How NOT to interrogate memory: Sybil, false memories and flawed incentives

At 9 pm EST on Sunday, November 14, 1976, approximately 20% of Americans had their television set turned to their local ABC affiliate. What they were about to watch, across four hours over two nights, would win four Primetime Emmy Awards the following spring. It would also change the course of psychiatry for decades, and—at least in the short term—not for the better.

Three years earlier, journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, who also taught English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had published a book called Sybil. “Sybil Isabelle Dorsett” is the pseudonym for a young woman from a small Wisconsin town treated by psychoanalyst Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in New York City from 1954 to 1965. Dr. Wilbur ascertained “Sybil” had 16 distinct personalities. These personalities only integrated after one of them, a nine-year-old girl named Peggy, finally was able to articular the horrific sexual abuse and torture “Sybil” had suffered at the hands of her devoutly Seventh Day Adventist mother “Hattie,” who Dr. Wilbur decided had been a paranoid schizophrenic.

The book had sold six million copies, so a film adaptation was almost inevitable. Presumably the medium of television was chosen because the final run-time of 198 minutes was too long for a feature film. Daniel Petrie, who would soon win a Primetime Emmy Award for the January 1976 television movie Eleanor and Franklin, was brought in to direct. Joanne Woodward, who 19 years earlier had played the title character in another film about multiple personality disorder (“MPD”), The Three Faces of Eve, signed on to play Dr. Wilbur. Many actresses were considered for the challenging role of Sybil—one requiring the portrayal of 16 distinct characters using only facial expressions, intonation and body movement—until the very last audition. That audition was by Sally Field, then best known for her starring roles in situation comedies like Gidget and The Flying Nun. Casting her against type was beyond inspired; one of Sybil’s four Primetime Emmys went to Field for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.

Less than two months before Sybil shocked and wowed the nation, I turned 10 years old. As I detail in Chapter 10 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I watched a great deal of inappropriate movies and television as a boy and young teenager. This lack of parental discretion is somewhat mitigated by the fact I watched most of these dramas with at least one parent. And, if memory serves, I did not watch all of Sybil.

I saw more than I should have, though, including the scene no child should ever see, the one in “the green kitchen.” If you have seen Sybil, you know exactly what I am talking about. Nearly 44 years later, I am still traumatized by it.

The thing is…much of this “true story” very likely never actually happened.

Yes, there was a real-life young woman with severe emotional problems from a small Midwestern town who had strict religious parents and who was treated for 11 years by Dr. Wilbur.

But the 16 personalities—and the stomach-churning scene in “the green kitchen?”

They appear to have been false memories induced in a co-dependent young woman in order to please the MPD-obsessed doctor she desperately wanted to keep seeing.

**********

I first attempt to define “interrogating memory” in the Preface:

The results of the genetic testing and those tentative steps gave me the first inkling the story I had always told about my adoption […] was not strictly accurate. In fact, half of it was flat-out incorrect. Yet, these were the stories with which I had been raised, the stories we all believed to be true….

Delving deeper into my family history, reaching out to family members, using newly-available investigative tools such as Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, and reviewing what the innate archivist in me had retained and carefully filed (school-assignment genealogy reports and a hand-written family tree were especially helpful), I observed other inconsistencies in what I thought I knew. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn—and the more I wanted to get it right, even if that meant relinquishing some of my favorite stories.

As a highly-trained researcher—I have advanced degrees in political science, biostatistics and epidemiology informed by nearly two decades as health-related data analyst and project manager—I followed every available investigative path: wandering through a maze of Philadelphia-area cemeteries to read headstones in English and Hebrew; prowling city archives and libraries; engaging in extensive telephone, e-mail and snail-mail conversations with extraordinarily helpful individuals; and even talking to literal eyewitnesses to my own history.

Two paragraphs later, I am still circling around a cogent definition:

At one level, interrogating memory is just a fancy term for “fact-checking.”

