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Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case [Hardcover]

Debbie Nathan
2.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 18 2011
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.

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Review

"In this startling exposé...Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original."--Publisher's Weekly, starred review

"Debbie Nathan's fine, insistent mind will stop at nothing to get to the truth behind Sybil, no how many walls are put up— Her research is beyond compare." --Susie Bright, author of Big Sex Little Death

"I've long considered Debbie Nathan to be the most important and unsung writer working in America today. Sybil Exposed affirms her brilliance. Using a fierce blend of investigative journalism and cultural criticism, she exposes multiple personality disorder as yet another lurid myth cooked up by the collective unconscious of our popular culture. The book is an astonishing achievement." -- Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak and God Bless America

“Journalist Debbie Nathan -- whose investigative exposure of day care worker Kelly Michaels's wrongful conviction for child molestation did so much to unearth the witch hunts among us -- has found a delicious, hiding-in-plain-sight historical saga to tell: the making of the most famous "multiple personality" case and book. A troubled, impressionable young girl from a Sinclair Lewis-type small town; a brilliant, bullying, female neuropsychiatrist in 1950s Manhattan; and a glamorous, frustrated feminist magazine writer who'd had an affair with Eugene O'Neill Jr.: how these three disparate American women's fates, fantasies, and ambitions came together to create a fiction that rocked the culture and continues to affect us today makes compelling and sobering reading. Who knew this true story existed?! It's as compulsively readable as it is cautionary -- two traits rarely shared in one book.”-- Sheila Weller, award winning magazine journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation

"Throughout Sybil Exposed, Nathan traces the winding path from truth to falsehood"--Salon

"A gripping history of crackpot psychiatry" --People magazine

"The true story of Sybil has found its ideal historian in Debbie Nathan...This is the book that should be a made-for-TV movie." --The Wall Street Journal

"A compelling account of the creation, packaging, and selling of this case of medical and journalistic malpractice." --Science

"In this dazzling exposé of a manipulative psychiatrist, an author who’d do anything for fame and a vulnerable girl caught in the middle, journalist Nathan reveals how these three women changed the psychiatric landscape by raising questions of identity that resonated with a generation. The result is a cautionary tale about the ways in which science, in the wrong hands, can capitalize on our collective fears. " --More magazine

"A massive undertaking of research that teases apart fact from fiction to reveal an even more interesting and educational account...Sybil remains a good book and movie, but perhaps Nathan's version of the story is the one worth telling in classrooms. " --New Scientist

“What forces cause a diagnosis like Multiple Personality Disorder to rise and fall within less than a generation? Debbie Nathan broke the story 20 years ago and now, in Sybil Exposed, she’s finally putting all the puzzle pieces together. Unless we learn the lessons in this journalistic masterwork, we are doomed to fall victim to the next fad and the next caring healer who claims to have our best interest at heart.” –Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us

“Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed is a first-rate historical detective story recreating the lives of the three protagonists of one of the most popular accounts of a psychiatric patient in American history. The sixteen personalities ascribed to “Sybil” set the medical and legal tone for discussions of the ‘epidemic’ of child abuse at the end of the 20th century as well as the psychological damage done to its survivors. Nathan shows how the subject of the study, her psychiatrist, as well as the author of the book invented a biography to explain something that never existed: the multiple personalities of the patient as well as their cause. Any reader captivated by our contemporary “first-hand” accounts of mental illness, should read this account that illustrates how the demands of the readers at any historical moment shape such accounts and make them seem truer than true.” --Sander L. Gilman, author of SEEING THE INSANE Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences; Professor of Psychiatry, Emory University


Sybil Exposed isn't only an exposé of a blockbuster that pulled the wool over 6 million readers' eyes. She asks deeper questions: Why did people love this book? To what cultural zeitgeist did it respond?....Riveting, thought-provoking and a quick read, Sybil Exposed is impossible to put down.”
--The Oregonian

"A nuanced, not-entirely-unsympathetic account of the women who perpetrated a sensational literary fraud." --Kirkus Reviews

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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not convinced whatsoever June 16 2013
Format:Hardcover
Miss Nathan's book is just another book of fiction masquerading as a true fact book. the only parts I found interesting were the historical facts about the women (if true). Nathan has only reinforced my belief in Shirley's DID. Nathan not only has tried and failed to debunk the Sybil story, she appears to have an agenda against anyone that believes in DID. People have been fact checking her book against the material at the John Jay Library and have found major errors in this book. She appears to hate Dr. Wilbur and her contempt for her, Mason and Schreiber leap off every page. She uses creative licence and manipulates many facts. How could she possibly know what Shirley thought of or did as a young girl in her bedroom? How could she possibly know the subject of conversations between Wilbur and Walter Mason? And how can she state with authority that Mattie Mason was never diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic? Many of Shirley's childhood friends have corroborated things in the Sybil book i.e. Mattie Mason's peering to neighbours windows and relieving herself on neighbours property. Just because the tiny townspeople did nothing and know nothing doesn't mean they didn't happen. All of Shirley's medical records were long destroyed before this book was even thought of. And none of the women are alive today to dispute or verify any of Nathan's claims.

