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The MPD / DID controversy

About Sybil. Evolution of
beliefs. The decline of MPD/DID

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Please read the overview to MPD / DID before tackling this essay.

About Sybil:

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. 

bullet 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."

The book eventually sold 11 million copies in 17 different languages. A movie contract was signed before the book was published.

bullet 1976: The movie version was released. The book and movie together had a profound effect on the public's perception of MPD.
bullet 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
bullet 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
bullet 2008: CBS aired a remake of the movie Sybil. More details.
bullet 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:

bullet The novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) -- "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1866) -- described two alters.
bullet "Eve" (1956) had three;
bullet Sybil (1972) had 16.
bullet 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:

bullet 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
bullet Animals and clouds have been reported. 6
bullet Different human alters exhibit different speech patterns, mannerisms, attitudes, thoughts, and gender.
bullet Alters are said to differ in allergies, handedness, eyeglass prescription or even the presence/absence of diabetes.
bullet "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 control. 

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:

bullet "Between 1993 and 1998, the principal dissociative disorders organization lost nearly one half of its members."
bullet In 1998, Dissociation, the journal of the dissociative disorders field ceased publication.
bullet A paper published in 2000 examined the weaknesses in the dissociative amnesia construct. 8
bullet Various dissociative disorder units in Canada and the U.S. (for example, in Ontario, Manitoba, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas) were closed down.
bullet US appellate courts have repeatedly refused to accept dissociative amnesia as a valid entity.
bullet 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:

bullet A growing belief that recovered memory therapy is extremely unreliable and often creates images of abuse that are unrelated to real childhood events.
bullet A growing belief that no abusive Satanic religious cults exist, which engage in ritual abuse or murder.
bullet 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.
bullet Alleged victim-survivors of MPD have appeared on many TV talk shows. Some have given unconvincing, artificial, often comic performances of alter switching.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet Malpractice lawsuits against MPD therapists, their clinics and affiliated hospitals have been launched in recent years. Some settlements have run into millions of dollars.
bullet Many therapists specializing in MPD -- including some leading authorities in the field -- have had their licenses pulled by regulatory agencies.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. Spiegel. See:
  3. John Taylor, "The Lost Daughter" Esquire magazine, 1994-MAR.
  4. Malcolm Ritter, "Lost tapes challenge Sybil story: psychologist; Multiple personalities created during therapy?," Associated Press, 1998-AUG-17.
  5. "Possession, multiple-personality disorder", at:
  6. Sidran Foundation, "Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder)," essay ? 1994 at:
  7. Lisa Scott, Member, International Society for the Study of Dissociation, letter to the editor of Psychology Today, 2001-FEB issue.
  8. 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.
  9. 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: This is expected to be a temporary listing. Later, it should be available in the CJP archives at:
  10. "The Three Faces of Eve," Science in the Cinema transcript, 1998-AUG-20, at:
  11. Flora Rheta Schreiber, "Sybil: The classic true story of a woman possessed by sixteen personalities," Grand Central Publishing, (2009 edition). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  12. Michelle Smith, "Michelle Remembers," Pocket, (1989). Read reviews or order this book
  13. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, "Making Minds and Madness: From Hysteria to Depression," Cambridge University Press, (2009). Read reviews or order this book

Copyright 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-JAN-11

Last updated and reviewed on 2009-JUL-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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