Author: Debbie Nathan
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“A bestselling book published in 1973, and a television movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, Sybil was both a pop culture phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the therapeutic industry. Sybil sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and influenced the way millions of people, young and old, saw themselves, their families, their sexuality, and their own psyches. Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of multiple personality disorder in history; afterwards, approximately 40,000 people were diagnosed with it in just a few years. Now in her news-breaking book, journalist Debbie Nathan gives proof that the supposed “true” story was largely fabricated.
Sybil Exposed combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold. Nathan followed an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives of these three women and tell the real tale. The result is an intensely fascinating portrait not just of the pop culture phenomenon, but of the complex psychological factors that primed the nation to receive it.”
Thoughts: Sybil Exposed is an absolutely fascinating look at the field of psychiatry in the 1940s and 1950s and a heart-wrenching dive into the absolute power psychiatrists hold over their patients. Misunderstanding the workings of the human mind, or a lack of ethics on the part of the doctor can result in horrible mental damage to a patient. If anything, Sybil Exposed serves as a warning to listen to one’s inner voice about any doctor. If one feels worse after obtaining treatment of any kind, then it is probably time to seek a new doctor!
While there is no doubt that Ms. Nathan prepared thoroughly before writing this expose, one cannot help but notice the complete bias that she portrays towards her subject matter. Her anger and disgust at all three participants – Sybil, her doctor, and the author of the novel itself, are palpable with every word. This diminishes the story she is trying to tell because the reader cannot help but wonder how much her vendetta against those involved fueled her research. Such non-fiction novels should be devoid of bias and the feelings of disgust on the part of Ms. Nathan make the entire work uncomfortable reading.
That being said, there is no wonder why Ms. Nathan is as indignant as she is throughout her story. What Sybil is forced to experience, all in the name of medical science and posited as a cure, is absolutely horrifying. To suggest that Dr. Wilbur maliciously intended to harm Shirley Mason, the real Sybil, however, seems a bit of a stretch, no matter what “facts” Ms. Nathan presents. Similarly, one doubts that Flora Schreiber, as the author of the best-selling book, is the money-grubbing soulless author that Ms. Nathan makes her out to be. If anything, all three were victims of the times, wherein a new psychological disorder was both fascinating and extremely lucrative.
A reader finishes Sybil Exposed with nothing but pity at all those involved. Shirley Mason earns the most as the hapless patient. She wanted nothing more than to be cured of these supposed alternate personalities and put her faith and trust in her doctor, as we all would in a similar situation. Dr. Wilbur comes out as the true criminal of the story, but one cannot help but believe that Ms. Nathan also does her a disservice. Yes, she violates the most essential of doctor-patient rules, but a reader cannot help but feel that she honestly thought she was helping more than she was harming her patients. The understanding of the human brain and human medicine in general were not advanced far enough for her to be able to understand clearly what damage she was wreaking. As for Ms. Nathan’s attack of Ms. Schreiber, it is also understandable, if not a bit too extreme. Yes, she falsified “facts” to better serve the plot of her book, but she is not the only author to be accused of playing loose with the truth.
Sybil Exposed is an extremely enlightening read, even if the vilification of each person involved is a bit too extreme. Ms. Nathan’s vendetta against the three participants is too noticeable for the book to be considered good, and unbiased, nonfiction. This is unfortunate, as the story she exposes is immensely interesting and a great warning on the dangers of any medical treatment given without complete understanding of the illness.