Everyone knows the case of Sibyl. She became the subject of a best-selling book and a motion picture. Flora Rheta Schreiber wrote the book, in collaboration with Sibyl’s psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.
The book sold 6,000,000 copies in English, and God knows how many copies in foreign languages.
While not the first case of multiple personality disorder, Sibyl became the most famous case. Not because of the science, but because she was transformed into a great story.
Sibyl’s case gave rise to a brand new diagnosis, many more cases of MPD, and a treatment industry.
Now, it turns out that it was all a fraud. The patient in question, Shirley Ardell Mason did not have multiple personality disorders, but was manipulated and drugged by Dr. Wilbur into conforming with the psychiatrist’s expectations.
Mason’s life was sacrificed to Dr. Wilbur’s quest for fame and glory. After Mason escaped from Dr. Wilbur, Schreiber’s book destroyed the post-therapy life she had made for herself.
Author Debbie Nathan has now revealed the fraud in her new book, Sibyl Exposed.
Laura Miller summarizes Nathan’s findings in Salon: “Mason, like so many patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now rechristened ‘dissociative identity disorder,’ in part to shake the bad rep of MPD), improved markedly under certain conditions — namely, the absence of her therapist. For several years after her therapy concluded, she lived happily as an art teacher at a community college, even owning her own house. But the publication of ‘Sybil’ destroyed that life; Schreiber, who had invented so much of her biography, had so thinly disguised other details that many acquaintances recognized her. Too self-conscious to endure this exposure, Mason fled back to Wilbur and lived out the rest of her life as a sort of beloved retainer, cooking her doctor breakfast and dinner every day and nursing her on her deathbed.”
Miller also points out that Wilbur was instrumental in selling the notion that infantile sexual abuse was a major cause of adult emotional distress. Her work seems to have inspired the recovered memory mania and helped provoke the false prosecutions of nursery school operators for sexual abuse.
Miller writes: “Wilbur, on the other hand, thrived, presiding over the explosion of MPD diagnoses as one of the foremost experts on the condition. She played a key role in promoting the belief that conspiracies of fiendish, sadistic adults were secretly perpetrating murder, child rape and mutilation, human sacrifice, and cannibalism across the country and that repressed memories of such atrocities lay at the root of most MPDs. Innocent people were convicted of these crimes on the basis of testimony elicited from highly suggestible small children and hypnotized adults. Families were sundered by therapists who convinced their patients that they’d suffered similar ordeals despite having no conscious memory of it. This opened the door to years of expensive and ineffective therapy.”
When someone suggests that psychiatric diagnosis leaves something to be desired scientifically, the case of Sibyl and should help buttress their point.
If anything, the case of Sibyl warns us against taking psychiatry to be a branch of medicine just like the others.