The Sybil Hoax


Here’s a news item that will carry the most weight for readers old enough to remember the Seventies: “Sybil” was a total fraud.

The “Sybil” story exploded into the public eye through a massive bestseller, good for almost seven million copies.  It was serialized in newspapers, and made into an award-winning TV miniseries with Sally Field and Joanne Woodward.  If you were a kid in the early 70s, this was the book everybody’s mom had on her nightstand.  I recall being especially disturbed by one of the paperback covers as a child, because I thought it literally depicted the events of the book, and I thought having your head sliced into sixteen pieces would be very painful.

“Sybil” was the supposedly true story of a girl whose horribly traumatic childhood caused her to manifest sixteen different personalities.  Interviews with her were like demonic exorcisms, except the psychologist was taking on sixteen different demons at once, or maybe one demon with really potent multi-tasking capabilities.  Her “real-life” drama, filled with lurid details of abuse, fit neatly into the nightmare-child vibe that illuminated so much of the decade’s pop fiction.  A lot of unholy, unhinged, and undead little girls leered from paperback shelves in those days.

In Sunday’s New York Post, Kyle Smith reviewed a “darkly absurd” new book called “Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case,” which reveals the whole story was cooked up by a somewhat disturbed young woman named Shirley Mason, an enterprising psychiatrist with a well-stocked medicine cabinet, and a trashy journalist:

As a student in New York City in the 1950s, [Shirley] met a Park Avenue therapist named Cornelia “Connie” Wilbur. The two women adored each other even as Connie gradually got Shirley hooked on a series of “therapeutic” drugs, many of them new and seemingly wondrous, including Seconal, Demerol, Edrisal and Daprisal. (The last two were so addictive that they were soon banned.) Connie also strongly believed in giving patients Pentathol, which invariably got them blabbing, sometimes about fantasies that could not possibly have occurred. Still, the drug was widely believed to be a “truth serum.”

One day, Shirley started talking about blackouts in which, she claimed, she became others with various names and personalities — Peggy Lou, Peggy Ann, Vicky, etc.

Fascinated, Connie offered, “Would you like to earn some money?” She suggested that her patient could be the subject of a book. Connie offered to pay Shirley’s medical-school tuition and living expenses.

The personality split was a lie, Shirley confessed in a five-page 1958 letter that sits in the archives at John Jay. She said she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.”

Shirley continued, “I do not have any multiple personalities … I do not even have a ‘double’ … I am all of them. I have essentially been lying … as trying to show you I felt I needed help … Quite thrilling. Got me a lot of attention.”

Shirley’s therapist wasn’t about to let her meal ticket pull the brakes on a roller-coaster ride to fame and fortune:

The therapist, who was already talking up her prize patient at psychiatry conferences, dismissed the letter as “resistance” and pushed on with the drugs and the therapy — this time, five days a week. Soon Shirley was again putting on a split-personality show in Connie’s office. No one else except her roommate was ever treated to these performances.

The two fabulists joined forces with journalist Flora Schreiber, a self-aggrandizing spinster whose trade was in trashy, made-up “true” stories for magazines like Cosmopolitan.

They cudgeled enough juicy material out of Shirley to get “Sybil, Incorporated,” as they called it, off the ground.  The rest was history. 

This isn’t just a footnote to a bit of 70s trivia, like documenting how an early outbreak of analog viral marketing led so many people to believe “The Amityville Horror” was real.  The “Sybil” hoax exerted a profound influence on pop psychology:

Soon, “multiple personality disorder,” or MPD, became an officially recognized diagnosis, and a handful of cases exploded into 40,000 reported sufferers, nearly all of them female. The repressed-memory industry was born. Only in the last decade or so has the psychiatric profession begun to question the validity of Sybilmania.

There are many interesting angles to this story.  The Seventies had an obsession with psychodrama and mysticism that endures, in somewhat diluted form, through our modern Oprahfied therapeutic culture.  The study of real mental illness, a very serious topic in need of constant attention from dedicated scientists, has been sadly distorted by these pop-culture obsessions. 

The remarkable durability of hoaxes from the pre-Internet age is an interesting contrast with the high-speed viral propagation and demise of misinformation that we’ve become accustomed to.  You’ve got to wonder how long “Sybil, Inc.” could have lasted amid roiling Internet thunderclouds of true and false data, an environment that leads modern information consumers to simultaneously believe and doubt virtually everything.  Before the advent of the Internet, high-profile movies and tended to put public doubts to rest.  By the time it was widely accepted that “Roots” was a fraud, Alex Haley had lived and died, his book and miniseries were beloved classics, and nobody really wanted to sully their rosy memories with inconvenient truth.

It’s interesting to note how abruptly “settled” narratives can become unsettled.  There is a modern horror story to be found in the tale of Shirley Mason, who found herself captured by a corrupt authority figure who had the conclusion she wanted, and set out to protect her supporting “facts” by scrubbing away “resistance.”