How Sybil Turned Multiple Personality Disorder into a Psychological Phenomenon in America

In 1973, the book Sybil – about a young woman struggling with 16 distinct personalities – became a cultural sensation, spawning a hugely successful made-for-TV movie in 1976 and an utterly unnecessary remake in 2007.

The condition of multiple personality disorder (MPD) was so exotic and strange that it soon became fodder for daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer and campy storylines in soap operas. But the case and the controversial treatment prescribed by Sybil’s doctor Cornelia Wilbur had long-term and serious implications for healthcare in this country. Above, you can watch a video by the New York Times that lays out much of the controversy.

MPD was first diagnosed in the early 1950s with a patient named Eve White (above) who seemed to have three personalities. When Wilbur found that one of her own patients, a troubled graduate student named Shirley Mason (later known to the world as “Sybil”) exhibited some of the same symptoms as Eve, she started an aggressive therapy that included hypnosis and the use of sodium thiopental, truth serum. Wilbur suspected that Mason’s problems were the result of some childhood trauma and her therapy aimed at uncovering them.

Under Wilbur’s care, Mason revealed a host of different personalities from the assertive Peggy, to the emotional Marcia, to Mike, who was not only male but also a carpenter. Through the voice of each personality, Wilbur also uncovered what she believed to be terrifying accounts of childhood rape and abuse.

But as Mason wrote in a 1958 letter to Wilbur, the abuse and the multiple disorders were lies. “I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” Mason writes. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities . . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ … I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Wilbur dismissed Mason’s claims as an excuse to avoid going deeper in her treatment.

The popularity of Sybil’s story soon turned what was previously a very rare condition into a trendy psychological disorder. The video details the case of Jeanette Bartha who states, “I came in for depression and I left with multiple personalities.” Under treatment with hypnotic drugs, Bartha started to believe not only that she had MPD but also her parents abused her as a part of a satanic cult. Years later, Bartha realized to her grief and horror that these memories were false.

Subsequent research has thoroughly debunked the validity of Wilbur’s methods and even her diagnosis. MPD has been replaced with the broader, and less pulpy sounding, dissociative-identity disorder.

“The problem is fragmentation of identity, not that you really are 12 people,” says Dr. David Siegel, a critic of Wilbur. “You have not more than one but less than one personality.”

via Mental Floss

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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