“Sybil Exposed,” by Debbie Nathan



As a young person I read the book, “Sybil,” with morbid fascination and some anxiety.

As a retired psychotherapist with over 27 years of clinical experience, I read the book, “Sybil Exposed,” with a combination of disgust, anger and sorrow.

I was licensed as a therapist in 1982 when the Multi-Personality-Disorder “movement” among mental health professionals was in full swing. I went to multiple symposiums and trainings on the subject, many required, due to the nature of my work with perpetrators and victims of child abuse.

I learned all about the “epidemic” of Satanic Cults murdering children. I lived through the various scandals such as the McMartin Preschool debacle, and knew some of the players as colleagues. I saw parents whose children were taken away due to false memories implanted in them by their therapists. It was a time of hysteria in some parts of the mental health field and it was disturbing then, and now. The proponents were like members of a particularly vehement religious cult.

Before the publication of the book, “Sybil,” in 1973, there were approximately 200 documented cases of MPD. Several years after the book’s publication there were over 40,000 documented cases.

There is now substantial evidence that what is now called Disassociative Disorder exists. It is rather rare. Imagine how damaged the people who really had it were by all this media bruhaha, and misinformation.

Shirley Ardell Mason (Sybil) was a rather sweet, shy, high strung woman, with some emotional difficulties, and a tendency towards hysterical conversion symptoms (physical symptoms with psychological origins.) She came from a dysfunctional family, (I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t), with a rather perverse and domineering mother. Shirley’s difficulties could very likely have been ameliorated with the rather brief attention of a competent and ethical therapist.

Instead she began treatment with Cornelia Wilbur MD, a noted Psychiatrist. Cornelia than proceeded to commit basically every form of malpractice I can think of, short of sleeping with her patient, over the course of many years. Actually she did sleep with her, but probably never had sex with her.

She fed Shirley, a basically treatable, neurotic individual, very high does of sodium pentothal, stimulants, depressants, antixiolitics, psychedelics, anti-psychotics and electroshock therapy. It was under this “treatment” that Shirley’s alter personalities began to emerge, with the coaching and assistance of her psychiatrist. She also violated practically every therapeutic boundary, living with, traveling with, and employing her patient for years. She also repeatedly asserted that Shirley’s problems came from heinous child sex abuse at the hand of her mother, obstensively causing Shirley to develop multi-personalities as a defense.

This psychiatrist “treats Shirley for years, and then teams up with a journalist, Flora Schreiber, who writes the book, “Sybil,” with Dr. Wilbur’s coaching. Eventually it is make into a movie starring Sally Field. The psychiatrist and journalist form a for profit company called Sybil.Inc, to capitalize on the success of the book and movie. Dr. Wilbur builds a huge career for herself based on the book and movie, that damaged untold numbers of clients and their families, whose therapists were trained in, and employed, Dr. Wilbur’s methods.

It is just another chapter, in some of the disturbing history of the mental health profession.

And the media and movie industry as well.

It is important to note that many mental health professionals were strongly opposed to Dr. Wilbur’s methods. There was back then, a strong counter movement in the mental health field, to question Wilbur’s methods and findings, and cast doubt on her assertions on the prevalence of MPD.  Herbert Spiegel MD, saw Shirley when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation and accused her of manipulating her patient for profit. Robert Reiber Psy.D, challenged Dr Wilbur’s assertions publicly and accused her of concocting her patient’s symptoms for profit. Theses are just a few examples. There was significant, contentious, push-back in the field over the MPD “epidemic.”

After Sybil finally disconnected herself from the clutches of her therapist, her symptoms began to subside. I will not wreck the book with a spoiler as there is much, much more that will happen, and this is not how the book ends.

It may surprise some contemporary therapists and clients alike, to know that although, Dr. Wilbur’s behavior was grossly inappropriate and extreme, I was in high school in the 1970’s (Sybil was publised in 1973) and several of my friend’s parents were psychiatrists. The majority were decent, ethical people, but there were some who openly slept with their patients, took drugs with them etc. We knew because they invited us to their houses for our high school parties, and their patients/sex partners were there, with them, and us.

Today they would lose their licenses.

Strange times indeed.

Highly recommend this book.

It will aid in empowering clients to take control of their therapy, to seek second opinions, and to not go along with anything that seems wrong. I have included the following, which every client should be given a copy of by their therapist. If you aren’t feeling your therapy is going well, or are uncomfortable with something, talk to your therapist about it, and if you are not satisfied, seek a second opinion.

