“I found myself wishing more and more that I too could have been — could be — your patient.”
October 18, 2011 5:51 AM   Subscribe

"Sybil Exposed": Memory, Lies and Therapy. Debbie Nathan's new book explains why "Sybil" probably did not have multiple personalities [nytimes link]. Did Dr. Cornelia Wilbur inadvertently create the condition she had intended to treat?
posted by Sticherbeast (38 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
But what a great film it made!

That was sarcasm.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:09 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did Dr. Cornelia Wilbur quite advertently create the condition by which she intended to become famous?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:18 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few more links, with the disclosure/brag that my friend edited Sybil Exposed:
Debbie Nathan's website, which discusses some of her other really interesting journalism.
Supplementary material from Simon & Schuster: Timeline of events and videos
posted by knile at 6:22 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

That was a pretty good article, although short. Drags ritual sex abuse, satanic cults and Dick Morris and pretty much debunks all of them.
posted by DU at 6:27 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wilber seems to have done everything to violate therapeutic boundaries short of actually sleeping with Mason.

After reading through all the material in the links, I wonder how sure we can be that this did not happen? The co-dependency of Wilbur and her patient, who even tended Wilbur on her deathbed, makes me wonder if maybe there wasn't a romantic connection between the two women as well.

I think maybe the assumption that she did not "sleep with" her patient comes from a heteronormative perspective; if Wilbur was a lesbian, she certainly would have omitted from making any mention of it in her accounts of working with Sybil. At that time, had she done so, Wilbur would very likely been pushed into therapy herself simply on the basis of her "aberrant" sexual orientation.
posted by misha at 6:34 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

She was denying that she’d been tortured by her mother; this showed she really had been tortured.
This is not good logic.

This whole case is a pretty fucked up example of why therapeutic boundaries and ethics are a good thing. It could be used as a textbook case, but not for the way Wilbur wanted to be famous.

Gosh, next you'll be telling me that the book "Go Ask Alice" was also fabricated.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

For a while I was close to a woman who either had MPD or faked it for whatever reason people do that sort of thing. At odd times, usually under stress, she became a young girl with a different voice & mannerisms. And once she attacked me with a kitchen knife in a flash rage that went away just as quickly, with apparently no memory of the event. I still don't know what to make of it.
posted by scalefree at 7:07 AM on October 18, 2011

I was in the custody of the State for about a year when I was a teenager, and in the group home system I knew this girl who was obsessed with the idea of MPD. She read every book and article she could find about Sybil and other supposed cases, and tried hard to convince everybody that she had it too. It was, like, glamorous to her, something she wanted to have. She wanted to be fascinating. She didn't have enough imagination to come up with an interesting alter, though, so she just sort of went into "fugue states" when she wanted to avoid being called on her crap or other confrontational situations.

Sounds like the real Sybil just wanted to be normal. Sad, sad, sad.
posted by Gator at 7:20 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

A while back there was an explosion of people like that on Livejournal. They'd refer to themselves as systems and have different journals for each purported personality.

It all looked like horseshit to me, especially given how many alternate personalities were anime or video game characters, but hey, as long as they weren't hurting anyone, I guess.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:30 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Speaking of oneself as though one were multiple people can be a good technique for sorting out one's desires. It's pretty common: you might have a personal-self, a professional-self, and a social-self, for instance.

Establishing whether these sorts of identities are "real" is an abstruse philosophical exercise. On those grounds you might have multiple personalities or not, depending on what a personality is.

On the other hand, establishing whether your identities are disordered is fairly simple: When these identities conflict, what problems does it cause? Are those problems better or worse than the ones you'd have otherwise? It requires a judgment call from the person with the maybe-disorder.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:32 AM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

United States of Tara (warning: video autoplay) is a decent show on Showtime about a woman with MPD, starring Toni Collette.

It's fiction. I do not know whether the condition exists in real life, but I sometimes enjoy the show.
posted by callmejay at 8:14 AM on October 18, 2011

I believe that we are all multiple personalities. The most obvious example is that you and I are not identical when we are home, or with our parents, or with our bosses. When it gets to be clinical is obviously a quicksand swamp. One thing that the media has completely wrong in my mind (I am not a psychiatrist) is the concept of the fascinating multiple personality, or the multiple fascinating personality. Constructing a personality is a lot of work and the making of a single fascinating personality is beyond the reach of more than half the people I know. Making two or three interesting personalities seems a physical impossibility.

In his psychology teaching company class Daniel Robinson makes the offhand remark that the only believable case of multiple personality disorder he ever observed each of the alters was excruciatingly dull.
posted by bukvich at 8:33 AM on October 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

The people! THE PEOPLE!
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:44 AM on October 18, 2011

What I think is telling is that there are vanishingly few cases of multiple personalities that seem to have presented originally in people who showed no sign of knowing what it was, observed only with people who had no idea what it was until somebody came along and diagnosed it.

