Debbie Nathan, a journalist whose work did a lot to bring down the “Satanic panic” movement of the 1980s, has now turned her literary guns on a classic of my young adulthood: Sybil, supposedly a true story of a girl with multiple personalities.
Debbie Nathan’s “Sybil Exposed” is about psychiatric fads, outrageous therapeutic malpractice, thwarted ambition run amok, and several other subjects, but above all, it is a book about a book. Specifically, that book is Sybil, purportedly the true story of a woman with 16 personalities. First published in 1973, Sybil remains in print after selling over 6 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Somewhat similarly to Michelle Remembers (1980), it took the conjunction of a gullible (and fantasizing?) therapist and a definitely fantasy-prone patient who could spin out “unreliable confessions and bizarre fantasies” while under the influence of sodium pentothal “truth serum” to get the ball rolling.
Add a writer and later a screenwriter and you have literary and cinematic hits.
The therapist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, did her part to promote the myth of intergenerational satanic conspiracies:
She played a key role in promoting the belief that conspiracies of fiendish, sadistic adults were secretly perpetrating murder, child rape and mutilation, human sacrifice, and cannibalism across the country and that repressed memories of such atrocities lay at the root of most MPDs. Innocent people were convicted of these crimes on the basis of testimony elicited from highly suggestible small children and hypnotized adults. Families were sundered by therapists who convinced their patients that they’d suffered similar ordeals despite having no conscious memory of it. This opened the door to years of expensive and ineffective therapy.