Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

3.6 62
by Debbie Nathan

View All Available Formats & Editions

Sybil: a name that conjures up enduring fascination for legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973 and the TV movie based on it—starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward—about a woman named Sybil with sixteen different personalities. Sybil became both a pop phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the psychotherapySee more details below


Sybil: a name that conjures up enduring fascination for legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973 and the TV movie based on it—starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward—about a woman named Sybil with sixteen different personalities. Sybil became both a pop phenomenon and a revolutionary force in the psychotherapy industry. The book rocketed multiple personality disorder (MPD) into public consciousness and played a major role in having the diagnosis added to the psychiatric bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But what do we really know about how Sybil came to be? In her news-breaking book Sybil Exposed, journalist Debbie Nathan gives proof that the allegedly true story was largely fabricated. The actual identity of Sybil (Shirley Mason) has been available for some years, as has the idea that the book might have been exaggerated. But in Sybil Exposed, Nathan reveals what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her ambitious shrink, and the imaginative journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

From horrendously irresponsible therapeutic practices—Sybil’s psychiatrist often brought an electroshock machine to Sybil’s apartment and climbed into bed with her while administering the treatment— to calculated business decisions (under an entity they named Sybil, Inc., the women signed a contract designating a three-way split of profits from the book and its spin-offs, including board games, tee shirts, and dolls), the story Nathan unfurls is full of over-the-top behavior. Sybil’s psychiatrist, driven by undisciplined idealism and galloping professional ambition, subjected the young woman to years of antipsychotics, psychedelics, uppers, and downers, including an untold number of injections with Pentothal, once known as “truth serum” but now widely recognized to provoke fantasies. It was during these “treatments” that Sybil produced rambling, garbled, and probably “false-memory”–based narratives of the hideous child abuse that her psychiatrist said caused her MPD. Sybil Exposed uses investigative journalism to tell a fascinating tale that reads like fiction but is fact. Nathan has followed an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives and passions of these three women. The Sybil archive became available to the public only recently, and Nathan examined all of it and provides proof that the story was an elaborate fraud—albeit one that the perpetrators may have half-believed.

Before Sybil was published, there had been fewer than 200 known cases of MPD; within just a few years after, more than 40,000 people would be diagnosed with it. Set across the twentieth century and rooted in a time when few professional roles were available to women, this is a story of corrosive sexism, unchecked ambition, and shaky theories of psychoanalysis exuberantly and drastically practiced. It is the story of how one modest young woman’s life turned psychiatry on its head and radically changed the course of therapy, and our culture, as well.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Journalist Nathan (Satan’s Silence) has spent much of her career writing about child sex abuse panics and debunking “recovered memory syndromes,” in which adults—aided by over-zealous therapists—suddenly “recalled” episodes of childhood abuse. Here, she tackles one of the most famous of these cases: that of the multiple-personality sufferer known to the world as “Sybil”—the subject of the 1970s bestseller and a TV special starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward (who starred in Three Faces of Eve, an earlier film of multiple personality). In this startling exposé, she examines the records author Flora Rheta Schreiber left with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, detailing Schreiber’s research into the unusual case of the frail, troubled Shirley Mason—the real Sybil. The extensive therapy transcripts reveal that Mason’s psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, may have cued “memories” of horrific childhood abuse during marathon hypnotherapy and electroshock sessions supplemented with mind-altering drugs. Nathan traces the paths of the three women—the patient, the doctor, and the author who publicized the case—who formed “Sybil Incorporated.” Along the way, she reasons that the concept of the multiplicity of selves—and the subsequent popularity of the diagnosis—may have become the perfect idiom of distress for a generation of women who, rocked by the feminist revolution, felt confusion at their new and conflicting roles. Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original," —Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Library Journal
While this book lacks elegant prose, it more than compensates for this shortcoming by its captivating subject and Nathan's (Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt) clever presentation—it is riveting. This book uncovers facets of Sybil's history even more bizarre than her spectacular multiple personalities. Nathan explores the upbringing and early psychological problems of Shirley Mason, who was later memorialized by Flora Schreiber in the best-selling Sybil. In seeking psychiatric treatment, Mason became a lifelong patient of Dr. Connie Wilbur, a psychiatrist who supposedly cured Shirley/Sybil by integrating all 16 disparate personalities. In the end, the confluence of characters—Mason, the ambitious Dr. Wilbur, and the equally ambitious author Schreiber—creates a story even stranger than that of "Sybil" herself, as their interpersonal dynamics hurtle well beyond dysfunctional. VERDICT Excellent for general readers interested in psychiatry, especially those fascinated by Truddi Chase's When Rabbit Howls or, of course, by Sybil herself.—Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Sch. of Law, PA

Read More

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
5 MB

Read an Excerpt


 What about mamma?" the woman psychiatrist asks her patient, another woman, who is lying on a divan in the early 1960s. "What's mamma been doing to you, dear? I know she's given you the enemas," the psychiatrist continues. "And 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 answers groggily. She is in a hypnotic trance, induced with the help of the psychiatrist.


"My mommy said I was bad, and . . . my lips were too big like a nigger's . . . she slapped me . . . with her knuckles . . . she said don't tell Daddy. She said to keep my mouth shut."

"Mommy isn't going to ever hurt you again," the psychiatrist answers. "Do you want to know something,  Sweety? I'm stronger than mother."1


The transcript of this long ago conversation is stored at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City. The college's library houses a cramped room called Special Collections, whose walls are adorned with lithographs of a gangster jumping to his death from a window on Coney Island, and prisoners rotting in cells at Sing  Sing. Not far from the lithographs hangs a black-and-white photograph of John Jay's staff in the 1960s, peopled by over two dozen men and five women. One of the women wears a serious expression and a plain, woolen coat. "Interesting, that coat," comments a librarian. "It's from before she got rich. Afterward, it was nothing but mink for her. Full-length mink."

The woman who got rich was Flora  Rheta Schreiber, author of  Sybil, the blockbuster book from the 1970s about the woman with sixteen personalities.  Sybil first went on sale in 1973, and soon it was moving off the shelves as briskly as the Bible. Within four years it had sold over six million copies in the United States and hundreds of thousands more worldwide. A television adaptation was broadcast in 1976 and seen then by a fifth of the American population. The book is still in print and the TV drama has become a classic. Both versions were instrumental in creating a new psychiatric diagnosis: multiple personality disorder, or MPD. Sybil also created a new way for millions of people—most of them women—to think about their memories, their families, and their capabilities, even when they were psychologically normal, without a hint of MPD.

To create the book which caused this phenomenon, Schreiber collaborated with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist in the transcript who asks, "What about mamma?"—and with Wilbur's patient, whose real name Schreiber changed in her book to the pseudonym Sybil Dorsett. The two women helped Schreiber by giving her records of Sybil's therapy, including thousands of pages of treatment notes, patient diaries, and transcripts of sessions that had been tape-recorded over a period of eleven years.
Schreiber was a pack rat who never threw away a scrap. After she died in the late 1980s, her papers, including the Sybil therapy material, were archived at John Jay.

For a decade after Schreiber's death, Sybil's real name and whereabouts were unknown to the public, and to protect her privacy, librarians sealed her therapy records. But in 1998, two researchers accidentally discovered a piece of paper that revealed her real identity and, following up on that information, they learned that she was dead. The John Jay papers were unsealed, and today researchers can find disturbing conversations in them, such as the hypnotherapy session just cited. Many describe how Sybil's mother perpetrated sexual assaults and other atrocities on her when she was as young as three years old—traumas so horrible that the little girl was said to have pushed them out of her consciousness for decades, until she saw a psychiatrist. "Mamma was a bad mamma," Dr. Wilbur declares in the transcripts. "I can help you remember."

But countless other records suggest that the outrages Sybil recalled never happened at all. Dr. Wilbur had helped her patient do  something, these records suggest, and for a very long period of time. But whatever that behavior was, it can hardly be called remembering. What was it, then? And why did it enthrall not just psychiatrists in charge of creating new diagnoses, but ordinary people all over the world—and especially women?


Is there anyone in America who does not remember what started it all? Just in case, here is the abridged version of  Sybil.

One cold day in winter 1956, a shy and painfully anorexic graduate student in the pre-med department at Columbia University stands outside her chemistry classroom waiting for the elevator. The next thing she knows, she is on a freezing, snow-swept street in a city she doesn't recognize. Eventually she figures out it's Philadelphia, and that between the elevator and the snow five days have passed, days which for the young woman—whose name is Sybil Dorsett—are an utter blank. Sybil catches a train back to New York to see Dr. Wilbur, her steely but superbly kind and caring Park Avenue psychoanalyst. Dr. Wilbur mothers, medicates, and hypnotizes her patient, tirelessly attempting to dredge up memories of the forgotten childhood trauma which she assumes provokes Sybil's flights to other cities.

The Philadelphia trip is not the first time Sybil's mind has shattered. Though she doesn't realize it, she is possessed by so many inner personalities that they need a family tree to keep themselves straight. There are a whimpering toddler, a depressed grandmother, a pair of unruly, prepubescent boys, and two saucy grade school girls named Peggy Lou and Peggy Ann. With unpredictable frequency, these "alters" take turns suppressing Sybil's main personality as they emerge to control her behavior in chilling ways. A young female personality keeps trying to commit suicide—which would, of course, kill Sybil. The toddler cowers under furniture, sobbing with incoherent terror.

This psychic splitting has been going on since Sybil was three, but no one around her realized it, though the little girl's behavior was often
puzzling. In fifth grade she suddenly forgot how to do arithmetic. She doesn't know it, but she forgot her multiplication tables because an alter personality named Peggy Lou took over her body at age nine and attended school in Sybil's place. Then, two grades later, Peggy Lou suddenly vanished, leaving Sybil ignorant of everything her alter had learned.

At the time the book begins, Sybil has no idea she has alters. All she knows is that she dissociates—or "loses time," as she puts it. She ends up in strange places without the slightest idea how she got there. She discovers dresses in her closet that are not her style and which she does not remember buying. She finds herself chatting intimately with people she has no recollection of ever having met.

Dr. Wilbur decides that the cause of this puzzling illness is some terrible thing done to Sybil during childhood, the memory of which she walled off into other personalities so that she would not have to deal with the pain. But what, exactly, happened? That's what, together, they need to figure out so that Sybil can "integrate" her personalities and be whole again. The only way to do that is for Sybil to remember the trauma, and Dr. Wilbur must help.

Dr. Wilbur puts Sybil into drug-induced and hypnotic trances that finally cause her to remember. The trauma she suffered as a young child turns out to have been abuse—barbaric, gothic,  grotesque beyond imagination—inflicted by her psychotic mother, Hattie Dorsett. Hattie once tried to suffocate four-year-old Sybil by locking her into a box filled with grain. Other times, she made her daughter watch as she defecated on neighbors' lawns, held lesbian orgies in the woods with teenagers, and fondled the genitals of babies. If all this weren't enough to destroy a child's psyche, Hattie regularly hung preschooler Sybil by the ankles above a kitchen table, raped her with household utensils, gave her ice-water enemas, and tied her under the piano while banging out crazed versions of Beethoven and Chopin.

Could these nightmare memories, recovered so many years after the crimes supposedly happened, really be true? Yes, says the book—undoubtedly. One chapter has Dr. Wilbur interrogating Sybil's quiet, colorless father about the family's past. Mr. Dorsett admits that his wife—by now long dead—was a "nervous" woman. Hemming and hawing, he allows that Hattie could have tortured her daughter without his or anyone else's noticing.

 Now, decades after the abuse and the psychic splitting, Sybil's only hope for cure is her kindly psychoanalyst. Dr. Wilbur does not disappoint. After eleven years and hundreds of pages of heroic ministrations, she convinces all the alter personalities to integrate into a united self. As Sybil lies on Dr. Wilbur's couch, hypnotized, the babies, little boys, and teenagers all grow into adults within minutes, and they dutifully fold back into Sybil's consciousness, promising never to "come out" again. The grown-up alters make a similar pact. Sybil's broken mind is mended; she vanquishes the hell of her mother's mistreatment and finally becomes a whole person. End of story. Except that after the integration, Dr. Wilbur introduces Sybil to New York City writer Flora  Rheta  Schrieber. The three women decide to write a book together, the better to help others cope with their mental health problems.


When  Sybil first came out, fewer than two hundred people worldwide had ever been identified with conditions that today would be labeled multiple personalities. They were so rare that they were considered medical curiosities, like Siamese twins and giants. Most sufferers possessed only one or two alter selves, and no one knew what had caused the splitting. Bad experiences could have induced it. But among those experiences, severe child abuse was never mentioned by the patients or their doctors. Instead, by the early twentieth century, people who exhibited dual consciousness were thought to be suffering from repressed sexual urges, which they denied by imagining that those desires belonged to other selves. Such people were diagnosed as hysterics.

Sybil was something completely new. Her history of sadistic incest and her enormous number of alter personalities made her brand of multiplicity unprecedented. After a tiny fraternity of psychiatrists became fascinated with the condition and started hunting for new cases, that brand turned into an epidemic. In 1980, multiple personality disorder was listed as an official psychiatric illness. Soon, mental health practitioners in America were diagnosing thousands of cases a year.

Almost all were female, and when they first entered therapy most had no alter personalities that they knew of. Nor did they remember being raped and brutalized as children. But during MPD treatment they developed just as many alter personalities, and just as many horrific abuse memories, as Sybil had—if not many more.

Many of these patients began filing lawsuits against their parents for having hurt them so terribly. They went on television talk shows to discuss their suffering, and celebrities joined the fray. Every MPD story unleashed more cases and claims of abuse.

Then a new group of patients surfaced, complaining they'd been wrongly diagnosed and suing their therapists for malpractice. In tandem with these lawsuits, thousands of hurt and angry parents said they were being falsely accused by adult children in therapy. Some brought suits against the therapists.

As a result of this backlash, which crested in the early 1990s, the media did a 180-degree turn from their former credulity about MPD. "Is it real or is it fake?" became the new question. Were the patients, and the therapists who treated them, honest and inspiring? Or were they liars and hustlers?

