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Sybil——The Making of a Disease: An Interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel

Only seldom can we date the emergence of a psychiatric syndrome with such precision: Multiple Personality Disorder (or MPD, as it is known to psychiatrists) was born in 1973 with the publication of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s book Sybil.1 Not that Sybil was the first book ever devoted to a case of multiple personality, far from it: Sybil belongs in fact to a well-established genre that includes, among others, Théodore Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars (1899), Morton Prince’s The Dissociation of a Personality (1906), Corbett H. Thigpen andHervey Cleckley’s The Three Faces of Eve (1954)—not to mention Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). But Schreiber’s book was, as Ian Hacking points out,2 the first one that firmly tied multiple personality to child abuse, a notion that had gained widespread recognition in the 1960s and that was to become an essential feature of present-day Multiple Personality Disorder. As the psychiatrist Frank W. Putnam writes in his authoritative textbook on MPD: “It was not until the 1970s, that the first reports clearly connecting MPD to childhood trauma began to appear in single case histories. Among the first and best-known was the case of Sybil, treated by Cornelia Wilbur and dramatized by Schreiber.”3

A journalist specializing in psychiatric issues and a regular contributor to Science Digest, Flora Rheta Schreiber described in her book the strange case of a young woman, “Sybil,” who had developed no fewer than sixteen separate personalities in order to cope with severe physical and sexual abuse. In addition to having been exposed to her parents’ love-making in classic Freudian style, Sybil had suffered bizarre and perverse sexual abuse at the hands of her mother, in a manner that is more reminiscent of Freud’s earlier “seduction theory.” The mother, for instance, would have her watch while she was masturbating other young children; she would force odd objects into Sybil’s vagina, or again, hang her in the air, insert an enema tip into her urethra, and fill the bladder with ice-cold water.

Sybil, the main personality, had no memory of all of this, but her other “personalities” did, and they dutifully informed Sybil’s New York psychiatrist, Cornelia C. Wilbur, in the course of a treatment that relied on hypnosis, “abreaction”—the cathartic release of anxiety through reliving intense experiences—and the administration of heavy doses of countertransference. As a result of this unorthodox treatment, which Schreiber described generously as “the first psychoanalysis of a multiple personality,”4 Sybil’s sixteen selves eventually fused, thus forming a seventeenth and cured self. “The New Sybil” was born, after hard psychoanalytic labor that took, according to Schreiber, eleven years and 2,354 office sessions.5

Although names and facts had to be disguised for the sake of confidentiality, Schreiber insisted that her book was based on empirical data, such as Dr. Wilbur’s case notes and tape recordings of analytic sessions, Sybil’s diaries and correspondence, and family and hospital records. This gothic tale of abuse was no fiction, as Dr. Wilbur warned in the book when Sybil compared herself to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “Dr. Wilbur slapped her hand in her fist. ‘That’s not a true story,’ she said. ‘It’s pure fiction. You are not at all like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson wasn’t a psychoanalyst. He created these two characters out of his literary imagination. As a writer he was concerned only with spinning a good yarn.”’6 The New York Times soon ranked Sybil among the ten best-selling nonfiction books of the year, and the book was quickly turned into a Hollywood movie with Joanne Woodward, the former cinematic incarnation of The Three Faces of Eve, in the role of Cornelia Wilbur.

Schreiber was deluged with letters from women thanking her for helping them understand that they were “multiples,”7 and it was not long before pioneering psychiatrists like Ralph B. Allison, George Greaves, and Eugene Bliss started finding cases of multiple personality among their patients. Within a few years of the distribution of Sybil, there appeared a number of best-selling biographies of multiple personalities clearly modeled on Schreiber’s book: The Five of Me (1977), Tell Me Who I Am Before I Die (1978), Michelle Remembers (1980), The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981), to name only a few. As Frank W. Putnam writes:

The case of Sybil…is the one most often credited with reintroducing the public and the mental health professions to the syndrome of multiple personality…. The book Sybil, with its graphic treatment of the amnesias, fugue episodes, child abuse, and conflicts among alters, served as a template against which other patients could be compared and understood…. Schreiber’s account is both detailed and accurate enough to serve as mandatory clinical reading for students of MPD.8

Thanks to the efforts of Putnam, Bennett G. Braun, and Richard P. Kluft, the diagnosis of “Multiple Personality Disorder” was eventually included in the 1980 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition, the authoritative psychiatric diagnostic manual, known as DSM-III, and it soon became widely accepted, although in the DSM-IV (1994) the name has been changed to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).9 Among the results has been a general redefinition of psychotherapeutic practice in terms of “trauma” and “dissociative disorders” (and also bitter battles in court around cases of memories of sexual or satanic ritual abuse recovered during therapy). Some proponents of the new diagnosis have claimed in the press and on television that one to three percent of the general population is suffering from MPD.10 One may disagree with these estimates, but certainly not with the fact that we are faced with a major threat to mental health.

What became of the three main characters of this success story? Flora Rheta Schreiber subsequently wrote a second best-selling book, this time on the Philadelphia cobbler Joseph Kallinger, a serial killer whose crime spree she claimed was the result of child abuse.11 She was unsuccessfully sued by the families of Kallinger’s victims12 and died shortly thereafter. After the end of Sybil’s treatment, Cornelia C. Wilbur moved on to a medical position in psychiatry at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where she conducted research on multiple personality, dissociation, and altered states of consciousness with Arnold Ludwig and others. She died in 1992, after a career as a cult figure within the MPD movement. As to the elusive Sybil, all efforts to crack the wall of secrecy that surrounds her have been in vain so far. Some say that she holds an academic position in an art school, others that she owns an art gallery somewhere in the Midwest. In 1987, in response to an inquiry from a reader, the Boston Globe reported that Dr. Wilbur “confirms that Sybil is indeed alive.”13

With Schreiber and Wilbur now gone, very few people are left who seem to know her true identity. One of them is Herbert Spiegel, M.D., coauthor with Abram Kardiner of an important book on traumatic war neuroses14 and a recognized specialist in hypnosis. Although bound by medical confidentiality, Dr. Spiegel was willing to discuss with me his memories of Sybil, whom he knew well at the time when she was in treatment with Cornelia Wilbur. What follows is a transcript of the interview I had with him in his New York City office in May 1995.

