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Friday, November 4, 2011

A Girl Not Named Sybil

By Debbie Nathan
The New York Times
Published October 14, 2011

Undated photo of
Shirley Mason
“What about Mama?” the psychiatrist asks her patient. “What’s Mama been doing to you, dear? . . . I know she gave you the enemas. And I know she filled your bladder up with cold water, and I know she used the flashlight on you, and I know she stuck the washcloth in your mouth, cotton in your nose so you couldn’t breathe. . . . What else did she do to you? It’s all right to talk about it now. . . . ”

“My mommy,” the patient says.


“My mommy said that I was a bad little girl, and . . . she slapped me . . . with her knuckles. . . .”

“Mommy isn’t going to ever hurt you again,” the psychiatrist says at the close of the session. “Do you want to know something, Sweetie? I’m stronger than Mother.”

The transcript of this conversation is stored at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City, among the papers of Flora Schreiber, author of “Sybil,” the blockbuster book about a woman with 16 personalities. “Sybil” was published in 1973; within four years it had sold more than six million copies in the United States and hundreds of thousands abroad. A television adaptation broadcast in 1976 was seen by a fifth of all Americans. But Sybil’s story was not just gripping reading; it was instrumental in creating a new psychiatric diagnosis: multiple-personality disorder, or M.P.D., known today as dissociative-identity disorder.

Schreiber collaborated on the book with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist who asks, “What about Mama?” — and with Wilbur’s patient, whose name Schreiber changed to Sybil Dorsett. Schreiber worked from records of Sybil’s therapy, including thousands of pages of patient diaries and transcripts of tape-recorded therapy sessions. Before she died in the late 1980s, Schreiber stipulated that the material be archived at a library. For a decade after Schreiber’s death, Sybil’s identity remained unknown. To protect her privacy, librarians sealed her records. In 1998, two researchers discovered that her real name was Shirley Mason. In trying to track her down, they learned that she was dead, and the librarians at John Jay decided to unseal the Schreiber papers.


One May afternoon in 1958, Mason walked into Wilbur’s office carrying a typed letter that ran to four pages. It began with Mason admitting that she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter continued. “But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them. I have been essentially lying.”

Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about “fugue” trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

Mason was the most important patient in Wilbur’s professional career. She was preserving the tape-recorded narcosynthesis interviews she was doing with Mason and preparing to speak about the case at professional meetings. Wilbur told her patient that the recantation was “a major defensive maneuver,” merely the ego’s attempt to trick itself into thinking it didn’t need therapy. But Mason did need it, badly, Wilbur insisted. She was denying that she’d been tortured by her mother; this showed she really had been tortured.

Mason went home and composed a new letter. “One Friday,” she wrote Wilbur, “ ‘someone’ stalked into your office, imitated me [and] had a paper written about how she had now become well and was confessing . . . that it had all been put on. Well, you knew better.”

Wilbur instructed her secretary to schedule five sessions a week with Mason. She started the pentothal again.

Mason developed more and more personalities, ending up with a total of 16. Her “memories” of Mattie’s torture — of being sexually assaulted by her mother with kitchen implements; of seeing Mattie Mason conducting orgies in the woods with teenage girls; of being buried alive in a grain silo in her father’s workshop — were flowing.

Mason’s roommate, horrified by the treatment Mason was receiving, urged Mason to terminate her sessions with Wilbur. Instead, Mason left the apartment they shared on the West Side and found a tiny place on East 78th Street where she could live alone, just a few blocks from Wilbur’s home and office on Park Avenue. Wilbur paid the deposit on the new apartment and showered Mason with gifts: old rugs and drapes from her office, a fur-trimmed winter coat — even a cat.

The entire article can be found here.