Some commentators, mostly scholars, tried to square the circle of these questions. It clarified nothing, they said, to argue about whether MPD was real or a hoax. A more useful way of understanding the phenomenon was to recognize that the feeling of being inhabited by other selves has very deep roots in our culture and history. Look at the Middle Ages, they pointed out. Many Catholics then complained of being possessed by Satan; Jews, meanwhile, suffered from invasion by  dybbuks. Prayers and exorcism were the treatment then. And now, for people convinced they harbored alter personalities, the cure was supposed to be psychotherapy.

Scholars also pointed out that everyone is prone to "dissociate," to focus so much attention on one event or idea that everything else falls by the wayside, unseen, unheard, unremembered. Think of what happens while watching a really good movie. You are aware of nothing around you, least of all the other people in the theater. Think of "highway hypnosis," driving a habitual route and arriving at your destination without remembering that you exited from the interstate. That is dissociation. It is common and perfectly normal.

But some individuals experience a far more intense kind of dissociation, focusing on one thing so intently that they behave as though in a trance, spending long periods doing and saying things they often don't remember later. In many cultures, people are thought to be visited by benevolent or evil spirits when they display these behaviors. Anthropologists have a term for them: "idioms of distress."  Idioms, because trance behavior is considered to be a kind of language. Distress, because what's being communicated, albeit in a masked way, is feelings of pain. The pain may be emotional or it may be physical. Either way, sick people feel possessed because possession states are their society's idiom of distress.

But how, in modern America, could an educated person in distress come to feel she was possessed? How could Sybil have learned to feel and act as though she had multiple selves, when no one else in her world was doing this? An explanation was provided in the early 1990s by a prominent, elderly psychiatrist who had known Dr. Wilbur years earlier and had sometimes treated Sybil when Wilbur was out of town. The old doctor remembered Wilbur telling him that she wanted to write a book about multiple personality disorder. He also remembered Sybil mentioning to him that Wilbur wanted her to act as though she had different selves inside her. He speculated that Wilbur—who had once boasted to her patient that she was "stronger than Mother"—had pressured and coaxed Sybil to develop alter personalities.

In light of this accusation, even more questions arose. What had gotten Dr. Wilbur, herself, so interested in the idea of multiple personalities? And if  Sybil—the basis for the modern MPD diagnosis—was a product of therapist suggestion, what about all those tens of thousands of patients who had walked into the offices of other mental health practitioners and walked out thinking they had several beings living inside them? And what about all of us book readers and TV watchers? Why had we found the Sybil story so credible?


I remember when  Sybil first came out. I was in my early twenties, and my girlfriends and I wondered if multiple personalities could invade us. "Could you, like, just be walking around minding your business?" we would ask each other. "And all of a sudden five days have passed and it turns out that different people were inside you the whole time? People who act devil-may-care when you're usually shy and cautious, who tell jerks to go to hell though you were raised to be polite, who converse in foreign languages that you never learned well—even people who are men instead of women? Could this actually happen?"   The prospect was terrifying—and irresistible.

In the early 1990s, I was a journalist writing about child-sex-abuse panics: day care teachers falsely accused of molesting preschoolers, and women in therapy recovering memories of tortures too bizarre ever to have happened. I thought about Sybil again, of course. I wondered what her real story was.

Almost twenty years after that, I finally got a chance to find out. In 2008, while browsing on the internet, I was surprised to learn that  Sybil author Schreiber's papers were archived at John Jay College, a quick subway ride from where I live in Manhattan. I also learned that the papers are open for public inspection, and I made an appointment to take a quick look.

What I found was shocking but utterly absorbing. The papers revealed that Sybil's sixteen personalities had not popped up spontaneously but were provoked over many years of rogue treatment that violated practically every ethical standard of practice for mental health practitioners.

Dr. Wilbur had approached Sybil's health problems with a predetermined diagnosis that brooked no alternative explanations. In her therapy she had made extravagant, sadistic use of habit-forming, mind-bending drugs. And she had treated the patient day and night, on weekdays and weekends, inside her office and outside, making house calls and even taking Sybil with her to social events and on vacations. She fed Sybil, gave her money, and paid her rent. After years of this behavior, the archives revealed, the two women developed a slavish mutual dependency upon each other. Toward the end of their lives they ended up living together.

I also learned that I was not the first researcher to examine the incriminating papers. A professor of comparative literature on the West Coast had teamed up with an assistant and visited John Jay almost a decade before I laid eyes on the material. Afterward he had written several pages about the archives in a book criticizing psychoanalysis. But he'd written in French, and the book was published in Paris. Practically nobody in America read it.

And even if they had been able to, the French book offered little insight into larger questions that were beginning to fascinate me. Why, for instance, when  Sybil was first published, had so many millions of people like myself, most of us young and female, so fervidly embraced as truth a story whose mythic qualities should have immediately made us skeptical? How had we been so naïve?

 The answer, I realized as I read more files, lay in the lives of the women who had created Sybil: not just the patient, but the psychoanalyst and the author. They were my mother's and grandmothers' ages, from earlier generations than mine. Yet I suspected that the frustrations they'd endured as ambitious women in a  prefeminist age, and the struggles they'd mounted regardless, had infused the Sybil story with a weird yet potent appeal for young women like myself who were being whipped back and forth by new ambitions and anxieties. To understand myself and my friends, I wanted to know more about the three pioneers: Dr. Wilbur, Flora Schreiber, and Sybil.

All were long dead, but I began using census and other historical records to reconstruct their childhoods, young adulthoods, and experiences as professional women in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and beyond. I tracked down relatives, friends, and colleagues who were still alive. I interviewed these people by phone and traveled through North America for face-to-face meetings. Periodically, I took my notes and returned to John Jay. Comparing the archival material to what I'd found outside the library yielded new insights and lines of inquiry.

All this work deepened my sense that  Sybil was as much about the conflict between women's highest hopes and deepest fears as it was about a medical diagnosis. Women during the later decades of the twentieth century were aflame, not just with analyses of sexism but also with a great yearning for the freedom to play new roles in life. Taking jobs once held only by men yet going home at night and still being saddled with housework. Postponing childbirth or avoiding it altogether but being told that the goal was still motherhood. Exploring sex outside of marriage (including with women), but worrying about being "sluts." These dilemmas were so new and so acute in the 1970s—the decade when  Sybil came out—that sometimes young women felt as though alien inner beings were doing their behaving, and not the women themselves. The idea of "multiple personalities" seemed not so strange an idea.

Seeking psychotherapy was not strange, either, even for people deeply critical of the idea that marrying and having babies was the only way to be normal, especially for women. Officially, American psychoanalysis had pushed that notion for years. Unofficially, many therapists had more enlightened ideas. In the 1950s, one of them encouraged budding poet Allen Ginsberg to explore and celebrate his homosexuality. In her book  The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan quoted a psychiatrist reminiscing about a woman patient who was having dreams about being a teacher. Her real problem, the doctor realized, was not penis envy but the fact "that it was not enough for her to be just a housewife and mother." He encouraged her to become a teacher.

