. After all, physical and mental health are closely connected and when only one approach is used when diagnosing a problem, patients could end up needlessly suffering, sometimes throughout the duration of their lives.
"Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case" by Debbie Nathan is now available in paperback.