SYBIL

Will new releases of SYBIL include the documented information that completely changes the story?  SYBIL is a movie (based on the 1973 book with the same name) about an early, alleged case of "multiple-personality disorder" (MPD).  It has since been exposed as the product of undue suggestion by her therapist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.

Pre-release articles represent SYBIL as a "true story."  CBS announced that it would broadcast a remake of SYBIL in the spring of 2006.

SYBIL played a substantial role in this cultural and psychiatric tsunami, later known as the "false" or "recovered" memory debate.  SYBIL was the first major book/movie to tie "MPD" to child abuse.  Before Sybil was published, there were fewer than 50 reported cases of MPD worldwide.  By 1994, over 40,000 cases had been reported. In spite of professional skepticism about the diagnosis (see below), there is a danger of unleashing another tsunami unless the truth is told.

Excerpt from FMSF Newsletter, with quotations from tapes of Sybil and therapists, showing suggestive influence:

The Bifurcation of the Self by Robert Rieber includes information never previously available: 75 pages of transcripts of tapes of conversations between the author of Sybil, Flora Rheta Schreiber, and Sybil's psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur.

Rieber features the story of Sybil.  (The book is broader and will be reviewed in a future issue.)  An entire section of the book is titled: "Sybil: A case of multiple personalities and the natural history of a myth."  Rieber reminds readers that Sybil likely had a powerful effect:

before 1973, the year in which the book was published, there were fewer than 50 known cases of multiple personality disorder in the history of the world.  By 1994 over 40,000 cases had been diagnosed.  (The author offers some explanations for the story's appeal; for example, it appeared in a time of great social change, especially in the role of women, and multiplicity was appealing to the broader female culture.)

"From all that I have discovered, I concluded that the three women -- Wilbur, Schreiber, and Sybil -- are responsible for shaping the modern myth of multiple personality disorder.  A psychological oddity, so bizarre and rare that it did not merit much publicity in most textbooks before 1973, multiple personality disorder had acquired a sudden respectability and acceptance. " (p. 109)

"Sybil. . . just didn't make multiple personality disorder a fashionable illness in North America and abroad.  With its emphasis on childhood sexual abuse it also spawned two other related obsessive phenomena: one was the belief that people were being poisoned by buried memories and the other was that only by reawakening those memories through hypnosis was recovery possible." (p. 111)

Sybil's true identity had actually been revealed on August 27, 1975 by the Minneapolis Star but "disappeared from collective memory" until rediscovered in 1998. Sybil  (Shirley Mason), an only child, was born and lived in Dodge Center, Minnesota, about 80 miles southeast of Minneapolis.  Her parents, Walter and Martha Mason, were in their 40s when she was born, and they were strictly observant Seventh-Day Adventists.  Walter was a hardware-store clerk and carpenter, and her mother had had several miscarriages before Sybil was born.

The family seemed a bit unusual: Shirley's mother walked her to school each day, even through high school, but no one in town knew of any instances of the sexual and physical abuse ascribed to the mother in the book.  Shirley was described by people in the town as a withdrawn, slender girl with a talent for painting.  Evidence indicates that she had a normal IQ although the Sybil-myth places it in a very high range.  In 1945 she had a breakdown and experienced severe anorexia.  Wilbur treated Shirley for 11 years, but their relationship was far closer and continued after treatment.

Schreiber visited Dodge Center, perhaps in an effort to authenticate some of Sybil's stories.  In a letter to Wilbur she wrote that she could not locate the woods where so many terrible things were supposed to have taken place, and she never found anyone to corroborate the stories of the horrible maltreatment.  (Schreiber explained this by saying that the neighbors really knew, they just would not tell her.) Rieber provides an analysis of the tapes, dividing them into 10 sections.

