Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The strange case of Dr. Wilbur and Miss Mason

I was fascinated by Sybil when I was a teenager.

I read the influential book by Flora Schreiber, about a young woman with multiple personality disorder (also called dissociative identity disorder), for a high school psychology class. I loved the made-for-TV movie, starring Sally Field as the fractured Sybil and Joanne Woodward as her therapist, Dr. Connie Wilbur.

The idea that a person could have separate lives of which she was unaware was tantalizing, and the detailed scenes of child abuse inspired a thrill of voyeuristic horror. And of course, it all ends happily, thanks to science and the stern kindness of a heroic psychiatrist.

Now a new book, Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan, comprehensively tears this story to shreds.

Sybil, says Nathan, is the story of an undoubtedly troubled young woman whose real name was Shirley Mason. She intensely longed for the approval and attention of Dr. Wilbur, so she concocted a story so fascinating that Dr. Wilbur wouldn’t be able to turn her away. It worked - this would be the case that defined Connie Wilbur’s career.

Using the original transcripts and tapes of interviews, Nathan shows how Dr. Wilbur, convinced that multiple personalities could only be caused by childhood trauma, asked leading questions that elicited ever-worsening tales of abuse from her patient. She used hypnosis and drugs – a lot of drugs – to help Shirley “remember.” This was the beginning of an intense mutual obsession between the two women, one that lasted all their lives and eradicated the boundaries about the ethical relationship between doctor and patient.

Nathan also examines Flora Schreiber, the author of Sybil. An intelligent and skeptical woman, Schreiber had her doubts about the veracity of the story - but with a fat advance in the bank, she ignored them.

The psychological technique of eliciting “lost memories” with drugs and hypnosis has been criticized. If Nathan is right, poor Shirley Mason is a textbook example of why.


So what’s really true? Healing, fraud, or a deep co-dependent sickness, a disorder quite different from the one reenacted by Sally Field and Joanne Woodward? Read Sybil Exposed, and decide for yourself.

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