I see pieces of truth interwoven with statements of the author's opinion and comments made to capture the reader with a sense of disgust. All in all it's just a good book of fiction.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is no news but is excellent anyway Nov. 27 2011
Format:Hardcover
This book is no news, as the real story of Shirley Mason was first debunked in 1998 by Peter J. Swales and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen. Even so, Debbie Nathan does an excellent job at revealing the outrageous real story behind another false disease of psychiatry.

And despite what Janet Grace writes in her comment, there are today many documented cases of false sexual abuse memory implanted by therapists. She should read books and scientific papers from Elisabeth Loftus or go to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation Web site to put herself on the leading edge of knowledge.
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7 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sybil Exposed: My Review Oct. 25 2011
Format:Hardcover
Stress Response Syndromes: PTSD, Grief, Adjustment, and Dissociative Disorders

To Amazon Readers,

I found this Author's writings about the novel Sybil to be very biased. Originally I purchased the book hoping to learn more about the interesting but complex issues of multiple personality and dissociative disorders. I did not find it helpful, nor would I recommend it for anyone wanting information on these topics. I would also like to memtion that as a woman I took exception to the Author's suggestion that sexual abuse memories are sometimes implanted by therapists. The statistics on childhood sexual abuse speak for themselves; 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males, Canadian Statistics, Univ. of Victoria, BC. Personally I liked and believed the novel Sybil to be a good representation of the life of Sybil Dorsett, AKA Shirley Ardell Mason. Janet Grace
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  164 reviews
323 of 395 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's About Time Oct. 26 2011
By David Eichman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I first read SYBIL in 1976 when I was told, the soon to be aired TV movies principle character, Sybil, was in fact, Shirley Mason, my grandmothers step daughter. Closer to home, Shirley\Sybil was my babysitter in the late 40's and early 50's, in Denver Co. The Masons had been friends of the family for years before my Grandma, Florence, married Walter Mason, Shirley's dad. I especially remember Shirley taking requests to draw cute pictures for my older brother and me.

When my grandmother died in 1985, I retrieved about 200 letters destined for the trash, written by Shirley to my Grandma from 1954 - 1974. After reading the letters, lets just say there were discrepancies with the book, SYBIL.

Subsequently several researchers contacted me, such as Peter Swales, expressing concern over the ethics and rampant diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Debbie Nathan is not the first to come across this controversy, but she is the first to present it to the public, since Peter Swales and Mikkel Borch-Jacobson elected to publish it in a more academic forum in France.

Debbie Nathan has been extremely accurate and careful with the documents I have entrusted to her. She doesn't claim to be, or have to be a psychotherapist to be a good investigative reporter. To me that's just what she is, and in some ways better equipped to deal with this controversy.

SYBIL EXPOSSED is not written by a wanna-be psychotherapist dispensing her biased opinions. This is a 282 page condensation of facts gleaned from documents, letters, case files, and interviews, most of which have only been open to the public, or otherwise available, for just the last 13 years.

I am grateful for such a compilation. If you look at the footnotes in the back of the book, you'll find thirty-five pages itemizing 580 document citations averaging 30 per chapter to back up her "opinions".

SYBIL EXPOSSED is a must read for anyone who read SYBIL, but also for anyone who loves a great biography, a shared look at three women fatefully tied together.

SYBIL EXPOSSED never faulted Dr. Wilbur for not loving and caring for Shirley\Sybil. Neither did it claim that DID does not exist. After 35 years of fallout, I believe from what I've learned and what this book shows, is Dr. Wilbur's human nature overruled her professionalism and determined her judgments. Read it for yourself, you may not like your conclusions, but truth still matters. No book dealing with beliefs and maters of the mind is going to be 100% black or white, right or wrong. I believe SYBIL EXPOSED is much closer to the truth.
44 of 53 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard to separate the truth from the author's bias March 8 2013
By abt1950 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book claims to be an expose of Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist who treated Sybil, and Flora Rheta Schreiber, the journalist whose book made Sybil a household name. Nathan makes some good points, but she is not the first person to have questioned Sybil's diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder (now DID). The author has done extensive research, which is a plus, but the book is marred by her obvious contempt for Wilbur and Schreiber. Much of the book is character assassination. Wilbur comes off as an opportunist and Schreiber as an ugly, emotionally insecure woman. For example, Nathan criticizes Schreiber's taste in clothing and gives intimate details of her sex life. This doesn't belong in a book that claims to be impartial. They're not relevant to the case she's trying to make. Nathan's vitriol undermines her case that Sybil's diagnosis was manufactured to sell the book. It's impossible to separate the author's bias from her interpretation of what actually happened. "Sybil Exposed" is a disappointing book about a fascinating subject.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whether you agree or disagree the discussion is an important one May 20 2014
By Steve Reina - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Though author Debbie Nathan seemed to spare no criticism for either psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur or author Flora Rheta Schreiber, she had no question that the real Sybil -- Shirley Mason really did suffer during her life.

