Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Book Review: Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan

I admit, I watched the old Sally Field movie of Sybil as a rerun at some point. I was sucked in by the melodrama, the trauma, the spectacle of it all. This poor woman had been tortured as a child by her sadistic mother and had fractured into multiple personalities to deal with the psychological damage done to her. Or had she?

Ms. Nathan stumbled into the archives of Flora Schreiber, the writer who penned the shocking story of "Sybil," or Shirley Mason and her psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur and what she found was both astonishing and predictable -- this story WAS too shocking to be true. It was pretty much fiction. But who was the liar? Flora, Shirley, or Connie?

After The Three Faces of Eve, Connie had become fascinated with the concept of multiple personality disorders, even though in the 200 years prior to her coming on the scene, there were only 200 cases documented. Shirley was a sad, lonely, mixed-up girl with some health issues that led to her being diagnosed with "neurosis" (although most of them could be explained medically from her persistent anemia) who clung to her psychiatrist and wanted to see more and more of her, even though she couldn't afford it. Did Shirley consciously know she was lying when she began telling stories of her "alters?" Did Connie persuade her to tell the story by her leading questions and injections of barbituates including Pentothal (aka "truth syrum") which makes patients highly suggestible? Did Flora embellish when she found the truth lacking and Connie and Shirley questionable? All are true to some degree, and these three women unintentionally caused a craze around the now-discredited diagnosis of MPD. (I read a book titled When Rabbit Howls back in the late 80s that was another MPD "memoir" which was one of dozens capitalizing on the popularity.)

How these women came to find themselves in this situation, how they came to make the decisions they did, and how the notoriety played out in their subsequent lives is a bizarre and captivating story. Ms. Nathan has done her research and she knows how to write. These women aren't especially likable but she makes them come alive. She explores the culture of the time and how it influenced their behaviors. In a time when psychiatrists and medical doctors thought bad mothering caused everything from Graves' disease to diabetes,  this outcome was nearly inevitable.

I bought this book at B&N.

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