Debbie Nathan, in Sybil Exposed hypothesises that particular mental illness narratives, specifically Multiple Personality Disorder, can tell us about the cultural pressures facing women at the time.
The Sybil craze erupted during a fractured moment in history, when women pushed to go forward, even as the culture pulled back in fear. Sybil, with her brilliant and traumatized multiplicity, became a language of our conflict, our idiom of distress.Of course, women and madness have always been conflated. Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady, should you be interested, is an excellent resource on the topic of not only women and madness, but how women personify madness. A year before Sybil came out, Phyllis Chesler published a study called Women and Madness. Chesler, as quoted by Showalter,
maintains that the women confined to American mental institutions are failed but heroic rebels against the constraints of a narrow femininity, pilgrims "on a doomed search for potency," whose insanity is a label applying to gender norms and violations, a penalty for "being 'female'" as well as for desiring or daring not to be."Nathan places not only Sybil but her doctor and her biographer**, as women caught in this junction of what femininity was supposed to be, and how each actually expressed themselves as women.
In a middle passage of Sybil Exposed, Nathan talks about Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and how the invention of the "non-fiction novel" had an impact on the author of Sybil, Flora Schreiber. Nathan, too, takes a narrative approach to unveiling the real Sybil, Shirley Mason, and how Mason became (pseudonymously) famous for her dysfunction. Nathan follows Schreiber, Mason, and Mason's doctor, Connie Wilbur, from their childhoods through their respective deaths. It's a well-researched tour through the lives of three very different women, each interesting (or at least written in an interesting manner) in her own right. Sybil Exposed does suffer from time to time for being a bit too focused on readability. There are some awkward moments when Nathan tries to write like a novelist, and instead turns a very strange phrase. For example (and I'm sorry this made me laugh out loud): "For Flora and her contemporaries in the 1940s, Madison Avenue was the Wall Street of advertising." As well, there are scenes in which Nathan supposes to know what Flora Schreiber is thinking. Normally, this sort of conjecture wouldn't be much of a problem, but coming off a scene in which Schreiber is shown to falsify scenes in the name of sensation or narrative cohesion, this suddenly rings false.
Of course, the main "fiction" of Sybil Exposed is Shirley Mason's MPD diagnosis. It is truly shocking how Connie Wilbur extracted narratives of systemic abuse from Mason, most of which proved to be false. Under Wilbur's care, Shirley Mason became extremely addicted to several strong medications, derailing her promising scholastic career. Wilbur broke almost all the rules and ethics governing psychiatric care when dealing with Mason, growing too close to her, overdosing her, paying her bills, suggesting narratives, over-riding confessions of fakery, for her own fame. Despite the incredibly serious and permanent harm done to Mason, Wilbur isn't purely evil; since the reader has seen these characters grow up, they know nothing is so easily categorized. It is more that Wilbur's ambition gets the better of her. Nathan makes clear that Wilbur — and Mason and Schreiber — were operating at a time when ambitious women were mostly thwarted, where childless women were unnatural, and bad mothering was becoming the cause of most mental disorders.
Because Shirley Mason is dead, and many of Connie Wilbur's records were destroyed upon her death, there will always be missing pieces of the puzzle. Nathan supposes that pernicious anemia (a condition Mason really did have) was the main cause of most of Shirley Mason's original complaints, the symptoms of which were not fully understood when Mason was a young person. She was diagnosed as a hysteric instead.
Soon, Shirley would not know the difference between the bad feelings in her mind and the malfunctions in her body. All would combine, into a performance that eventually would become one of the most dramatic productions in the world[.]Mason's life is a real study in tragedy, and not only in the fictionalised account initiated by her psychiatrist and propagated by her (first) biographer. Nathan smartly focuses on the personalities behind Sybil instead of the personalities that were ostensibly the symptoms of her illness.
Wilbur didn't just influence her patient; her work was to inform multitudes of other psychiatrists, and the hunt for ritual abuse reached epidemic and — in hindsight — very strange proportions. The media, owing to the sensation, happily jumped on board. As a child I just accepted that there were Satanists meeting in wooded areas, killing babies for their nefarious rituals. Remember, this wasn't a religious Dungeons & Dragons panic, these were medical practitioners who saw this as the cause of MPD, and they coaxed their patients into false memories of terrifyingly abusive parents, evil daycares, and cannibalistic branches of the KKK. After reading Sybil Exposed and The Psychopath Test I wonder what stage the psychiatric community is in now, and if we'll ever reach a point when we can stop getting it pretty amazingly wrong. We have to trust what's happening in the field now is correct, because there are a lot of people who need help, but it's scary to think about what will be Exposed in another 20 years.
I first came across mention of Sybil Exposed from Jessa Crispin's article on The Smart Set.
*And would thereafter, and forever more, assume John Updike novels are about MPD.
**On such a continuum, Plath's schizophrenic Ester Greenwood is not just a thinly-veiled portrait of the author, but representative of many women of the day.
She enters a depressive spiral in which non of the alternatives available to educated women seems satisfactory. Career women, like her editor-in-chief or the professors at her college, seem sexless and even freakish. Housewives [...] seem defeated and servile. (Showalter, 216)Neither Flora (who like Ester was writing in New York in the 50s [and beyond]) nor Shirley ever married and none of the three ever had children.