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

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan
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Jun 02, 12

Recommended for: readers of popular psychology non-fiction books
Read from May 31 to June 02, 2012, read count: 1

I was 6 years old in 1976, the year the movie "Sybil" aired on television. I'm not quite certain why my mother allowed me to watch this movie as I was a rather overprotected child who was never exposed to anything disturbing if she could help it. Perhaps she didn't know exactly what she was letting me watch. But I do remember the movie vividly. And I remember watching it when it showed up as a rerun. I was fascinated, horrified and frightened by this story of a young woman, shattered into pieces in the prime of her life. The abuse she suffered at the hands of her very sick, sadistic mother compelled me. I was a lonely, hypersensitive only child, like Sybil, and I found myself identifying with her in strange ways. Within a few years I'd gotten my hands on the book (surprise, surprise, I was an incredibly precocious reader) and I was even more mesmerized. I remember distinctly reading the other enormously popular MPD books, Michelle Remembers and When Rabbit Howls in the next ten years.
I was a troubled teenager and became convinced that I must have been horribly abused by somebody and often begged the psychologist I was seeing to hypnotize me and find what I insisted had to be repressed memories. Looking back I believe I was a teenage "hysteric" and if Dr. Cornelia Wilbur had gotten her hands on me there's no telling how many psych units I might have wound up on. It was the mid-80's after all and the time was frightfully ripe for such things. But my therapist cast a dark eye upon the whole phenomena and said that she wouldn't embark upon such a path of treatment for me.
For years I felt intrigued by the subject of of MPD/DID and combed the web for blogs created by people diagnosed with with this psychiatric illness. And there used to be whole webrings of these people, allowing each personality to have his or her own homepage and providing tons of artwork drawn in the hands of their alters, so much like Sybil herself. It never occurred to me to question these people suffering so desperately in their private, confused hells.
But Debbie Nathan did. And this is the crux for me. Nathan has written extensively about the debunking of the McMartin Case ( and about the phenomenon of repressed memories as related to Satanic Ritual Abuse. Well it appears that Nathan is intent on throwing out the baby with the bathwater and all cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder are to be called into question and dismissed as well.
Which I, personally, do not quite feel qualified yet to do. Perhaps I cling to beliefs held too close but these survivors of private hells who work so hard to feel safe in their own skins, which they feel they are forced to share with mysterious and often frightening strangers, are deeply sympathetic people to me. Nathan, on the other hand, seems only too excited to rip away this diagnosis.
Having said ALL that, I will tell you this is a brilliant book. Richly researched, written in a style so compelling and with a voice so strong, I found it to be a page-turner I hated to put down. The story of Flora Rita Schreiber, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and Shirley Mason turns out to be one about the difficulties of being a female misfit in the early 20th century. All were women not intent upon marriage and babies, but upon their own interior selves and the struggle to achieve fulfillment. Shirley was a frustrated artist, self-tormented by a religion she held close too her heart and which prohibited her creativity. Connie Wilbur was the child of a famous scientist and wanted to not only live up to her father but to surpass him with her own career, by any and all means possible. Flora was an immensely talented young writer, driven hard to success and intensely hungry for fame and riches.
Unfortunately each of these women found their way to each other and poor Shirley wound up sacrificing her entire life to the creation of Sybil, Inc. The extraordinary story of the production of the "Sybil" myth set these women onto a road that brought out the very worst in all of them. Nathan viciously takes Flora, Connie & Shirley apart, exposing a fraud quite shocking. Wilbur was determined to find herself a "Multiple" almost from the inception of her career. Shirley was desperate for attention and love as well as a card-carrying "hysteric" intent upon making herself into whatever her doctor wanted her to be. Heavy doses of intense drugs and hypnotism were the tools Wilbur chose to craft her patient's "hysteria" into a severe and shocking case of MPD. Flora was reluctantly willing to take the facts of the case and add whatever she deemed was necessary to make it dramatic enough to be a salacious and abominable tell-all in the early 1970's, a time of culture-wide sexual awakening and permissiveness not yet known. Everybody was in this for themselves and their motives seem to be highly distasteful. And Nathan can't seem to relish in it enough.
Do I still believe in stories of DID? I'm not sure. Do I believe the "Sybil" myth was real. No, I do not. Do I think Nathan has a bit of an axe to grind? Yes, rather.
Really, really good read though!
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