Real 'Sybil' Admits Multiple Personalities Were Fake

Oct 20, 2011
Originally published on October 20, 2011 11:50 am

When Sybil first came out in 1973, not only did it shoot to the top of the best-seller lists — it manufactured a psychiatric phenomenon. The book was billed as the true story of a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder. Within a few years of its publication, reported cases of multiple personality disorder — now known as dissociative identity disorder — leapt from fewer than 100 to thousands. But in a new book, Sybil Exposed, writer Debbie Nathan argues that most of the story is based on a lie.

Shirley Mason, the real Sybil, grew up in the Midwest in a strict Seventh-day Adventist family. As a young woman she was emotionally unstable, and she decided to seek psychiatric help. Mason became unusually attached to her psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, and she knew that Wilbur had a special interest in multiple personality disorder.

"Shirley feels after a short time, that she is not really getting the attention she needs from Dr. Wilbur," Nathan explains. "One day, she walks into Dr. Wilbur's office and she says, 'I'm not Shirley. I'm Peggy.' ... And she says this in a childish voice. ... Shirley started acting like she had a lot of people inside her."

Wilbur believed that she had stumbled on a remarkable case. She began seeing Mason frequently and eventually teamed up with the writer Flora Rheta Schreiber to work on a book about her patient. The two women taped a series of interviews. In one of those interviews, Wilbur describes the moment that Peggy first appeared. She uses the pseudonym "Sylvia" to protect Mason's identity:

She said, 'I'm Peggy,' and she proceeded to tell me about herself ... that Sylvia couldn't stand up for herself and she had to stand up for her. Sylvia couldn't get angry because her mother wouldn't let her, but she got angry. She knew it was a sin to be angry, but people got angry so she got angry.

Mason became increasingly dependent on Wilbur for emotional and even financial support. She was eager to give her psychiatrist what she wanted.

"Once she got this diagnosis she started generating more and more personalities," Nathan says. "She had babies, she had little boys, she had teenage girls. She wasn't faking. I think a better way to talk about what Shirley was doing was that she was acceding to a demand that she have this problem."

Wilbur began injecting Mason regularly with sodium pentothal, which was then being used to help people remember traumatic events that they had repressed. Under the influence of drugs and hypnosis, the very suggestible Mason uncovered her many personalities.

Reading through Schreiber's papers, Nathan says it becomes obvious that the writer knew that Mason's story was not entirely true. Memories of a traumatic tonsillectomy, for instance, morphed into a lurid story of abuse. And Schreiber seemed eager to pump up or even create drama where none existed. But if Schreiber had doubts, she suppressed them.

"She already had a contract and she already had a deadline," Nathan says. "She was in the middle of writing the book. So she had the dilemma all journalists have nightmares about — what if my thesis turns out to be wrong as I do my research but it's too late?"

At one point, Mason tried to set things straight. She wrote a letter to Wilbur admitting that she had been lying: "I do not really have any multiple personalities," she wrote. "I do not even have a 'double.' ... I am all of them. I have been lying in my pretense of them." Wilbur dismissed the letter as Mason's attempt to avoid going deeper in her therapy. By now, says Nathan, Wilbur was too heavily invested in her patient to let her go.

"She had already started giving presentations about this case," Nathan says. "She was planning a book. ... She was very, very attached to the case emotionally and professionally and I don't think she could give it up. But she had a very nice little piece of psychoanalytic theory to rationalize not giving it up."

As for Mason, she quickly got the message that if she raised questions about the veracity of her multiple personalities, she'd quickly lose her support network.

"She got the very, very strong impression when she went in and brought this letter of recantation to Dr. Wilbur that if she didn't go with the program she was not going to have Dr. Wilbur anymore," Nathan says. "Dr. Wilbur was giving her 14 to 18 hours of therapy a week. Dr. Wilbur was coming to her house and eating with her, giving her clothes, paying her rent ... so, how could you give up Dr. Wilbur?"

The book succeeded beyond anyone's expectations — it sold some 6 million copies around the world, and in 1976, it was made into a television movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward.

