Elaine's Reviews > Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan
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Apr 08, 12

bookshelves: 2012
Read from April 01 to 05, 2012

I was very disappointed in this book. I should preface by saying that I have no strongly held views about MPD one way or the other. As a lawyer, I, like the author, have been appalled by the injustices wrought by recovered memories, sexual abuse hysteria and the like. ON the other hand, child abuse, including sexual abuse, is all too real, still not easily acknowledged or addressed, especially in middle-class setings, and can cause very real and lasting psychological damage. So, my general bias would be to approach a story like Sybil's with scepticism, but not with disdain.

That said, I was fascinated by the book Sybil, which I read as a young girl (I vaguely remember the mini-series being a sensation but was too young to be allowed to watch it). But I also recall that we've known for a long time that the story was at a minimum, exaggerated, I remember feeling even on a first reading that the story just seemed too pat (especially the cure).

So, the breathless sense of revelation that Nathan brings to her subject seems somewhat misplaced. Beyond being shocked, shocked, that Sybil isn't the gospel, she brings a tone of outrage to nearly every facet of the story. She actually seems to believe that the tendency of some journalists to fabricate quotes, stories and sources can be pinpointed to a particular trend in the 1950s (when I would hazard a guess that those tendencies have been around as long as there have been stories to sell). And the sense of outrage that any non-fiction writer would "improve upon" the truth seems somewhat misplaced in someone who in that very book is vividly describing scenes from 70 years before, without the benefit of any eyewitnesses (except the memories of some octagenarians -- I'm always surprised when writers accept that people can remember the details of conversations 6 or 7 decades before, I certainly can't remember many specific scenes from my childhood and I'm quite a bit younger than that.).

Similarly, the vilification heaped on Wilbur and Schrieber seems somewhat one-sided, and un-nuanced, and for a woman who professes to be interested in the implications of her story for feminism, Nathan takes a rather unseemly relish in describing Flora's weight ("two hundred pounds of sheer avoirdupois", Nathan exclaims at one point - disgustedly and nonsensically -- by contrast, the anorexic and wasting Shirley is repeatedly described as beautiful), slovenliness, and difficult and unconventional love life. Wilbur for her part is nothing but mean, manipulative and hopelessly beninighted iin thinking she was doing "pure science", and, Nathan hints, a repressed lesbian (which, yes, maybe, but Nathan seems to find lesbians almost as fascinatingly repugnant as fat people).

The consequence of demonizing Wilbur is that Shirley's parents go from demons to saints in this telling, which again, yes, maybe, but how can we be sure -- and isn't it odd that Wilbur and Mrs. Mason have merely swapped roles from the original narrative and we still have a cruel mother inflicting virtually unthinkable tortures on poor Shirley/Sybil, just the names have changed. Nuance is not Nathan's strong point.

I could go on -- the inconsistencies are glaring, for example, Shirley is shown as being dependent on pill and shots in one scene, and then resisting medication because of her Adventist backrground in the next, the pacing terrible, nearly as much devoted to the history of 7th day adventism as to Shirley's "cure"....but the bottom line is that this book does not seem like serious journalism or good writing. The politics are superficial, the polemics grate, and the surprises few and far between.
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Shaun Agree 100%.


Elaine Thanks Shaun.


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