But it is much more than that. “Interrogating memory” could be considered the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories for hidden meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history and mystery.

Or to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, is that really how it happened?”

Interrogating memory was also inspired by […] partisanship so deep and intense it even affected where we got our information….

Critical thinking skills were vanishing as well, as the nation endured an epistemological crisis wherein roughly 40% of the nation believed everything President Donald J. Trump said, roughly 50% of the nation disbelieved everything he said—and everybody else was not sure what to think.

I offer this book as a counter to those divisions, a call to seek the truth no matter what the cost to our preconceived ideas. As a result, I belabor such details as precisely where and when an ancestor was born because such details matter, and because validating every fact matters, especially when what people call “facts” are too often simply regurgitations from a favorite website or commentator.

Next, I open the Introduction with a definition-by-example: the story of a friend from my early childhood so badly burned I never saw him again, a story I thought until recently I had either invented or been told as a cautionary fable.

Later, in the last chapter, I tell the story of watching Sybil as a barely-10-year-old boy. I now realize I effectively saved the best for last. Sometimes it is easier to define an amorphous concept like “interrogating memory” by providing an example of what it is not. Mutually-contradictory incentives resulting in the catastrophic decision not to examine, with the utmost scientific rigor, the sequence of events described in the 1973 book is just such an example.

**********

We begin at the beginning, in Dodge Center, MN, roughly 75 miles southeast of Rochester—and about that distance west of the Wisconsin state line. Shirley Ardell Mason was born in that small town of roughly 900 people on January 25, 1923. She was the only surviving child of Walter Wingfield, self-employed architect and carpenter who also worked as a clerk in a hardware store, and Martha Alice “Mattie” Atkinson Mason. Both parents were 39 years old when Shirley was born; I can find no record of other children, so presumably they either died in childbirth or too young to be recorded in the decennial United States Census. Data from those Censuses reveal the Masons rented space in a house owned by Shirley’s paternal grandparents, Neill and Mary Mason, at 4 Grove Street, [1] then owned the house outright after Neill Mason died in February 1935; Mary Mason had died three years earlier in April 1932.

Shirley Mason

Photograph of Shirley Ardell Mason from here.

The Masons were indeed strictly observant Seventh Day Adventists; according to fellow art student Jean Lane, Mason maintained that religiosity into adulthood. Seventh Day Adventists are taught not to read fiction, but the brilliant young Shirley Mason was highly imaginative and loved to invent stories.

A Newsweek article from 1999 further explores Mason’s childhood:

Residents recall a somewhat withdrawn, slender girl with a talent for painting. Betty Borst Christensen, 76, grew up across the street from the Masons. “Shirley was very protected,” Christensen recalls. “Her mother didn’t let her do much.” Mason’s second-grade teacher, Frances Abbott, now 93, remembers that Mattie Mason would grab Shirley’s hand “in a vise lock” when they crossed the street. “”Shirley couldn’t get free even if she tried. She was a timid little soul always under Mother’s care”

[…M]any people in Dodge Center say Mattie…was bizarre. “She had a witchlike laugh,” recalls Christensen. “She didn’t laugh much, but when she did, it was like a screech.” Christensen remembers the mother walking around after dark, looking in the neighbors’ windows.

After graduating high school in 1941, Mason enrolled at what was then Mankato State Teachers College—now Minnesota State University, Mankato—to study art. The overprotective Martha Mason permitted her daughter to live there. Lane recalled Mason being quite thin with long hair, and often sick with colds “and this and that.” A talented painter, Mason also played the basement piano very dramatically, to relieve “a tremendous amount of emotional pressure” of unknown origin. This shy devout woman also told Lane about going downtown to “drink and carouse at the bars.” Mason began to blackout in class; once becoming “comatose” after fainting. It was then the school nurse rode with Shirley Mason on a train to Omaha, NE, where her family now lived. This nurse ascertained the problem had “a psychological component;” Mason and Lane had often talked about psychology, conceiving from Lane’s book on Freud that “most of our problems were related to our parents.” In fact, Mason read a great deal about psychology; she was “very concerned about it.”

