Jennifer D. Wade Journal

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Ambition Gone Awry?

I've taken a break from my regular reading list of mystery/detective novels (don't worry. V is for Vengeance is next on my list) to read a work of non-fiction titled Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan.

SYBIL EXPOSED is subtitled "The extraordinary story behind the famous multiple personality case." The basic premise is to largely debunk the story told in the book SYBIL by Flora Rheta Schreiber. That book was later made into a movie starring Sally Field.

I read the book Sybil several years ago and recall being fascinated. I mean, who wouldn't be? How could you not be fascinated by a woman who was horribly abused as a child, who had more than a dozen separate personalities and who was able to heal only through years of hypnotherapy from a caring psychiatrist? It's a gripping story.

In Sybil Exposed, author Debbie Nathan acknowledges the power of the original story, noting that, after its publication, the number of reported cases of Multiple Personality Disorder (almost exclusively in women) increased dramatically. But, Nathan also notes that the three women involved in the Sybil story (the patient, the psychiatrist, the author) each had something to gain. For Shirley Mason (a.k.a. "Sybil"), she got constant attention and support from her therapist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. Dr. Wilbur used the case to make a name for herself in what was still traditionally a man's world. The author, Flora Schreiber, had similar ambitions.

At this point, I'm not quite halfway through the book, but Nathan has already laid out ample evidence indicating that much of what Mason claimed wasn't true. Rather, her claims about severe abuse as a child and about her many different personalities were either conflated or invented as a way to keep Dr. Wilbur's attention. Nathan also points out that Dr. Wilbur was pumping Mason full of a variety of drugs, including lots of Pentothal, or truth serum. Based on what I've read so far, it's amazing Mason could get out of bed as often as she did.

The last chapter I've read includes excerpts from a letter that Mason wrote to Wilbur about four years into their therapy. By this point, Wilbur had already exceeded the bounds of a normal doctor-patient relationship in several ways, including by going to Mason's apartment for many Pentothal-fueled sessions. And, by this point, Nathan argues, Mason was essentially a junkie who pleaded with Wilbur to keep the Pentothal coming.

Somehow, though, Mason managed to gather enough clarity to write a letter to Wilbur, a letter in which Mason declared that she did not have multiple personalities and that she was not sexually abused by her mother. Mason conceded that her mother was overprotective and that she, herself, did have problems. But, Mason said, she embellished her story, especially while under the influence of Pentothal.

Dr. Wilbur read the letter and promptly declared that Shirley was resisting treatment, that the abuse she claimed really did happen, and that she needed therapy now more than ever. Also, by this time, Wilbur had already started presenting Shirley's case at professional conferences. To admit her patient had lied could cost Wilbur dearly. She basically threw the ball back into Mason's court.

Mason, rather than lose Dr. Wilbur - and all that Pentothal, wrote another letter which blamed the first letter on "someone." Mason said she wanted to continue and soon, Nathan writes, the Pentothal sessions resumed and the list of alter personalities grew.

So far, I'm intrigued. Mason, despite having issues, managed to hold down jobs and get an advanced degree. She even made an effort at becoming a psychiatrist, like Dr. Wilbur. Basically, she seemed generally functional up until a couple years into her Pentothal treatments with Dr. Wilbur. I'll be interested to see how Mason works her way back from her drug-addicted state to a productive life.

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