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October 2011



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Was Sybil Faking Multiple Personalities?

By John M. Grohol, PsyD
Founder & Editor-in-Chief


Multiple personality disorder — now known in modern psychological lingo as dissociative identity disorder (DID) in the DSM-IV — is a fairly uncommon mental health concern. But it remains an intriguing one because of its nature: The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states. Each of these identities or personality states has its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self, and take alternating control of the person’s behavior.


Sybil is one of the most popularly known individuals who had multiple personality disorder, largely because of a book published in the 1970s that detailed her experience and that of her psychiatrist in trying to help treat her.


Now Debbie Nathan, writing in her new book, Sybil Exposed, suggests that the core diagnosis for Sybil — of multiple personality disorder — was made up by the patient to keep in the good graces of her psychiatrist.



NPR has the story, and describes how Shirley Mason — Sybil’s real name — came to have multiple personality disorder:


Shirley Mason, the real Sybil, grew up in the Midwest in a strict Seventh-day Adventist family. As a young woman she was emotionally unstable, and she decided to seek psychiatric help. Mason became unusually attached to her psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, and she knew that Wilbur had a special interest in multiple personality disorder.

“Shirley feels after a short time, that she is not really getting the attention she needs from Dr. Wilbur,” Nathan explains. “One day, she walks into Dr. Wilbur’s office and she says, ‘I’m not Shirley. I’m Peggy.’ … And she says this in a childish voice. … Shirley started acting like she had a lot of people inside her.”

So the implication by the book’s author, Debbie Nathan, is that ‘Sybil’ made up her diagnosis in order to keep the attention of her psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbur, and to gain the emotional rewards from such attention. Shirley Mason wouldn’t be the first patient to ever want increased attention from their therapist.


An interesting hypothesis. But is it true?


Read in Full:



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