It was in Omaha Shirley Mason met a 30-something Freudian psychoanalyst named Cornelia Burwell Wilbur, who briefly treated her, allowing Mason to graduate Mankato in 1949.[2] The Masons then moved to Kansas City, MO, where, on July 25, 1948, 64-year-old Martha Mason died from a heart attack. According to Lane, 25-year-old Mason spent the rest of her life looking for more mothers.

Meanwhile, sometime after returning to Mankato. Lane did something Mason thought was not the right thing, after which Mason spoke to her “in a little boy’s voice.” Lane just looked at her, thinking this was strange, then left as soon as she could.

Lane also recalls Shirley Mason’s mother Martha this way:

“Her mother was very, very protective. Shirley kind of took over her mother’s life. And when Shirley was in grade school, when she wanted to know what the teachers thought of her, she would send her mother to school to ask. Her mother was white-haired, tall—taller than Shirley—very thin, very nice. She didn’t want Shirley to keep rats. Shirley kept rats, I don’t know, probably because her mother didn’t want ’em. Her father was more distant. Her mother was so caring of Shirley; as long as she lived, Shirley was OK. It’s when she passed away that the father got himself a girlfriend.”

After that, Walter Mason would never give her daughter money, no matter how broke Shirley was.

All of which brings us to New York City, where Mason moved shortly after graduating from Mankato to attend Columbia University. I observe without comment she chose to live in “Gotham City” rather than near her father, who died at the age of 78 in Lansing, MI on April 12, 1962.

**********

From two youthful suicide attempts, to a hit-and-run accident, to an anxiety-inducing 2016, I have been in therapy with four different psychotherapists. With varying degrees of success, each used some form of talk therapy, And—unless it was specifically and obviously relevant to that session’s discussion, I was never questioned about my early childhood, or about what my mother or father did to me, or what was suggested could have been done to me. And other than being an 11-year-old sipping cold Coke, I never interacted with my therapists outside of the office, nor learned much, if anything, about their personal lives. They were always a “blank slate”: never feed the patient answers, let the patient arrive at those answers on her/his own.

Which brings us back to Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.

Born Cornelia Brown Burwell on August 26, 1908 in Cleveland, OH, she earned her BA and MD from the University of Michigan. On June 4, 1934, she married 23-year-old Henry Wilbur. As of early 1942, according to Henry Wilbur’s WWII draft registration card, they were still living in Ann Arbor, MI.

Cornelia Wilbur

Photograph of Dr. Cornelia Burwell Wilbur from here.

Within a year, however, they had moved to Omaha, where Dr. Wilbur joined the newly-formed Department of Psychiatry at Bishop Clarkson Memorial Hospital. There, in 1943, she made a silent “training” film with the department’s founder, Dr. Abram Elting Bennett. The film, unsettling at times, opens with these written words:

“Short acting barbiturates given intravenously are useful in psychiatry for: 1. Estimating affective responsiveness before shock therapy is given. 2. As an aid in ventilation of conflict material. 3. As an aid in psychotherapy for relief of anxiety, ten- [words missing].

“Sodium thioethamyl and sodium pentothal both ultra short acting barbiturates are given intravenously in a five per cent solution by intermittent injection (1 c.c. per minute) until the response desired is obtained.

“This method called narco-synthesis caused the patient to reexperience emotions originally associated with psychic trauma. The patient synthesizes emotions and memories under light narcosis and develops insight, thus breaking up the neurotic, infantile reactions.

“It is also of value in determining whether certain schizophrenic-like states will respond to convulsive shock therapy. This is measured by the amount of emotional release occurring under the influence of the drug. These cases showing strong affective responses are likely to respond to convulsive shock therapy.”

Five different patients are then shown—with only the bare minimum of context, one of them an 11-year-old girl—before and after their injections. Mercifully, we see no shock treatments. But it is not at all clear what we are supposed to conclude from this film.

