In the early seventies, the nation was captivated by the story of "Sybil" – which was actually a synonym for psychiatric patient Shirley Mason. The book, written by journalist Flora Schreiber, detailed how Mason’s dedicated therapist Dr. Connie Wilbur used hypnotism, electro-shock and drug therapy to uncover the horrifying childhood trauma that led Sybil’s mind to fracture into 16 distinct personalities.
Readers were shocked, thrilled and titillated by the physical and sexual abuse inflicted upon young Sybil by her psychotic mother, and the extreme therapy that Dr. Wilbur used to finally "integrate" the many Sybils into one happy, functional, mature adult. The book sold millions of copies and was made into a television movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward.
Now a new book reveals that Sybil’s story was largely fabricated – a collaboration between Wilbur, Schreiber and Mason that spawned a craze for a new diagnosis – Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Pre-Sybil, there had been less than 200 known cases of MPD historically; after the book and movie, approximately 40,000 cases were reported in the next few years. Six years later MPD was introduced into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Today, DID remains a controversial topic in the mental health community. Some professionals question the validity of the diagnosis, claiming many cases can be attributed to patient suggestibility or other factors. This condition has long held a lurid fascination for the general public – from medieval tales of demonic possession, to the 19th century fad for parapsychology and hypnosis, to movie and TV depictions like “The Three Faces of Eve” and the Showtime series “The United States of Tara.”
But how real is DID? And assuming it is – what do we know about its causes? How many people does it affect, and are there commonalities among patients? How were public awareness and the study of dissociation influenced by the "Sybil" media phenomenon? Is it possible for someone to successfully fake the condition? What have we learned about diagnosis and treatment since the book?
Debbie Nathan, author of “Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.” Nathan is an award-winning investigative journalist, editor and translator
Richard P. Kluft, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine
Richard J. McNally, Ph.D., professor and director of Clinical Training Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and author of "Remembering Trauma"