Sybil is the pseudonym of Shirley Ardell Mason. It is her story that appears
in the book "Sybil: The classic true story of a woman possessed by sixteen
personalities." 11 "Sybil"
launched in 1973 an entire branch of psychiatry devoted to multiple
personalities, much like the novel "Michelle Remembers" 12 was to triggered the
Recovered Memory Therapy movement in 1980. Both forms of therapy reached their peak in
the late 1980s and early 1990s, went into decline, and still have not completely died out by 2009,
in spite of the trail of tens or hundreds of thousands of devastated lives of
clients and their families of origin.
1972: When the book "Sybil" was published in 1972, it introduced to the
public the concept that abuse during early childhood was a
cause of MPD. This belief later gained near universal acceptance among MPD therapists.
"When the book Sybil was published, all of the papers, transcripts, and
recordings were sealed. No one was able to confirm or contradict the
claims of Dr. Wilbur who treated Sybil or Flora Schreiber who wrote
The book eventually sold 11 million copies in 17 different languages. A movie contract
was signed before the book was published.
1976: The movie version was released. The book and movie together had a profound effect on the public's perception of MPD.
1997: Dr. Herbert Spiegel had been Sybil's backup therapist when her main psychiatrist, Dr.
Cornelia Wilbur, was out of town. He concluded that Sybil's "personalities" were
artificially generated during therapy after Dr. Wilbur had given names to Sybil's various
emotional states. Spiegel said that Sybil told him that Dr. Wilbur wanted her "to be
Helen" when she discussed a specific past occurrence. Dr. Spiegel suggested that
she talk about the event simply as Sybil. "Then she discovered she didn't have to
act like Helen in order to talk about it." 1,2,3
1998: Audio tapes of Sybil's original therapeutic sessions had emerged; they confirm that
the personalities were artificially generated by the therapist. Dr. Robert Rieber of the
John Jay College of Criminal Justice obtained a set of audio tapes of conversations between
Sybil, her psychiatrist and the author of the book. In a paper delivered to the annual
meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1998-AUG, he said that the tapes show
that the three were:
"not totally unaware [that the story that they told
was wrong.] ... Yet at the same time they wished to believe it, no matter what. I
would prefer to believe that there was as much self-deception as deception of others. They
were not malicious people." 4
2009: Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen's
book: "Making Minds and Madness: From Hysteria to Depression," was published.
13 Chapter 3 is titled "A
black box named 'Sybil'; Part II. Fragments of a Theory of Generalized
Artifact." He submits evidence that the book "Sybil" and the resultant MPD
movement were based upon a myth.
Evolution of beliefs about MPD/DID:
As increasing numbers of therapists became active in the MPD field, new concepts were
introduced. Patients were no longer limited to only a few alters:
The novel by
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) -- "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde (1866) -- described two alters.
"Eve" (1956) had three;
Sybil (1972) had 16.
Subsequently, therapists uncovered
dozens of alters - even hundreds. Some claimed as many as 4,500 within some individuals.
Some features that some believe are exhibited by alters:
They "may present themselves as differing from the body in age, appearance,
sex, language and even species. Some therapists claim to have uncovered vegetable and even
inanimate personalities." 5
Animals and clouds
have been reported. 6
Different human alters exhibit different speech patterns, mannerisms, attitudes,
thoughts, and gender.
Alters are said to differ in allergies, handedness, eyeglass prescription or
even the presence/absence of diabetes.
"Some alters are allergic to
penicillin or certain foods, whereas the host personality is not." 7
According to DSM IV, the client is under the control of one personality or alter at a
time; she/he usually cannot recall events that happened when the other alters were in
The decline of MPD/DID:
Faith in MPD/DID appeared to falter in the mid-1990s. According to a
literature review by August Piper, & Harold Merskey:
"Between 1993 and 1998, the principal dissociative disorders
organization lost nearly one half of its members."
In 1998, Dissociation, the journal of the dissociative disorders
field ceased publication.
