“Sybil Exposed,” by Debbie Nathan

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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.

12 thoughts on ““Sybil Exposed,” by Debbie Nathan

  1. Cindy, I meant to comment before. I read the book and saw Sally Fields in the movie!!
    I studied the McMartin Preschool scandal and kept up on the events that followed it. Interesting case. I remember the hysteria. Great post!!

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  2. I have to admit that I was fascinated with this book (and the subsequent movie, which is actually quite good when considered from a film-making perspective) in my formative years, but even as a relatively clueless teen I thought something didn’t gel quite right. Then again, 1973 was also the year that the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM (of great importance to me at the time), so the psychiatry world was definitely in flux during those years. Thank you for sharing…

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    • Oh yes, the mental health profession has experienced a lot of “fluxes.” Just in recent years, there was the adoption of Freudian psychoanalysis, and it’s eventual decline in importance. There was the time period you mention when homosexuality was de-stigmatized as a mental illness. At the same time child abuse was identified as a syndrome and problem, rather than a parental right, same with spouse abuse. Also during this time period, many therapists had sexual relationships openly with clients, it was the swingng 60’s and 70’s. The harm this caused to clients eventually resulted in this practice being labeled malpractice and therapists losing their license for engaging in it. If we go back further in time, things get even more disturbing with hypothermia therapy, lobotomies, etc. etc.
      So yeah, you have to be very careful in picking your therapist and therapy!

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  3. People with mental disorders suffer more than most can understand, I know because I have PTSD, Stockholm Syndrome, learned behaviors, and reactive responses, all of which are difficult for me to control. When I read the book, Sybil, my heart broke for that poor woman. Two things I will never understand is suffering and death, although I believe in God.

    Your article is quite informative and I am glad that as I search your blog that I stumbled on it. Thank you, Cindy.

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