Since July 2017, when I began to research and write Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I have spent hundreds of hours gathering information online, pulled many dusty books of the shelves to review, sorted through dozens of photographs and retrieved countless documents from my filing cabinets. I even pulled out my 44-year-old Best of Old Time Radio records to listen again to episodes of Gang Busters, The Green Hornet and The Shadow. Proper interrogation of memory demands meticulous attention to detail—no fact is too small to check. Nearly every one of those memory-interrogation aids proved, at worst, bittersweet and, at best, joyful. And not one provoked a viscerally negative reaction.
Until yesterday, that is.
A few days ago, I explained why the saga of “Sybil”—the pseudonym given Shirley Ardell Mason in a 1973 book and two-part November 1976 television movie—exemplified how not to interrogate memory:
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 [multiple personality disorder] 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 [American Psychiatric Association] 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.
The proximate cause for this interest, bordering on obsession, was writing in what I anticipate will be Chapter 10 about watching Sybil when it first aired: not all of it, I think, but more than enough. I had just turned 10 years old, which begs the question how I was allowed anywhere near a television set broadcasting it, let alone sitting in my faux-leather swivel chair in our downstairs den watching it.
I write about Sybil in the larger context of how many inappropriate television shows and movies I watched as a child; this sets up being a young teen watching whatever I chose on the television set, complete with HBO, in my new bedroom. Perhaps because it was just becoming part of the zeitgeist, Sybil was one of at least three televised portrayals of child/spousal abuse I watched in 1976. The title character of A Girl Named Sooner is subjected to emotional abuse. Around the same time Sybil aired, Martin Mull played the loathsome Garth Gimble, a wife-beater who traumatizes their son into bed-wetting, on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. When those episodes aired, commercials for Electric Light Orchestra’s A New World Record featured snippets from “Livin’ Thing;” for years I could not listen to that song without shuddering. While I have long since made my peace with that excellent tune, I only wanted to push Sybil as far out of my mind as possible.
Until yesterday, that is.
As for the lack of parental discretion: one month earlier, my mother was forced to get a telephone solicitation job because my father had finally lost the business his family had operated since 1926—when it was already 40 years old. His gambling had become destructive; I recall a sheriff coming to the house one night to take him away. A few months later, on March 2, 1977, my parents formally separated; my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I moved into a nearby apartment. The night before they separated, my father sat down at our kitchen table to type out a short report for me; he had rarely, if ever, done anything like that before. When he was finished, he set the two sheets of paper to the side then asked me if I knew what was happening the following morning. I told him I did. At that point, he cried in front of me for the first and last time. Whatever I was personally feeling about the impending disruption of my young life, my empathy kicked in, and I began to comfort him.
Indeed, I had spent most of my childhood that way; my severely intellectually-impaired older sister, who had only moved into a full-time residential facility less than two years earlier, simply required too much attention. It helped that I was a naturally quiet and bookish boy.
And that may explain what happened to me yesterday afternoon.
I am shocked, frankly, how curious I became about the underlying “truth” of Sybil; the film had traumatized my 10-year-old self that much. But, in the same way we keep poking our tongue into an aching tooth, I kept looking for clips from the film. My wife Nell, partly to stop me talking about it, first suggested I should finally watch the entire movie. Which I resisted…for about as long as it takes to read this sentence.
Unable to locate in on Comcast OnDemand, Amazon, Netflix or YouTube, I contented myself with those clips, mostly out of context. Except those clips only aroused my curiosity further. Those brief glimpses were that compelling. Then, less than 24 hours after writing the previous essay, I found the full, three-hour-plus movie here.
I immediately started to watch it, mesmerized. It was already dark, however, and my foolishness only extends so far, so I paused after the first half. Already, though, I could see how director Daniel Petrie and screenwriter Stewart Stern were playing a bit fast and loose with established facts. Setting the sessions between Mason and Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in 1970s Manhattan, rather than between 1954 and 1965, was likely a way to save money on costuming and sets. It was likely also to condense the sweeping story that “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City, not—as with the real-life Mason—about a decade earlier in Omaha, NE.
Somewhat disorienting, though, the flashback scenes set in fictional Willows Corner, WI have the look and feel of the 1930s—when Mason truly was a young girl. And the first scene we see there is the upsetting tonsillectomy Mason actually had when she was seven—the event journalist Debbie Nathan believes was the kernel of truth the suggestible Mason turned into the more outlandish tales of sexual and physical abuse. In the movie, this merely serves the purpose of establishing young Sybil’s desperate fear of her mother—and her love for her protective, albeit invalid, grandmother. But it is almost as though they knew future—and highly skeptical–researchers would point to this event, so they wrote this scene. Just as they wrote a brief scene between Dr Wilbur (Gina Petrushka) and a fictional older female mentor named Dr. Lazarus. As they walk through Manhattan, the latter tellingly says, “Such a compliment they [the personalities of “Vicki” and “Peggy”] should reveal themselves so quickly.” After Dr. Wilbur gushes about her new patient, they stop at the railing along a riverbed. There, Dr. Lazarus cautions Dr. Wilbur,
“Be careful. Honey, be careful. Do not fall in love with her illness, or she could be obligated to seem just more complex than she is, just to keep your approval. You know that about little girls, they’re defenseless but belong to somebody else. Pieces, fragments, illusions. And they are acting out a drama that has nothing to do with you.”
When Dr. Wilbur replies that she knows that, Dr. Lazarus adds the kicker: “So…you mustn’t act out one that has nothing to do with them.” For instance? “For instance, you are not their mother.” Literally the next thing we hear after this sage—and thoroughly ignored—advice is Woodward’s voiceover explaining how hard following that advice is. Watching naïve “Peggy,” who thinks she is a nine-year-old living in a small Wisconsin town, disappear into the Manhattan night so tugs at her, she wants to call her back. And, of course, Dr. Wilbur does become a surrogate mother to “Sybil,” just as the actual Dr. Wilbur did to Mason.
I finished the movie the following day. Once again, I saw how Petrie and Stern protected themselves: adding a love interest named Richard, eliminating the use of barbiturates during hypnosis and reducing the June 1958 recanting letter to a brief conversation. Most important from the perspective of memory interrogation, though, are the wholly fictional scenes in which Dr. Wilbur meets with “Sybil’s” father in Chicago, unethically discussing his daughter and conveniently learning “Hattie” was once diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She then travels to Willows Corner to investigate. There, she receives confirmation from Dr. Quinones (Charles Lane) about young “Sybil’s” many severe injuries, including bladder and uterus damage that foreshadow the climactic “green kitchen” scene. Dr. Wilbur also visits “Sybil’s” now-empty childhood home and finds both the green kitchen and proof of another traumatizing event. This is then used to get “Sybil” to admit she fabricated her recanting. And when “Sybil’s” personalities finally merge into one on a field somewhere–not even close to how this allegedly happened one day in 1965–Woodward’s voiceover tells us “Sybil” stayed in psychoanalysis for 11 years, airbrushing the months during which the movie has taken place.
All of which brings us to…the scene.
In my memory, it lasted a very long time and was quite graphic. I also had young Sybil bound in a closet. As the scene began, my heart was racing; I was legitimately scared of what I was about to see. However, while still horrifying, much of what I thought I had seen was actually implied through editing and voiceover—and there was no closet. Chalk up another win for memory interrogation.
Still, once the scene—which was also much shorter than I remembered—was over, and we were back in the park where the revelations take place under hypnosis, I began to cry. Not “a few tears rolled down my cheeks,” but uncontrollable, body-racking sobs—wet, snotty and loud. My entire body shrieked with visceral anguish. It was a good 10 minutes before I began to calm down.
Yes, any person with a drop of empathy would recoil in horror at what I had just witnessed—and what the imagination conjured on top of it. IF we are wrong, and young Shirley Ardell Mason was subjected to these medieval tortures, then Martha Mason should suffer the eternal punishments of the damned—and I write this as a Jewish-raised atheist who was never taught, and never accepted, such things.
And there was a good deal of relief I had made it through the movie; this was something I clearly needed to face.
Underneath all of that, though, was something else—my own pain and hurt. When I first watched that scene, way back in November 1976, my happy life was crumbling around me—that my life arguably turned out far better is beside the point. I was never able to express how I truly felt about the separation—I was too compliant for that. My father was shattered, and my mother was becoming what she would call “nervous.” Suddenly, not even 11 years old, I was the man of the house, at least in an emotional support sense. There was little-to-no space for me to grieve what I was losing.
So, perhaps, I did the next best thing. I displaced those feelings onto a terrifying television movie, converting and expanding already-awful scenes into Grand Guignol horror. I never fully understood this until the last few weeks, as I began to interrogate my own memories of those days. And then—when I had watched the scene again—it all came pouring it.
I suspect there is more to come.
Let me just add this: despite its factual inaccuracies and dubious veracity, Sybil deserved all of its accolades. Purely as a work of art, it is astonishing and highly recommended. As good as Woodward is, Field gives an absolutely tour-de-force performance.
As for the real Shirley Ardell Mason?
The following facts are illuminating:
- Shirley is said to be the only surviving child of Walter and Martha Mason.
- The latter was already 39 years old when Shirley was born in 1923, when a woman’s life expectancy was just 58.5
- Shirley survived, but was frail and sickly—and was treated with calf’s liver for what very likely was pernicious anemia.
Under these conditions, is it remotely surprising the “bizarre” Martha Mason would practically smother her only child—intelligent, artistic and sensitive—with extreme overprotectiveness? So much so that when Martha Mason died in 1948, Shirley had never really learned how to care for herself as an adult in the larger world outside rural southern Minnesota. Her father, having found a new romantic partner, then stopped giving his daughter money. That same daughter who was so fascinated by psychology in college.
Of course, Shirley Mason would feed Dr. Wilbur’s personal and professional interest in multiple personality disorder—however unconsciously—in order to appear “more complex than she is” to her surrogate mother, the woman who was essentially supporting her in New York City.
All of this is merely conjecture, of course, based only upon a twice-seen television movie and a little bit of online research; I confess I have not read any of the primary books on Sybil/Shirley Mason. Nonetheless, it remains the best example I have yet found of how not to interrogate memory.
Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.
4 thoughts on “Sybil: A brief, dramatic epilogue”
I remember reading the book when it first came out and being fascinated by it. Then the movie was released, and I agree, Sally Field did an excellent job. I studied theater in college, and my major was directing, not acting. But I did enjoy acting, and I loved to be challenged. I thought the character of Sybil would be the ultimate role to play.
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Thank you for reading! Here is what is remarkable. We now know the entire story was BS – not all of it, but enough of it. No matter. For Woodward and Field to induce the reaction that I had – body-racking, snotty wailing and sobbing lasting a good 15, 20 minutes – is a testament to great writing, acting and direction. Considered as a work of history, meh. But considered as a work of art, SYBIL is extraordinary. Are you still involved with theater?
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I taught middle school drama (pardon the redundancy.) for a while before retiring, but I was involved in an outreach involving a multimedia production for fifteen years. Now I just write about those things. 😉
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