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Researcher couldn't leave 'Sybil' alone

Researcher couldn't leave 'Sybil' alone
Debbie Nathan's "Sybil Exposed," right, explores the life of Shirley Mason of Dodge Center and the psychiatric order she became linked with. The 1973 book "Sybil," left, became a best-seller.

Three decades after publication of the blockbuster "Sybil," Debbie Nathan began her research into the world's most celebrated case of multiple personality disorder. 

Nathan started her work at the John Jay Library in New York where many of the documents and papers relating to the therapy of Sybil, who was later identified as Shirley Mason of Dodge Center, are kept. Reaching into an unsealed box one day, Nathan pulled out a file and found copies of all of Mason's report cards as a student in Dodge Center.

Nathan also noticed a discrepancy.

In the book, Sybil describes undergoing a personality shift in her classroom as Peggy, one of her personalities, disappears and Sybil resurfaces. The transformation leaves Sybil disoriented. Not only has she no memory of the preceding two years, but she has no recall of the math problems that Peggy has been learning during that time. Her grades begin to plummet.

At least according to the book.


In real life, Mason's report card showed no variation from the grades she normally got. Nathan, a New York writer, was hooked.

"I just couldn't get away from it," said Nathan.

Examination of 3 lives

Nathan's fascination with the case would lead to the publication of her new book "Sybil Exposed: The extraordinary story behind the famous multiple personality case."

In her book, Nathan traces the lives of the three women — the suggestible patient Mason, her ambitious therapist Connie Wilbur and author Flora Schreiber — most responsible for a book that sold millions of copies but was mostly a work of fiction, Nathan says.

Nathan had access to new papers. She relies on caches of letters Mason wrote from the 1940s to the 1990s to a former college roommate at the then-Mankato State College, Luella Odden, and her daughter, Muriel Odden Coulter. She also reconstructs the professional life of Wilbur, the psychiatrist most responsible for shedding the spotlight on multiple personality disorder.

Nathan said she is the first researcher to argue that Mason's so-called diaries of 1941-1942 are hoaxes, "suggesting that she was actively involved in misleading Schreiber, if not Wilbur."

Yet, the Sybil controversy shows no signs of abating. Patrick Suraci, a New York psychologist and the author of "Sybil In Her Own Words," has no doubt that Mason suffered from multiple personality disorder and bases his claim partly on the fact that he knew all three women. He and Schreiber taught at John Jay College in Manhattan in 1973, about the time the book "Sybil" came out. He later got to know Mason and Wilbur.


"(Nathan) didn't know any of them," Suraci said. "They had such integrity, these women."

Suraci says that when Schreiber prepared to write a book, she was a meticulous researcher, making sure every fact checked out. He says the same cannot be said of Nathan's book, which he claims has holes in it. As evidence, he cites what he terms an "outrageous" passage in Nathan's book that describes how Wilbur would climb into Mason's bed in her apartment before administering electro-shock therapy. As someone who had access to Mason's therapy papers, he says there is no document to support that claim.

"Nathan just made it up," Suraci said.

Icon or metaphor?

Whatever ones take, the book "Sybil" continues to resonate to this day. Even though others have sought to get at the truth behind Mason's diagnosis and treatment, Mason's association with multiple personality disorder has reached almost iconic status. Even now, Nathan says, psychology textbooks display a split personality in their regard to the story. Some textbooks treat Sybil with great skepticism, others as a turning point in psychiatric history.

The story exerted a pull over Nathan for different reasons. Nathan had long been fascinated with multiple personality disorder, stemming from her own work covering the Satanic daycare panic of the 1980s. That controversy centered on claims that daycare providers were performing acts of ritualistic sexual abuse on children. Yet the children, when interviewed by therapists, would recall no such memory of such abuse. Experts testified in court that the abuse was so terrible that it had caused the child's personality to fragment, thus burying the memory.

"Sybil" became a best-seller, but it spoke most powerfully to women, Nathan said. The book came out in 1973, a time when "feminism came crashing over the culture" and created both new opportunities and confusion for women.

While doing her research, Nathan found folders of letters that Schreiber received after the publication of her book. Written mostly by women and girls, they described the sense of disassociation and "different personalities" many were feeling in this new world of opportunity.


"This is really the first time that women could start thinking about things they wanted to do, and that was very exciting, but also very scary," Nathan said. "And Sybil was a metaphor for the way women felt about themselves during this time."

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