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Was Sybil Faking Multiple Personalities?

Multiple personality disorder — now known in modern psychological lingo as dissociative identity disorder (DID) in the DSM-IV — is a fairly uncommon mental health concern. But it remains an intriguing one because of its nature: The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states. Each of these identities or personality states has its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self, and take alternating control of the person’s behavior.

Sybil is one of the most popularly known individuals who had multiple personality disorder, largely because of a book published in the 1970s that detailed her experience and that of her psychiatrist in trying to help treat her.

Now Debbie Nathan, writing in her new book, Sybil Exposed, suggests that the core diagnosis for Sybil — of multiple personality disorder — was made up by the patient to keep in the good graces of her psychiatrist.

14 Comments to
Was Sybil Faking Multiple Personalities?

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  1. It’s also not uncommon for one or more parts of a person with DID to deny the existence of the other parts and/or deny the diagnosis. “I’m was making it up,” out of fear of the reality of the diagnosis, perhaps, or of what remains to be explored.

    • Exactly. One part denying another part (or parts) doesn’t make them go away, even if that’s the hope, nor make them nonexistent.

  2. I think that the author of this current book, Debbie Nathan, is projecting her own motives onto Dr. Wilbur – wanting to become rich and famous by writing a book. It is interesting to note that Nathan has published this book years after Sybil died and could not be interviewed to refute it. Indeed, many patients want to deny things that they have said to their psychotherapist in order to not be seen as that ‘sick’ or for other reasons. It seems unlikely that Sybil could have manufactured all of these personalities and kept them straight in ongoing therapy. Even malingerers often have trouble keeping their stories straight, and that’s with only one personality.

    • Did you read the book Carole, or are you doing some projecting of your own?

      Nathan’s book is based on documentary evidence from Schreiber’s own files that show that she and Wilbur cooked up the diagnosis to sell the “Sibyl” book. In her papers, Schreiber describes going to Mason’s home town to corroborate Mason’s story, but she was unable to. Mason’s mother’s medical records show that she was diagnosed with depression, not schizophrenia. “Sibyl” claims that Mason’s mother was treated at the Mayo clinic–but has her there two years before the Mayo clinic even had a psychiatric department. Mason made many obviously false claims–including that she was in Holland fighting the Nazis during WWII–that Schreiber conveniently omits from her narrative. Wilbur and Schreiber manipulated a highly suggestible individual for their own gain. Why so many people insist that “Sibyl”–a bood that is entirely unsourced–is unerring gospel is beyond me.

      I also find it bizarre that people think that a book is discredited if the writer got a paycheck for writing it. How do you think books are produced, Carole? By elves toiling selflessly all through the night while you sleep?

  3. I have treated a few patients with DID. The healthier ones were deeply embarrassed by the diagnosis and reluctant to accept it. (One patient who had no shame about it and referred to herself as “we,” made little or no progress in therapy.)

    • I’ve been diagnosed with DID and I am incredibly ashamed of this! My own parents and sibling do not know. I don’t tell people! I refused to accept it myself for nearly a year. And, I denied having DID to my therapist and stated that it was all pretend just a couple weeks ago -except it wasn’t me who denied DID.

      But, I use the term “we” in therapy and in journals. Most often, I’m co-conscious, or I have an awareness of what is going on at all times. So for me, my life is very often a “we” situation. I’m not one “personality” at a time. So it’s “we” went to the store, or “we” felt a certain way.

      For others, as well as myself, who choose not to consider “integration,” we are encouraged to work as a system or family or team. So, I think the use of “we” isn’t odd or counterproductive at all. I do not think it is a sign of enjoying or being proud of having DID.

      Your comment about one patient, who happened to use “we” to describe herself, feeling no shame and not achieving much progress kind of made me feel bad. I don’t think the use of “we” has much to do with it pride/shame in having DID or a willingness or reluctance or refusal to achieve progress. Using the term “we” sometimes is just practical.