Dr. Cornelia Wilbur had always thought that she, too, was helping her female patients, my research revealed. She unfailingly pushed them to follow their dreams, even though the therapy she used on them was bizarre, requiring as it did that they become multiple personalities in order to receive her care. That was a stringent demand from a doctor. But Dr. Wilbur saw herself as a nurturer. She was a maternal figure writ large, and in the 1970s, when young women were rebelling against the conservatism of their own families, the Sybil story gave them a symbolic, modern mother.

Flora Schreiber, the author of the story, never seemed motherly. But she, too, perceived the heroine of her book as a woman in flux, moving from the backwardness of rural life and religiosity to the independence and reason of New York City. Like Cornelia Wilbur, Flora struggled to do transformative work during a time when women's efforts to change the world were still laughed at.  Sybil was her attempt to do serious nonfiction—even though, in order to be taken seriously, she resorted to making up "facts."

Then there was Sybil herself. Even if she'd never been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder or horrific child abuse, my research revealed, she still would have struggled terribly in life. She would have fought to escape a milieu that discouraged her artistic abilities. She would have felt sad, angry, anxious, and confused about who she was. She might have made art that expressed these feelings, art that could have reached a high degree of professionalism if she had spent her time perfecting her drawing and painting skills rather than languishing for years in psychotherapy.

With competent medical care, she might also have learned a physical cause of her troubles,  then received effective treatment instead of broadcasting the pain in her mind and body through the "idiom of distress" of MPD.

But none of that happened. Instead, the woman who became Sybil fell in with a psychiatrist and a journalist, and the three saw their project, a  pathbreaking book about female mental suffering, burst upon the world with perfect timing. They were a blessed sisterhood.

This being America, however, they were also a business, and in one box of Schreiber's archives at John Jay College I found the records of their enterprise. They named it Sybil Incorporated, and the contract they signed designated a three-way split of all profits and spin-offs from their book, including  Sybil movies,  Sybil board games,  Sybil tee shirts,  Sybil dolls, and a  Sybil musical.

On paper Sybil Incorporated looked industrious and optimistic. But in the real world it was conflicted and Faustian. The three parties made money and for a while changed the course of psychiatry. But to do so, one had to give up her friends and become a recluse. Another lost control of her success and ran through her fortune and reputation. A third used her medical credentials to aggressively promote a diagnosis that, ultimately, hurt women far more than it helped them, defining their conflicts as pathological, curable not by living more actively in the world, but by taking to their beds and swooning with trance and medicine.

How was it that the three women did not foresee the risks? Why had an otherwise reputable psychiatrist helped to concoct sixteen alter personalities in a patient? What made a seasoned journalist charge ahead with her writing even as she realized that the story she was crafting contained more falsehoods than truth?

And what about Sybil? How, exactly, did she take on that parade of personalities? If she used them to speak an idiom of distress, what, exactly, was she trying to  say? After the best- sellerdom and the Emmy-winning movie and the glitz and brouhaha, did it bother her that no one knew her true identity? What kind of emotional shape would she have to have been in that she would go along with anything a doctor and a journalist cooked up for her? Did she understand the full implications of what they were cooking? How did she help stir the pot?

 Sybil affected millions of readers, thousands of psychotherapists, and the tens of thousands of people they diagnosed. It spurred the writing of hundreds of articles and scores of medical texts, and resulted in dozens of movie, television, and book spin-offs. The three women behind this amazing proliferation each had a life and a self full of conflict.

What follows is a cautionary exposé of their—and our—grand and disordered multiplicity.

Part I


Chapter 1



any years later, the world would come to know her as Sybil. But in 1933, the little girl with the colored pencils in her hand was simply Shirley  Ardell Mason, a sensitive and confused fifth grader in the tiny town of Dodge Center, Minnesota. She was quiet and slender back then, with crisp clothes, dark hair trimmed in a Dutch-boy bob, and skin so milky that the veins stood blue on her forearms. She had no brothers or sisters so she spent hours alone, playing with baby dolls and paper dolls. In her bedroom she tended an enormous collection of large matchboxes, ordered precisely in stacks. Sheets of paper lay on the floor, and she drew chickens on them in crayon and painted rabbits in water colors. To all who knew her, she seemed like a pleasant, well behaved girl. But young Shirley felt like a hopeless sinner.

 She was a sinner because she loved to pretend, and pretending was the work of the Devil. It was forbidden by her family's fundamentalist religion, which also banned the novels and short stories that Shirley loved to read and write. Art done in strange colors was evil, too, yet she adored making her chickens purple and her rabbits green. Her mother warned her to use yellow for her chickens and to stop inventing phantom playmates. To do otherwise was an affront to God, Mrs. Mason said. Hearing this, Shirley's eyes grew wide. She squeezed them shut in church and prayed for strength to abandon her wayward imaginings. But God did not answer. He left her struggling with her stories, her art, and her sin.


Shirley's  family were Seventh-Day Adventists. As the religion's name implies, members mark the  Lord's day of rest not on Sunday, the first day of the week, but on the last one, Saturday. When Shirley was a child, Adventists met all day on Saturday and prayed. During Shirley's youth in the 1920s and 1930s about a hundred thousand members of the denomination lived in the United States and four dozen resided in the Dodge Center area. The whole town had eight hundred people.1

Dodge Center back then was a muddy depot for southeastern Minnesota farmers shipping their crops to the city. It was like thousands of other towns in the Midwest: Each burg had a raggedy main street, usually named Main Street. Each had a dairy cooperative, a grocery or two, a gas station, and a clothing store. Each was filled with churches, church ladies, church gossip, Masonic orders, tea parties, ministers, and young people buying railroad tickets to St. Paul, Chicago, and New York: one way only, please. Barely two generations had passed since the founding of these toiling, pious towns. Already the youth wanted out.

Shirley's grandfather, Neill Mason, was an Adventist, and so was his mother—which made the Mason family pioneering members of this mystic, all-American faith. Adventism goes back to a barely educated farmer named William Miller, a devout Baptist who lived in upstate New York in the 1820s. He had a passion for arithmetic, and as a young man he began to study the numbers in the Bible. These sacred figures, he felt, could predict God's plan for the future.

Miller found a sentence in   Daniel  : "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed."

Miller decided that "the sanctuary" actually meant the world. He changed 2,300 days to 2,300 years. He reckoned further and finally landed on 458 B.C., when King  Artaxerxes of Persia approved the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Miller subtracted 458 from 2300, adjusted for the modern calendar, and determined the year Jesus Christ would make his Second Coming to earth, resulting in the Apocalypse.

That year was 1843.

Miller began spreading his End Time prediction to the Protestants of the northeastern United States. He held meetings with the young farmers and shopkeepers who had streamed west from New England after the American Revolution, in search of land to be gotten from driving out the Indians. To the frontier these newcomers brought religion that turned enthusiastic, even ecstatic during mass revivals where thousands of people fell down together, writhing and singing to the glory of God. Their excitement made it feel as though anything was possible, not just in the everyday world of America, which was moving toward perfection, but also in the firmament of Heaven. Time would cease when Salvation came, they believed, but until that happened, it was imperative for the devout to fix their minds on Time. Those who neglected to do so, by distracting themselves with mundane things and fantasy, would never enter Heaven.

