true crime

Sybil was tortured by her mum. She developed 16 personalities to protect herself.

Warning: this post contains details of sexual assault which may be distressing for some readers. 

“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. . .”

According to a transcript of their sessions, this is what psychiatrist Dr Cornelia B. Wilbur said to her patient, Shirley Mason, who would become known to the world as ‘Sybil’ – the woman with 16 personalities.

In the name of Sybil, there would be a book about Shirley’s life and history-making psychiatric diagnosis, based on the transcripts.

Then in 1976, an iconic television series starring Sally Field would bring that book to life. And it was all because Shirley’s mother, Mattie Atkinson, sadistically and sexually tortured her only child – her daughter – for years.

After being abused by her father from age 4, Jeni developed over 2000 personalities. Post continues after video. 

Video via 60 Minutes

So horrific was Shirley’s childhood, she repressed memories of it for as long as she could. She knew she was born in 1923, and raised in a small town in Minnesota. She knew her mother was Mattie, and her father, Walter Mason, was an architect.

But she refused to acknowledge what happened in her childhood; she resisted acknowledging it. She grew up, and moved on.

By the early 1950s, after studying art, Shirley was working as a substitute art teacher at Columbia University.

But that’s when her mind began to finally betray her.

Shirley starting experiencing blackouts with greater frequency, and became increasingly unable to control her emotions. She knew she needed help. What she didn’t know was that the help she found would change her life, and ultimately set her free.

From the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, the young art teacher was treated by Dr Wilbur for blackouts and depression. At first, Shirley’s symptoms were simply treated by medication. But as time went on, Dr Wilbur realised Shirley was getting worse – not better.

Shirley Mason
Image: The New York Times.

And then one day, a little girl called Peggy ‘attended’ an appointment on Shirley’s behalf. The following week, Shirley apologised for not being at the appointment – although in fact she was.

The week after, Dr Wilbur met Vicky – who admitted that there were at least two other personalities inside Shirley.

During their sessions over the next decade, the traumatised woman revealed 16 different personalities; leading Wilbur to conclude her case was evidence of the existence of Multiple Personality Disorder.

Witnessing the effects of the condition (which is now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder - DID), Dr Wilbur knew that Shirley’s and her personalities’ hints about trouble in her childhood indicated events far more sinister than typical family discord.

Her patient mentioned acts of violence such as slapping, and described how she was lured to a doctor’s house to have a tonsillectomy. But nothing more.

Dr Wilbur nevertheless wanted to help Shirley as much as she could. She made house calls when needed. She even helped sell Shirley’s paintings.

Things changed suddenly one morning when Shirley presented the doctor with a letter, claiming she had faked her personalities. It was this letter which would later cast doubt on the authenticity of the mysterious Sybil’s story, after the book and movie were released.

“I am not going to tell you there isn’t anything wrong,” the letter read.

“But it is not what I have led you to believe. . . I do not have any multiple personalities. . . I do not even have a ‘double.’ . . . I am all of them.


“I have been essentially lying.”

But rather than accepting the claims, Dr Wilbur took the letter for what it was; further resistance against discussing the truth of the trauma. She escalated her sessions with her patient, hoping for a breakthrough.

It worked. Shirley eventually revealed she was sexually assaulted by her mother with kitchen implements, tied up, and had cold water forced into her vagina. She was once even buried in a grain silo.

Shirley also revealed she was unable to have children due to her injuries.

Dr Wilbur could only form one conclusion from the many horrific details she heard: Shirley’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic.

In 1965, after more than a decade of working together, Dr Wilbur declared that Shirley well enough to conclude their sessions – because the personalities had finally vanished. But after all they had been through, their personal bond could not be broken. They continued a personal friendship until the doctor’s death from Parkinson’s Disease in 1992, which Shirley had nursed her through.

Continuing her devout Christianity in her later years gave Shirley some comfort, and the strength to defeat breast cancer. But when it returned, she succumbed to it, at the age of 75.

Had it not been for the 1973 book written about Shirley’s life, we may never have known about one of the first official cases of Multiple Personality Disorder (now DID), and the violence a frightened little girl suffered at the hands of her mother.

Author Flora Rheta Schreiber wrote Sybil: the true story of a woman possessed by 16 separate personalities, based on Dr Wilbur’s transcripts, using the name ‘Sybil’ to protect Shirley’s privacy. It was only after her death in 1998 that her records were unsealed, and it was publicly revealed that she was in fact ‘Sybil’.

A few in the psychiatric profession and the media have attempted to debunk Shirley’s story, Dr Wilbur’s diagnosis, and Schreiber’s book – mostly in reaction to the enormous commercial success of the book and series.

But the criticism didn’t matter to Shirley; by the time the book was published, she was living as a self-imposed semi-recluse, with only Dr Wilbur and a few close friends.

That’s all she needed for the rest of her life; along with her hard-earned peace of mind.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Feature image: The New York Times.

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