There’s a new book out from author Debbie Nathan called “Sybil Exposed”, which categorically exposes the multiple personality story of “Sybil” as a complete, deliberate hoax.
The story of the girl with 16 distinct personalities, Sybil, became quite popular in 1973, when a book was released purporting to tell the story of this Minnesota farm girl who wound up in New York City and on a therapist’s couch, telling horrifying stories of her torture and abuse, which fractured her personality into multiple parts. They even made a very popular movie about it, with Sally Fields playing the title role.
As Nathan chronicles, “Sybil” is actually Shirley Mason, who met Manhattan therapist Cornelia Wilbur in the early 1950’s. Wilbur suggested the two of them could make a lot of money if they concocted this wild story about Mason’s travails and fractured personality. The two collaborated with writer Flora Schreiber, and the myth of Sybil was born. In 1958, Mason “came clean” and issued a statement that the whole Sybil thing was a complete fiction. (Nathan’s book is based on this statement and other materials now archived at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY.)
But Wilbur so aggressively promoted the story of her multiple-personality patient among psychiatric circles that she came to great fame; made a fortune off Schreiber’s 1973 book – which is still in print and which you can buy today on Amazon for $9.99 – and the whole idea of multiple personality disorder was born. It became an official medical/psychological disorder designation which exists to this day, because the consensus of the powers-that-be in the world of psychiatry was that Wilbur’s stories about Mason were true.
As Nathan’s new book so clearly illustrates, consensus can be a very dangerous thing. The consensus of leading medical authorities was that Joseph Lister was crazy, when he postulated that nearly-invisible organisms called “bacteria” were the cause of so many post-operative deaths in hospitals in the late 1800’s.
The consensus of leading environmental scientists in the 1970’s was that the earth was on the verge of another ice age, because of the global cooling they’d observed. Thirty years later, the consensus of leading environmental scientists is that the earth is rapidly heating up because of man-made factors. Many of the same scientists; much of the same data.
In Lister’s case, he proved beyond any doubt that carbolic acid has antiseptic properties, and that what it does is kill bacteria. All the others were wrong, and he was right. Think of that the next time you rinse your mouth out with Listerine. (Yup – same guy.) Lister is only one of many cases that illustrate so clearly that science is not about consensus, but about demonstrable, repeatable fact. Truth, if you will.
I don’t know if the earth is cooling or warming or if greenhouse gasses are behind it or if the hole in the ozone layer is a factor or if the hole was caused by fluorocarbons or what. I do know that consensus is fine for resolving a discussion about where to go for dinner, but that it has nothing to do with science.