 When William Miller first foretold that the world would end in 1843, believers left their crops  unharvested, closed their businesses, and quit their jobs. But 1843 turned into 1844. Disillusioned, many  Millerites left the fold, but others pressed on, doing more  math and fixing new dates. By summer 1844 they had settled on October 22. That day dawned and they climbed hills together, wide-eyed and trembling to await Heaven's parting. When Heaven stayed closed they wept piteously. This non-event would go down in American religious history as The Great Disappointment.

Miller's disappointed spent weeks trying to understand what had gone wrong. Then, Ellen Harmon, a sad-faced teenaged girl from Maine, received a divine answer.

For years Ellen had been a sickly but highly devout girl. By late adolescence she had become an excited  Millerite, given to entering trances and communicating with God. One day in December 1844, just weeks after the Great Disappointment, Ellen bent low in fervent prayer. Suddenly she felt bathed in light, and she saw "Advent people" in the sky, traveling on a path toward Heaven. The Lord told her the  Millerites had not mistaken the date of the Coming—they'd only misinterpreted it. Jesus really had descended on October 22. But instead of coming all the way down, he had stopped off in a "sanctuary" of heaven. He planned to stay there a while before proceeding to earth.

When He finally came, God told Ellen, the Savior would fashion a New Jerusalem, a paradise. First, though, God and Christ would deal with the wicked—with people who had sinned and defiled their minds. Along with Lucifer, they would be incinerated in a vast, lava-filled lake, boiling with fire and brimstone.

When would this holy cataclysm occur? No one knew exactly. Still Christ  would come soon. The faithful must remain devoted and focused on time and not get distracted with the glitter of Satan's fiction and make-believe.

After Ellen developed her theology she married a man named White and took his last name. As Mrs. Ellen G. White, she became the leader of a new religious movement. It adopted Saturday as the Sabbath and called itself Seventh-Day Adventism.2


Shirley felt bad about her make-believe art. But at least she was painting chickens, and even if she used impossible colors, chickens were real. The stories she made up, though, were not. Jesus was the Son of God and he walked by the side of Christians, but imaginary mortals, like her friends Vicky and Sam, walked nowhere except through a falsifying mind that should be thinking about God's truth instead of characters forged from fancy. No  doubt about it, Shirley's stories were fictions. They were displeasing to the Lord and they might evict her from the grace of eternal life. How could she save herself?

She got an idea. She would do writing that wasn't really writing. And she would do it in secret.

Genuine writing required a pencil or pen, but there were other ways to fashion words. All Shirley needed were her parents' old magazines, her paper dolls, and her matchboxes. Her father, Walter, was away from home all day working. Her mother, Mattie, ran errands. The maid went to the grocery and the boarders left for their jobs. Shirley took advantage of her solitude by spending hours cutting single letters from the magazines. She  scissored hundreds of A's, B's, C's, D's, F's—all the way to the end of the alphabet. She snipped words, too, like a kidnapper preparing a ransom note. She stuffed the clippings into her matchboxes and covered them with paper dolls. She labeled the boxes with dolls' names—Anna or Alice or Arlene for the letter A and words starting with A; Barbara or Bonnie for B; Peggy Ann for P; and so on and on, to fool the adults into thinking the names on her boxes stood for dolls' names, not letters and words for writing fiction.

When Mattie and the others left, Shirley dumped out the matchboxes. Lining up letters on the floor, she formed long, snaking stories about the exploits of her imaginary friends, Vicky and Sam. At the first sound of footsteps, she collapsed the snakes and crammed the print back in the matchboxes under the paper dolls, to be sorted and used another time in different stories.

Then she sat dreamily in the sun, on the porch steps of the Masons' house. On good days she glowed with pleasure at how she'd created her fictions on the sly, without even writing. On bad days, she knew the angels had seen her even if Mattie and Walter hadn't. When the Second Coming arrived and all the righteous Adventists ascended heavenward, she would be one of the bad ones left behind, burning to ash in the Holocaust flames of His reckoning against the sinful.3


In Dodge Center, the Adventists had a small, white building with rude chairs and walls so bare that not even a cross was hung. Neill Mason had started attending services when he was in his thirties, with his wife, Mary. Their son, Walter—Shirley's father—had taken baptism as a teenager in the 1890s.

The Masons did not go to church just on Saturdays. They also attended "testimonies" on Wednesday nights, where the faithful confessed their latest sins and recounted recent miracles. (As one elderly Adventist from the rural Midwest remembered recently, testimonies consisted of statements such as: "I was working on my combine and lost the header bar, then I knelt down and prayed to Jesus and found it." "Praise God!" the congregation would shout. "Isn't Jesus wonderful?")4 In addition to attending church, Adventists regularly traveled to camp meetings where hundreds of families lived in tents and listened to preaching in the open air. Neill became an aggressive Adventist proselytizer. He ranted to his Methodist and Baptist neighbors about the coming time of trouble such as the world had never seen before. Throughout America, he proclaimed heatedly, Protestants and Papists were conspiring to make people work on Saturday. This conspiracy was part of the run-up to a series of plagues that would precede the Second Coming. Before the plagues poured down, God would smite the bad people.


Walter Mason had not always been so passionately devout. At one time, he had rebelled completely against Adventism. As a young man he'd spent one year at a denominational college, but his father had insisted the Second Coming was imminent, so Walter dropped out at age nineteen to prepare himself. The Coming did not come. Disappointed with his religion and his father, he left the church.

When he was twenty-six he met Mattie Atkinson. She was a year older and lived in another farming community, Emmetsburg, Iowa. Mattie's family was Methodist and had minimal interest in the End Time or the perils of fiction.

Mattie was slender, with an aquiline nose and hair she pulled back tight to show off a delicate face. She had a good education for a small-town girl: at seventeen she was still in school, and she'd used her years of study to memorize "Evangeline," "The Village Blacksmith," and dozens of other poems. She was flamboyant, moving in a flurry and rushing from room to room. Sometimes she talked loudly, and her laugh came out shrill, like a cackle. She loved reciting verses and occasionally, in a driven mood, she repeated a word from someone's conversation then rattled off syllables that rhymed with that word. Mattie was nice, people thought.  A little strange, but nice.

When she met Walter he was tall and wiry, with a full head of hair, a thoughtful face, and a quiet voice. The couple married in 1910 and Walter became an architect and a contractor in Dodge Center. By the 1920s the Masons were one of the little town's most respected couples. They lived in a small but handsome two-story wooden house that Walter had designed himself in the middle of town, just across the alley in back of Main Street. The house boasted built-in cabinets and a room off the dining room with a deck of windows facing south. Beneath the windows was a built-in bench for sitting and basking in the natural light. In the bleakness of Minnesota winters, the sunroom was magical.

Mattie wanted children but kept miscarrying. She had health problems: her hips hurt, she tired easily, she sometimes got nauseated and lost weight, her body twitched, and she felt nervous. The brand new Mayo Clinic was fifteen miles east of Dodge Center, and in 1912 Mattie went there to find out what was wrong. A doctor diagnosed cardiac damage from the rheumatic fever she'd had as a child. The old illness caused the hip pains and body spasms, the doctor said. But Mattie had two additional problems, he concluded: anemia and asthenia. The second term was synonymous with neurasthenia, a word also applied to people in the early twentieth century who felt tired, discouraged, and anxious. Asthenia was supposed to come from overworked nerves. Though not as serious as hysteria, it was thought to be related. Mattie worried that her bad health would keep her from becoming a mother. She longed for sons and daughters to fill the house and the cheery sunroom.5

In 1923, when she was almost forty—old enough to be a grandmother, and with hair that was prematurely and strikingly white—one of Mattie's pregnancies finally went to term. Shirley was born in January. She was a small baby, just under six pounds, but lively and healthy. Mattie should have felt overjoyed, but instead she fell into a severe, postpartum depression. Grandmother Mason and women hired by Walter cared for Shirley for four months until Mattie rallied.6

She began thinking she should convert to Seventh-Day Adventism. Walter had returned to the church four years earlier, but Mattie, still a Methodist, had resisted joining. For the three years that followed her birth, Shirley was the child of a mother and father who were "unequally yoked"—the Adventists' derisive term for a couple in which one spouse was not a member of the faith. But when Mattie finally took baptism as an Adventist, the Masons started putting things right. Walter became active in church affairs and Mattie joined the women's group. She tried to become devout.7


The Masons started sending Shirley to Sabbath School. About a dozen boys and girls attended each Saturday morning. Back at home after church, Walter and Mattie probably also took out  Bible Readings for the Home Circle, a popular book among Adventists in the 1920s. It featured Bible verses, followed by questions that parents and children were supposed to answer together. "And I stood upon the sand of the sea," went one verse, "and saw a beast rise up out of the sea. Having seven heads and ten horns. And upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the names of blasphemy."

Family members of all ages took turns answering the questions which followed these frightening readings—questions about the hated Catholic church, which celebrated Sabbath on Sunday, and about the end of the world. Shirley had trouble concentrating. She fussed and squirmed until Mattie scolded her with "Land sakes!" and "Stand still!" To relax, Shirley emptied her head of beasts and horns. In their place she conjured tales based on stories in Adventist children's books—stories their authors swore were true, about mischievous kitty cats and winsome little girls and boys who often misbehaved but were usually forgiven by Jesus. Soon imaginary friends started visiting Shirley—Vicky, whose family was Catholic but gentle and honest, and little Sam, whose name came from Shirley's initials: S.A.M. Immersed in fantasies, she forgot the long, grim hours of her family's day of rest.8

While still in her fantasy world, she often heard scolding outside. It came from Mattie, who was angry that Shirley had just done or said something objectionable. Shirley came to, unable to remember doing anything wrong. "I did   not  !" she would protest, and Mattie grew angrier. "I stood right there and heard you, young lady!" she would yell, and warn Shirley about "talking back to your mother like that." Shirley would slink off, confused and angry. Her parents would laugh at her "pouting."9


In the bleak little Adventist meeting house, fights would break out about who was devout and who was reprobate. Someone yelled once at Shirley's grandmother Mary for not being sufficiently faithful. Mrs. White taught that even Adventists would be barred from Heaven unless they scrupulously controlled their bodies and their baser instincts. Sex was strictly for procreation, and even married couples should indulge only moderately. Masturbation—the "solitary vice" and "secret vice," Mrs. White called it—was a horrible sin for boys and men, worse than fiction reading. For women and girls it was virtually unforgiveable.10

To keep sex temptation at bay, Adventists followed a radical, vegetarian diet related to the health reform movement, which was tremendously popular in America in the nineteenth century, among many groups besides Adventists. The people who developed the menu included Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who obsessively feared masturbation and excessive sex. Graham blamed this degenerate behavior on meat, gravy, butter, jam, eggs, pastry, white bread, coffee, pepper, tobacco, tea, beer, and liquor. These substances inflamed the nerves and the genitals, he believed, and he invented a flat biscuit to replace the offending foods. He named it the graham cracker.

Adventists came up with other products: peanut butter, soy milk, Granola, and Kellogg's corn flakes, invented by John Harvey Kellogg, who was raised in an Adventist family. Today's widely available veggie burgers from companies such as Worthington, Loma Linda, and Morningstar Farms also have an Adventist legacy.

As part of the health reform movement, Americans during the nineteenth century also gave themselves "internal baths"—known nowadays as enemas. Many believed constipation caused sexual excitement in males and nymphomania in females. John Harvey Kellogg gave himself several enemas a day, and by the early twentieth century, Americans of all classes and faiths were enthusiastically flushing their bowels, even giving enemas to their children. Mattie had an enema bag hanging over her shower in Dodge Center that she probably used on Shirley.11


Mattie tried to be a good wife, mother, and member of the community. Usually she functioned quite well. With extraordinary energy she did volunteer work for the church, collecting money for missionary work and taking minutes at meetings of the women's society. She made house calls to the  town's less fortunate. She yelled greetings to people on the street and laughed her odd laugh. Following the recipes in Adventist cookbooks, she kneaded dough from wheat flour, then washed and washed it until the starch was rinsed out, leaving a wad of glutinous plant protein. She mixed the gluten with ground peanuts and tomato sauce, pressed it into tin cans, baked it, and sliced it into rounds of substitute meat.

But then she would slow down and turn worried, snappish, and distant, confusing her daughter terribly. After weeks of laughing with Shirley and playing dolls with her, she would ignore her, or worse, call her names. Mattie labeled her moods "the blues." Sometimes they got so bad that she would sit motionless in a chair for hours.

Mattie got the blues in 1927, after she miscarried a male fetus. It was so well developed that she and Walter named it Willard before they buried it.12 If losing the baby was not upsetting enough, the Masons had to move five miles out of town that year, to a piece of farmland they owned. The only habitable building was a one-room structure originally intended as a chicken house. The move apparently was made because of bank failures in the Dodge Center area, which wiped out Walter's capital, and because of Walter's lackadaisical business sense even when times were good. He would buy lumber and cement on credit, then build barns and houses in spring and summer without yet being paid by his clients. He would wait till fall to collect, when the farmers got their crops in. But if the harvest turned out badly, he was in trouble.

It seems that Walter had problems with creditors, and to hide from them he moved his family to the chicken house. Mattie was devastated. Her home in Dodge Center boasted a piano in the parlor, heirloom china in polished cabinets, and light streaming through the sunroom. The chicken house had none of these luxuries, and Mattie got the blues so bad that she spent days barely moving.

 The Masons left the farm in spring 1928 to enroll Shirley in kindergarten. The Adventists had their own school, which all their children were supposed to attend, to protect them from what the Adventists called the "polluting, corrupting" influence of secular education. Virtually all parents supported the denominational facility, but not the Masons: For reasons unknown, they chose public school for Shirley. They may have felt they could not afford the church's modest tuition. More likely, they were venting their own conflicts about Seventh-Day Adventism through their daughter.13

Shirley's matriculation took the Masons out of the chicken house and back to town, where Mattie had not only her nice furnishings but also her women's magazines. She had subscriptions to  Ladies' Home Journal and  Good Housekeeping. The magazines' lavishly illustrated pages celebrated the latest in home appliances, interior decorating, and the season's hats from Paris and New York. And there was more. They carried short fiction with seductive teasers on the cover: "Another Glamorous Story of the Theater by Booth Tarkington," "A New Hollywood Series by Frederick Collins." These stories, with their focus on actresses, vanity, and romance, were poison for Adventists.14 Mattie knew the faith's warnings about such material but could not help loving it. She read even on Saturday and tried to keep her habit under wraps.

