Book Club

Skepchick Book Club: Sybil Exposed

Note: Details for next month’s book and meeting date are at the bottom of this post.

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month we read Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan.

In 100 words or less, here is an over-simplified summary of the book:
Sybil a.k.a. Shirley Mason was an imaginative Seventh Day Adventist with undiagnosed pernicious anemia and chronic loneliness. She started seeing Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who stuffed her with barbituates and false memories of abuse. Flora Schreiber wrote the original book despite having misgivings about Sybil’s multiple personalities and in fact she made up large sections to make the book more compelling/salacious. Later, memory regression therapy led to more diagnoses of multiple personalities and the “satanic cult” scandal of the 90’s. Shirley and Dr. Wilbur lived together until they died of old age. 

Sally Fields as "Sybil"

The book weaves together the stories of the three women (Flora, Connie, and Shirley) from childhood to death, but there is also another “character” in the novel: feminism (or rather, the need for it). Betty Friedan gets a few mentions, because this book mainly covers the 1930’s through the 70’s, when women were experiencing the “problem with no name”. The author makes an interesting point that diagnoses of multiple personalities started to skyrocket because they occurred during a period of time when women were looking for reasons that they weren’t satisfied with “just” being a wife and mother. Because the medical profession was dominated by men, being a woman was viewed as a “disease state.” Naturally, any woman who was “different” was given a psychiatric or medical diagnosis. Essentially, Multiple Personality Disorder replaced Hysteria.

As a child, Shirley Mason grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist household. She was imaginative and creative when such things were regarded as sinful. Her mother would either play with her or refuse to speak to her for days, depending on her mood. Shirley maybe had symptoms of OCD, but she most definitely had pernicious anemia, which caused her a lot of physical problems. Connie Wilbur grew up in a household of scientists, but since she was a young woman, she was discouraged from becoming a scientist herself. In fact, her dad was against sending her to college, but her mom brought up the point that she would need a backup career if her future husband were to leave her. She wanted to be a doctor, but her parents shipped her off to a Christian Science school (to kill her desire). Flora Schreiber grew up in a atheist household with parents who encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, but they were also helicopter parents (she lived with her mother until her mother died and then she didn’t know how to cook or clean for herself).

As a young woman, Shirley was referred to Connie for therapy, and she got a taste of what it was like to have someone pay attention to you for an hour. She craved more, and she ended up being committed to a hospital where she got to see Dr. Wilbur every day (so she had no incentive to get better). It is normal for psychiatric patients to experience “transference”–an extreme affection for their psychiatrist–but in this case, Dr. Wilbur experienced a counter-transference and the two women fed off of each other. Shirley saw a way to get all the attention she wanted and this made Connie feel important.

Sybil, the book

Connie and Shirley were separated for a few years, and Shirley started working part-time as an art therapy teacher at a mental hospital. Connie also started working at a mental hospital and started experimenting on her patients with shock therapy and barbiturates (sodium Pentothal, a.k.a. “truth serum”). The women met back up in Manhattan and Connie immediately began dosing Shirley with barbiturates and other medications. Shirley started presenting symptoms of Multiple Personality Disorder (while she was also being hooked on drugs) and Connie saw her patient as the perfect test case for MPD. Nevermind the fact that Connie provoked many of Shirley’s “personalities” and “memories” through drugs and hypnosis.

Sadly, at one point Shirley writes a letter to Dr. Wilbur and states that she has been faking her multiple personalities but that she still thinks that there is something physically or mentally wrong with her, and could Dr. Wilbur please figure out what that is so she can be treated. Connie completely disregards this letter and tells Shirley that clearly one of her alters wrote it. At this point, Shirley acquiesces and goes back to having multiple personalities (because that is what Connie wanted).

During this time, Flora was writing fluff pieces for women’s magazines, and she met Connie because she wanted to write about “ex-gay therapy.” Back in Flora’s day, narrative nonfiction was becoming popular (thanks to Truman Capote). Flora (and many other writers) had a fairly liberal definition of “nonfiction” in the sense that there was a lot of fiction in their narratives. When Flora heard about Shirley’s multiple personalities, she immediately wanted to write a book about it. Eventually, Flora went to Shirley’s hometown to do some fact-checking. Shirley made a lot of abuse accusations against her mom, Mattie, going so far as to say that her mom would defecate in other people’s yards. Of course, nobody in the town “remembered” any of that, other than the fact that Mattie was a devout Adventist and a little nervous. By the time Flora finished her research, she was unsatisfied by the lack of evidence of Mattie’s abuse, but she had already spent her book advance and she had spent years of her time writing this book, so she went ahead with it anyway, making up parts as needed.

