Sybil (book)

Sybil is a book written by Flora Rheta Schreiber in 1973 about a woman named Shirley Ardell Mason, who is referred to in the book by the pseudonym Sybil Dorsett. Mason was born on January 25, 1923 in Dodge Center, Minnesota. Her story is the most famous case of multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder) on record. A movie was also made in 1976 based on the book, starring Sally Field in the title role and Joanne Woodward as her therapist, Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur. In 2007 the film was remade starring Tammy Blanchard as Sybil and Jessica Lange as Dr. Wilbur. It was released on CBS television in June 2008.

In the early 1950s, Mason was a substitute teacher and a student at Columbia University. She had a history of blackouts and emotional breakdowns, and finally entered psychotherapy with Wilbur, a Freudian psychiatrist. Their sessions together are the basis of the book.

Mason later moved to Lexington, Kentucky where she taught art classes and ran an art gallery out of her home for many years. She died of breast cancer on February 26, 1998. A nonfiction book and film by psychiatric historian Peter Swales are planned about Mason and her relationship with Wilbur.

In the narrative, "Sybil", a name Schreiber gave Mason to protect her privacy, is a patient with severe issues of social anxiety and memory loss. After extended therapy Wilbur discovers that Sybil has 16 separate personalities. She first uses sodium amytal, then hypnosis interviews to encourage Sybil's various selves to communicate and reveal information about her life. The book begins with a list of Sybil's "alters," together with the year in which each appeared to have dissociated from the central personality. The names of these selves were also changed to ensure privacy.

  • Sybil Isabel Dorsett (1923): a depleted person; the waking self.
  • Victoria Antoinette Scharleau (1926): nicknamed Vicky; a self-assured, sophisticated, attractive blonde; the memory trace of Sybil's selves.
  • Peggy Lou Baldwin (1926): an assertive, enthusiastic, and often angry pixie with a pug nose, a Dutch haircut, and a mischievous smile.
  • Peggy Ann Baldwin (1926): a counterpart of Peggy Lou with similar physical characteristics; she is more often fearful than angry.
  • Mary Lucinda Saunders Dorsett (1933): a thoughtful, contemplative, maternal, homeloving person; she is plump and has long dark-brown hair parted on the side.
  • Marcia Lynn Dorsett (1927): last name sometimes Baldwin; a writer and painter; extremely emotional; she has a shield-shaped face, gray eyes, and brown hair parted on the side.
  • Vanessa Gail Dorsett (1935): intensely dramatic and extremely attractive; a tall redhead with a willowy figure, light brown eyes, and an expressive oval face.
  • Mike Dorsett (1928): one of Sybil's two male selves; a builder and a carpenter, he has olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes.
  • Sid Dorsett (1928): one of Sybil's two male selves; a carpenter and a general handyman; he has fair skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
  • Nancy Lou Ann Baldwin (date undetermined): interested in politics as fulfillment of biblical prophecy and intensely afraid of Roman Catholics; fey; her physical characteristics resemble those of the Peggys.
  • Sybil Ann Dorsett (1928): listless to the point of neurasthenia; pale and timid with ash-blonde hair, an oval face, and a straight nose.
  • Ruthie Dorsett (date undetermined): a baby; one of the lesser developed selves.
  • Clara Dorsett (date undetermined): intensely religious; highly critical of the waking Sybil.
  • Helen Dorsett (1929): intensely afraid but determined to achieve fulfillment; she has light brown hair, hazel eyes, a straight nose, and thin lips.
  • Marjorie Dorsett (1928): serene, vivacious, and quick to laugh; a tease; a small, willowy brunette with fair skin and a pug nose.
  • The Blonde (1946): nameless; a perpetual teenager; has blonde curly hair and a lilting voice.

Wilbur decided that Shirley Mason's multiple personalities resulted from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, who was apparently schizophrenic. While the mother's instability was readily confirmed by Mason's contemporaries, the veracity of specific incidents of physical and sexual abuse related in the book remain controversial. Mason's therapy records have never been released, and both she and Wilbur are deceased.