From our current scientific and ethical perspective, this film is upsetting. Administering powerful narcotics until the “response desired is obtained” is astounding: at no point is this response explicitly defined, suggesting it is solely at the psychiatrists’ discretion. Electro-convulsive therapy is now only used in rare, highly-proscribed situations. We have learned barbiturates can lead to tolerance and psychological and/or physical dependence, especially after prolonged high dosage. Moreover, we also now know that “at moderate to high doses, some of the drugs may actually impede memory or make it more likely that the person misremembers.” [Italics added for emphasis.]

I question why Drs. Bennett and Wilbur made this creepy film rather than present these cases to a medical journal for peer review—did they fear the scrutiny? Finally, as someone who wrote informed consent forms simply to administer health-related questionnaires, I do not see how such consent could have been obtained. Did the parents of the 11-year-old girl really allow her to be administered sodium thioethamyl on camera? The ethical misconduct, however beneficent the outcome, is appalling.

But this was the treatment milieu of Dr. Wilbur when Shirley Mason resumed her sessions with her in late 1954, at the former’s Park Avenue home office in Manhattan.

And here reality and fantasy begin to diverge.

**********

Here also is where the public record tells different stories. While it is clear Dr. Wilbur made the mistake of asking the impressionable Mason to read about MPD, it is unclear when this took place. An August 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview with journalist Debbie Nathan, whose 2011 book Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case makes the case against Mason having MPD, clearly states this occurred in Omaha in the 1940s—perhaps resulting in the “young boy” who corrected Jean Lane. But in an excerpt of Nathan’s book published in the New York Times in October 2011, Nathan herself describes the sequence of events this way:

“One day in late winter of 1955, about five months after their first session in New York, Mason surprised Wilbur by telling her about some bizarre “jams” she’d gotten into. Sometimes, she said, she would “come to” in antiques shops, her mind a blank, facing dishes or figurines that were smashed to pieces. Or, she recounted, she found herself in strange hotels with no idea what city she was in.

“Wilbur was astounded. She believed Mason was experiencing what were known as fugue states, a condition she treated in her very first patient in 1940. A person suffering from a fugue state left home for hours, days or even weeks, and behaved like someone else entirely. Fugue states were a rare form of hysteria caused by dissociation. From Wilbur’s point of view, they were also spectacular.

“Ten days after receiving her fugue-state diagnosis, Mason arrived for her morning appointment. Usually, she settled herself primly on the couch and spoke softly and timidly. But on this day her movements were energetic, her voice loud and childish.

“’How are you today?’ Wilbur asked her patient.

“’I’m fine but Shirley isn’t,’ was the answer. ‘She was so sick she couldn’t come. So I came instead.’

“Wilbur didn’t miss a beat. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ she said.

“’I’m Peggy!’ the patient chirped.

“She gave details. Peggy was a little girl with dark hair. Shirley couldn’t stand up for herself, so Peggy stood up for her. Shirley couldn’t get angry, so Peggy got angry. Shirley was always scared, and Peggy liked to have fun. When she gained control she went anywhere she felt like going — including to other cities, like Philadelphia.

“At the next appointment, Mason apologized for missing her last one. Wilbur told her she hadn’t, that she had actually been in the office — as someone else. She wanted to tell her patient that she had a condition even stranger than fugue states. But before Wilbur could introduce the topic of multiple-personality disorder, Mason changed the subject.

“The following week, Mason seemed poised and well mannered rather than loud and childish. ‘I’m Vicky,’ she announced. Wilbur asked Vicky if there were any other people inside Shirley besides herself and Peggy.

“’Oh, yes!’ Vicky answered. There was Peggy Lou, but there was also Peggy Ann. Both were outgoing, though Peggy Ann was more tactful. Months after Peggy first appeared, Mason wrote in her therapy diary that when she was a child, she and her mother, Mattie, would play a game in which Mattie would call her daughter by the names Peggy and Peggy Ann. (During Shirley’s childhood, some of the most popular dolls were marketed as ‘Peggy’ and ‘Peggy Ann.’ Mattie loved dolls and bought many for her daughter.)

“When Mason left, Wilbur, flabbergasted, did the math. She’d known about multiple-personality disorder for years, but her patient had a least four personalities, more than Wilbur had ever heard of.”

It is hard for me to comprehend how Dr. Wilbur could so credulously have accepted these “personalities” without careful and intense probing. Nonetheless, by this account, Dr. Wilbur and Mason never discussed MPD until the following session in early 1955. This suggests Nathan herself does not have all of her facts straight. Indeed, Dr. Patrick Suraci, author of his own book on Mason, condemned Nathan’s methods and veracity.

Returning to Nathan’s account, meanwhile, rather than dismay at the MPD diagnosis, Mason was curious and relieved. “Vicky” then began to hint at dark secrets, leading Dr. Wilbur to use narcosynthesis to uncover what she was now certain was a buried truth: young Shirley had suffered traumatic abuse at the hands of Martha Mason, who Dr. Wilbur now suspected, without any independent examination or investigation, was a paranoid schizophrenic.

Over the next few years, Dr. Wilbur injected Mason with sodium pentothal and tape-recorded their sessions. Most tapes were destroyed, but some—as well as numerous transcripts—are stored with a cache of documents Schreiber had archived at John Jay after her death in 1988. It was in those sessions the first details of the traumatic events were revealed: “And they put flashlights in you and bottles out of little silver boxes and they put a blanket over your face and hold a light over. You can’t breathe and it hurts and you kick and you can’t move.”

It appears likely that Mason, desperate to keep seeing the therapist on whom she had a crush and/or had replaced her mother, and under the influence of powerful memory-altering narcotics, had transformed a not-very-pleasant tonsillectomy at the age of seven into a horrific tale of sadistic sexual abuse. The operation was recorded by Martha Mason herself in the baby book she kept for her daughter, currently housed in the John Jay archive.

But Dr. Wilbur had begun planning a book based upon her sessions with Mason, and she would soon begin to lecture on her patient. It was Mason herself that first threw a monkey wrench into the works. In June 1958, she handed—unprompted—Dr. Wilbur a typed letter in which she essentially admits lying about her then-four personalities:

“Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about ‘fugue’ trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

And here, in a nutshell, is why interrogating memory is so difficult. If Mason had never before experienced MPD, then who was the young boy who spoke to Jean Lane in Mankato? And, unless Dr. Wilbur and Mason first discussed MPD back in Omaha, then where did “Peggy” and “Vicky” come from? Remember, by Nathan’s own telling, these “personalities” appeared spontaneously, before narcosynthesis. A likely explanation is that Mason happened upon the rare syndrome when she read about psychology in college. The line about being “much more original” is telling here; Mason, like many psychotherapy patients, wanted to maintain her therapist’s interest.

Dr. Wilbur’s reaction, however, is even more troubling. Rather than spend time discussing the letter and its implications for her treatment, she shuts down Mason, telling her this is merely her mind’s way of avoiding facing “the truth.” In fact, using baffling circuitous logic, it was proof the abuse had occurred. Mason, not wanting to lose Dr. Wilbur, then wrote a letter recanting her recanting. The narcosynthesis resumed, and before long four personalities had become 16.

What happened next is what most convinces me Dr. Wilbur and Mason, based upon what seemed to them rational incentives, created a pattern of false memories and non-existent personalities each firmly believed to be reality—because they were never properly interrogated; perhaps Mason was less certain, though she never again claimed they were false.

