Can a book or film make people ‘mad’? The real expose is not that Sybil’s story was false, but that there was a spurt in multiple personality disorder cases reported.
The reality: Shirley Mason had a troubled life, suffered from OCD and needed therapy. Her therapist Connie Wilbur prescribed some wonder drugs; among them was the truth serum that encourages “patients to describe fantasies or experiences that could never have happened. After one pivotal session, in which Mason described episodes in which she became different people, with multiple names and personalities, Wilbur saw an opportunity.”
The story: Patient and therapist got together with journalist Flora Schreiber and wrote a book. Sybil sold seven million copies. They added a lot of perversion and sex, made the delusions seem real. A film version became a hit; then there was another one.
The expose: The book by Debbie Nathan, 'Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case' denounces the account as a fiction. As evidence they have a letter written by Shirley saying she was lying that she had been 16 different people in her story. Could not the letter be a 17th one where she was in denial?
What is of concern, and even more fascinating, is that 40,000 people had visited therapists claiming the symptoms they read about. It is true that we identify with characters, we often take on characteristics, and more so in a book where our delusions play out against the characters'. But in a society that at the time did not completely accept a not so regular mind would people just go out and claim to be perverted and abused, and suffering from socially unusual behaviour merely as a herd instinct? Is not reading a solitary activity? Or was it the belonging to the seven million club enough?
Or, has it always been like that, the precursor to reality shows where the herd mentality prevails and people start identifying not because there is anything identifiable but because there isn’t? The negation gives it an aura, a mystique, and everyone wants to be a story.
There are versions of analysis that state that science is not too sure anymore about the multiple personality disorder syndrome at all. Now this would be taking away from genuine battles of the mind that some people do face. At the most basic level a multiple personality might manifest itself in ways that would collide with one’s own self. This is schizophrenia repeated several times. Think about it.
At the creative level, and I am not talking about the making of Sybil, people do play roles in life. Ordinary people often talk about ‘balancing lives’. The writer or artiste, in creating characters, is for that time probably living them or through them. Why do we laud the multi-dimensional persona and yet wonder about multiple personality as a disorder? Because the latter affects the individual beyond the parameters of her/his own ability to manage the dissonances.
Personally, I feel like many people and while there are strong opinions on certain subjects, there is also a dithering where personal decisions are concerned. I might at one time think like the man I am not, or the woman I am, or the woman I want to be, or even the woman I’d hate being.
It is possible that Sybil lied, her therapist pushed her into something and they got a story. But one lie does not negate the possibility of the truth.
This is beyond the book, the film, the expose and even the real person. It is about how people respond. Those who came out were, quite possibly, imagining the symptoms. However, they could be truly suffering from at least some of them. Such extreme sensitivity to so many personalities is socially an asset in terms of empathy, but psychologically it can mess up an individual’s own peace of mind. Or piece of it.