  1. "Labeling Sybil as a multiple personality."
  2. "Assigning the multiple personalities their personal characteristics and planting [a personality] rather than probing her."
  3. "Inventing the primal scene, the grand illusion of an explanatory principle, and making the punishment fit the crime."
  4. "Projecting the creators' guilt about perpetrating a fraud onto others; there is a madness in their method and method in their madness."
  5. "Manufacturing Sybil's memories."
  6. "Shaping the rationale for Sybil as an honest liar."
  7. " Sybil becomes confused about her personalities."
  8. "Creating the cause -- "The Abuse Excuse."
  9. "Admitting to a false confession; Sybil's amnesia wears off."
  10. "Teaching Sybil to hate and then explaining it."

Following are some excerpts relating to the manufacturing of memories:

Sybil's reaction to being told she was MPD:

Wilbur: She was relieved because this put a name on it.  And this also assured her that she was not the only one that this had ever happened to.  And that she had a bona fide condition....

Schreiber: And she had read Martin [Morton] Prince's book about the faintest trace of recognition.

Wilbur: Yeah (p.217)

Wilbur used sodium pentothal and hypnosis to get "memories":

Uh, the first time we got any memories back was, when, I gave her pentothal and then because what happened was this.  Now I had given her the pentothal and oh I hadn't thought about that in years.  I've forgotten all about that.  And so she talked about it, and I also said, what you also talked about so and so and so and so, ___.  So I decided that I lost too much ... trying to tell her what she said and then I played the tapes back (p. 241)

Wilbur teaches Sybil to hate her family.  Rieber says it is "what happens when a therapist becomes too emotionally involved."  Wilbur and Schreiber became surrogate parents.

"You know mother did lots of things to make you angry and frightened, and I know most of them. . . I know she gave you medicines that hurt you, and I know she filled your bladder up with cold water and hurt you, and she used the flashlight and so on and hurt you.  I know she stuffed the washcloth in your mouth and cotton in your nose so you couldn't breathe, I know about all those things. What else did she do that made you angry? Sweetie, hmmm? Dear heart? What else did she do? It's all right to talk about it now." (p. 126)

Was Sybil a fraud?  Rieber writes that it "depends upon your personal definition of that term.  No matter what you wish to call it, it was a conscious misrepresentation of the facts.  A fine line between self-deception and the deception of others is an important issue here.  Unquestionably, Schreiber and Wilbur wanted to make Sybil a multiple personality case no matter what."

Will a new generation of vulnerable people be influenced by the remake and rerelease of Sybil? You can help determine that.

What did cause "Sybil's" "MPD"?  Evidence from four trustworthy sources led to an answer: "Sybil's" "memories" of an abusive childhood were the result of unduly suggestive techniques employed by her therapist during a span of eleven years (2,354 sessions).  Follow the links below to learn more.

Letter to CBS. January 30, 2006. FMS Foundation.

Rieber, R.W. (1999). (No longer available online, but a copy may be obtained by writing to mail@fmsfonline.org with "Rieber paper" in the Subject: line.)  Hypnosis, false memory and multiple personality: A trinity of affinity.  History of Psychiatry, 3-11.  This article includes quotes from discussions between SYBIL author Flora Schreiber and psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.

Spiegel, Herbert, and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen. (1997, April 24) Sybil - The Making of a Disease:  An Interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel, New York Review of Books, 44 (7)  Dr. Spiegel also treated "Sybil" but he did not find "multiple personality disorder".

Multiple Personality (DID): A controversial diagnosis.  FMS Foundation website.

Piper, A., Merskey, H. (2004, November). The persistence of folly (1): A critical examination of dissociative identity disorder.  Part 1. The excesses of an improbable concept.  Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(9). 592-600.

Piper, A., Merskey, H. (2004, October). The persistence of folly (2): A critical examination of dissociative identity disorder. Part 2. The defence and decline of multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(10). 678-683.

See also:

Laney, C., Loftus, E.F. (2005, November). Traumatic Memories Are Not Necessarily Accurate MemoriesCanadian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(11), 823-828.

McNally, R. (2005, November). Debunking myths about trauma and memoryCanadian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(11), 817-822

Perry, C. (1998). Key concepts in hypnosis. FMS Foundation website.

Pendergrast, M. (1996). How to Believe the Unbelievable. Chapter 3, pp. 119-149, excerpted with permission from Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives.  Hinesburg, VT: Upper Access Books.