Obviously, the book was a huge hit, and Connie and Flora started up “Sybil, Inc.” to sell merchandising tie-ins (dolls, board games, etc). The director of the movie Sybil also took many liberties with Shirley’s story.

Shirley and Connie lived together as they aged. Connie went on to some acclaim as a psychiatrist, although her colleagues regarded her as overbearing and prone to inappropriate relationships with her students (who went on to become psychiatrists and have inappropriate relationships of their own–even sexually abusing their patients). The author goes on to describe much of the aftermath of the three women, so I would suggest that you pick up the book if you want to know what happens. In the end, Dr. Wilbur’s “research” into regressive-memory therapy ends up fueling the “satanic cult” accusations of the 90’s (and if you don’t know anything about that, take a minute to go down the web-search rabbit hole).

(By the way, I did not come up with a themed recipe for this month, because I was all, “Fuck it–I’m getting a chocolate pie” this week. But frankly, anything with Graham Crackers, Kellogg’s cereal, or any vegetarian fare would’ve been appropriate. “Yum Graham Crackers–they taste great and cure my masturbatory urges!”)


Next Month’s Book Club

Book: The Better Angels of our Nature


Because of the holidays, we are extended the book club into December, and so I picked a longer book this time that I’ve heard many good things about. We’re reading The Better Angels of our Nature by Stephen Pinker and I will put up a post on December 15th. Also, this time I’m looking to expand our local Boston book club meetup and I’ve been thinking about broadcasting it online, so if any of you are interested in joining in, let me know in the comments! I’ll put up a reminder a few days before and the day of the Boston book club with link information (tentatively). If you have any suggestions as far as webcasting go, let me know! (The Boston Skeptics’ Book Club meets on December 14th from 3-5:30 p.m.)


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. Does the book say anything about the veracity of Multiple Personality Disorder, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, in general or does it just deal with this one case and its claims? I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Sybil case proves that all cases of this disorder are fabricated.

    1. That is covered in the last chapter. I believe the author makes the case that Sybil’s case is obviously false and DID is still a very controversial diagnosis. I don’t think most psychiatrists believe in it although there are a few on the fringe who do (but then again, there are still some “psychiatrists”who are practicing “ex-gay” therapy). DID is still in the DSM though.

  2. I read this book awhile back and really enjoyed it…. And I’ve done a bit of neuro-science-y-memory type reading and the way DID is suppose to work (separate personality that you keep forgetting) simply doesn’t jib with how our memory works (you should read some on recovered memories, I think there’s a lot of similarities between DID and recovered memories.. in that they are provider induced). I also work in mental health and one night brought up this book and others like it. One nurse brought up that in the 80’s she had worked with “DID” patients and how now she could see how she would bring out multiple personalities in patients by her questions and them fulfilling her expectations of wanting to talk to an “alter.”

  3. Damn, I know somebody like this extremely well (and yet I don’t, and that is probably the point). It’s hard to make any definitive or useful statement. Is it learned behavior? Undoubtedly. Part of a bag of survival tricks? Yes. Manipulative? Yes. Dramatic? Yes.

    I think we all have a set of apparently contradictory faces that we show the world. I have seen these faces change in the blink of an eye. DID may be one crude attempt to describe this behavior. Yet I remain skeptical. Has anybody else come up against DID first hand?

  4. @Jack99; I’m not sure what you mean by “come up against” DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), but I knew one person “officially” diagnosed and another diagnosed with DDNOS (Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). From my reading and experience, yes, it’s a survival response – with the people I knew, from sexual/physical/ritual abuse from when they children. @Chris: some of those – one of the people I know, in fact – don’t “forget” what the other personality did/does; for instance, there are those who have personalities that “front”, like they’re in a car and one of them is driving while the others can interact with each other. And systems can get pretty complex.

    I can’t speak as any sort of specialist, professional, or even involved within the greater community of those diagnosed (professionally or self), but it seems that there’s still a lot of discovery being made about dissociative disorders – as well as those working to integration (or finding a way to work with their system). Sybil’s a rather spectacular case, and treating that particular case as the whole of the matter wouldn’t be particularly fair to others living with dissociative disorders. Those cases also feed groups like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation raise flags in my mind as parallel to MRA groups that trumpet false rape claims.

    1. @pandakun, by “come up against” I guess I was combining “come across” or “encounter” with “try to make some sense of” and “desperately want to help ease that hidden universe of pain if humanly possible”. Futile for amateurs, the latter is a job for highly skilled experienced and accredited professionals.

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