In Sybil Exposed, Nathan reveals how the story of “Sybil,” a girl who supposedly developed multiple personality disorder in response to severe sexual abuse, was an elaborate hoax conjured up by three very peculiar women. She shares with us the books she consulted to recreate their era, and you’ll be surprised at where her inquiries took her—from Seventh Day Adventist cookbooks to the photographs of 19th-century “winsome” French hysterics.
Researching Sybil Exposed often felt like rummaging through an Olde Curiosity Shoppe crammed with dusty books.
Sybil, the pseudonymous woman who supposedly developed 16 multiple personalities, was actually a smalltown Midwesterner named Shirley Mason, and she herself was a curiosity. Her family was Seventh-Day Adventist in the early 20th century, when followers celebrated Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday, and believed the world would soon go up in flames unless they praised Jesus and obeyed God. Obeisance included efforts to quash their sexual appetites by eating the blandest, bleakest vegetarian food imaginable.
This is The Road to Wellville territory, but I thought primary sources would help me understand Shirley better. So I studied Adventist cookbooks that her mother might have used, and found a good one on Google Books (it’s so old that you can read it there for free). Its title: Guide for Nut Cookery, and here is a typical recipe, for a hamburger substitute called “Nut-Meato.” Mix peanut butter, cornstarch, and fake coffee (real coffee might induce lust). Seal in a can. Boil for hours. Slice into rounds before serving. Only after following these instructions did I apprehend the gluttonous thrill that a repressed but rebellious young Adventist might experience, abandoning a life of Nut-Meato by slicing into alter personalities—some of whom, no doubt, ate hamburgers.
Seeking to get into the head of Flora Schreiber, the journalist who wrote Sybil, I found a novel on Alibris.com that no one reads today. Harrison Kinney’s Has Anybody Seen My Father? dates from the early JFK era, when Kinney worked at McCall’s magazine. Advertising money for big- ticket items like cars was shifting from print to TV then, and the glossies were hemorrhaging readers. Kinney describes desperation at the magazines. Flora freelanced during this period, and though Kinney never knew her, he nails her experience as he spins tales of editors and writers drinking like fish and confecting salacious articles with titles like “My Husband Committed Me to a Mental Institution and “Can You Be
Happily Married to a Homosexual?” It’s Mad Men in the publishing world. Mad women, too.
Another moldering book, which I found at the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, dates to 1878. It’s the notorious Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, a collection of photos of winsome French hysterics. Their doctor, Jean Martin Charcot, was unaware that, simply by treating them, he was teaching these highly suggestible women to assume flamboyant and libidinous poses. Then he took pictures. They were bound into the Iconographie and perused worldwide for decades, by psychiatrists and everyone else.
Years later, Connie Wilbur, who would later become Shirley Mason’s psychiatrist, studied in medical school with a professor who was fascinated by hysteria and by those weird postures in the Iconographie. After Connie herself became a psychiatrist and started treating Shirley, Shirley may have unconsciously picked up some of her trembling, fainting, and other mysterious movements from the Iconographie.
And so, perhaps, did we all. I was fascinated by Mady Schutzman’s The Real Thing: Performance, Hysteria, & Advertising. She argues that female models in today’s ads unconsciously strike poses inspired by the Iconographie—and the rest of us follow suit when we’re trying to look gorgeous and sexy.
The Real Thing came out in 1999. It’s hardly vintage, and neither is James Kincaid’s Child Loving or another of his works, Erotic Innocence. Both are also from the 1990s, and I read them to understand why Sybil, an over-the-top tale about a sweet little girl being chronically sexually tortured, would morph into a wide-eyed, cultural craze. Kincaid looks back to the Victorians, who turned children into symbols of purity and utter, sexual innocence, even as they fashioned them into repositories of dark, adult fantasy. From Lewis Carroll’s eroticized photos of preteens to James Barrie’s Peter Pan—to today, when we dress our grade-schoolers in camisoles emblazoned with “Sexy” and simultaneously fear pedophiles behind every bush. Was Sybil the first latter-day example of this fracture?
While asking this question, the newest book I read was Roger Lancaster’s Sex Panic and the Punitive State. The panic fueled by fictions like Sybil isn’t just annoying, according to Lancaster. It’s dangerous as hell, because it needlessly increases social anxiety and state policing, eroding civil rights for us all. It would be good if this craziness could be mothballed in the Curiosity Shoppe. I hope my work on Sybil Exposed will help do just that.