BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media are drawn to characters with multiple personalities. It's not hard to see why. The afflicted, though often in pain, are able to live out a fantasy that many healthy people have, to be someone else for awhile, to live another life. Dissociative identity disorder, as it's now known, is very rare in real life, but it’s left an indelible mark on pop culture, from the classic film Three Faces of Eve, to Showtime's recent United States of Tara, the story of a mom with multiple, often flamboyant, personalities.
TONI COLETTE AS TARA: I will be in control, me, Tara.
TONI COLETTE AS AN ALTER: This is all your fault. With the drugs.
ANOTHER ALTER: Like me, Stepford [?]
ALTER: Buck had the big night out.
BUCK: I wasn’t even here. I was doin’ important stuff. Just happened to be at a casino.
SHOSHANA: I for one think it’s about time you asserted yourself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Our fascination with split personalities goes way back. Think Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. But in modern times it's been supercharged by Sybil, a 1973 bestseller about the treatment of Sybil Dorsett, a pseudonym for Shirley Mason, by her psychoanalyst Cornelia B. Wilbur.
The book was made into a mini-series of the same name in 1976, and again, as a TV movie in 2007. The book and the movies met every expectation we'd come to have about those afflicted with the disorder.
Sybil was young and fragile, fraught with warring personalities, saved by the ministrations of a kind and brilliant doctor. But as journalist Debbie Nathan found, not only is Sybil’s story not what it seems, it gave rise to a kind of epidemic.
DEBBIE NATHAN: There had been a few dozen cases over decades and decades and decades, almost 200 years. And then by the early nineties there were 40,000 that had been diagnosed. And there were countless other people who were just self-diagnosing.
In the eighties every investigative news show would have therapists on with their patients, and it would become like a dog and pony show. The therapist would say, can I talked to Amy? The woman’s eyes would flicker and all of a sudden there'd be – [HIGH-PITCHED VOICE] hi, I’m rr –rr.. You know, it was the child. Then there'd be an old man and then there’d be an evil devilish type person. And they’d do a whole show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when did the press become fascinated with this whole syndrome?
DEBBIE NATHAN: The press has been fascinated with the syndrome for over 100 years. In the late nineteenth century, for example, there was a woman down in Brooklyn. She was called The Brooklyn Enigma. She lay in bed and supposedly had a dual personality. She could go for months and years without eating a smidgen of food.
There was another case in 1905. That case was made into a play called “The Case of Becky.” That was made into one of the first silent movies. Every single case after that, where there was a woman who was sort of an attractive, interesting woman, like The Three Faces of Eve, turns into a movie. Sybil, 40 million people saw it, one-fifth of the population.
There's a core in our culture that's fascinated with the idea of the opposition between good and evil. The older multiple personality cases were almost always about a split between two, the good and the bad girl. It's only recently that the personalities have proliferated – 16, 100, 4,000. But I –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Somebody has actually 4,000?
DEBBIE NATHAN: Forty-five hundred, I’ve heard of. So you have experts wanting to find it, you have the media becoming obsessed. I, I think there was something about the idea of splitting that was really compelling for young women during that time, the early seventies. All these new roles were opening up for us, all these new jobs, all these new - even sexual roles.
I found so many letters in the archive that I used to do this book, from young women during that time, writing about those conflicts, writing to the author of Sybil. I think that's really what it was about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give a, a summary of how all of how the Sybil story came to be, in the form it's come down to us?
DEBBIE NATHAN: Sybil’s real name was Shirley Mason. She was born in the early twenties in rural Minnesota. And she was a very imaginative child, very fantasy prone. And she was a very conscientiously religious girl and felt a lot of guilt about these artistic impulses she had. She met her psychiatrist in 1945 and the psychiatrist became very smitten with her and started actually giving her literature to read about multiple personality disorder.
Sybil was a very emotionally needy young woman, really wanted attention from the therapist, and walked in, knocked on the door one day of the office and said, “Hi, I'm Peggy.”
SALLY FIELD AS SYBIL/PEGGY: My name’s Peggy. I'm only nine. Do you believe me?
JOANNE WOODWARD AS DR. WILBUR: Yes, I believe you.
DEBBIE NATHAN: It wasn't very dramatic, but the therapist was absolutely entranced, and that was the beginning of their multiple personality relationship. Sometimes she knew that she was putting it on, other times she didn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At one point, she wrote a letter recanting, and then she recanted her recanting.
DEBBIE NATHAN: She – what she says is, look, I'm really embarrassed to tell you this. I don't have multiple personalities. I don't even have two personalities. I don’t really know why I did this or how I was able to. I just know that it was easy to do and that things are getting worse for me, not better. And I really want to do more therapy with you, but I want to do it honestly. And then the therapist, by then had given talks. She was writing papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She was invested in this diagnosis.
DEBBIE NATHAN: She was invested. She told herself that the patient was still sick but didn't want more therapy, even though the letter said, please give me more therapy. I think the psychiatrist sort of implied to the patient, look, if you don't get with the program, that's it. The patient said, okay. You know, she wrote her a letter a few weeks later and said “Some other person wrote that letter.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the arc that was established by Sybil, the mother was the mother from hell. And for me it seems to recall the early diagnoses of autism which always laid blame on the, quote, unquote “refrigerator mom,” now an entirely discredited idea.
DEBBIE NATHAN: I think that that’s actually where it came from. The therapist came out of that tradition where everything was blamed on mothers.
SALLY FIELD AS SYBIL: [SINGING] Christmas tree, oh Chrismas tree
SYBIL’S MOTHER/HATTIE DORSETT: Do you think it's just sunshine and singing and pretty colors when you grow up? Well, I should say not! You are bad. You are spoiled rotten! And you better learn quick!
SYBIL: [CRYING] Mommy, Mommy..
DEBBIE NATHAN: Schizophrenia, homosexuality. And I think she extended that theory into her ideas about Sybil’s mother.
The diagnosis, when it was really in its heyday, made a lot of people very, very sick. And the main problem with the diagnosis is that if you get it, it's assumed that you got it because you were severely, horridly abused, and usually sexually.
Well, imagine if you’re a middle aged woman. You’ve spent your entire life having nice thoughts about your parents and suddenly you are having memories that are like — utter nightmares, and you feel that you’re in a nightmare?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like the Satanic cult scare of – of roughly the same period.
DEBBIE NATHAN: Well, as a matter of fact, the satanic cult scare came from multiple personality therapy. The first people to tell the stories of satanic sexual abuse were patients in therapy for multiple personality disorder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happened to Shirley Mason?
DEBBIE NATHAN: After her therapy, she got a job as an art professor at a small college. And this was before the book came out. She was doing very well. She got away from the therapist, got tenure at a, a little college, had her house, was popular at her job. And then the book came out.
Her colleagues in art education recognized her - the townspeople where she grew up. The book had not really changed the details. For example, it said that her maid was named “Bessie Flood.” And the real maid’s name was Dessie Blood.
[LAUGHS] There were many things like that. And she had a bunch of friends who knew that she'd been in therapy with this psychoanalyst in New York. And the psychoanalyst ended up having her name in the book. I mean, if she had just been anonymous, I don't think that Sybil would have been found out.
And she left. She left almost in the dead of night. And she went to Lexington, Kentucky, where the therapist was. And she never lived apart from her after that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Debbie, thank you very much.
DEBBIE NATHAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Debbie Nathan is a journalist and author of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.
[BILL TAYLOR SINGING SPLIT PERSONALITY]
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Doug Anderson and Gianna Palmer, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at Onthemedia.org or you can also check out our blog filled with even more OTM stuff. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. And you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.