"Sybil" authenticity questioned in new book

Debbie Nathan's book "Sybil Exposed" includes a letter from the real Sybil saying she had lied about her multiple personalities.

Debbie Nathan's new book says the famous Sybil book was a collaboration between the subject, therapist and author who all wanted fame and were willing to stretch the truth.

The book “Sybil” by Flora Rheta Schreiber introduced the idea of multiple personality disorder to America – but a new book is now saying that the entire case may have been fabricated.

In Debbie Nathan’s new book Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Multiple Personality Case, Nathan introduces a letter written by Shirley Mason – the real name of the girl dubbed Sybil – to her therapist Connie Wilbur.

“I am all of them,” Mason wrote of her multiple personalities in the letter presented in the book. “I have essentially been lying… as trying to show you I felt I needed help.”

Mason, who had indeed been abused as a child, Nathan writes, was prescribed multiple drugs by Wilbur, including Pentathol, which is today thought to encourage those who take it to describe experiences that never actually occurred. At the time, however, Pentathol was believed to be the equivalent of a truth serum.

Nathan says that when Mason presented herself as multiple people in one session, Wilbur suggested she become the focus of a book and in exchange, she would cover Mason’s medical school tuition and other expenses.

The two went to Schreiber, who, according to Nathan, told Mason and Wilbur that stories of abuse would interest people. Schreiber had written stories for women’s magazine stories that were billed as real-life accounts and had seen the appeal these held for the public, Nathan writes.

“Quite thrilling,” Mason wrote in her letter to Wilbur of the book. “Got me a lot of attention.”

The authenticity of the book, which was turned into a miniseries starring Sally Field as Sybil in 1976, has been debated for decades. However, because the last surviving member of the group, Mason, died in 1998, no conclusion has ever been reached. Researchers have recently been investigating multiple personality disorder to determine if it is, in fact, a true syndrome.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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