Here are your Bill of Rights:

Patient Bill of Rights

Patients have the right to:

  • Request and receive information about the therapist’s professional capabilities, including licensure, education, training, experience, professional association membership, specialization and limitations.
  • Have written information about fees, payment methods, insurance reimbursement, number of sessions, substitutions (in cases of vacation and emergencies), and cancellation policies before beginning therapy.
  • Receive respectful treatment that will be helpful to you.
  • A safe environment, free from sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
  • Ask questions about your therapy.
  • Refuse to answer any question or disclose any information you choose not to reveal.
  • Request and receive information from the therapist about your progress.
  • Know the limits of confidentiality and the circumstances in which a therapist is legally required to disclose information to others.
  • Know if there are supervisors, consultants, students, or others with whom your therapist will discuss your case.
  • Refuse a particular type of treatment, or end treatment without obligation or harassment.
  • Refuse electronic recording (but you may request it if you wish).
  • Request and (in most cases) receive a summary of your file, including the diagnosis, your progress, and the type of treatment.
  • Report unethical and illegal behavior by a therapist.
  • Receive a second opinion at any time about your therapy or therapist’s methods.
  • Have a copy of your file transferred to any therapist or agency you choose.

Poor Shirley. She deserved so much better.

“The Orchardist,” by Amanda Coplin

images (8)
This is a beautifully written book, an incandesant lamentation and exultation of the loneliness and deep contentment of solitude. The author tells us, “…sorrow came from these two feelings, the happines of company, the anxiety of interrupted solitude.” Each finely developed character in this thought provoking  book experiences this conflict and one senses that the author, glimpsed through her characters, might also. A writers life I imagine is in many ways a solitary one. Amanda Coplin spent eight years writing this book. You sense in her characters the strength Coplin sees in solitude, the beauty and the sorrow of it, but mostly the strength and power one can derive from it.

Human relationships in this book are a bit trickier, offerring love, comfort and company, but also pain, loss and grief. They disrupt the peace of solitude. She sees this in the bonds of parental figures and their children, “..and that was the point of children: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well and so truly, that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction
Human relationships are a distraction. Complicated.
I think Coplin is onto to something. The book takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, when maybe people were more at ease with a solitary life. There were  homesteaders by the thousands making their way on their own. Today a solitary life is often viewed with suspiscion. Coplin encourages us to contemplate the potential error of this thinking.
Talmadge the main character is a man who is rooted, comfortable and committed to his land, his orchard. He is an orchardist. But he is also a haunted man, seemingly ever in pursuit of the obscure objects of his conflicted desire, the missing fully intimate connection in his life with another person. Although he is a profoundly decent and caring man, he seems very alone always. Yet what makes this book so interesting, is that the author constantly is drawing the readers attention to the spare beauty of this almost existential aloneness. She doesn’t blame her characters for their reserve, their distancing, she seems to admire them for the strength it takes to face solitude.
And so did I. She is a remarkably talented writer. She weaves a spell of the fragile beauty of nature, of the orchard, of the seasons, the pull of people to their land and to each other.This is a beautiful book. Complex. Dense. Worthy of contemplation and Coplin is a stunningly talented writer. I wonder what she is writing now? It will be worth waiting another eight years to find out.
Highly recommend.




anta0004 (1) (photos: c.knoke).

i think the reason

i am reluctant

to share photos

of antarctica

is because I covet them


like something


you are unable

to describe


or even at all



is the earth

as it was made


by us

you see

how harmful we

have been

to the rest of our


in comparison

you see the glory

and fear the potential

death of it



if you haven’t been

you haven’t seen

what is


in the ice

you can feel


other places

in the world too

if you look

with an open mind

but in antarctica

it was an epiphany

for me


maybe it is good

that in 2008

only 100,000

people had been there

if more of us

had been

we might have made of it


what we have

of the rest of the planet

it is the last

remaining refuge

on earth


is God


in us

for our


or lack


of our world


we could

do something


than we are

to preserve

our sacred places

“The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey

The prose in this book is as feathery, fragile, and ethereal as snow. I read it during a recent heat wave, temps in the 100’s, yet I felt chilled. Really. Put on my slippers. Eowyn Ivey is this eerily good a writer. Just beautifully evocative imagery. The pensive loneliness of childless couple facing old age, isolated, in the frightening maw of a harsh Alaskan winter. The winter of their discontent. Until, a fairy child appears, bringing with her a magical mysticism that can warm the bleakest heart.
“…I am reminded of the time you spent as a child chasing faires in the woods…you slept more than one night in those old oak trees, and when mother found you in the morning you would swear you had seen fairies that flew like butterflies and lit up the night like lightening bugs. I remember with some shame that the rest of us teased you about seeing such spirits, but now my own grandchildren chase similar fancies and I do not discourage them. In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is not harm in finding magic among the trees.”
Beautiful writing. Beautiful book.
Not a book I would usually read, but so glad I did.
Maybe you should read it in the summer though?
Highly recommend.

