Book review: Sybil Exposed
Tried to use holiday downtime to plow through some books I've had stacking up, and was successful, though perhaps not as successful as I'd have liked to me. But one book struck me as of being of particular interest to the Pandagon crowd: Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan. For those who don't think that there's a meaningful intersection between feminism and skepticism, I challenge them to read this amazing recounting of how three women, each in the grips of self-delusions caused by needs that Nathan definitely demonstrates were created by the constraints sexist culture puts on women, managed to hoodwink themselves, Hollywood, the publishing industry, the psychiatric establishment, and the entire country into believing that a small town Midwestern girl with a stubborn and baffling set of symptoms (mostly physical at first!) had actually suffered constant rape and other forms of abuse at the hands of her mother, and developed multiple personalities to cope. This story, in turn, created an epidemic of "multiple personality disorder" cases and other claims of repressed memories of child sex abuse that frequently couldn't have happened. Lives were ruined. You have the people (mostly women) who ended up in the hands of the wrong therapists and, instead of getting proper treatment for conditions like biopolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia, got worse as they kept inventing new personalities to inhabit and going further down the rabbit hole of mental illness. You had people thrown in jail, often with multiple life sentences, for crimes they simply couldn't have committed on the testimony generated by people who had been provoked in various ways to fantasize and then believe their fantasies had actually happened. And it all started with this one book and three women who, if they'd grown up in a better, more feminist world, probably wouldn't have been so damn messed up.
Nathan turns out to be the best possible candidate to write the expose of how the case of "Sybil" was generated through a series of self-delusions and outright fraud. Nathan brings a thorough understanding of feminism and its complicated history to this book, which means that she manages to achieve the delicate balancing act by both holding feminists who perpetuated the hysteria over "repressed memories" and "multiple personality disorder" responsible for what they did, but also applying a sympathetic, feminist analysis to the various pressures on women in the 20th century that led to this hysteria. (I'm using "hysteria" in the group sense, as a society-wide panic over nonsense, instead of as the sexist label attached to individual women as a way to shame them out of being righteously angry about something.) After all, child abuse and rape are both real and depressingly common, and the understanding of that that developed in the 70s and 80s basically traumatized the country to the extent that plausible accounts were hard to distinguish from implausible ones. Additionally, unlike with other crimes, the "realness" of sexual and domestic violence is often judged by how damaged the victim feels, which created an unfortunate incentive to highlight cases where severe trauma was claimed in order to get people to understand that rape is, you know, wrong. Now I think feminism has come around to realizing that "victims must display extreme trauma" is a trap used to let rapists off the hook, and have moved on to arguing that we need to treat rape, battering, and child abuse like we do any crime, where the victim's ability to recover doesn't mitigate guilt. But in the 70s and 80s, that wasn't as clear. This doesn't excuse people who generated false stories or made existing mental illnesses worse, but it does explain why there was a sudden interest in stories of greater and greater trauma from sexual violence.
Carol Tavris and Laura Miller have excellent reviews of Sybil Exposed that run down the facts of the case, but a quick summary: Shirley Mason was a depressed and neurotic woman with likely undiagnosed pernicious anemia who got caught up with Dr. Connie Wilbur, a charismatic but deeply unethical (though often well-meaning) therapist who always resented that the world didn't see her as the brilliant "pure scientist" she felt herself to be. Mason become emotionally dependent on Wilbur, and when she realized that what it would take to keep Wilbur's attention and interest (and continued services without immediate payment), she started producing multiple personalities, having read about them previously in some literature Wilbur gave her. Excited that she was finally going to make her career, Wilbur encouraged this development, keeping Mason strung out on barbituates for years while exerting massive pressure on Mason to both generate new personallties and come up with "memories" of severe child abuse. Meanwhile, Flora Schreiber, a journalist who, like Wilbur, felt marginalized and underappreciated, got involved by agreeing to write a book about it. Repeatedly throughout the invention of "Sybil", each woman involved has moments of doubt and worries that they're perpetuating a fraud, but their desires (Mason's to get attention and pay her debts, Wilbur and Schreiber's to finally do work that the world has to notice) cause them to tamp down their doubts. At some point, the need to keep the whole thing going gets to the point where Wilbur and Mason deliberately create fraudulent diaries to give to Schreiber, rather than let the fact that Mason's claims about child abuse couldn't be true derail the whole project. It's an amazing story of how ordinary human desires for love, ego gratification, and money can, under the right circumstances, create situations that simply spiral out of control.
Nathan's feminism makes her see the nuances in this situation that another journalist might miss. She grasps immediately why it was women who half-consciously perpetuated this fraud. As Nathan puts it, the continued marginalization of women in American society, added to the newfound ambitions and dreams of a feminist era, created some outright bizarre behavior in women who, in a more feminist time, would have had more productive avenues for their energies. She also suggests that this feeling of wanting so much while having so little created the audience for the book Sybil, and unfortunately created fertile grounds for women to generate false memories and multiple personality disorder. Not to put too fine a point on it, but "repressed memories" and "multiple personalities" had symbolic resonance with women who were torn between their feminist desires and the continued constraints put on their ambitions by a sexist society. Now that those tensions are slowly getting resolved and pressures have lightened up a little, it's unsurprising that these trends have faded away.
The lesson here is a subtle but important one: Skepticism without empathy has its limits. You can make an airtight skeptical case about multiple personality disorder, repressed memories, and the "Sybil" case without understanding the pressures on women that allowed this to happen, but your analysis would be severely limited. You could say that these claims weren't true, but you wouldn't understand why this particular hysteria took off. By bringing a feminist analysis to the situation, Nathan adds understanding, which suggests ways that clusterfucks like this could be prevented in the future. Reading this book, you realize how much damage that sexism and homophobia can do to the mental stability of those oppressed by it—by the time the book is over, you can cite dozens of examples of how sexism and homophobia provoked bad choices and weird behaviors in the people involved in this situation. Sybil Exposed is an excellent example of the best kind of skepticism, one that's rooted in a desire to understand why people believe false things. Highly recommended.