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Remember the Adventist ‘Sybil’?—Not So Factual

In Salon, Laura Miller writes on a book that investigates how three women created what appears to be a very psychologically complex fabrication about the mind of one infamous Adventist.

Debbie Nathan’s “Sybil Exposed” is about psychiatric fads, outrageous therapeutic malpractice, thwarted ambition run amok, and several other subjects, but above all, it is a book about a book. Specifically, that book is “Sybil,” purportedly the true story of a woman with 16 personalities. First published in 1973, “Sybil” remains in print after selling over 6 million copies in the U.S. alone.


A work of high Midwestern gothic trash, “Sybil” might have been purpose-built to enthrall 14-year-old girls of morbid temperament (which is probably the majority of 14-year-old girls, come to think of it). I would not be surprised to learn that it is circulated as avidly on middle-school playgrounds today as it was in my own youth. My sisters, my friends and I all devoured it, discussing its heroine’s baroque sufferings in shocked whispers before promptly forgetting all about it until the TV movie starring Sally Field came along.


“Sybil Exposed” utilizes a cache of Schreiber’s papers archived at a New York City law school, letters collected from a far-flung variety of sources, and even some interviews with (now very aged) friends and relatives of the three women. Mason grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family in small-town Minnesota during the 1920s and ’30s, a painfully thin child whose religion made her a misfit at school and whose imaginative, artistic yearnings were regarded as sinful by her church. She suffered from phobias and other neurotic complaints, but also from a constellation of physical and sensory symptoms that Nathan believes can be attributed to a lifelong and largely untreated case of pernicious anemia. Those symptoms — tingling in the limbs, spatial disorientation and confusion among them — were, as was often the case at the time, blamed on psychiatric problems.

Read the whole review here.

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