Shirley knew, and she had her own secrets. On Saturdays she stared at her paper dolls, wondering: Is it OK to dress them on the Sabbath ?15 She certainly couldn't ask, especially not on the sacred day of the week. So she only  thought about doll clothes. But angels could read minds. According to Adventist theology, they took information about people's bad ideas to Heaven, where—as one of Shirley's children's storybooks warned—they jotted the information into a holy record book. Shirley squirmed.

She felt bad about other things, including Mary Mason, her paternal grandmother. Mary was an easygoing, affectionate woman who had helped care for Shirley when she was a baby but suffered a stroke when her granddaughter was four, and by then also had cancer of the cervix. Grandma Mary sometimes lived on the second floor of the Mason house with Grandpa Neill. Her room was filled with fascinating objects: paintings she had done on panes of glass; little pots she'd helped Shirley pinch from clay dug out of the riverbank; big, farm-supply-store calendars with paintings of cows. But as the cancer worsened, Mattie began timing Shirley's visits to conserve her mother-in-law's ebbing strength. She seldom allowed Shirley's to stay upstairs for more than half  an hour.16

After Grandma Mary died in 1931, Shirley stopped eating and lost weight. The third grader appeared distracted in class. When the teacher called on her, she sometimes seemed in a daze. Her teachers noticed but hardly intervened. As children they, too, had seen death, and adults seldom asked them how it felt. Shirley had no brothers or sisters, and experts had been warning teachers for decades that children with no siblings were peculiar: they tended to social awkwardness and they played with imaginary companions. As one psychologist put it, being an only child was a "disease in itself." And Shirley was mollycoddled by her parents, the teachers thought. Her mother held her hand and walked her to school every day, even though school was just across the street from home. Leave it to the  Masons, the teachers huffed, to aggravate Shirley's "disease" of only childhood.17

Her parents did dote on her. Walter was a man who rarely talked, but like his daughter, he was gentle and artistic. Shirley loved how he taught her to use hammers and saws, and how in the dead of Minnesota winter, he dressed her in little boys' overalls for warmth and called her Mike. When Mattie didn't have the blues she and Shirley often played games. Mattie had not outgrown her own childhood love for dolls, and she often compared her daughter to them. "Oh you're so cute, Peggy Ann," she would say to Shirley, laughingly referring to a very popular fourteen-inch girl with a winsome face and molded Dutch-boy hair topped with a bow. Delighted, Shirley would laugh back.

 During her periods of "nervous" energy, Mattie loved to mimic people in town. She could do a perfect rendition of distant cousin Grace Sorenson, who attended the Adventist church. She could parrot the squawks of demanding customers on Main Street and the long-suffering sighs of the salesclerks. Shirley imitated her mother's imitations. "That's not very nice!" Walter would protest. But he laughed anyway. Copycatting people's voices was great fun, and Shirley had picked up her mother's gift for it.

Then Mattie would get the blues. In the living room she would obsessively polish her cut glass and  Haviland dishware, turning the pieces over and over, murmuring about their beauty. When Shirley interrupted to play the Peggy game, Mattie kept talking about dishes.

"Look at the cat!" Shirley would implore, and Mattie would snap. "I can't look at the cat. I've got work to do. Who do you think would get things done and meals ready on time if I stood around looking at the cat?" Shirley would feel enraged, with an overwhelming urge to smash her mother's glassware. But she stayed quiet and docile. For Adventists it was a sin to be angry.18

Shirley had few friends, but there was one boy she adored—Bobby Moulton. Skinny and  snaggletoothed, Bobby was pitied by other children because his mother was ill and he had to push his baby sister's stroller through the neighborhood. But he and Shirley were kindred spirits in creativity. At age eight Bobby was tap dancing professionally. He loved dolls and doll clothes, and could sew costumes for Shirley's  Peggys and Peggy  Anns. He made little playhouses out of wood and cardboard, and recruited Shirley's dolls to stage Shakespearean dramas in the sunroom.

And there was a pretty little girl named Anita Weeks, who was almost three years younger than Shirley. She was the only other Adventist in public school besides Shirley, and the two girls saw each other in church.19


The Second Coming seemed nigh to the congregation after the stock market crashed in October 1929. Walter lost his contracting business then and felt lucky to have an $18.50-a-week job as a hardware store clerk on Main Street. Not long after, the Dust Bowl blew out of the Dakotas, blackening the Minnesota sky even by day. Soon the countryside was withered with drought.

Desperate to make ends meet, Mattie took in a $12-a-week boarder, an elderly man from church who was so sick that he needed her help eating and using the toilet. He died in 1935. So did Walter's father, Neill, who had spent his final years rejoicing in international financial collapse and its prophetic relationship to the End Time. After his death Mattie accepted more boarders. The Masons, once one of Dodge Center's "best" families, were financially strapped and practically running a hotel.

Things had gotten so bad that Walter stopped tithing to his church—a major travesty for Adventists. And Shirley was still kept from Adventist schooling. After local Adventist children completed their grade-school studies in town, they graduated to a boarding academy over a hundred miles away and only came back to Dodge Center on weekends. Shirley's parents did not want her to join them. The plan was for her to receive twelve years of secular education in Dodge Center.20 That decision was hard on Shirley, and as the years went by she developed severe problems at school and at home.

She moped about how Adventism was separating her from her classmates. Her faith absented her from the Sunday schools that everyone talked about, and it kept her from birthday parties on Friday nights or Saturdays. Even at festivities held on other days, she couldn't dance or play checkers or cards. Because Adventism banned pork, she had to skip after-school wienie roasts—important social occasions for the town's young people. The other kids knew about her strict diet and the fake, vegetarian "meat." "Cow food," they taunted, and called Shirley the "White Jew."

She was angry with her religion but fearful about her ire and worried that her hostility was Satan's work. She tried to broach her concerns to her father. But Walter, a man of few words and a workaholic, never wanted to talk about anything, much less religion.

Her mother made things worse. If Shirley came home from school looking sad, Mattie would quiz her insistently until Shirley confessed about an invitation she'd had to turn down because of Adventist Saturday. Mattie would blow up. "They could have had the party another day!" she would rage. "They knew you couldn't do this. So why did they even ask you?" Then her tone would grow softer, tender. "We'll do something nice," she would tell Shirley. "Just you and Mamma. Mamma loves you. You and Mamma don't care what the kids do. They don't count, anyhow." And she would take Shirley to Main Street to buy a new doll for her ever expanding collection. Shirley craved Mattie's affection. But accepting it meant separating herself even further from her classmates.