As for the real Sybil, people began to recognize Mason as the patient portrayed in the book and the film. She fled her life and moved into a home near Wilbur. Mason lived in the shadows until her death in 1998.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every so often, a book becomes a cultural phenomenon. "Sybil" was one such book. It was published in 1973, billed as the true story of a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder. It was a huge bestseller and became a popular TV movie. Now a new book, called "Sybil Exposed," reveals an even stranger story of the real Sybil. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When "Sybil" first came out, it not only shot to the top of the bestseller lists, it also spawned a psychiatric phenomenon. With a few years of its publication, reported cases of multiple personality disorder leapt from less than 100 to thousands. But, says writer Debbie Nathan, most of the story is based on a lie.

DEBBIE NATHAN: Shirley started acting like she had a lot of people inside her.

NEARY: Shirley is Shirley Mason, the real Sybil. She grew up in the Midwest in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family. An emotionally needy young woman, she decided to seek psychiatric help. Shirley became unusually attached to her psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, and she knew that Dr. Wilbur had a special interest in multiple personality disorder.

NATHAN: And Shirley feels after a short time that she's not really getting the attention she needs from Dr. Wilbur. One day she walks into Dr. Wilbur's office and she says, I'm not Shirley, I'm Peggy - and she says this in a childish voice.

NEARY: Dr. Wilbur believed she had stumbled on a remarkable case. She began seeing Shirley frequently and eventually teamed up with the writer Flora Schreiber to work on a book about her patient. The two women taped a series of interviews. In this excerpt, Dr. Wilbur describes the moment that Peggy first appeared. She uses the pseudonym Sylvia to protect Shirley's identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEARY: Shirley became increasingly dependent on Dr. Wilbur for emotional and even financial support. She was eager to give her psychiatrist what she wanted.

NATHAN: Once she got this diagnosis she started generating more and more personalities. She had babies, she had little boys, she had teenage girls. She wasn't faking. I think a better way to talk about what Shirley was doing was that she was acceding to a demand that she have this problem.

NEARY: Dr. Wilbur began injecting Shirley regularly with sodium pentothal, which was then being used to help people remember traumatic events that they had repressed. Under the influence of drugs and hypnosis, the very suggestible Shirley uncovered her many personalities. In this excerpt from a recording of one session, Dr. Wilbur talks to Shirley about a new personality who has surfaced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEARY: Reading through Flora Schreiber's papers, Nathan says, it becomes obvious that the writer knew that Shirley's story was not entirely true. Memories of a traumatic tonsillectomy, for instance, morphed into a lurid story of abuse. And Schreiber seemed eager to pump up or even create drama where none existed. If Schreiber had doubts, she suppressed them.

NATHAN: She already had a contract and she already had a deadline. She was in the middle of writing the book. So she had sort of the dilemma that, you know, all journalists have nightmares about - what if my thesis turns out to be wrong as I do my research but it's too late?

NEARY: At one point, Shirley tried to set things straight. She wrote a letter to Dr. Wilbur admitting that she had been lying. I do not really have multiple personalities, she wrote. I do not even have a double. I am all of them. Dr. Wilbur dismissed the letter as Shirley's attempt to avoid going deeper in her therapy. By now, says Nathan, Dr. Wilbur was too heavily invested in her patient to let her go.

NATHAN: She had already started giving presentations about this case. She was planning a book. She was very, very attached to the case emotionally and professionally and I don't think she could give it up.

NEARY: And what about Shirley?

NATHAN: She got the very, very strong impression when she went in and brought this letter of recantation to Dr. Wilbur that if she didn't go with the program, she was not going to have Dr. Wilbur anymore. And Dr. Wilbur was giving her 14, 18 hours of therapy a week. So how could you give up Dr. Wilbur?

NEARY: The book succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, selling some six million copies around the world, and was made into a TV movie starring Sally Field. As that movie draws to a close, Joanne Woodward as Dr. Wilbur describes a happy ending for Sybil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SYBIL")

NEARY: Shirley Mason almost had that life. But when "Sybil" came out and people began to suspect it was her, she fled, moving to a home near Dr. Wilbur, living in her shadow and dependent on her psychiatrist until the end of her life. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.