MINNEAPOLIS — Was one of the world's most famous medical cases a mistake? Or, worse, a hoax?
Author Debbie Nathan's book Sybil Exposed explores the history of the Minnesota woman who became a cause célèbre in the 1970s after it was reported she had 16 personalities. In the wake of the best-selling book Sybil and a movie adaptation starring Sally Field, multiple-personality disorder, or MPD, was officially classified as a psychiatric disorder.
The medical records for Sybil — who really was Shirley Mason, a native of Dodge Center, Minn. — were sealed until she died. After combing through those records, which included tape recordings of therapy sessions involving hypnosis while under the influence of "mind-bending drugs," Nathan is convinced the treatment caused rather than cured her condition.
"I don't think she had MPD," said Nathan, a journalist who rose to prominence in the 1980s for her investigation of so-called "therapeutic interrogation" techniques. "I'm not a doctor, but in retrospect, I think she had a physical illness, pernicious anemia, which is known to cause hallucinations."
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If so, the condition would have been exacerbated by Mason's psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who prescribed liberal doses of drugs, many of which are now known to be hallucinogenic. When Mason was depressed, Wilbur would double, triple and sometimes quadruple the dosages, Nathan's book alleges.
Wilbur thought Mason had repressed memories from a traumatic childhood. She would hypnotize Mason and suggest things that might have happened. Mason incorporated many of the suggestions into her stories about growing up.
"She was very susceptible to hypnosis and to suggestion," Nathan said of Mason. Even her real memories are suspect, Nathan said, because they "got all mixed up with her hallucinations."
A case in point: Sybil describes a traumatic event when she was 7: A gun went off and killed a friend in front of her. Wilbur theorized she escaped the emotional trauma by turning her body over to an alternative personality. But Nathan's check of newspaper archives revealed the friend's death was true, but it happened 10 years later, and Mason wasn't there.
It's easy to disprove Mason's "memories," but how those stories came to be taken as fact is harder to pin down.
"Some people in the media who have skimmed my book or just read parts of it are saying that I'm arguing that it was a hoax" conceived by Wilbur and Flora Schreiber, the author of Sybil, Nathan said. "I'm not willing to go that far. I don't know if it was a lie or a hoax or simply an inability to deal with the truth."
If it was a hoax, they did a really bad job of it. For starters, they saved things that refuted their claims.
"One of Sybil's well-known stories was that when she was 9, she was taken over by an alternative personality for two years," Nathan said. "During that time, she learned the multiplication tables. The story is that she was good at math, but when her real personality returned, she flunked math because she couldn't remember anything that the alternative personality had been taught.
"Within the first hour of opening the first box (of documents), I found all of her report cards. She was never good at math. And as I'm looking at those grades, I'm asking myself, 'Why did they save this stuff?'"
She wonders whether Wilbur and Schreiber got caught up in the ego rush of breaking medical ground and were afraid to explore any avenues that might burst that bubble. The boxes included diaries that contradicted many of Mason's trance-induced stories about her childhood.
"I don't know if they ignored what was in the journals or simply never bothered to read them," Nathan said.
Others might be focusing on the deception behind the Sybil myth, but Nathan sees her book as more of a cautionary tale. After the book and movie became hugely successful, MPD became the trendy diagnosis of the 1970s.
"It just made everything worse," she said. "Sybil supposedly had 16 personalities, which was unprecedented at the time. Within a couple of years, there were people claiming to have hundreds of personalities. There were even a few who were said to have more than a thousand."
The moral of the story, she said, is that even science is subject to fads.
"Science is not just test tubes," she said. "It comes from humans. What we need to take from this is that when science makes new claims that sound really, really impressive, we need to situate those claims in the culture."