At some point, Shirley decided it was her own bad character, not her  faith, that distanced her from her peers. "I don't care," she told herself. "I don't want to belong, anyway." She turned to Adventism for solace and strived to be "letter perfect." She spent additional time studying religious literature, looking for reasons to believe. She entered reveries, memorizing page upon page of Bible verses, trying to please God with sacred labors.21

But what she really loved was drawing, painting, and stitching clothes for her dolls. She had more than fifty of them by the time she finished grade school, perched on shelves in her bedroom and on the window ledges of the sunroom. As she played with them she made up stories, with herself as heroine. She would imagine that one of her relatives secretly entered her artwork into a contest at the Dodge County fair, and that she had swept the competition, winning first, second, and third place, as well as honorable mention! She dreamed of being asked to come to the fair and accept her ribbons, and declining because pride was sinful. Often she became so absorbed in these gorgeous imaginings that she forgot what was happening around her.22


Things had long been difficult for Shirley, but they started going very wrong in sixth grade. Perhaps influenced by increasing Adventist anxiety about the Depression and the approaching end of the world, she began feeling odd anxieties about time. Often when she sat down to play with her dolls or to draw, she got nervous, thinking she wouldn't be finished when Mother ordered her out for a walk. On Main Street she fretted over and over that the Masons' house, a block away, would burn down or blow away, destroying her playthings. She told Mattie about her fears. Mattie said they were silly because toys were just toys and could be replaced. Besides, when Shirley grew up, she would really have things to worry about.

Then her body stopped working. She got colds all the time and felt congested, listless, and weak. Worse, she began squinting uncontrollably. She started staying home from school, and her report cards were flecked with marks tallying her absences. Her parents bought her glasses, but the tic got so bad that Walter threatened to take Shirley out of school entirely. Desperate to stop the squinting, she discovered that it got better if she used her hands to trace in the air pictures she was seeing in her head.

And another, stranger problem developed—intense phobia about certain types of print. Whenever she picked up a newspaper, Shirley would become so frightened that she almost passed out. Worried about seeing her "scared stiff" and "acting funny," Mattie and Walter canceled their subscription to the  Minneapolis Journal. For good measure, they also stopped the  Ladies' Home Journal and Walter's subscription to  Fortune. No matter. Shirley began picking up magazines in other people's trash and hiding them in the back of her closet. Alone in the house, she took magazines out, counted them and secretly read them, then hid them before Mattie returned.

She probably read as many magazines in secret as she ever had when they were allowed—including, possibly, the April 1935 issue of  Fortune. It devoted twenty-four densely printed pages to an article titled "The Nervous Breakdown." The piece included an explanation of Sigmund Freud's theories of hysteria, along with a description of what happened to the typical person with the disorder: "He may seem to lose his sight or his hearing. He may make endless quick repetitive movements with one set of facial muscles. . . . His arm or leg may be functionally paralyzed or it may lose all sensation."23

After reading, Shirley always scrubbed her hands with hot water, then with the Lava soap Dad used to remove paint and grease from his skin.  Then twice again with hot water.  Then a final, cold rinse. Despite her furious scrubbing, she still worried that she was infected with venereal disease or cancer from handling the magazine pages. She would show the tiniest spot to Mattie and ask if it was serious. "Of course not," Mattie would answer brusquely, but Shirley started peering at her hands every few minutes. The looking made her more anxious. The anxiety led to more looking. "For Heaven's sake girl," her mother would snap, and threaten that if Shirley didn't stop this disturbing habit, "I'll do something so you won't have any hands to look at."

Shirley started sneaking looks, with a lightning quick, palms-up gesture she hoped no one would notice. Sometimes, when the urge overwhelmed her, she would leave the room her parents were in so she could "look and look and look." Mattie and Walter knew what she was doing. She started experiencing the trance-like feelings again, a sense of "going blank." She would come to with the sound of her parents' worried scolding.

She began to get creeping, tingling feelings in an arm and a leg. They radiated to one side of her face, affecting her vision. She would look at someone and not see them unless she swiveled her face around. And she would twitch and lurch crazily, heading for a door but ending up at a window. She was terrified by these "spells," as she called them. When she got one she would lie in bed and fall into a leaden, hours-long sleep.24

Mattie took Shirley to see Dodge Center's family physician, Dr.  Otoniel Flores. A stocky man with a cigar constantly hanging from his mouth, he was a Central American immigrant who had a kindly manner and was beloved in the community. Dr. Flores determined that Shirley was anemic, and he gave her injections of extract of hogs' liver, a newly developed medication for treating the problem. By summer after the sixth grade, the tingling, blindness, lurching, and headaches were gone. But the hand-looking and finger tracing persisted.25

Shirley was so ashamed that she became reclusive. Mattie would drag her to classmates' birthday parties and she would enter a daze, failing to answer when talked to. Back home she sat alone on the porch steps, leaning her head on her knees, pretending she was Vicky, her imaginary friend from London with the big, Catholic family. Or she lay in bed inventing complicated, heroic scenarios with herself as a doctor who specialized in hearing problems, and as a teacher of children at a school for the deaf. She was the best teacher the school had ever had, and she performed brilliant feats of instruction, silently miming painting lessons to the children and mounting their art in prize-winning exhibits.

Shirley spun detail after detail, remaining awake all night, not sure what was true and what was invented. As morning dawned and she emerged from her reverie, she wondered why she felt so terribly blue, so unlike other kids. She prayed to God for relief, promising to be a good girl if He would only cure her.26

He didn't, and she became angry, not just at God but at her mother. She began bickering and fighting with Mattie, though she knew Adventist children were supposed to love their parents and never disobey them. As a result of this sinful behavior, it seemed that God exacted revenge. Her mother never found out about Shirley's fiction secret, but she discovered something far worse. When Shirley was in her senior year in high school, Mattie caught her in bed, under the sheets, with a hairbrush, masturbating. She marched her daughter to Dr. Flores's office for diagnosis and treatment.

Though no records of the visit survive, Dr. Flores probably did the same tests on Shirley's blood that he had in the past, to see if the cause of her strange behavior might be a recurrence of anemia. In all likelihood the studies came out negative. According to Flores's daughter, Virginia Cravens, who was interviewed almost sixty years later, Flores ultimately decided that Shirley's problem was loneliness. So he asked Virginia, who was sixteen years old at the time, to help out. She was already assisting her father on weekends, taking temperatures and giving injections, and now Flores assigned Virginia to make therapeutic house calls to the Mason home once a week. Her task was to play cards with Shirley, make chitchat, and try to be her confidant.

When Virginia visited the Masons, Mattie puttered around, desperately plying the two girls with fresh-baked cookies to create a semblance of sociability. Shirley would not touch the food; Virginia gobbled it. Shirley was remote and sluggish, perking up only when the conversation turned to her art work. She conversed a little then, but she never asked her visitor about her own life. She would not let Virginia touch her dolls.

After a few weeks Virginia decided she could not stand this sullen and self-absorbed girl. Still, she had a job to do. She knew perfectly well why she was feigning friendship with Shirley—her father had explained everything in medical terms, and she told herself she was performing valuable work with her house calls. She pasted a smile on her face, and when she visited Shirley she never ever mentioned the solitary, secret vice.27


Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Leveling a steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject, Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original," —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >