NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Patrick Suraci

GET UPDATES FROM Patrick Suraci
 

Sybil in Her Own Words

Posted: 12/15/11 05:32 PM ET

I always wondered why universities deemed it necessary to teach Ethics courses. Wasn't this something you learned from your parents and childhood, as your superego, in Freudian terms, developed? Now I have learned the need to teach many people without values, especially narcissists, the ethical impact of their behavior towards other people.

This was made clear when I recently published Sybil In Her Own Words: The Untold Story of Shirley Mason, Her Multiple Personalities and Paintings. It is a follow-up to the case of a woman who had 16 personalities, then called Multiple Personality Disorder. Flora Schreiber wrote this story titled Sybil. The therapist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur used unorthodox, but not unethical, treatment for ten years, such as, psychoanalysis, hypnosis and Sodium Pentothal which resulted in the complete integration of the 16 personalities. Sybil was the pseudonym for Shirley Mason who was born on January 25, 1923, in Dodge Center, Minnesota. She was an artistically gifted and shy only child. Her family was well known in this little town; therefore, her mother's bizarre behavior was overlooked. During Shirley's treatment the alternate personalities emerged and told of the abuse by her mother. Whenever her mother committed an atrocious attack on Shirley, she would split and development another personality to cope with the trauma.

Attacking the veracity of Sybil published in 1973 did not begin until April 24,1997, when Dr. Herbert Spiegel gave an interview to the New York Review of Books. He stated that Sybil was not a multiple, but rather an hysteric. He claimed to have hypnotized her, performed regression studies and filmed her for the class he taught at Columbia University, thus, discovering that Sybil's therapist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, had been: "helping her (Sybil) identifying aspects of her life, or perspectives, that she then called by name. By naming them this way she was reifying a memory of some kind and converting it into a 'personality'..." In fact, he accused Dr. Wilbur of implanting false memories, giving credence to this developing fanatical movement.

When I asked Dr. Spiegel for the film hypnotizing Sybil, he said he could not find it. When asked why he hat waited 24 years to report this so-called fraudulent case, he said no one had ever asked him about Sybil. He made no mention of the American Psychiatric Association's code of ethics requiring us to immediately report any grossly distorted, fraudulent research.

These facts were omitted from the report on Dr. Spiegel in an article "A Girl Not Named Sybil" about the book Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan in the New York Times Magazine of October 16, 2011.

After Ms. Nathan received many negative criticisms over her inaccuracies and fabrications in Sybil Exposed, a fact checker from the Times claimed she had verified the documents in the Schreiber archives in the Special Collections Library at John Jay College. The sign-in book, which is meticulously guarded, requires a person's signature and date. There is no such entry from this fact checker.

While researching my book, Shirley's cousin Naomi Rhode, found an audio cassette made by Shirley and Dr. Wilbur on February 18, 1977.They were discussion publishing a book about Sybil's paintings. They spoke about the time Dr. Wilbur sent Shirley to Dr. Spiegel. Dr, Wilbur says, "I think that hysterics are people who are willing to enter into a contract with someone whom they trust. Now if they don't trust that individual to some extent, they may appear to enter into a contract, but they don't really. And as an example of that, I would like to point out that, although Sybil was very readily hypnotizable by me...An expert used her as a demonstration subject, and she agreed to this and he was disagreeable to her. As a consequence he could not really hypnotize her" Shirley added, "She (Sybil) didn't trust him as much. He tried to make her make something special out of things in her life that weren't special, like birthdays...".

In 1973 I met Flora Schreiber who had just published Sybil, while teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Although Flora was sworn to secrecy over the identity of Sybil, she was able to give me and the classes I taught updates on Sybil. We learned that she was a successful artist living a full life.

My dream was to meet Sybil and evaluate her dramatic cure. Was it possible and lasting? As we knew from the previous famous case "The Three Faces of Eve" published in 1957, the patient Chris Sizemore, developed more personalities after the movie ended with her being cured.

From Flora's reports I knew that Sybil had formed a relationship with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur after her treatment ended. After Flora and Dr. Wilbur died, I became concerned over Sybil. When I discovered her true identity, Shirley Mason, I felt a responsibility if she should split again.

With trepidation I telephoned her in 1993 knowing she had never given interviews. Fortunately, we became friends. When I discovered her interesting life after her cure, I planned this book.

I told her about Dr. Spiegel's interview and asked if she wanted anything done. She replied, "Let them say what they want. It's my life and I know what's the truth." It was more important for her to live her life as positively as possible before she died from cancer in 1998.

Shirley gave me information, journals, art work, anything I wanted to make my book an accurate picture of her life. She wanted people to know the benefits of therapy and that she was cured and lived a productive life forming her company Mason Arts, Inc. to sell her paintings and finding a loving relationship with Dr.Wilbur.

After Shirley died two books and now Sybil Exposed have engaged in the futile attempt of character assassination to claim this case a fraud. Not all their machinations to gain fame and money can detract from Shirley's appreciation of life as a whole person or her contribution to this disorder now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.