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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (October 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 143916827X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439168271
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #512,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"In this startling exposé...Nathan serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original."--Publisher's Weekly, starred review

"Debbie Nathan's fine, insistent mind will stop at nothing to get to the truth behind Sybil, no how many walls are put up— Her research is beyond compare." --Susie Bright, author of Big Sex Little Death

"I've long considered Debbie Nathan to be the most important and unsung writer working in America today. Sybil Exposed affirms her brilliance. Using a fierce blend of investigative journalism and cultural criticism, she exposes multiple personality disorder as yet another lurid myth cooked up by the collective unconscious of our popular culture. The book is an astonishing achievement." -- Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak and God Bless America

“Journalist Debbie Nathan -- whose investigative exposure of day care worker Kelly Michaels's wrongful conviction for child molestation did so much to unearth the witch hunts among us -- has found a delicious, hiding-in-plain-sight historical saga to tell: the making of the most famous "multiple personality" case and book. A troubled, impressionable young girl from a Sinclair Lewis-type small town; a brilliant, bullying, female neuropsychiatrist in 1950s Manhattan; and a glamorous, frustrated feminist magazine writer who'd had an affair with Eugene O'Neill Jr.: how these three disparate American women's fates, fantasies, and ambitions came together to create a fiction that rocked the culture and continues to affect us today makes compelling and sobering reading. Who knew this true story existed?! It's as compulsively readable as it is cautionary -- two traits rarely shared in one book.”-- Sheila Weller, award winning magazine journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation

"Throughout Sybil Exposed, Nathan traces the winding path from truth to falsehood"--Salon

"A gripping history of crackpot psychiatry" --People magazine

"The true story of Sybil has found its ideal historian in Debbie Nathan...This is the book that should be a made-for-TV movie." --The Wall Street Journal

"A compelling account of the creation, packaging, and selling of this case of medical and journalistic malpractice." --Science

"In this dazzling exposé of a manipulative psychiatrist, an author who’d do anything for fame and a vulnerable girl caught in the middle, journalist Nathan reveals how these three women changed the psychiatric landscape by raising questions of identity that resonated with a generation. The result is a cautionary tale about the ways in which science, in the wrong hands, can capitalize on our collective fears. " --More magazine

"A massive undertaking of research that teases apart fact from fiction to reveal an even more interesting and educational account...Sybil remains a good book and movie, but perhaps Nathan's version of the story is the one worth telling in classrooms. " --New Scientist

“What forces cause a diagnosis like Multiple Personality Disorder to rise and fall within less than a generation? Debbie Nathan broke the story 20 years ago and now, in Sybil Exposed, she’s finally putting all the puzzle pieces together. Unless we learn the lessons in this journalistic masterwork, we are doomed to fall victim to the next fad and the next caring healer who claims to have our best interest at heart.” –Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us

“Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed is a first-rate historical detective story recreating the lives of the three protagonists of one of the most popular accounts of a psychiatric patient in American history. The sixteen personalities ascribed to “Sybil” set the medical and legal tone for discussions of the ‘epidemic’ of child abuse at the end of the 20th century as well as the psychological damage done to its survivors. Nathan shows how the subject of the study, her psychiatrist, as well as the author of the book invented a biography to explain something that never existed: the multiple personalities of the patient as well as their cause. Any reader captivated by our contemporary “first-hand” accounts of mental illness, should read this account that illustrates how the demands of the readers at any historical moment shape such accounts and make them seem truer than true.” --Sander L. Gilman, author of SEEING THE INSANE Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences; Professor of Psychiatry, Emory University

Sybil Exposed isn't only an exposé of a blockbuster that pulled the wool over 6 million readers' eyes. She asks deeper questions: Why did people love this book? To what cultural zeitgeist did it respond?....Riveting, thought-provoking and a quick read, Sybil Exposed is impossible to put down.”
--The Oregonian

"A nuanced, not-entirely-unsympathetic account of the women who perpetrated a sensational literary fraud." --Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Debbie Nathan was born and raised in Houston, Texas. She has been a journalist, editor and translator for almost three decades. She specializes in writing about immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border, sexual politics and sex panics, particularly in relation to women and children. Debbie is author and co-author of four books, including Sybil, Inc. She has been involved in translating two others into English — one from Spanish and the other from Latin American Yiddish. Her essays appear in several anthologies, and her work has been published in venues as varied as Redbook and The Nation, Ms. and Playboy, The Texas Observer and Social Text, The New York Times and Vibe. Debbie’s work has won numerous national and regional awards, including: The H.L. Mencken Award for Investigative Journalism, PEN West Award for Journalism, several prizes from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for feature journalism, the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for Journalism, and the John Bartlow Martin Award (from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) for Public Service Journalism. She is a board member of the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), an “innocence project” for people falsely accused of harming children. She currently lives in New York City with her husband, Morten Naess, a family physician, and has two grown children, Sophia and Willy.

More About the Author

Debbie Nathan has been an award-winning journalist, editor and translator for over three decades. She writes about immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border, and sexual politics and sex panics, particularly in relation to women and children.

Debbie grew up in Houston, Texas. She has lived and traveled in several areas, including Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border.

Today she lives in New York City with her husband, and close to her two grown children.

