NYT Retro Report: “Long After Sybil”

The New York Times‘s Retro Report has produced a short documentary on the now infamous case of Sybil. As the article accompanying the documentary notes,

The “Sybil” story began in the mid-1950s. At its center were the Minnesota-born Ms. Mason and her intense relationship, first in the Midwest and later in New York, with a psychoanalyst, Cornelia B. Wilbur. Dr. Wilbur’s determination that Ms. Mason had 16 personalities — people of varying manner and ages, including two who were male — did not come about in a vacuum. She was well aware of “The Three Faces of Eve,” a 1954 report by two psychiatrists who worked with a woman said to have had three distinct personalities. (As Eve in a 1957 film based on that study, Joanne Woodward won an Academy Award for best actress. Years later, she did a neat Hollywood pivot by playing the psychiatrist in the first movie version of “Sybil,” with Sally Field as the patient.)

Dr. Wilbur did not write up her findings in some dry professional journal. Instead, she went looking for a large audience, and enlisted a writer, Flora Rheta Schreiber, to produce what became a blockbuster. But as the years passed, challengers began to speak up. One was Herbert Spiegel, a New York psychiatrist who said that he had treated Ms. Mason when Dr. Wilbur was on vacation. Dr. Spiegel described his patient not as a sufferer of multiple personality disorder but, rather, as a readily suggestible “hysteric.” A harsher judgment was rendered in the 1990s by Robert Rieber, a psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a New York City school where Ms. Schreiber taught English. After listening to tape recordings that he said Ms. Schreiber had given him, he concluded that “it is clear from Wilbur’s own words that she was not exploring the truth but rather planting the truth as she wanted it to be.” Debbie Nathan, a writer interviewed for this Retro Report documentary, piled on still more skepticism in her 2011 book, “Sybil Exposed.” Perhaps inevitably in a dispute of this sort, counter-revisionists then emerged to denounce the doubters and to defend “Sybil” as rooted in reality.

The full documentary can be viewed online here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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