Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

A Nation Of Hysterics

Before the ‘70s, hardly anybody knew about multiple personality disorders. Then the movie Sybil aired on NBC and turned the condition into a lightning rod.

In the late ‘50s, the American public’s interest in multiple personalities was revived after the publication of the book The Three Faces of Eve.

Soon, more cases would be documented. Including the case of Shirley Mason, who would later be called Sybil.

Shirley was an intelligent woman with a troubled life. For years, she suffered from blackouts and emotional breakdowns.

So eventually, she met up with a psychiatrist called Cornelia B. Wilbur. And although the two covered much ground, Shirley didn’t make much progress.

That’s when Wilbur lent Shirley a book on multiple personalities.

Then, after several months of therapy, Shirley arrived at Wilbur’s office and introduced herself as Peggy.

Wilbur immediately began an aggressive treatment, where she injected the patient with drugs and put her under hypnosis.

Through this method, Wilbur discovered Shirley had as many as sixteen distinct personalities and discovered the underlying cause of the split: a severely disturbing youth.

Rather than publishing her findings in a scientific journal, Wilbur signed a book deal. 

That book, Sybil, sold more than six million copies. And if you hadn’t read it, you’d have seen the book-inspired movie or miniseries that frequently aired on TV.

Before Sybil, multiple personality disorder was a rare sight—roughly a 100 cases had been reported. The book and subsequent films, however, triggered an epidemic of the diagnosis.

Within a decade, the number of patients diagnosed climbed into the thousands.

The outbreak was so fierce, hospitals were forced to turn entire wings into treatment centers for multiple personality disorder.

Were there really so many undiagnosed people before Sybil? Or did Sybil make people and psychologists aware of a new and intriguing condition?

We find our answer in the ‘90s.

Back then, hundreds of psychiatric patients filed lawsuits against their doctors who wrongly accused them of having multiple personality disorder.

People would go into therapy for depression or anorexia, and come out thinking they had created multiple personalities to deal with the horrors of having been in a satanic cult.

What happened during these therapy sessions?

Psychiatrists would inject their patients with drugs, hypnotize them, and accidentally plant false memories by calling them different names in hopes to unlock repressed memories.

Which is easily done when you’re dealing with a vulnerable person who’s on drugs and put into a suggestive state. 

Today, multiple personality disorder no longer exists as an official diagnosis.

That label gives the impression that you have more than one person living inside you. 

The current label, dissociative identity disorder, implies that you have a fragmented personality. Which is far closer to the underlying condition.

For example, you and I find it natural to behave differently at work than at a party. The person with a dissociative identity disorder, however, has trouble switching between the two modes without seeming like an entirely different person.

Looking back, Sybil was probably not a person with multiple personalities. But a convinced hysteric.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach