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Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Caseby Debbie Nathan
Synopses & Reviews
Sybil: a name that conjures up enduring fascination for legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973 and the TV movie based on it—starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward—about a woman named Sybil with sixteen different personalities. Sybil became both a pop phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the psychotherapy industry. The book rocketed multiple personality disorder (MPD) into public consciousness and played a major role in having the diagnosis added to the psychiatric bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
But what do we really know about how Sybil came to be? In her news-breaking book Sybil Exposed, journalist Debbie Nathan gives proof that the allegedly true story was largely fabricated. The actual identity of Sybil (Shirley Mason) has been available for some years, as has the idea that the book might have been exaggerated. But in Sybil Exposed, Nathan reveals what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her ambitious shrink, and the imaginative journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.
From horrendously irresponsible therapeutic practices—Sybil’s psychiatrist often brought an electroshock machine to Sybil’s apartment and climbed into bed with her while administering the treatment— to calculated business decisions (under an entity they named Sybil, Inc., the women signed a contract designating a three-way split of profits from the book and its spin-offs, including board games, tee shirts, and dolls), the story Nathan unfurls is full of over-the-top behavior. Sybil’s psychiatrist, driven by undisciplined idealism and galloping professional ambition, subjected the young woman to years of antipsychotics, psychedelics, uppers, and downers, including an untold number of injections with Pentothal, once known as “truth serum” but now widely recognized to provoke fantasies. It was during these “treatments” that Sybil produced rambling, garbled, and probably “false-memory”-based narratives of the hideous child abuse that her psychiatrist said caused her MPD. Sybil Exposed uses investigative journalism to tell a fascinating tale that reads like fiction but is fact. Nathan has followed an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives and passions of these three women. The Sybil archive became available to the public only recently, and Nathan examined all of it and provides proof that the story was an elaborate fraud—albeit one that the perpetrators may have half-believed.
Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of MPD; within just a few years after, more than 40,000 people would be diagnosed with it. Set across the twentieth century and rooted in a time when few professional roles were available to women, this is a story of corrosive sexism, unchecked ambition, and shaky theories of psychoanalysis exuberantly and drastically practiced. It is the story of how one modest young woman’s life turned psychiatry on its head and radically changed the course of therapy, and our culture, as well.
"Journalist Nathan (Satan's Silence) has spent much of her career writing about child sex abuse panics and debunking 'recovered memory syndromes,' in which adults — aided by over-zealous therapists — suddenly 'recalled' episodes of childhood abuse. Here, she tackles one of the most famous of these cases: that of the multiple-personality sufferer known to the world as 'Sybil' — the subject of the 1970s bestseller and a TV special starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward (who starred in Three Faces of Eve, an earlier film of multiple personality). In this startling exposÃ©, she examines the records author Flora Rheta Schreiber left with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, detailing Schreiber's research into the unusual case of the frail, troubled Shirley Mason — the real Sybil. The extensive therapy transcripts reveal that Mason's psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, may have cued 'memories' of horrific childhood abuse during marathon hypnotherapy and electroshock sessions supplemented with mind-altering drugs. Nathan traces the paths of the three women — the patient, the doctor, and the author who publicized the case — who formed 'Sybil Incorporated.' Along the way, she reasons that the concept of the multiplicity of selves — and the subsequent popularity of the diagnosis — may have become the perfect idiom of distress for a generation of women who, rocked by the feminist revolution, felt confusion at their new and conflicting roles. Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
The true story of the three women behind Sybil, the international bestseller and smash hit movie.
A bestselling book published in 1973, and a television movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, Sybil was both a pop culture phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the therapeutic industry. Sybil sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and influenced the way millions of people, young and old, saw themselves, their families, their sexuality, and their own psyches. Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of multiple personality disorder in history; afterwards, approximately 40,000 people were diagnosed with it in just a few years. Now in her news-breaking book, journalist Debbie Nathan gives proof that the supposed “true” story was largely fabricated.
Exposing Sybil combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold. Nathan followed an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives of these three women and tell the real tale. The result is an intensely fascinating portrait not just of the pop culture phenomenon, but of the complex psychological factors that primed the nation to receive it.
Debbie Nathan provides proof that the 1970s blockbuster Sybil—alleged non-fiction about a woman with multiple personality disorder—was fabricated.
About the Author
Debbie Nathan was born and raised in Houston, Texas. She has been a journalist, editor and translator for almost three decades. She specializes in writing about immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border, sexual politics and sex panics, particularly in relation to women and children. Debbie is author and co-author of four books, including Sybil, Inc. She has been involved in translating two others into English — one from Spanish and the other from Latin American Yiddish. Her essays appear in several anthologies, and her work has been published in venues as varied as Redbook and The Nation, Ms. and Playboy, The Texas Observer and Social Text, The New York Times and Vibe. Debbie’s work has won numerous national and regional awards, including: The H.L. Mencken Award for Investigative Journalism, PEN West Award for Journalism, several prizes from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for feature journalism, the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for Journalism, and the John Bartlow Martin Award (from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) for Public Service Journalism. She is a board member of the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), an “innocence project” for people falsely accused of harming children. She currently lives in New York City with her husband, Morten Naess, a family physician, and has two grown children, Sophia and Willy.
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