If we trust Wilbur and Schreiber the reason for Mason's suffering was because she afflicted with Multiple Personality Disorder (now DID) a condition where an individual creates new personalities in extreme situations like the result of a trauma.

If we trust Nathan Mason suffered not because of DID but rather because she was misdiagnosed by Wilbur and then later used by both Wilbur and Schreiber as a ticket to greater fame and fortune on their part.

Sadly for such an important book this book doesn't provide enough information to guide us certainly in either direction. That being said those inside the DID community like any group of patients are probably best advised to not only to make sure that their condition has been thoroughly examined and properly diagnosed but also that they make sure to keep on top of new research about it so that they can better manage their situation. For those outside the DID community especially those tending to think that the diagnosis is a bogus one they would be advised to make sure that they responsibly consider all the arguments and data that support the existence of DID.

The last thing we need is another group of people who are legitimately disabled from being unfairly stigmatized as the result of their condition.
55 of 80 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The pot calling the kettle black. Nov. 22 2011
By The Southern Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I must say I was extremely disappointed in this book. Nathan builds up a case against Wilbur, Mason and Schreiber by committing very similar faux pas that she accuses the trio of doing. She weaves a case around loose logic. It is certainly not uncommon for her to use terms such as "maybe", "quite possibly", "probably", and other such terms. While such an accusation, I would expect cold hard fact instead of a blatant guessing game on the part of the author. For example, Nathan said that Mason "probably" read a lone article in a magazine that she subscribed to for a total of five years that contained an article on MPD. She insinuated that because on a single article, Mason would have known how to fake the disorder. Quite a long stretch there, Mrs. Nathan. Many such logical liberties were taken over the course of the book. By the last page, the author has lost all of her credibility with the reader.
I also must take issue with the writing style Nathan uses. "Sybil Exposed" reads like a Danielle Steele instead of a case fact nonfiction piece. I understand a non-fiction novel, but this completely misses the mark and lands right in the middle of ridiculous. From all recent accounts, the original "Sybil" was a complete farce on a grand scale but, at the very least, made a decent attempt at being grammatically correct. This is more than I can say for "Sybil Exposed". Ridden with sentence fragments and simple sentences (while not incorrect; just juvenile) became so distracting that I started paying more attention to errors than the case Nathan was trying to build. I personally find it very hard to take the word of an author that repeatedly cannot construct a proper sentence.
If you are into a good dirty gossip story instead of a cold hard facts account, this is the perfect book. If you are a reader that prefers a story that just sticks with the facts and leaves the assumptions to the reader, you will be sorely disappointed.
54 of 80 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A very misleading book Nov. 20 2011
By gluhrMD - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

This book is damaging to the many people who have had severe childhood abuse and developed Dissociative Identity Disorder and other trauma symptoms. Trauma in childhood and adulthood leaves severe scars on many people. The catchy title implies that such scars are imaginary, the result of poor treatment, or patients who are trying to inflate their importance.

Nathan is not a clinician. It shows. Those of us who are experienced and seasoned clinicians have direct experience of the suffering of traumatized individuals. DID is not a fiction.

The denial of trauma is a national disgrace. I hope that the tragedy being exposed at Penn State can help to open people's eyes to the realities of abuse.

The reader must understand that Sybil was written decades ago when the field had little experience with the complexity of severe childhood abuse. Mistakes have been made--is that a surprise? The scientific method is designed to examine issues and refine our understanding of what is true.

The scientific literature for the diagnosis and treatment of what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder is extensive and remarkably helpful. It is available to anyone who Googles. Check out Medline, PubMed, the PILOTS database of the National Center for PTSD , or the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation ([...]).

How unfortunate that Nathan uses her many skills so destructively, and one might even say, unethically.

I have no financial interest in this issue. I am a retired psychiatrist with concern that all people, traumatized or not, be given respect and a chance to tell their stories.
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