“Sybil,” the Fraudulent Book that Built a Movement

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.

Read the rest.

4 thoughts on ““Sybil,” the Fraudulent Book that Built a Movement

  1. Pingback: The Wild Hunt » Unleash the Hounds! (Link Roundup)

  2. But I’m going to miss believing in multiple human personalities who can express themselves in and through the physical presence of a single body. I mean, I found the notion of “six-gun” people kinda limbering up the old rigid world view.

    And who wants to know that therapists may act unethically? Demi-angels are falling…

    Sodium pentothal, did they ever use it on me? Did I blabber away all those secrets? Was it they CIA? Or Zeta Reticulans?

    And what does it have to do with my Pagan polytheism?

  3. Debbie Nathan’s “Sybil Exposed” may be a good book (I have not read it) but the Salon article seems full of cheap shots at multiple personality (DiD). Pagans love to hate the “Satanic Panic” because — rightfully — we are sick of anything occult being tied to the Satanism. It’s also hard to defend the most extreme court cases of the period and reputations being hurt on fuzzy recalled memories. Here’s the thing though — children get abused. And they do get abused in ritual-like fashion. I don’t see any giant “Satanic” conspiracies out there but — as a Pagan therapist — I do see occasional ritual abuse, recovered memories, and multiple personality (DiD). The pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction and we stand in danger of denying the victims healing and redress for their injuries. Please decouple our loathing for being lumped in with Satanic panics from consideration of the reality of some horrific and real forms of abuse and the mental disorders they cause.

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