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…

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