“Sum forty Tales From The Afterlives,” by David Eagleman


I don’t know how this man has accomplished all he has in his life and how he managed to write such a hilarious, thought provoking and profound book.
He’s a comedically gifted neurologist.
I know, I know, we’re all like this.
Read this wonderful book.
It will make you laugh.
And think.
Plus this guy would the best graduate advisor in the world.

“The Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls

Cindy Knoke‘s review

Aug 13, 12  · 
This has to be the best memoir I have read.
Jeanette Walls has a lot guts.
She worked as an entertainment editor for MSNBC when she wrote this book, hob-nobbing with celebrities and such. No one she worked with could ever have imagined this successful, attractive, bright, high-functioning woman, could ever have come from the background and childhood that she did.
This is what makes her gutsy.
She told everyone.
She shreds off the patina of her social status and tells us in heartbreakingly beautiful prose what her childhood was like She doesn’t minimize or gloss over things. She gives us the whole sad story.
Two, umm, “eccentric” parents? Basically an artsy, but mentally ill mother. An gadget-gizmo-tinker, alcoholic dad. A vagabond childhood of continuous movement and upheaval. Being destitute, eating out of trash cans, wearing ragged clothes, worrying about her siblings, caring for them with parents whose heads were someplace else.
The family ends up in horrific circumstances in a West Virginia mining town in her father’s childhood home with relatives straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock horror flick.
Yet, she doesn’t really describe it like this. She includes all the above unflinchingly.
But so much more.
There is love in this book. Lot’s of it. Love for her parents, and her brothers and sisters. She describes her parents in many ways, affectionately. She recognizes the creativity and intelligence behind their oddity. She describes her father teaching her about science and astronomy. She describes her mother and her positive thinking and her love of art.
This is what makes this author so unusual and admirable. Her memoir is beautifully written and un-self pitying. It is a tour-de-force.
Highly recommend..

“The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness” Elyn Saks


Elyn Saks is a remarkable and impressive person. She is a law professor At USC who has schizophrenia and is an advocate for the rights of involuntarily hospitalized psychiatric patients. She is an expert in mental health law and has a special interest in limiting the use of involuntary physical restraint on psychiatric patients which she is interested in due to her own terrifying experiences being involuntarily hospitalized and restrained. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant which she is using to fund the “Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy & Ethics.”

Saks bravery and honesty in presenting herself and her experience is remarkably compelling. Although this book chronicles Saks frightening experience with her disease and the societal response to it, it is ultimately an inspiring book that will help to educate people about the realities of the disease of schizophrenia and provide hope to people struggling with it. She is quoted as saying, “there is a tremendous need to implode the myths about mental illness, to put a face on it…”
This is precisely what she has done. Elyn Saks is a magnificent role model and this is an excellent and empowering book.
images (5)
Elyn Saks

“Endgame 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II,” by David Stafford

2680653 (1)Endgame 1945 is an historical narrative told from the perspective of eyewitnesses, about the final three months after VE Day in Europe. It covers in fascinating detail events leading to the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, the liberation of concentration camps and the challenges faced by allied occupying forces contending with the mass human trauma of war devastated Europe. It describes the Herculean task faced by relief agencies dealing with displaced persons and the traumas experienced by German women and children in Allied occupied Germany.
This book is a tour de force. Stafford is a brilliant writer and historian and his subject, these specific three months, has been mostly neglected by historians. This is a riveting, compelling read that is difficult to put down and stays with you long after you finish reading it. The extent of the trauma in Europe was mind boggling. The task of restoring order, Sisyphean. The heroism of the allies incredible and the suffering of so many hard to contemplate.
87408c1301d10a9bdc812743de94cd2f (Photo: Struthof Concentration Camp, C. Knoke).

HHhH by Laurent Binet

I am addicted to reading about the history of WWII and I really wanted to like this book.
Binet’s book however frustrated me. The constant insertion of the author into the text and his continuous use of the word “I” was incredibly distracting. Who was this book about precisely, the author or Heydrich? The purported topic, Heydrich was interesting, the author’s pathos? Not so much.
His short chapter format consisting of 257 chapters, some of which were only a few sentences long, resulted in a choppy, stilted flow.
His constant debunking of historical novels, and their fictionalized aspects, gets a bit tired, but I found his statement that, “I am struck all the same by the fact that, in every case, fiction wins out over history,” provocative. But I also was then, confused by his many discussions of Hollywood movies about the era and his continuous insertion of fictionalized vignettes that he explained were to serve as examples of how he wasn’t fictionalizing. One senses he is really fascinated with historical fictionalized accounts but thinks he is doing something far superior. I think he may not have achieved this goal.
He is an interesting, intelligent man, and this should have been a better book.
If you want a recommendation for a riveting read on the era, try, “Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II,” by David Stafford.