Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

By Debbie Nathan

Free Press, $26, 320 pages

Who is this author?

Chances are, you’ve heard of Sybil, the woman with 16 different personalities. But you’ve probably never before heard of Debbie Nathan, an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in writing about the occasional hysterias that sweep over America — such as the so-called satanic sexual abuse of children in day care centers –- charges later deemed false when the modern-day witch hunts subsided. A journalist, editor and translator, this is her fourth book. Among her honors are the H.L. Mencken Award for Investigative Journalism, PEN West Award for Journalism and the John Bartlow Martin Award (from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) for Public Service Journalism. She is a board member of the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), which aids people falsely accused of harming children.

What is this book about?

In “Sybil Exposed,” Nathan explores the bestselling 1973 Sybil book (and 1976 movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward), a story widely accepted as true that created a boom in diagnoses of multiple personality disorder, but, as her research shows, was the largely phony product of an unholy collaboration between “Sybil” (real name Shirley Mason), her domineering psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, and the ambitious writer who popularized their story, Flora Reta Schreiber. The three even formed a business they called “Sybil Incorporated,” to share profits from merchandise such as Sybil T-shirts and dolls.

Here’s what Nathan told an interviewer for Barnes & Noble:

“My research shows definitively that the Sybil story was largely made up. Much of it was suggested to Shirley by her doctor, Connie Wilbur. Shirley herself often didn’t know when she was having true memories and when she was fantasizing. Still, it’s clear she often told out-and-out lies, not just in therapy but also when she and Connie were working with Flora on the book. To me, what’s amazing is that when Sybil the book and movie came out, millions of people believed a tale that was so over the top that it should have immediately inspired doubt.

“…I learned while researching the book: That when it comes to identifying and diagnosing new illnesses, we should remember that “science” can be fraught with politics, superstition, and alternate agendas.”

Why you’ll like it:

If you were among the many with previous faith in the story of Sybil, you may not like having it demolished by this book, but you have to admire Nathan’s persistence, research and ability to make a complex story understandable. It’s not easy to write a book that goes against the grain and disappoints some readers who were invested in what they believed was a true horror story, but Nathan, who had access to a recently opened archive containing material from Mason, Wilbur and Schreiber, makes her case powerfully.

What others are saying:

“Nathan traces the paths of the three women—the patient, the doctor, and the author who publicized the case—who formed “Sybil Incorporated.” Along the way, she reasons that the concept of the multiplicity of selves—and the subsequent popularity of the diagnosis—may have become the perfect idiom of distress for a generation of women who, rocked by the feminist revolution, felt confusion at their new and conflicting roles. Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original,” says Publishers Weekly.

“The true story of Sybil has found its ideal historian in Debbie Nathan…This is the book that should be a made-for-TV movie,” says The Wall Street Journal.

“In this dazzling expose of a manipulative psychiatrist, an author who’d do anything for fame and a vulnerable girl caught in the middle, journalist Nathan reveals how these three women changed the psychiatric landscape by raising questions of identity that resonated with a generation. The result is a cautionary tale about the ways in which science, in the wrong hands, can capitalize on our collective fears,” says More magazine.

When is it available?

“Sybil Exposed” is available now at the Hartford Public Library.

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