I remember back in my Livejournal days that there seemed to be large communities full of people who were all multiples... but those groups also seemed to include people who claimed to have psychic connections to fictional characters, people who claimed to be elves or dragons. Alters of non-Japanese anime-fan individuals who all had Japanese names. People who claimed to have quantities of personalities that would have made Dr. Wilbur raise eyebrows. (Dozens. Hundreds.)

I don't think those people are necessarily lying about the way they perceive themselves. At the same time, it also makes it a little harder to believe that this is a naturally-occurring disorder of its own.
posted by gracedissolved at 9:39 AM on October 18, 2011

It ought to be common knowledge by now that this illness (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, btw) is one of those ones you catch from your overzealous therapist, and gets worse the more therapy you undergo, like those recovered memories of Satanic ritual abuse people used to freak out about in the 80s. You show up with dissociative episodes, maybe a touch of Schizophrenia, and before you know it you're under hypnosis and your therapist is extemporizing about your mom raping you with a buttonhook. Awful.

I used to really enjoy those DID Livejournalers, though. There was one with an "alter" who turned out to be cribbed wholesale from Susannah of The Dark Tower, leglessness, dialect and all.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:50 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

While people have been questioning the validity of this diagnosis for some time, there is some very interesting parts of the research that have kept it from being dismissed completely.


There is actually a case of a convict trying to use this as a possible insanity defense and being tested and found to be lying.

There aren't many mental illnesses with a physiological component that can be test for.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 9:55 AM on October 18, 2011

This is news? It was explained in my undergrad psych classes - along the lines of "DID doesn't exist" and "patient-client boundaries" and "let's talk about the DSM." I thought the only people who didn't know about this were Hollywood directors.
posted by rebent at 9:57 AM on October 18, 2011

It's interesting to note that Nathan's agenda also extends to debunking some aspects of pedophilia...see "Defending the Friedman's" article that is linked to on her site. I found her tone in that review of the documentary to be rather...well, the best word I can use is "icky."
posted by Kokopuff at 10:01 AM on October 18, 2011

And yet the Salon.com article linked in the original post has comments from people insisting that "Sybil" is real, "well documented," and that Nathan's book is the fraud.
posted by dnash at 10:04 AM on October 18, 2011

And yet the Salon.com article linked in the original post has comments from people insisting that "Sybil" is real

This surprises you?

Salon has the intellectual heft of gawker for crying out loud.
posted by bukvich at 10:12 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

but those groups also seemed to include people who claimed to have psychic connections to fictional characters, people who claimed to be elves or dragons.

Somewhere, some Otherkin reading this is incredibly upset that you've lumped him in with the Otakukin, 'cause those people are crazy, obviously.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:19 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

There's sort of a tradition of shrinks turning their juciest patients into bestsellers, and not being exactly, uh, forthcoming about their own participation. Multiple personality, doesn't get much jucier than that (short of serial murderer, I guess.) The ones who wrote The Three Faces of Eve left the clear impression that what they were doing with 'Eve' was talking -- that is, psychotherapy. If all you read was that book you sure wouldn't know much about the electroconvulsion sessions.
posted by jfuller at 10:26 AM on October 18, 2011

It's interesting to note that Nathan's agenda also extends to debunking some aspects of pedophilia...see "Defending the Friedman's" article that is linked to on her site. I found her tone in that review of the documentary to be rather...well, the best word I can use is "icky."

Are you referring to this piece? I thought it was an interesting article. I can't speak to some of her assertions and conclusions as to the alleged gentleness of pedophiles, but there is much to be said for countering some of the models we use to approach sexual abuse and sexual abusers. I understand that Susan Clancy's controversial book The Trauma Myth has some interesting critiques of modern day attitudes towards the sexual abuse of children, but I haven't read it yet, so that's that.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:29 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Kokopuff - Having read Nathan's previous book, and that article, I have no idea what you mean by "Nathan's agenda also extends to debunking some aspects of pedophilia."

Nathan has devoted a good chunk of her journalistic career covering cases of people accused of crimes against children on flimsy evidence - particularly in 'satanic' and daycare abuse panics. The article you're referencing makes it very clear that Nathan believes in the existence of both pedophilia and violent crimes committed by pedophiles. Her arguent in the article has to do with the specifics of the Friedmans' case .
posted by Wylla at 10:36 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read Sybil when it first came out (borrowed it from a friend of my mom's.) You could not pry that damn thing out of my hands, it was fascinating.