    • One other thing, you stated, “The healthier ones were deeply embarrassed by the diagnosis and reluctant to accept it.”

      I am hoping you mean that those patients who were more healthy happened to also be patients who exhibited the most shame in having DID.

      I am hoping you do NOT mean that being ashamed of having DID is healthy or a sign of health.

      Why should anyone being ashamed of any mental illness diagnosis be considered a sign of health? Or is it just DID.

      I am ashamed of DID. I’m so ashamed no one knows -except people involved in my treatment and a few online acquaintances.

      I don’t know…your comment just struck me oddly. I’m sure you meant nothing negative.

  4. What if the therapist created the personalities? Regressions? Mind control? Hypnosis? What do these “treatments” do to the client’s brain?

  5. Firstly I think that Dissociate Personality Disorder has always been a controversial diagnosis, even more so of late perhaps and even though it is included in the DSM-IV, I can’t help but think that there is still much scope for clinicians and writers to assert that it doesn’t exist and to gain credibility from these statements.
    Secondly and as others have already recognised,it is highly unfair to profess that Shirley Mason, didn’t in fact have this condition, when she is no longer here to set the record straight.
    Thirdly, as has already been touched upon, this is not a diagnosis that is hard for a patient to accept, often resulting in lowered self esteem, denial, embarrassment and shame and writing a letter denying the fact could be the result of the complex feelings a diagnosis D.I.D creates.
    Finally, the idea that ‘Sybil’ did all that she could to facilitate a relationship with her Therapist and further craved his attention and approval, surely could be construed as part of a personality Disorder anyway?

  6. Oh I am having a very strong reaction to this. I was one of those readers who were rivited by this story and every bit of background info I could find. I want to confront Debbie Nathan about her casual description that Sybil was simply” from a strict family and was emotionally troubled”.

    Excuse me. The writer and Dr Wilbur made a particularly strong case and historic investigation of profound child abuse and genetic history of schizophrenia in Sybils mothers family. Although I can envision a patient succumbing to malingering I cannot go there with the vase of Sybil. The story told by the psychiatrist and her ghostwriter was too never struck me as contrived in the manner suggested by Debbie Nathan.

    • There is no evidence that Mason’s mother was ever diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her medical records indicate that she was diagnosed with depression. The schizophrenia diagnosis was fabricated by Schreiber.

  7. When I was switching channels, I caught part of a very compelling documentary of a woman who had DID. It seemed very convincing to me and most interesting as one of her personalities seemed to help give another confidence in teaching a class if I recall correctly. This certainly is one of the more fascinating albeit controversial disorders for one to be diagnosed with.

  8. It’s chilling and disturbing to find that reviewers and readers are so quick to accept the “research” and accuracy of this authors book. Why haven’t they investigated her background and her other works? She is well known for having a personal agenda to uncover and expose false abuse accusations.
    She is also known for distorting material and misquoting people. Many have complained about the accuracy of her previous work.
    I know as a researcher and librarian myself, that it takes extensive experience, analytic skills and objectivity to interpret archival material.
    Debbie Nathan is an author who seeks out “match stick” topics. She writes about them without objectivity, using her own “personal lens”.

  9. Of course Shirley Mason’s identities were pretend. That is what DID and coping mechanisms are all about, whether they are unconscious or not. They help the individual to deal with whatever their trauma is. Nathan and the sensationalists of her book, most of whom never read “Sybil,” neglect to mention or realize that Mason’s letter to Dr. Wilbur was included in the original book and therefore was not suppressed by Schreiber or Wilbur.

    In Mason’s and other psychotherapy clients dealing with trauma or other suffering, an attachment to the therapist is necessary for the trust and belief that are needed in order to work through the issues. It is not “unusual.” Who else could a client turn to in this way?

    Multiple identities ARE pretend in that the mind makes them up as a defense, and that is a mental condition regardless. Mason’s admission was the greatest and bravest step in her recovery.



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