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Sybil (book)

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Sybil is a book written by Flora Rheta Schreiber in 1973 about a woman named Shirley Ardell Mason. Mason was born on January 25, 1923 in Dodge Center, Minnesota. Her story is the most famous case of Multiple Personality Disorder on record. A movie was also made in 1976 based on the book, starring Sally Field in the title role and Joanne Woodward as her therapist, Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur.

The case was claimed in 1998 to be a sham by Robert Rieber and John Jay of the College of Criminal Justice. They rediagnosed Shirley Ardell Mason as an extremely suggestible hysteric and claimed she had been manipulated by Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur in order to secure a book deal. However, neither Rieber nor Jay are psychiatrists or psychologists, hysteria is not a formal DSM-IV diagnosis, and they never interviewed Mason personally. Furthermore, Mason died in 1998, so any attempts to rediagnose her can only be based on supposition.

'What follows is based on the original book."

According to people who knew Mason's family in Dodge Center, her mother was given to bizarre behavior and controlled Mason very strictly. Her father and grandmother were kind to her, but unable to do anything about her mother's abuse. The family were Seventh-day Adventist, a religion that was apparently regarded with some suspicion by Dodge Center residents because of its superficial resemblance to Judaism.

In the early 1950s, Mason was a substitute teacher and a student at Columbia University. She had had blackouts and emotional breakdowns for a long time, and finally entered psychotherapy with Wilbur, a Freudian psychiatrist. Their sessions together are the basis of the book.


In the book, "Sybil" (a name Schreiber gave Mason to protect her privacy) is a patient with severe issues of social anxiety and memory loss. After extended therapy Wilbur discovers that Sybil has 16 separate personalities. She uses hypnosis and sodium amytal interviews to encourage Sybil's various selves to communicate and reveal information about her life. Some of her "alters" are:

  • Sybil: Substitute grade school teacher who often experiences "missing time."
  • Peggy Lou and Peggy Ann: Both about 9 years old, the Peggys apparently originated as a single alter, "Peggy Louisiana" (the name which Sybil's mother had initially wanted to give her daughter). Peggy Lou is bold and brassy, Peggy Ann more often frightened. Both often talk incoherently and repeat phrases over and over. Peggy Lou breaks glass when she is upset.
  • Vicky: Proper and formal to a fault. Vicky speaks fluent French, and is aware of everything that goes on among the different personalities. (In the film, Vicky spoke stereotypical high-school French, but clearly believed she was speaking it well.)
  • Vanessa: An artistic and beautiful piano player, in the film she befriends Richard, a man who lives in a neighboring apartment. (The character of Richard was created for the film.)
  • Marcia: Sybil's depressive and suicidal personality. Marcia unsuccessfully attempts to kill herself, although she knows that killing the body will result in the death of all the selves.
  • Ruthie: a 2-3 year old who enjoys crayon drawing.

Wilbur decided that Shirley Mason's multiple personalities resulted from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, who was apparently schizophrenic. While the mother's bizarre behavior was readily confirmed by Mason's contemporaries, specific incidents related in the book and film may have been overdramatised for shock value. Mason's therapy records have never been released, and both she and Dr. Wilbur are deceased as of 2004.

Mason later moved to Lexington, Kentucky where she taught art classes and ran an art gallery out of her home for many years. She died of breast cancer on February 26, 1998. A nonfiction book and film by psychiatric historian Peter Swales are planned about Mason and her relationship with Wilbur.

Mason's case remains controversial; Wilbur's methods are controversial in the psychiatric community. Supposedly, Dr. Wilbur's personal papers were to be unsealed as of 2005, but there is no reason to believe that their contents will be made available to the general public. In any case, they will not include Shirley Mason's therapy records, provided Wilbur even kept any; she was reportedly careless about this area of her work.

ReferencesEdit

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