A paper published in 2000 examined the weaknesses in the
dissociative amnesia construct. 8
Various dissociative disorder units
in Canada and the U.S. (for example, in Ontario, Manitoba, Illinois, Pennsylvania,
and Texas) were closed down.
US appellate courts have repeatedly refused to accept
dissociative amnesia as a valid entity.
Several ardent defenders of dissociative disorders faced criminal
sanctions, malpractice lawsuits, and other serious legal difficulties."9
The number of
active cases declined precipitously as belief in MPD has become less
common in North America and MPD/DID clinics were shut down.
Some causes of this decline were:
A growing belief that recovered memory therapy is extremely
unreliable and often creates images of abuse that are unrelated to real childhood events.
Some persons accused of criminal acts have attempted to escape responsibility for their
actions, and blame it on MPD. They claimed that their dominant personalities were not
responsible for the crimes - their alters did it. This has contributed to public suspicion
about the reality of MPD.
Alleged victim-survivors of MPD have appeared on many TV talk shows. Some have given
unconvincing, artificial, often comic performances of alter switching.
Observation by some skeptics that MPD symptoms only appear after the beginning of
therapy. These symptoms tend to dissipate after the patient terminates treatment
and is isolated from their therapist.
Some insurance companies have become alarmed at the extremely high cost of
the long-term treatment of
patients in MPD clinics. Costs sometimes run over a million dollars per patient.
Malpractice lawsuits against MPD therapists, their clinics and affiliated hospitals have
been launched in recent years. Some settlements have run into millions of dollars.
Many therapists specializing in MPD -- including some leading
authorities in the field -- have had their licenses pulled by
In 1998 the National
Institutes of Health sponsored a Science in the Cinema film
festival. Mental health professionals watched the 1957 movie version of The
Three Faces of Eve. Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University gave a
presentation after the movie. He concluded that:
"...multiple personalities are always artificial productions, the
product of the medical attention that they arouse.....Patients believe
that they have multiple personalities. They really do believe and show
that. As I say, they are not attempting to defraud you, but the patients
in fact are troubled by a variety of other mental illnesses -- co-morbid
mental or physical illnesses, adjustment disorders to their life at the
moment, personality troubles -- but there is no specific pathology, no
particular specific psychological or somatic condition or even any
particular life experience that necessarily produces hysterical
behavior. The patients really are responding to the socio-cultural
prompts that specify both the forms and the explanations for hysterical
presentations. They are prompted by the interest of doctors and by the
things which are happening and the prevalence of hysteria waxes and
wanes with cultural attitudes and belief systems." 10
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Reinder Van Til, "Lost Daughters: Recovered Memory Therapy and the
people it hurts," Eerdmand (1997), P. 178 to 182. This book deals
mainly with the recovered memory therapy hoax which damaged hundreds of
thousands of lives during the 1980s and 1990s. The author briefly discusses
the case of Sybil.
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, "Sybil -- The making of a disease," New York
Review of Books, 1997-APR-24, Pages 61 & 62. This is an interview of Dr.
John Taylor, "The Lost Daughter" Esquire magazine, 1994-MAR.
Malcolm Ritter, "Lost tapes challenge Sybil story:
psychologist; Multiple personalities created during therapy?," Associated Press,
Lisa Scott, Member, International Society for the Study of Dissociation,
letter to the editor of Psychology Today, 2001-FEB issue.
A. Piper A, et al., "Custer?s last stand: Brown, Scheflin, and
Whitfield?s latest attempt to salvage 'dissociative amnesia'." J
Psychiatry Law 2000;28:149?213.
August Piper, & Harold Merskey, "The Persistence of Folly: A
Critical Examination of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Part I. The
Excesses of an Improbable Concept," Canadian Journal of Psychiatry,
2004-SEP; 49; Pages 592 to 6000. See:
http://www.cpa-apc.org/ This is expected to be a temporary listing.
Later, it should be available in the CJP archives at: