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Unmasking Sybil

A re-examination of the most famous psychiatric patient in history

By Mark Miller and Barbara Kantrowitz

The last day of Shirley Ardell Mason's remarkable life was peaceful. She 
was at home, in the two-story gray bungalow on Henry Clay Boulevard in 
Lexington, Ky., that had been her refuge for 25 years. Her breast cancer 
had spread quickly, but she didn't like doctors and hated hospitals even 
more. So her friend Roberta Guy arranged for nurses to provide 
round-the-clock care. On Feb. 26, 1998, Mason must have realized time was 
short; she asked for Guy, who lived just a 10-minute drive away. But by the 
time her friend pulled up, it was too late. Mason was dead.
A few weeks earlier, Mason had finally divulged her extraordinary secret, 
confirming what Guy had long suspected: the 75-year-old former college art 
teacher was the world's most famous psychiatric patient-the real-life model 
for "Sybil," journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber's 1973 best seller about a 
woman so abused as a child that she developed 16 personalities, including 
women with English accents and two boys. The book was made into a 1976 TV 
movie starring Sally Field and was largely responsible for popularizing 
multiple-personality disorder-until then, a rare diagnosis.
Now, a year after Mason's death, the case is once again in the spotlight 
with three documentaries and at least as many books in the works. Some 
people close to Schreiber (who died in 1988), Mason and the psychiatrist 
who treated her, Cornelia Wilbur, now question the authenticity of Mason's 
condition. Before the publication of "Sybil," there were only about 75 
reported cases of MPD; in the 25 years since, there have been, by one 
expert's estimation, 40,000 diagnoses, almost all in North America. The 
book had the blessing of great timing: it hit the public consciousness in 
the ascending days of feminism, when people were also beginning to grow 
concerned about child abuse. A quarter century later, by the time Mason lay 
dying in her bungalow, many experts were disputing the validity of the 
multiple-personality diagnosis and blaming the book for spawning a bogus 
industry of therapists who specialize in hidden abuse. At the same time, 
psychiatric historians and researchers have now begun to try to sort out 
the facts of the case that started it all.
Mason was raised in the small, conservative town of Dodge Center, Minn., 
the only child of Mattie and Walter Mason, a hardware-store clerk and 
carpenter; both were strictly observant Seventh-Day Adventists. When 
"Sybil" came out, dozens of the town's 2,000 residents recognized Mason. 
"Everything just fit-the description of her mother, of the town, of the old 
brick schoolhouse kitty-corner from her house," says Wendell Nelson, 58, an 
antiques dealer. Residents recall a somewhat withdrawn, slender girl with a 
talent for painting. Betty Borst Christensen, 76, grew up across the street 
from the Masons. "Shirley was very protected," Christensen recalls. "Her 
mother didn't let her do much." Mason's second-grade teacher, Frances 
Abbott, now 93, remembers that Mattie Mason would grab Shirley's hand "in a 
vise lock" when they crossed the street. "Shirley couldn't get free even if 
she tried. She was a timid little soul always under Mother's care."

Unmasking Sybil:    page 2
In the book, Sybil's mother subjects her to horrifying abuse; many people 
in Dodge Center say Mattie ("Hattie" in the book) was bizarre. "She had a 
witchlike laugh," recalls Christensen. "She didn't laugh much, but when she 
did, it was like a screech." Christensen remembers the mother walking 
around after dark, looking in the neighbors' windows. She apparently had 
once been diagnosed as schizophrenic. Still, no one claims any direct 
knowledge of the sexual and physical abuse described in the book. "There is 
strong evidence that [the worst abuse in the book] could not have 
happened," says Peter J. Swales, the historian who first identified Mason 
as Sybil.
In 1941 Mason left for what is now called Minnesota State University at 
Mankato, 60 miles away. She seemed to be on the fast track, says Dan 
Houlihan, a psychology professor at the school who has studied the case, 
and she's featured prominently in yearbooks for her first two years. Then 
she apparently suffered some kind of breakdown and didn't graduate until 1949.
She met Wilbur, the psychiatrist, in Omaha after another such collapse; in 
the early 1950s she moved to New York, where Wilbur then lived, and became 
her patient. Their therapeutic relationship lasted more than a decade. In 
the book, the story has a happy ending, with a dramatic breakthrough in 
1965 that allows a fully integrated Sybil to emerge ready to begin an 
independent life. The real story is more complicated. According to Swales, 
the therapy ended in 1965 in part because Wilbur had decided to take a job 
outside New York. Mason did go on to hold several jobs, but she never 
strayed far from her former therapist. At that point, "Wilbur and Shirley 
virtually merge," Swales says. "She won't make a decision without Wilbur." 
Mason never married and had no children.
There's no doubt that Mason had very serious emotional problems, but how 
true was her story? She once recanted her allegations of abuse in a letter 
to Wilbur in the 1950s during therapy in New York-although Wilbur believed 
the letter simply indicated her patient was in denial. She never recanted 
again; in fact, Mason told a psychiatrist friend just months before her 
death that "every word in the book is true."
But even if Mason was abused, did she really split into 16 identities, 
which Wilbur claimed to be able to summon at will? Some researchers say 
that Mason probably wasn't a "multiple" before she met Wilbur. A 
psychiatrist who worked with the patient he will refer to only as Sybil 
says that she was a "brilliant hysteric," highly hypnotizable and extremely 
suggestible. The doctor, Herbert Spiegel, still in private practice in New 
York, believes Sybil adopted personalities "suggested" by Wilbur as part of 
the therapy, which depended upon hypnosis and heavy doses of sodium 
pentothal. Eager to be helpful, Mason read the psychiatric literature on 
MPD, including "The Three Faces of Eve." "She didn't start out a 
spontaneous multiple, but she took on the clinical characteristics of one 
through the interaction with her therapist," Spiegel says, adding, "It was 
nothing fraudulent. They really believed this." Skeptics argue that in the 
dance of psychoanalysis between patient and doctor a kind of mutual 
delusion, a folie à deux, can develop. The full truth may not be known 
until Wilbur's archives are opened in 2005.
Unmasking Sybil:    page 3
Whatever the course of the therapy, it does appear to have helped Mason. In 
1973, thanks to profits from the book, in which all three women-author, 
psychiatrist, patient-shared, she moved to Lexington, where Wilbur had 
settled to teach at the University of Kentucky. Her home was near Wilbur's 
grander mansion. Sometime in 1990, Wilbur diagnosed Mason with breast 
cancer. Because of her fear of hospitals, she decided against treatment. 
The disease went into remission, but the next year Wilbur developed 
Parkinson's. Now Mason cared for her former therapist, moving in to do it. 
Guy worked for a nursing agency and was hired to help. Eventually all three 
became close, and Guy joined in crossword puzzles and the Scrabble games 
that Mason and Wilbur loved to play.
 From time to time, other people working in the house would notice the many 
copies of "Sybil" in the library and speculate that Mason was the patient. 
They quickly lost their jobs. After Wilbur died in 1992, leaving her former 
patient $25,000 and all "Sybil" royalties, Mason became even more 
reclusive. She had long since cut off contact with most of her old friends 
and her family. Guy took on her banking and shopping at a health-food store 
because Mason was a vegetarian. In her last few years, Guy says, Mason 
spent most of her time taking care of her cats, gardening and painting 
until arthritis made it too difficult to hold a brush. Despite painful 
memories of the repressive church in Minnesota, she remained devoted to her 
Seventh-Day Adventist faith. "She was happy," Guy says. In the summer of 
1997, the cancer came back. Once again Mason declined medical treatment, 
telling Guy she had had "enough trauma in her life." She began giving away 
her books and paintings to friends and shredding her personal papers. She 
left most of the rest of her estate to a Seventh-Day Adventist TV minister. 
"She was not afraid of dying," Guy says. Psychiatrist Leah Dickstein, a 
friend of Wilbur's and Mason's, spoke with her near the end. "She said she 
was at a point where she had forgiven her mother. She let that anger go."
Split Personalities or Suggested Poses?

Shirley Mason was the real woman behind the famous book and TV movie 
"Sybil." Her alter egos:
Sybil: The 'real' patient, Sybil was 'extremely suggestible'
Victoria: Warm and cultured, claimed total recall
Peggy Lou: Assertive and eager, but obstinate and quick to anger
Peggy Ann: More tactful than Peggy Lou, also more fearful
Mary: The most religious personality; a maternal homebody
Marcia: A fiery painter and writer; British accent
Vanessa: Attractive and dramatic, Vanessa scorned religion
Mike: A proud, swarthy carpenter; wanted to 'give a girl a baby'
Sid: Also a carpenter, but fair-skinned and less outspoken
Nancy: Paranoid; obsessed with Armageddon and conspiracy
Sybil Ann: Pale, timid and extremely lethargic; the defeated Sybil
Ruthie: A toddler, the Ruthie personality was poorly developed
Clara: Very religious; critical and resentful of Sybil
Helen: Timid, afraid, but determined 'to be somebody'
Marjorie Serene and quick to laugh, enjoyed parties and travel
The Blonde: A nameless teen, fun-loving and carefree
With Margaret Nelson in Dodge Center
Newsweek, January 25, 1999

Sybil-The Making of a Disease: An Interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel
April 24, 1997

Only seldom can we date the emergence of a psychiatric syndrome with such 
precision: Multiple Personality Disorder (or MPD, as it is known to 
psychiatrists) was born in 1973 with the publication of Flora Rheta 
Schreiber's book Sybil.1 Not that Sybil was the first book ever devoted to 
a case of multiple personality, far from it: Sybil belongs in fact to a 
well-established genre that includes, among others, Théodore Flournoy's 
 From India to the Planet Mars (1899), Morton Prince's The Dissociation of 
  Personality (1906), Corbett H. Thigpen andHervey Cleckley's The Three 
aces of Eve (1954)-not to mention Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 
(1886). But Schreiber's book was, as Ian Hacking points out,2 the first one 
that firmly tied multiple personality to child abuse, a notion that had 
gained widespread recognition in the 1960s and that was to become an 
essential feature of present-day Multiple Personality Disorder. As the 
psychiatrist Frank W. Putnam writes in his authoritative textbook on MPD: 
"It was not until the 1970s, that the first reports clearly connecting MPD 
to childhood trauma began to appear in single case histories. Among the 
first and best-known was the case of Sybil, treated by Cornelia Wilbur and 
dramatized by Schreiber."3

A journalist specializing in psychiatric issues and a regular contributor 
to Science Digest, Flora Rheta Schreiber described in her book the strange 
case of a young woman, "Sybil," who had developed no fewer than sixteen 
separate personalities in order to cope with severe physical and sexual 
abuse. In addition to having been exposed to her parents' love-making in 
classic Freudian style, Sybil had suffered bizarre and perverse sexual 
abuse at the hands of her mother, in a manner that is more reminiscent of 
Freud's earlier "seduction theory." The mother, for instance, would have 
her watch while she was masturbating other young children; she would force 
odd objects into Sybil's vagina, or again, hang her in the air, insert an 
enema tip into her urethra, and fill the bladder with ice-cold water.

Sybil, the main personality, had no memory of all of this, but her other 
"personalities" did, and they dutifully informed Sybil's New York 
psychiatrist, Cornelia C. Wilbur, in the course of a treatment that relied 
on hypnosis, "abreaction"-the cathartic release of anxiety through reliving 
intense experiences-and the administration of heavy doses of 
countertransference. As a result of this unorthodox treatment, which 
Schreiber described generously as "the first psychoanalysis of a multiple 
personality,"4 Sybil's sixteen selves eventually fused, thus forming a 
seventeenth and cured self. "The New Sybil" was born, after hard 
psychoanalytic labor that took, according to Schreiber, eleven years and 
2,354 office sessions.5

Although names and facts had to be disguised for the sake of 
confidentiality, Schreiber insisted that her book was based on empirical 
data, such as Dr. Wilbur's case notes and tape recordings of analytic 
sessions, Sybil's diaries and correspondence, and family and hospital 
records. This gothic tale of abuse was no fiction, as Dr. Wilbur warned in 
the book when Sybil compared herself to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "Dr. 
Wilbur slapped her hand in her fist. 'That's not a true story,' she said. 
'It's pure fiction. You are not at all like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 
Stevenson wasn't a psychoanalyst. He created these two characters out of 
his literary imagination. As a writer he was concerned only with spinning a 
good yarn.'"6 The New York Times soon ranked Sybil among the ten 
best-selling nonfiction books of the year, and the book was quickly turned 
into a Hollywood movie with Joanne Woodward, the former cinematic 
incarnation of The Three Faces of Eve, in the role of Cornelia Wilbur.

Schreiber was deluged with letters from women thanking her for helping them 
understand that they were "multiples,"7 and it was not long before 
pioneering psychiatrists like Ralph B. Allison, George Greaves, and Eugene 
Bliss started finding cases of multiple personality among their patients. 
Within a few years of the distribution of Sybil, there appeared a number of 
best-selling biographies of multiple personalities clearly modeled on 
Schreiber's book: The Five of Me (1977), Tell Me Who I Am Before I Die 
(1978), Michelle Remembers (1980), The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981), to 
name only a few. As Frank W. Putnam writes:
The case of the one most often credited with reintroducing the 
public and the mental health professions to the syndrome of multiple 
personality.... The book Sybil, with its graphic treatment of the amnesias, 
fugue episodes, child abuse, and conflicts among alters, served as a 
template against which other patients could be compared and understood.... 
Schreiber's account is both detailed and accurate enough to serve as 
mandatory clinical reading for students of MPD.8
Thanks to the efforts of Putnam, Bennett G. Braun, and Richard P. Kluft, 
the diagnosis of "Multiple Personality Disorder" was eventually included in 
the 1980 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third 
Edition, the authoritative psychiatric diagnostic manual, known as DSM-III, 
and it soon became widely accepted, although in the DSM-IV (1994) the name 
has been changed to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).9 Among the 
results has been a general redefinition of psychotherapeutic practice in 
terms of "trauma" and "dissociative disorders" (and also bitter battles in 
court around cases of memories of sexual or satanic ritual abuse recovered 
during therapy). Some proponents of the new diagnosis have claimed in the 
press and on television that one to three percent of the general population 
is suffering from MPD.10 One may disagree with these estimates, but 
certainly not with the fact that we are faced with a major threat to mental 

What became of the three main characters of this success story? Flora Rheta 
Schreiber subsequently wrote a second best-selling book, this time on the 
Philadelphia cobbler Joseph Kallinger, a serial killer whose crime spree 
she claimed was the result of child abuse.11 She was unsuccessfully sued by 
the families of Kallinger's victims12 and died shortly thereafter. After 
the end of Sybil's treatment, Cornelia C. Wilbur moved on to a medical 
position in psychiatry at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where she 
conducted research on multiple personality, dissociation, and altered 
states of consciousness with Arnold Ludwig and others. She died in 1992, 
after a career as a cult figure within the MPD movement. As to the elusive 
Sybil, all efforts to crack the wall of secrecy that surrounds her have 
been in vain so far. Some say that she holds an academic position in an art 
school, others that she owns an art gallery somewhere in the Midwest. In 
1987, in response to an inquiry from a reader, the Boston Globe reported 
that Dr. Wilbur "confirms that Sybil is indeed alive."13

With Schreiber and Wilbur now gone, very few people are left who seem to 
know her true identity. One of them is Herbert Spiegel, M.D., coauthor with 
Abram Kardiner of an important book on traumatic war neuroses14 and a 
recognized specialist in hypnosis. Although bound by medical 
confidentiality, Dr. Spiegel was willing to discuss with me his memories of 
Sybil, whom he knew well at the time when she was in treatment with 
Cornelia Wilbur. What follows is a transcript of the interview I had with 
him in his New York City office in May 1995.

MIKKEL BORCH-JACOBSEN: How did you meet Cornelia Wilbur?

HERBERT SPIEGEL: I didn't know her very well. I had seen her at meetings at 
the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, and she knew that I had done a lot 
of work with hypnosis. I got a phone call from her one day, telling me that 
she had a patient that she had been treating as schizophrenic and she had a 
peculiar feeling that this was not schizophrenia at all. She asked me if I 
could examine the patient and help her clarify the diagnosis.

MBJ: That was Sybil?


1 Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil (Regnery, 1973). (back)

2 Ian Hacking, "Multiple Personality Disorder and Its Hosts," History of 
the Human Sciences 5 (1992), No. 2, p. 8. (back)

3 Frank W. Putnam, Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder 
(Guilford Press, 1989), p. 47. (back)

4 Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil, second edition (Warner Books, 1974), p. 13. 
Schreiber forgets Anna O., the arch-patient of psychoanalysis, who was a 
clear case of dual personality. See Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Remembering Anna 
O: A Century of Mystification(Routledge, 1996). (back)

5 Schreiber, Sybil, p. 15. (back)

6 Schreiber, Sybil, p. 115. (back)

7 Interview with Brett Kahr, director of the British Institute for 
Psycho-History and organizer of the Flora Rheta Schreiber Memorial, London, 
April 1993.

8 Putnam, Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder, p. 35. 

9 Myron Boor, "The Multiple Personality Epidemic:Additional Cases and 
Inferences Regarding Diagnosis, Etiology, Dynamics, and Treatment," Journal 
of Nervous and Mental Disease 170 (1982), pp. 302-304. (back)

10 Richard J. Loewenstein, in the French TVdocumentary by Ilan Flammer, "La 
mémoire abusée" (Arte, 1994). (back)

11 Flora Rheta Schreiber, The Shoemaker:The Anatomy of a Psychopath (Simon 
andSchuster, 1983). (back)

12 See "Kallinger Victims Lost Privacy Suit over Book," Philadelphia 
Inquirer, February 19, 1988, p. B7. (back)

13 "Ask The Globe," Boston Globe, August 13, 1987, 
Section:National/Foreign, p. 40. (back)

14 Abram Kardiner and Herbert Spiegel, War Stress and Neurotic Illness 
(Hoeber, 1947).

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