What really resonated with me was how two years would pass and Sybil would awaken and be in an advanced classroom, with no memory at all of who the people there were, how she got there, or any of the education that led up to that point. When I was 8 we moved from California to Arizona and I was skipped from 3rd grade to 4th grade, so I knew EXACTLY how that felt.

I wondered what it was like to have all sorts of different people, each set up to handle different aspects of life's problems. I rather wanted my own alters who liked to clean rooms, do math and take the burden of the boring stuff, so that I could do what I enjoyed.

At the time it seemed plausible. The book was so well written (to my young mind) that it doesn't surprise me at all that it was accepted by the general public as completely true.

I was a teenager when the McMartins were arrested in California. I had grown more skeptical. I remember hearing some of the testimony from that case and saying to myself, "How could that be true? It's a huge room, with giant windows and about 20 kids. There's no way that could have happened without anyone saying anything to anyone."

In the nineties we started hearing about recovered memories of abuse and suddenly happy families were torn apart by horrible accusations (Rosanne Barr in particular made allegations, I'm not sure if she's still standing by them or not.) I reserved judgement, but I knew that false memories abounded. My sister and I still think we were awakened to watch the first moon landing, but since we lived in California at the time, that would have meant that we were asleep at 5:30 PM, not very likely.

When dealing with the human mind, it's difficult to know what is and isn't likely. But the science of it is that with every discovery, things may be proven or disproven. I'm very interested in what those records really say.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:16 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

So, several years ago, I had a seizure on the bus to work. I remember feeling nauseated and having some visual issues, and I asked another regular rider to wake me when I got to my stop because I was going to try and sleep. Apparently, I fell out of my seat, stopped breathing, started breathing, got back into my seat, and wouldn't react to anyone. When the EMTs came for me, I fought them. I have pieced this together from other accounts, because I remember nothing between "falling asleep" and waking up in the hospital some 40-50 hours later with some fractured bones.

Well, that's not quite true. I have two memories: a brief moment of wakefulness while restrained, and, before that, waking up, very lucid, and realizing I was in a hospital, probably an emergency room. I was strangely calm, but I quickly realized that I could only move my eyes (you would think this would have completely freaked me out, but I was very accepting and rational about the whole situation). I could feel something in my mouth, pulling down one edge of my lip, and guessed that I had a breathing tube in my throat. Then I became aware of another "self," which was neither lucid nor calm. This other "self" was really bothered by the tube, and, interestingly, had control of my limbs. My lucid "self" was aware of the "existence" and thinking of the non-lucid "self," but the reverse was not true. I blacked out again, although I understand I ripped the breathing tube out, so I am pretty sure it wasn't a hallucination. Good times, good times.

Anyway, that experience made me somewhat less skeptical of MPD, since I had experienced (although probably while medicated) a sort of "divided consciousness" with a "hierarchy of awareness." I really doubt that it is a) as common as popular culture would have it and b) anything like it appears in the movies, and I hate to think of someone walking around experiencing full time what I went through very briefly (although it didn't bother me at the time), but there you have it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:18 AM on October 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Back in 2004, Piper and Merskey wrote an outstanding pair of review articles on the rise and fall of MPD/DID -- great reading on one of the more embarrassing episodes in the recent history of medicine.
posted by timeo danaos at 11:22 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

My ex-wife claims to have MPD.

She became my ex-wife after I began to doubt her and suspect that she instead was a highly skilled fantasist working to a small audience (me, a few close friends and therapists). She's now living in a mental institution where she has a better audience (although her ultimate commitment had more to do with being 'a threat to herself').

We all have different aspects of our personalities capable of making us look like 'different people'. Some of us just use them differently.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:25 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Drags ritual sex abuse, satanic cults and Dick Morris and pretty much debunks all of them.

Actually, Dick Morris is real.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:12 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

> In his psychology teaching company class Daniel Robinson makes the offhand remark that the only believable case of multiple personality disorder he ever observed each of the alters was excruciatingly dull.

I do agree at the fascinating personality disorder trope is silly, but I don't agree that those exhibiting excruciatingly dull alters are therefore believable MPD. This would only work if everyone found each of the alters to be excruciatingly dull, not just one's psychologist. I think it's clear from the TV schedule that it's not too difficult to find an audience who will find utter fascination in the most mundane, repetitive, ordinary details of someone else's day. And that's not even getting into the allure of codependency.

