Monday, August 22, 2011

Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Sally Fields made-for-tv movie "Sybil," an adaptation of the 1973 book by the same name. The book and the film were based on the true (or what was touted as true) story of a woman who endured horrific childhood abuse at the hands of her mother and, as a result, developed multiple personalities. As a kid, I wore out my paperback copy of the book and pored over my family's "TV Guide" for airings of the movie, which I would then sneak-watch on our basement television. I thought it was all too dramatic and scandalous to be true.

Turns out that maybe it was, according to Debbie Nathan's Sybil Exposed. Nathan's research into the three women behind the "Sybil" empire -- a psychiatric patient, her therapist, and the journalist who wrote up their story for publication -- reveals that much of what the original book purported to be true was actually embellished or, in many cases, completely made up. Sybil Exposed presents Dr. Wilbur, the therapist credited with "curing" Sybil's multiple personality disorder, as a bully and a pill-pusher who overmedicated her patient, asked leading questions, and pushed the boundaries of an appropriate doctor/patient relationship. Did the real Sybil, a docile Minnesotan artist named Shirley Mason, ever really have multiple personality disorder, or was she the victim of a new pop psychology craze? How much of her painful past was real, and how much was invented by an opportunistic author looking to sell a book?

I found Sybil Exposed to be an interesting, quick read. Nathan's research is thorough and well-documented, and the questions she uncovers behind the famous Sybil story are shocking. I think that even people not familiar with the original book and film (if such people exist!) will enjoy this read.

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