Debbie has written four books. Her newest is "Sybil Exposed." To learn more about it visit


the "Debbie Nathan" author page on Facebook

You can find out about Debbie's other books, and her work in general, at

Debbie enjoys doing presentations, in person or via Skype, for book clubs that are reading Sybil Exposed. For more information or to arrange an event, contact her at

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Customer Reviews

The author takes facts out of context and makes them seem like you should be aghast.
Kim the Music Lover
The main premise of Ms. Nathan's book is that Shirley's psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, forced Shirley to remember events that did not occur.
Nancy Delaval Miller
Debbie Nathan's book, "Sybil Exposed", is meticulously researched and documented, yet immensely readable.
Orphia Nay

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

316 of 384 people found the following review helpful By David Eichman on October 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I first read SYBIL in 1976 when I was told, the soon to be aired TV movies principle character, Sybil, was in fact, Shirley Mason, my grandmothers step daughter. Closer to home, Shirley\Sybil was my babysitter in the late 40's and early 50's, in Denver Co. The Masons had been friends of the family for years before my Grandma, Florence, married Walter Mason, Shirley's dad. I especially remember Shirley taking requests to draw cute pictures for my older brother and me.

When my grandmother died in 1985, I retrieved about 200 letters destined for the trash, written by Shirley to my Grandma from 1954 - 1974. After reading the letters, lets just say there were discrepancies with the book, SYBIL.

Subsequently several researchers contacted me, such as Peter Swales, expressing concern over the ethics and rampant diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Debbie Nathan is not the first to come across this controversy, but she is the first to present it to the public, since Peter Swales and Mikkel Borch-Jacobson elected to publish it in a more academic forum in France.

Debbie Nathan has been extremely accurate and careful with the documents I have entrusted to her. She doesn't claim to be, or have to be a psychotherapist to be a good investigative reporter. To me that's just what she is, and in some ways better equipped to deal with this controversy.

SYBIL EXPOSSED is not written by a wanna-be psychotherapist dispensing her biased opinions. This is a 282 page condensation of facts gleaned from documents, letters, case files, and interviews, most of which have only been open to the public, or otherwise available, for just the last 13 years.

I am grateful for such a compilation.
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37 of 46 people found the following review helpful By abt1950 on March 8, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book claims to be an expose of Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist who treated Sybil, and Flora Rheta Schreiber, the journalist whose book made Sybil a household name. Nathan makes some good points, but she is not the first person to have questioned Sybil's diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder (now DID). The author has done extensive research, which is a plus, but the book is marred by her obvious contempt for Wilbur and Schreiber. Much of the book is character assassination. Wilbur comes off as an opportunist and Schreiber as an ugly, emotionally insecure woman. For example, Nathan criticizes Schreiber's taste in clothing and gives intimate details of her sex life. This doesn't belong in a book that claims to be impartial. They're not relevant to the case she's trying to make. Nathan's vitriol undermines her case that Sybil's diagnosis was manufactured to sell the book. It's impossible to separate the author's bias from her interpretation of what actually happened. "Sybil Exposed" is a disappointing book about a fascinating subject.
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51 of 75 people found the following review helpful By gluhrMD on November 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

This book is damaging to the many people who have had severe childhood abuse and developed Dissociative Identity Disorder and other trauma symptoms. Trauma in childhood and adulthood leaves severe scars on many people. The catchy title implies that such scars are imaginary, the result of poor treatment, or patients who are trying to inflate their importance.

Nathan is not a clinician. It shows. Those of us who are experienced and seasoned clinicians have direct experience of the suffering of traumatized individuals. DID is not a fiction.

The denial of trauma is a national disgrace. I hope that the tragedy being exposed at Penn State can help to open people's eyes to the realities of abuse.

The reader must understand that Sybil was written decades ago when the field had little experience with the complexity of severe childhood abuse. Mistakes have been made--is that a surprise? The scientific method is designed to examine issues and refine our understanding of what is true.

The scientific literature for the diagnosis and treatment of what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder is extensive and remarkably helpful. It is available to anyone who Googles. Check out Medline, PubMed, the PILOTS database of the National Center for PTSD , or the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation ([...]).

How unfortunate that Nathan uses her many skills so destructively, and one might even say, unethically.

I have no financial interest in this issue. I am a retired psychiatrist with concern that all people, traumatized or not, be given respect and a chance to tell their stories.
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91 of 135 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Suraci, Ph.D. on October 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
October 19, 2011, Statement from Dr. Patrick Suraci
I went to the Special Collections Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to verify statements made by Debbie Nathan in her book SYBIL EXPOSED.
1. On pages 99-100 Nathan writes: "Connie would carry her apparatus to Shirley's apartment and climb in bed with her. She would clamp the paddles to Shirley's temples, twirl the dials, and press the buttons. Connie's gadget was an old electro-convulsive machine she had retired years earlier."
Nathan cites the evidence for this in her "Notes: Chapter 8, No.38.. FRS Box 37, Files 1081, Tape 124." In this document on January 26, 1955, Shirley writes about "electric shock" along with her other treatments. There is absolutely no documentation of Nathan's outrageous claim.
2. On page 232 Nathan writes: "...She (Shirley Mason) died quietly in her home, surrounded by nurses, on February 26 of that year. She was seventy-five years old. It was early evening when she died." In my book SYBIL in her own words: The Untold Story of Shirley Mason, Her Multiple Personalities and Paintings. On page 261 I write:
"The penultimate time I phoned Shirley's home was on February 26, 1998, at 12:07 PM. In the background I heard her weak voice pleading to Roberta, `Tell him I'm sorry. I'm sorry.' Roberta informed me that Shirley was too sick to speak on the phone. I mumbled, `Please tell her that it's okay, it's okay. I'll call later.' ...
"When I called later that day at 3:01 PM Roberta stunned me with the news than Shirley had just died." This error in Ms. Nathan's book is symbolic of her lack of knowledge about Shirley Mason and other comments she makes show her ignorance about Flora Schreiber and Dr. Corneilla Wilbur because she never knew any of them.
Dr. Suraci has the telephone records of that day, February 26, 1998.
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