In 1977, Billy Milligan was arrested for three rapes at Ohio State University. There was evidence linking him to the scenes and one of the victims identified him, which makes the case appear to be fairly straightforward. But Milligan seemed to have no recollection of committing the crimes, and after undergoing a psychological assessment in custody, he was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder). In a widely publicized case, Milligan’s defense team argued that he had more than 24 separate identities that controlled his actions and therefore could not be held responsible for the rapes for insanity. As explored in the new Netflix docuseries Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan, this argument was successful, in part because of the public’s fascination with Sybille.
As explained in the show, the book Sybille and its TV adaptation brought dissociative identity disorder to the forefront of cultural conversation shortly before Milligan’s arrest. The book was published in 1973 by Flora Rheta Schreiber, journalist and professor of English at the City University of New York. Schreiber was a close friend of psychoanalyst Cornelia B. Wilbur, who believed her patient, Shirley Mason, had 16 distinct and separate personalities. Through Los Angeles weatherDr. Wilbur determined that Mason developed distinct identities as a child to help her cope with an abusive mother.
After 11 years of treatment, Wilbur said Mason was cured. But rather than write about her findings in a scientific journal, she asked Schreiber to create an appealing tale for a wider audience. What resulted was Sybille, which centered around a character named “Sybil Isabel Dorsett” as the main personality. The book introduces each of Sybil’s Quirks, or other personalities, as she comes to terms with herself. After talking to them all, Wilbur is able to coax a new self called “The Blonde”, which is supposed to show that Sybil has finally re-integrated into one individual.
The book turned out to be extremely popular. Through The New York Times, within four years Sybille had sold over six million copies in the United States and hundreds of thousands overseas. In 1976 it was adapted into a 1976 TV movie starring Sally Field which was seen by one-fifth of all Americans. (It was adapted again for a 2007 film starring Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard.) According to NPR, after Sybilles publication, reported cases of dissociative identity disorder increased from less than 100 to 1,000s. As Schreiber said Los Angeles weather in a 1975 interview, she was “happy” that the book has been so successful.
The New York Times stated that Sybille has been “instrumental” in making dissociative identity disorder a common and accepted diagnosis. But early on, some medical experts expressed doubts about Wilbur’s conclusions. In 1994, the psychiatrist Herbert Spiegel revealed that Mason had asked him one day if he wanted her “to pass to other personalities” during a session. When asked where she got this idea from, she replied that Wilbur wanted her to “show off,” which led Spiegel to believe she was trained.
The truth came to light years later. Schreiber died in 1988, but she stipulated that upon her death her Sybille research and transcripts were to be archived at the John Jay Library. In 1998, two researchers discovered that “Sybil Dorsett” was in fact Shirley Mason. Mason was already dead, so John Jay’s librarians decided to unseal Schreiber’s work. What they found was that Wilbur created a “fraudulent construct of a multiple personality.” As psychologist Robert Rieber put it in an article for the American Psychological Association, “It is clear from Wilbur’s own words that she was not exploring the truth, but rather planting the truth as it is. wanted it.
Ultimately, Sybil exposed author Debbie Nathan discovered that Mason had lied all the time. In a letter to Wilbur, Mason admitted that she “doesn’t really have multiple personalities.” “I don’t even have a ‘double’. … I’m all of them. I lied pretending to them,” she wrote. Nathan told NPR that Wilbur rejected the letter because she was too invested in her patient to drop it. And Mason, fearing to lose his therapist and his support network, kept silent after that.
Nathan assumes that Schreiber was aware that Mason was lying, but that he was also too involved in the story to back down. âShe already had a contract and she already had a deadline,â Nathan told NPR. “She was writing the book. So she was faced with the dilemma all journalists have nightmares about – what if my thesis turns out to be wrong while I’m doing my research but it’s too late?”
Either way, Schreiber and Wilbur received widespread acclaim throughout their lifetimes for their work on Sybille. Mason withdrew from the public after people started to recognize her, and according to NPR, she lived a quiet life until her death in 1998.
If you or someone you know is looking for help with mental health issues, visit National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or dial 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). For confidential treatment references, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or call the national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.