MIKKEL BORCH-JACOBSEN: How did you meet Cornelia Wilbur?

HERBERT SPIEGEL: I didn’t know her very well. I had seen her at meetings at the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, and she knew that I had done a lot of work with hypnosis. I got a phone call from her one day, telling me that she had a patient that she had been treating as schizophrenic and she had a peculiar feeling that this was not schizophrenia at all. She asked me if I could examine the patient and help her clarify the diagnosis.

MBJ: That was Sybil?

HS: Yes, that was Sybil.

MBJ: When was that?

HS: This must have been in the late Sixties. As I’m thinking about it now—and here’s a commentary on the accuracy of memory—it could be maybe the mid-Sixties. I remember seeing Sybil over a period of about four years. Then by the time the book came out in 1973 quite a bit of time had passed.

MBJ: So this was approximately ten years after the beginning of Sybil’s treatment. I say “approximately” for it is not entirely clear when Sybil entered into analysis with Wilbur. In the book by Flora Rheta Schreiber, we read that Wilbur had had her in treatment for a brief time in Omaha in the summer of 1945, and that the analysis properly so-called started only in October 1954, when Sybil moved to New York to study art at Columbia University.15 But in an interview she gave to Moshe Torem shortly before she died, Wilbur states that she started seeing Sybil in 1952.16 Do you have any idea of when the treatment actually began?

HS: I have no idea. I never inquired about that. Wilbur just told me that she had known her for a long time.

MBJ: Wilbur’s diagnosis had been of schizophrenia, right?

HS: Yes, but as I said, she was beginning to doubt whether or not [Sybil] was schizophrenic. She wanted to know if I could hypnotize a schizophrenic. I said no, usually schizophrenics are not hypnotizable, but it would be useful to test that out, because that could help sharpen up the diagnosis.

MBJ: So before consulting you about the case, Cornelia Wilbur had unsuccessfully treated Sybil for a schizophrenia for a period of, let’s say, over ten years?

HS: I guess you could make that inference.

MBJ: She was using classic psychoanalytic treatment, I presume?

HS: Well, I don’t know how classical she was. I never went into that with her. My contacts with her were only about Sybil. I must tell you, Wilbur was not an easy person to talk to—as a matter of fact she was like an angry woman. Even after working together with her on Sybil for several years, we would see each other at a meeting and I’d be pleased if she said hello, but then she’d just pass on by. There was something peculiar about her as a person.

MBJ: Your account doesn’t tally at all with the account of the case that we find in Sybil, for there Schreiber claims that Wilbur met “Peggy,” one of Sybil’s alternate personalities, as early as December 1954, that is to say two months after the treatment supposedly started.17 But you are saying that after approximately ten years of analysis with Sybil, Wilbur was still considering her as a schizophrenic and had actually no clue whatsoever about the case?

HS: I remember vividly the first conversation I had with her about this. She said that she had treated Sybil for a long time as a schizophrenic, but that she was having some doubts now and wanted to know whether Sybil was hypnotizable. That is all I know.

  1. 1

    Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil (Regnery, 1973).

  2. 2

    Ian Hacking, “Multiple Personality Disorder and Its Hosts,” History of the Human Sciences 5 (1992), No. 2, p. 8.

  3. 3

    Frank W. Putnam, Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder (Guilford Press, 1989), p. 47.

  4. 4

    Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil, second edition (Warner Books, 1974), p. 13. Schreiber forgets Anna O., the arch-patient of psychoanalysis, who was a clear case of dual personality. See Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Remembering Anna O: A Century of Mystification(Routledge, 1996).

  5. 5

    Schreiber, Sybil, p. 15.

  6. 6

    Schreiber, Sybil, p. 115.

  7. 7

    Interview with Brett Kahr, director of the British Institute for Psycho-History and organizer of the Flora Rheta Schreiber Memorial, London, April 1993.

  8. 8

    Putnam, Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder, p. 35.

  9. 9

    Myron Boor, “The Multiple Personality Epidemic:Additional Cases and Inferences Regarding Diagnosis, Etiology, Dynamics, and Treatment,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 170 (1982), pp. 302-304.

  10. 10

    Richard J. Loewenstein, in the French TVdocumentary by Ilan Flammer, “La mémoire abusée” (Arte, 1994).

  11. 11

    Flora Rheta Schreiber, The Shoemaker:The Anatomy of a Psychopath (Simon andSchuster, 1983).

  12. 12

    See “Kallinger Victims Lost Privacy Suit over Book,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1988, p. B7.

  13. 13

    Ask The Globe,” Boston Globe, August 13, 1987, Section:National/Foreign, p. 40.

  14. 14

    Abram Kardiner and Herbert Spiegel, War Stress and Neurotic Illness (Hoeber, 1947).

  15. 15

    Schreiber, Sybil, pp. 41 and 56.

  16. 16

    Cornelia B. Wilbur, with Moshe Torem, “A Memorial for Cornelia B. Wilbur, M.D., in Her Own Words:Excerpts From Interviews and an Autobiographical Reflection,” Clinical Perspectives on Multiple Personality Disorder, edited by Richard P. Kluft and Catherine G. Fine (American Psychiatric Press, 1993), p. xxviii.

  17. 17

    Schreiber, Sybil, p. 65.

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