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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

The Pow­er of Empa­thy: A Quick Ani­mat­ed Les­son That Can Make You a Bet­ter Per­son

Carl Gus­tav Jung Explains His Ground­break­ing The­o­ries About Psy­chol­o­gy in Rare Inter­view (1957)

Jacques Lacan’s Con­fronta­tion with a Young Rebel: Clas­sic Moment, 1972

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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  • rishi says:

    Dis­so­cia­tive iden­ti­ty dis­or­der is char­ac­ter­ized by a dis­turbed child­hood sex­u­al trau­ma that can lead to dis­so­cia­tive iden­ti­ty dis­or­der view of real­i­ty, fre­quent­ly com­bined with occa­sion­al mem­o­ry loss or “blend­ing” of sep­a­rate iden­ti­ties.

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