Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Sybil Exposed" by Debbie Nathan

In perhaps my freshman year of high school I choose to read the best-selling nonfiction book Sybil, about a woman with sixteen distinct personalities that were formed in childhood because of a horrifically abusive mother. I read it for some course, though I can't remember which specifically, and looking back, I know I was definitely not prepared for it. Perhaps some fourteen-year-olds can handle graphic depictions of sexual and physical violence, but I most certainly could not, and for that reason, the haunting book has long stayed with me.

Nevertheless, I hadn't thought about Sybil for years until I saw a review of Sybil Exposed in The New York Times. In the book, author Debbie Nathan explores the lives of those involved in creating Sybil: Shirley [aka Sybil] a troubled young woman; Dr. Connie Wilbur, her ambitious psychiatrist; and Flora Schreiber, the author of the book. In doing so, Nathan challenges nearly all of Sybil, including Wilbur's diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (MPD) and Shirley's accounts of parental abuse, exposing Wilbur and Schreiber as being more concerned with their own agendas than the truth.

It's clear from the beginning of the book how grossly negligent Wilbur was as a doctor, even giving her leeway for there being different ethical standards for doctors and psychiatrists than today. In treatment, Shirley often spent hours daily under the haze of the drug Pentothal while Wilbur prodded and encouraged her to reveal ever-worsening abuse. Though Shirley came to Wilbur as a sick woman in need of help (it's revealed at the end of the book that Shirley most likely suffered from anemia), Wilbur undoubtedly did significantly more harm than good as she guided the life of Shirley over decades.

The author Schreiber is no less guilty, as she willingly and blindly ignored gaping errors in Shirley and Wilbur's stories in order to publish and promote her book.

The publication of Sybil made multiple personality disorder a fad, though fortunately its recognition has become more strictly guided recently. Nonetheless, for years, individuals with severe mental illnesses went under various drugs in order to discover "repressed" memories of abuse, all in the name of MPD. The popularization of such a disease helped lead to abuse panics nationwide and fostered a continuing popular obsession with stories of sadistic abuse, something I find abhorrent (e.g. the book A Child Called It, done in the same vein [though, as far as I know, true], was popular a few years ago, despite being a complete piece of trash).

On the whole, Nathan comes down pretty hard against multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). This seems warranted to me, but it's clear from reading reviews of the book on Amazon that there's significant ongoing controversy about the disorder's recognition. Most of the reviews had rated the book a one or a five, with nearly all the ones coming from psychologists or psychiatrists defending DID as a legitimate disorder.

In the book's introduction, Nathan attempts to situate the women's actions in the context of the pre-feminist movement and the book's popularity in the nascent women's liberation. However, though it's clear that Wilbur worked hard to become a doctor in a man's world and that Sybil helped many American women of the time express their own conflicting feelings about needing to be multiple things at once (e.g. a professional and a mother), Sybil Exposed doesn't explore those issues very deeply. Instead, it's a fairly straightforward account of the women's lives.

Sybil Exposed is a nice reality check for anyone who was ever moved by Sybil, and because it's so short and easy to read, it can be digested quickly. Nathan appears to have done her research, but in the end, there's nothing particularly interesting about her conclusions or analysis. The vague lesson than "we should never accept easy answers or quick explanations," which appears on the last page, doesn't really say much about a case that captivated so many and destroyed at least one woman's life.

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