Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: None

Brow: It was a sordid case of psychiatry and journalism gone mad that inevitably became hugely popular. Writing a biography that exposes that fact does not elevate it above low brow.

Summary: In the 1970s, a book called Sybil appeared, the supposedly true story of a woman who had 16 personalities and the psychiatrist who put her back together. The book launched a new psychiatric diagnosis: Multiple Personality Disorder, in which a person's psyche 'splits' as a way to cope with severe sexual abuse, usually Satanic in nature. Each new personality periodically takes over the brain and body of the host, leaving her (the overwhelming majority of sufferers were women) with large tranches of time that she can't remember. For the next 20 years or so, MPD, repressed memories and Satanic cults were a popular trend in psychiatry and daytime talk shows, until society finally came to its senses in the 1990s and realised that the phenomenon was largely made up. Debbie Nathan researched the three women behind the craze: the original 'Sybil', her psychiatrist, Connie Wilbur, and the journalist who helped them sensationalise their story. She traces 'Sybil's' (real name: Shirley Mason) journey from being a misfit in her Seventh-Day Adventist community in Iowa to troubled college student in New York who falls under the spell of an ethically-challenged psychiatrist named Connie Wilbur, who was looking to make a name for herself using the new drugs and treatments available to her profession, namely hypnosis, sodium pentothal or 'truth serum', barbiturates and insulin. She quickly turned her patient into a junkie and forced her to make up ever more outlandish tales about her childhood in order to keep her attention. The journalist had made a name for herself publishing human-interest stories about politicians' wives, but as public interest waned, she needed a new hook for her audience. This toxic combination yielded Sybil.

But should you read it? I was a little young to understand the whole 'Satanic ritual abuse' craze at the time it was happening, but I was a little more politically aware by the time it was being exposed as a giant hoax propagated by paranoid prosecutors and overzealous psychiatrists. I also studied psychology at university, where this was held up as the classic case study of therapeutic overreach. It's also a good reminder to all of us that mass hysteria is not a new phenomenon and we need to be careful about falling prey to it all the time, regardless of our experience with psychiatry.

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