The case of Sybil, the pseudonym for a young woman suffering from 17 multiple personalities as the result of some Gothic child abuse at the hands of her monstrous mother, became a cultural touchstone almost immediately upon the 1973 publication of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s nonfiction account of her treatment.
Sally Field became an actress to reckon with in the 1976 made-for-TV movie, breaking free from the shackles of The Flying Nun. Women everywhere suddenly remembered, with the help of their eager therapists, childhood abuse and “fugue states,” in which they lost all memory of what they did or said. But in Debbie Nathan’s compulsively readable Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case, the whole thing is proved as a massive fraud perpetrated by an ambitious therapist, a lonely young woman and a determined writer.
After some intrepid sleuths outed the real Sybil as Midwesterner Shirley Mason, Mason’s medical records were unsealed, allowing Nathan unprecedented access to her treatment, history and the sad fallout from her pseudonymous fame.
Raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, Shirley Mason found sin at every turn. Creating art, reading fiction and, especially, sex were dangers to the immortality of her soul, plunging her into hysteria. By the time she started meeting with Dr. Connie Wilbur at Wilbur’s Park Avenue apartment-cum-office, Mason was desperate enough for a female mentor to create alternate identities.
Wrapped in their mutual dependency, Mason and Wilbur convinced themselves—often at Wilbur’s prompting while Mason was heavily drugged—that Mason’s childhood was fraught with molestation and physical beatings. And despite her doubts and the facts she unearthed, Schreiber went ahead with the story they spun, adding a few twists of her own and writing a blockbuster bestseller in the process.
Nathan’s deeply researched account of the behind-the-scenes drama—easily as dramatic and shocking as Sybil itself—reveals itself as an exploration of the warped ways in which women at the time struggled against the categories with which they were defined. Wilbur preserved as a woman in a mostly man’s field; Mason struggled to carve out a place for herself amid a ruinously strict upbringing during a sexist era; and Schreiber ruthlessly exploited the fictions she was fed to elevate herself above her status as a magazine freelance writer of fluff.
Female readers responded to Schreiber’s story of a repressed woman breaking the rules, attributing their own often conflicting desires to multiple personality disorder, a disorder that has been all but discredited by the medical establishment by now. Forget Field in Sybil; what audiences really want is a film adaptation of Sybil Exposed, in all its messy, complicated glory.
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