Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan


When Sybil Exposed was first published in hardcover in October 2011, it was praised as a “dazzling exposé” by More magazine, “a gripping history of crackpot psychiatry” by People magazine, and “riveting, thought-provoking and a quick read…impossible to put down” by The Oregonian (Portland).  Now available for the first time in paperback, SYBIL EXPOSED: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case (Free Press; June 12, 2012; $16.00) offers a new perspective on the hugely popular classic book, Sybil, the film of the same name starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, and on multiple personality disorder itself.

For many, the name “Sybil” is synonymous with multiple personality disorder—a diagnosis that came into our collective consciousness when Sybil, the book, was published in 1973.  Selling more than six million copies worldwide and prompting the television movie starring Field and Woodward, this dramatic non-fiction account of a woman with 16 multiple personalities was not only a pop culture phenomenon, it was a revolutionary force in the therapeutic industry.  Before Sybil, there had been less than 200 known cases of multiple personality disorder in history; afterwards, approximately 40,000 in just a few years! In SYBIL EXPOSED, award-winning journalist Debbie Nathan offers definitive proof that the supposedly true story depicted in the book and film was a total sham and reveals the true story behind the women who fabricated it. 

Using recently opened archives at John Jay College to piece together the truth about Sybil—whose real name was Shirley Mason—Nathan reveals that what really powered the legend was a trio of women:  a willing patient, her devoted shrink (Dr. Connie Wilbur), and the ambitious journalist (Flora Schreiber) who spun their story into bestseller gold.  Nathan followed an enormous trail of papers, medical records, photos, and tapes; called in forensic experts; and travelled the country visiting Shirley’s childhood homes, interviewing her family and friends, the hospitals where the women worked, and Dr. Wilbur’s former patients and colleagues, to unearth the lives of these three women and tell the real tale.  In addition to weaving an extraordinary—and authenticated—story, Nathan discovered that what Shirley most likely suffered from was a medical condition that properly diagnosed and treated, could have saved her years of mental anguish.

In SYBIL EXPOSED, Debbie Nathan reveals: Sybil did not come into therapy with multiple personalities; the case was a perfect storm of a patient who was easily suggestible and wanted attention; a doctor who was keen to “discover” something big; and a journalist who wanted notoriety at a time when magazine pieces were often embellished How she deduced the actual—and treatable—physical illness that probably caused Sybil’s original mental problems 

The unorthodox therapy practices performed by Dr. Connie Wilbur, from climbing into bed with her patient to administer electroshock therapy to subjecting Sybil to scores of addicting drugs now widely known to provoke fantasies 

How she proved with forensic evidence that a journal Sybil supposedly kept in her teens had actually been written at least 15 years later, and was most likely created to convince author Flora Schreiber that Sybil was suffering from MPD 

That while the book’s Sybil had a happy ending, the real Sybil—Shirley Mason—ended up largely indigent, staying under cover in fear of her identity being discovered, and living with Dr. Wilbur How women in the 1970s—with their newfound sexual freedom and changing, often conflicting social roles—identified with Sybil’s multiple personalities and were more apt to believe a story with such mythic qualities; and 

Why we need to be cautious about new diagnoses and therapies, particularly in the treatment of women. A spellbinding psychiatric detective story, SYBIL EXPOSED is a fascinating portrait not just of the pop culture phenomenon but of the complex psychological factors that primed the nation to receive it. 

 Debbie Nathan has been a journalist, editor, and translator for almost three decades.  Her work has won numerous national and regional awards, including: the H.L. Mencken Award for Investigative Journalism, PEN West Award for Journalism, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Feature Journalism, and the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Service.   Her work has been published in outlets as varied as Redbook, The Nation, Ms., Playboy, The Texas Observer, The New York Times, and Vibe, and she has been featured on such national television programs as Larry King and Phil Donahue, as well as the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Capturing the Friedmans.  Born and raised in Houston, she is currently lives in Texas and in New York City with her husband, and is the mother of two grown children. 

SYBIL EXPOSED: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case
Debbie Nathan • Free Press • June 12, 2012 • 320 pages • $16.00 • 9781439168288
eBook: 978-439168295

The 411 by Maria 
I was  obsessed with this book and movie with Sally Field. As a big Sally fan and horrified that this had happened to someone just destroyed me. When I heard about this book, I had to read it. I had to know what was real and what was fabricated. I read the book so many times as a teen and saw the movie at least 50 times. To know I may have lost sleep over something that was embellished on just didn't sit well with me. 

The author takes us on a journey to dissect the best selling book! It is a disturbing read but one that should be read especially if you were affected by the book or movie Sybil. 

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for the sole purpose of this review.  


  1. This review must be incredibly disheartening to those who were severely traumatized as children. It must also be disheartening to those, like myself, who have done some fact-checking of Nathan's work.
    As unfortunate as the result might be, I think Nathan has discovered something about us. Frame your work as an "expose" and readers will believe what you say and be suitably shocked.

  2. Sounds intriguing. I'd love to read both sides of the story and make up my own mind.


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