According to people who knew Mason's family in Dodge Center, her mother was in fact given to bizarre behavior and controlled Mason very strictly. Her grandmother was kind to her, but unable to do anything about the treatment she received at her mother's hands. Her father often seemed blind or indifferent towards the many injuries inflicted upon Sybil by her mother. The family were Seventh-day Adventist, a religion that was apparently regarded with some suspicion by Dodge Center residents because of its superficial resemblance to Judaism.

The book's narrative describes Sybil's selves gradually becoming co-conscious, able to communicate and share responsibilities, and having musical compositions and art published under their various names. Wilbur attempts to integrate Sybil's various selves, first convincing them via hypnosis that they are all the same age, then encouraging them to merge together. At the book's end, a new, optimistic self called "The Blonde" emerges, preceding Sybil's final integration into a single, whole individual with full knowledge of her past and present life.


In August 1998, psychologist Robert Rieber of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice presented a study at an American Psychological Association meeting. Based on tape recordings between Wilbur and Schreiber, Rieber declared to the APA that the therapy sessions between Mason and Wilber resulted in "the fraudulent construction of a multiple personality.

Rieber's study challenged the "Multiple Personality" diagnosis, insisting that Mason was "extremely suggestible hysteric" and claimed Wilbur had manipulated her in order to secure a book deal. The supposition that she did not have Multiple Personality Disorder was earlier supported by Dr. Herbert Spiegel. Dr. Spiegel saw Mason for several sessions while Wilbur was on vacation. His interpretation of her statements at that time caused him to believe that Wilbur was manipulating her into behaving as a multiple when she was not one. He has also stated that he suspects Wilbur of having publicized Mason's case for financial gain. However, the idea of the iatrogenesis of multiple personailty disorder has been challenged by many researchers.

However, an expert on multiple personalities, Dr. Richard Gottlieb, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, stated that Rieber's report does not shed light on whether Sybil's personalities were created in therapy. He also stated that Rieber's report failed to show if the book was a conscious misrepresentation. A review of Rieber's book Bifurcation of the Self by Mark Lawrence states that Rieber repeatedly distorted the evidence and left out a number of important facts about Sybil's case, in order to advance his case against the validity of Sybil's diagnosis.

Dr. Leah Dickstein, who worked with Mason in her later years, stands by her assessment of Mason as a multiple. Professionals and staff at Wilbur's Lexington, Kentucky clinic confirm that Mason was multiple, and that she attempted to integrate several times, without success. Periodically, according to Wilbur and other professionals who worked with her, Mason would deny that she was multiple. Dr. Leah Dickstein, whose mentor was Dr. Wilbur also stated that she was in touch with Mason for many years after Wilbur died. She remembers Mason telling her that "every word in the book is true." She stated that Wilbur had "no need to make this up.

Mason's case remains controversial. Supposedly, Wilbur's personal papers were to be unsealed as of 2005, but their contents have not been made available to the general public. There is a series of recorded tapes that were made by Wilbur of her sessions with Mason. Some of these tapes were accessed, with the permission of Mason and Wilbur, by the screenwriter Stewart Stern, who adapted the book for the film Sybil. In any case, these are not Mason's therapy records, provided Wilbur even kept any; she was reportedly careless about this area of her work. Due to privacy laws, it is very unlikely that Mason's therapy records will ever be released to the public.



  • Sybil (ISBN 0-446-35940-8) by Flora Rheta Schriber
  • Multiple personality controversies Contains a list of links to information about Shirley Mason, Cornelia Wilbur, and the Sybil book and film.
  • The Art of Shirley Mason Lexington-based gallery selling prints of selected works by Mason.
  • Sybil's Friend and Life After Sybil. Personal website by Nancy Preston, Sybil's student and close personal friend in her later years.

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