Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The hoax of multiple-personality disorder

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I used to believe that MPD was a real phenomenon—the mind can indeed do strange things—but it increasingly seems like a hox. I had a tab with a great summary of the situation—an article by a psychiatrist in the US who was alarmed to see that in the UK diagnoses of MPD are still common. The article was extremely good, but Chrome crashed and “Restore” didn’t work and no matter how I skim “history” I cannot find it. So it goes.

And Google was of little help, though it did uncover this article in the NY Times Magazine by Debbie Nathan a couple of years ago:

“What about Mama?” the psychiatrist asks her patient. “What’s Mama been doing to you, dear? . . . I know she gave you the enemas. And I know she filled your bladder up with cold water, and I know she used the flashlight on you, and I know she stuck the washcloth in your mouth, cotton in your nose so you couldn’t breathe. . . . What else did she do to you? It’s all right to talk about it now. . . . ”

“My mommy,” the patient says.


“My mommy said that I was a bad little girl, and . . . she slapped me . . . with her knuckles. . . .”

“Mommy isn’t going to ever hurt you again,” the psychiatrist says at the close of the session. “Do you want to know something, Sweetie? I’m stronger than Mother.”

The transcript of this conversation is stored at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City, among the papers of Flora Schreiber, author of “Sybil,” the blockbuster book about a woman with 16 personalities. “Sybil” was published in 1973; within four years it had sold more than six million copies in the United States and hundreds of thousands abroad. A television adaptation broadcast in 1976 was seen by a fifth of all Americans. But Sybil’s story was not just gripping reading; it was instrumental in creating a new psychiatric diagnosis: multiple-personality disorder, or M.P.D., known today as dissociative-identity disorder.

Schreiber collaborated on the book with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist who asks, “What about Mama?” — and with Wilbur’s patient, whose name Schreiber changed to Sybil Dorsett. Schreiber worked from records of Sybil’s therapy, including thousands of pages of patient diaries and transcripts of tape-recorded therapy sessions. Before she died in the late 1980s, Schreiber stipulated that the material be archived at a library. For a decade after Schreiber’s death, Sybil’s identity remained unknown. To protect her privacy, librarians sealed her records. In 1998, two researchers discovered that her real name was Shirley Mason. In trying to track her down, they learned that she was dead, and the librarians at John Jay decided to unseal the Schreiber papers.

The same year that her identity was revealed, Robert Rieber, a psychologist at John Jay, presented a paper at the American Psychological Association in which he accused Mason’s doctor of a “fraudulent construction of a multiple personality,” based on tape-recordings that Schreiber had given him. “It is clear from Wilbur’s own words that she was not exploring the truth but rather planting the truth as she wanted it to be,” Rieber wrote.

It wasn’t the first indication that there might be problems with Mason’s diagnosis. As far back as 1994, Herbert Spiegel, an acclaimed psychiatrist and hypnotherapist, began telling reporters that he occasionally treated Shirley Mason when her regular psychiatrist went out of town. During those sessions, Spiegel recalled, Mason asked him if he wanted her to switch to other personalities. When he questioned her about where she got that idea, she told him that her regular doctor wanted her to exhibit alter selves.

And yet, in the popular imagination, Sybil and her fractured self remained powerfully tied to the idea of M.P.D. and the childhood traumas it was said to stem from. “Mamma was a bad mamma,” Wilbur declares in the transcripts. “I can help you remember.” But countless other records suggest that the outrages Sybil recalled never happened. If Sybil wasn’t really remembering, then what exactly was Wilbur helping her to do?

When Mason made her first visit to Dr. Wilbur’s Park Avenue office, in late 1954, it had been nine years since she’d first gone to her for help. At that time, Mason was an art student in the Midwest seeking treatment from Wilbur, a young psychiatrist in Omaha, for blackouts and disturbing behaviors that included disappearing for hours when her parents took her around town on errands. Mason talked to Wilbur about her lifelong ailments — anorexia, nervousness, anemia and feelings of worthlessness — and about growing up as the only child of Seventh-Day Adventists in the small town of Dodge Center, Minn. Oddly, Wilbur also talked about her own life, including her talent for treating hysterics and her interest in people suffering from the strangest type of hysteria of all: multiple personalities. Mason developed a crush on her psychiatrist, who seemed to understand her like no one else. She completed only a handful of psychotherapy sessions, but they gave her the strength she needed to finish college and eventually move to New York. She’d had relapses since, but now her former doctor was in the city! A half-dozen sessions, she thought, might keep her nerves from ever acting up again.

During this second round of treatment, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 October 2013 at 10:04 am

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