So, I had a friend many years ago who believed herself to be BPD. Her friends tended to sort out into those those who were personally invested in it (ugh, issues of their own), and those of us who "accepted" it to one degree or another. She wasn't doing it for kicks, she obviously had some very real mental issues that derailed her ability to be a fully self-sustaining person. I always suspected that it was fear of disappointment that kept her from getting appropriate therapy. But she wasn't in danger of harming herself or others, and the functional difference between someone with BPD and someone who exaggerates to the point of deceit starts to feel pretty murky.
posted by desuetude at 12:23 PM on October 18, 2011

When I was 8, I read Sybil, along with the book by Christine Costner Sizemore. The severe age- inappropriateness of the reading material aside, I remember wishing I could somehow "catch" MPD/DID.
You see, I was a bully magnet in school and went home to a healthy dose of physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis. I thought that it'd be great if I could have a self that went to school and handled the bullies and another self that dealt with my family; leaving ME unaware of the misery of my daily life and free from anxiety and despair. Fugue states have been pretty well documented and share many of the same features of MPD/DID. I don't see why a more suggestible child would occasionally develop a coping mechanism that allowed them to become another person as a way to handle extremely traumatic life circumstances.
posted by echolalia67 at 12:26 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are those who doubt mental illness of any kind exists. Others are content to pick and choose, or to let those they deem experts to do so on their behalf. We all have "different personalities" but we usually don't give them different names and they usually share memories with each other. It doesn't seem impossible to me that some people's different personalities cover a wider range than others and share memory less. Therefore, regardless whether Sybil is really a multiple or not, (I never read the book or saw the movie) I don't understand why so many people are so sure this is a simple case of fraud. From the links, I didn't get the impression that Dr. Wilbur was breaking boundaries and contributing to Sybil's support because of a plan to rake in the big bucks later. Debbie Nathan is no less ambitious than Dr. Wilbur and I have difficulty ascribing the grandiosity of one being more prevalent than that of the other. I'm inclined to believe that Dr. Wilbur meant well and was possibly self-deluded in some respects, but that won't sell an expose book.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:57 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

In particular, I'd like to recommend the writings of Ian Hacking on this subject. (He was the author who opened my eyes to how the subject of abuse/maltreatment of children got somehow detached from the often accompanying issue of poverty because it was easier to deal with the former politically.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2011

GenjiandProust, your experience sounds like a left brain/right brain kind of thing. Maybe the dominant hemisphere was temporarily incapacitated, and the other self you felt was the other part of your brain, which was temporarily in control.

Someone very close to me was hospitalized after a major heart attack, and spent about a week trying to pull out his breathing tube. It got to the point where the nurses had to tie his hands to the bed. He never said anything, but made these awful whining noises constantly, even after the tube came out. Then he "woke up" and starting talking again, and had no memory of the previous three weeks. I think that was the normally dominant part of his brain coming back online, waking up or whatever. I don't know about multiple personalities, but everyone has a bisectible brain, with two semi-independent parts that combine in some strange and wonderful way to create our personality.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:42 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

your experience sounds like a left brain/right brain kind of thing.

Um, maybe? Not sure, and the neurologists I've talked to haven't had any certain ideas. Basically, I think the mechanism that creates my sense of "me" was badly disrupted, and it threw together this mess, possibly to deal wit the annoyance of the tube. The seizure probably started in the Right Occipital Lobe, so messing up the right side of my brain seems likely. Until I manage to have a seizure while helpfully wearing an EEG device of some sort, I will probably never know. And, since I am doing my darnedest to not have another...

Now, I have no idea what it would be like for someone to function with that kind of disruption all the time, but I imagine it would take more than emotional trauma. Of course, mental abuse often goes along with physical abuse, but, at this point, I am pretty much blowing smoke. My point is that I experienced a very odd split-identity experience, and so I am not sure I am willing to rule out the impossibility of other people experiencing something similar on a more regualr basis.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:41 PM on October 18, 2011

Second the Hacking reference. "Making People Up"! He gets exactly to the point where description and suggestion are hard to tell apart.
posted by homerica at 7:24 PM on October 18, 2011

I remember reading Sybil, along with When Rabbit Howls. I went through a Biography Of Mental Illness phase in high school, and of course MPD was the most fascinating. I never could wrap my mind around how there could be multiple selves inside one brain. Especially when the books' authors are trying to be creative, and you get this imagery of these selves all in some room, as if it were a twisted episode of "Friends" inside someone's skull.

It's terrible to learn how much 'Sybil' suffered, thanks to her therapy. It really seems like her life was ruined. She was abused. I am so sad that the story I read with such amazement and curiosity was the product of such terrible, terrible mistreatment of a hurting person who had only reached out for help.

I'm surprised I haven't seen The Many Minds of Billy Milligan referenced. All I know about the case is from my (poor) memory of the book and the Wikipedia page. He was actually found innocent by reason of insanity, thanks to MPD? Has that diagnosis been contested?
posted by meese at 10:50 PM on October 18, 2011

A few clicks through Wikipedia lead me to an interesting article about Thomas Szasz who, as mentioned previously, has fought against the psychiatric industry as Voltaire fought the catholic church.
posted by rebent at 4:45 AM on October 19, 2011

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