Sybil Exposed: Taking a look at the real Sybil

Nov 11, 2011 at 3:43 a.m. ET

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan is an extraordinary book about the real Sybil, the subject of a non-fiction 1973 book in which she was said to have had 17 different personalities. The new book looks at how the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (MPD), also known as DID (dissociative identity disorder), came to be. Here’s what you can learn from this intriguing book.

Woman looking at reflection in mirror

Searching for the truth on MPD

Nathan writes from a stance of a researcher, searching out the answer to the question: Is MPD real, particularly in the case of Sybil? Nathan meticulously interviews past friends, relatives and colleagues of each of the main people in the story. As Nathan discovers, the era of women's liberation and women climbing the corporate ladder played a big part in the creation and ongoing belief that Sybil did in fact have MPD/DID.

Aside from the fascinating tale of the real Sybil, at the end of the book, the reader is still left with the question whether MPD/DID a real diagnosis. For Sybil, it looks like it was more of a medical issue compounded by large amounts of psychotropic drugs that produced her apparent symptoms of MPD/DID. But for others who claim this can be true diagnosis, it raises the question: Did the story of Sybil do more harm than good to this population of people who suffer with this diagnosis every day?

Sybil Exposed

The story of Sybil is problematic for those with MPD

Most of the studies that have been completed on MPD/DID have been done with populations already diagnosed as mentally ill. Therefore, it is hard to determine what are the statistic rates of how often we might see this diagnosis in the general population. The book Sybil Exposed talks about how the popularity of the original book (and later, a TV movie) created many problems for people who really do have MPD/DID. How Sybil was portrayed in the book and also in the movie, starring Sally Fields, is not a usual presentation for someone with MPD/DID. Many people with MPD/DID go undiagnosed for years and are unaware that they have it until they realize there are large spans of time that they do not remember, or they commit an act that is drastically out of character for their usual behavior.

Always seek professional help for any mental health issue

If you suspect someone you know has MPD/DID, look into finding a therapist that specializes in severe mental illness. Many of these practitioners can be located through your local mental health organizations. Whether it is MPD/DID or something else, people can learn to cope and continue to carry on with your life. A diagnosis of MPD/DID does not mean an end to your life; it just might better explain some of your behaviors. Sybil Exposed provides an opening for mental health professionals to continue the discussion of how diagnosis, ethics and personal relationships can change the outcomes of our patient's lives. This book is not for the faint of heart. A mystery-like story that keeps you coming back for more, you might think you know the ending, but you will be surprised.

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