That is because Dr. Wilbur again chose not to publish the case notes, ones she could have validated with her tape recordings, in a peer-reviewed journal, but in a mass market book. According to the CBC interview, because Dr. Wilbur was not a good writer, she chose a journalist—not a fellow psychiatrist—to help her write it. Schreiber insisted “Sybil,” a name she chose from the Greek prophetess of myth, had to be cured first; there are numerous versions of how this suddenly happened in 1965. In the movie, Dr. Wilbur first goes to Sybil’s childhood home—which the Masons left at least 20 years earlier—and finds verification of some of the traumatic stories. She then brings Sybil there…and Peggy finally tells what happened in the green kitchen, after which Sybil “meets” Peggy and the personalities integrate.

Meanwhile, Schreiber, after her own fact-checking, begins to doubt what she is writing. But the advance had already been paid, so after getting firm denials from Dr. Wilbur and Mason, she kept quiet. In an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show around the time Sybil was released, Schreiber takes umbrage at the word “hoax,” insisting “every word in the book” is true. In a way, this is true—the accounts of the sessions were likely recorded accurately. It is simply that the insufficiently-interrogated memories adduced in those sessions are likely false.

The book and the movie, as we have seen, were overwhelmingly successful; all three women, who shared equally in the profits, became wealthy. The public attention, in fact, was so great, the definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to include the diagnosis “multiple personality disorder.” Almost overnight, the cumulative number of cases skyrocketed from 75 to over 40,000. Dr. Wilbur even opened her own MPD clinic. All of which meant that any subsequent desire by any of these three women to interrogate those memories with proper rigor would have meant the loss of fame and fortune, and sparked an angry backlash.

On top of that, Dr. Wilbur continued to care for Mason financially and emotionally for years, even though Mason had a successful career as a commercial artist. Both eventually moved to Lexington, KY; Mason never married and, like Dr. Wilbur, never had children. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, leading Mason to reverse roles and take care of her, Dr. Wilbur died from a stroke on September 20, 1992. Mason then died from breast cancer on February 26, 1998.

It was at that point what residents of Dodge Center, MN had long suspected was finally revealed: that Sybil Isabelle Dorsett and Shirley Ardell Mason were one and the same. At about the same time, a series of a lawsuits stemming from the over-diagnosis of MPD led the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to reconsider its definition. Eventually, it was redefined and given the more anodyne name “dissociative identity disorder.”

**********

So, if not MPD, what—if anything—was wrong with Shirley Ardell Mason? Besides the natural difficulty of being an intelligent, imaginative child raised in a conservative small town by a slightly odd, severely overprotective and deeply religious mother, thus never learning how to fend tor herself in the larger world and remaining child-like for years that is? Nathan hypothesizes she had pernicious anemia, whose symptoms could easily have been misdiagnosed as a psychogenic disorder. Both explanations likely have merit.

Unfortunately, we may never know whether the events recounted in Sybil occurred the way Mason first told Dr. Wilbur they did, or whether they are false memories resulting from a confluence of rationalized incentives: the troubled young woman searching for a mother figure; the young psychiatrist trained in an archaic and unscientific methodology so eager to have a case of MPD she ruthlessly probed her suggestible young patient—herself a substitute daughter—until she heard what she wanted to hear; and the journalist and professor who, simply put, should have known better.

At every step along the way, all three women—and even Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who treated Mason when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation, but kept his doubts about her alleged multiple personalities to himself for decades—failed to consider the fantastic tales unfolding with the most rudimentary skepticism. This failure to interrogate memory perversely made them rich and famous, albeit behind a pseudonym for one. The consequence, however, was a destructive over-diagnosis of a once-rare—for good reason—mental disorder, sweeping even the powerful APA along with it.

For these reasons—never mind that the artistic and piano-playing Mason reputedly could not draw or play a note as “Sybil”—this episode is a textbook example of how NOT to interrogate memory.

Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.

[1] This street, and intersecting East Franklin Street, have since been renamed. In fact, nearly every street name in Dodge Center is now a number like 3rd Avenue, SW.

[2] In the television movie, “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City. She is sent to her for a neurological examination after she blacks out teaching art to elementary-school aged children, then severely slashes her wrist smashing a window.a

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