Grab all the facts behind Sybil Isabel Dorsett aka Shirley Ardell Mason, who claimed to have 16 split personalities. Sybil Dorsett later stated she faked the whole thing, but experts are not buying it. Here’s why.
The genuine story of a lady with 16 different alter egos stunned the world in 1973, sparking a pop-culture fascination with a split personality disorder that continues to this day. But the woman at the center of it all said she was pretending the entire time.
Multiple personality disorder (MPD), also known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, something we recently witnessed with Billy Milligan on Netflix‘s Monsters Inside, is a highly unusual ailment that is still poorly understood.
Psycho (1960), Split (2016), and United States of Tara (2009-2011) all depict a dramatized form of the disease in which individuals act radically differently based on whose “alter ego” is in control.
Who is Sybil Isabel Dorsett aka Shirley Ardell Mason?
It all began with Sybil: The True and Extraordinary Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Separate Personalities, published in 1973. Sybil Dorsett (real name Shirley Mason) and her discoveries with psychoanalyst Cornelia Wilbur during the 1950s and 1960s are chronicled in this best-seller.
Shirley grew up on a Minnesota ranch with Seventh Day Adventist parents and developed paranoid delusions that her house would tear down or that she would contract illnesses from books.
Shirley said in one of her initial meetings with Dr. Wilbur that she frequently found herself in unexpected settings with no idea how she got there, even waking up in an obscure antique store on a different side of New York City.
Shirley was diagnosed with “fugue states,” in which a patient loses consciousness for hours at a stretch, and Dr. Wilbur recommended her a variety of drugs. Shirley appeared weird during her next visit, and when asked whether she was okay, she replied:
I’m fine, but Shirley isn’t. She was so sick she couldn’t come. So I came instead.
She claimed to be a girl called “Peggy” who lived within Shirley’s head, but she talked and behaved in an unrecognizable manner. Dr. Wilbur discovered many personas residing within Shirley over the years, ranging from an intelligent, gorgeous blonde to a masculine carpenter to a child.
Victoria, Peggy Lou, Peggy Ann, Mary, Marcia Lynn, Vanessa, Mike, Sid, Nancy, Sybil, Ruthie, Clara, Helen, Marjorie, and someone identified only as “The Blonde” were among Sybil’s 16 alter personalities.
Shirley’s alter egos gradually disclosed horrific aspects about her life, such as being forced to witness her parents having sex and being abused by her mother.
Shirley agreed to commit herself to therapy on a full-time basis, devoting more than 15 hours a week in her psychoanalyst’s clinic, when Dr. Wilbur planned to publish a book about the phenomena.
She was on a mixture of antipsychotics and stimulants at this stage, and she was hooked to pharmaceutical medicines. Flora Rheta Schreiber, a reporter, authored the book on her chats with Dr. Wilbur and gave Shirley the alias Sybil Dorsett.
The book’s release sparked controversy, with over seven million copies sold. More than 40 million viewers watched a 1976 television adaption starring Sally Field.
Its themes struck a chord with the American people, who were concerned at the time with mental developments like repressed memories of trauma, which would later provide the foundation of the “Satanic panic” frenzy that would engulf the US over the next decade.
Many readers confessed to the author that they thought they had different personalities. The disorder’s diagnosis skyrocketed (mainly among females), aligning with the inclusion of MPD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the very first time back in 1974.
According to Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe The Children, less than 200 individuals had ever been classified with anything matching MPD before 1970, but a decade later, there were countless instances every year.
Therapists found MPD patients with dozens of alter personalities. Then they found MPD patients with hundreds of alter personalities. As the number of alters increased, so did the supposed violence and brutality of the abuse that had brought them into being.
But the story doesn’t end here!
Sybil Dorsett Later Claimed to Fake Her 16 Split Personalities
The aftermath of Sybil’s actions, however, overlooked one crucial fact: Shirley had admitted to fabricating the entire story years prior.
A few years into her therapy sessions with Dr. Wilbur, she expressed in a letter:
I do not have any multiple personalities. I don’t even have a ‘double’ to help me out. I am all of them. I have been essentially lying in my pretense of them, I know. I had not meant to lie in the beginning. I sort of fell into a pattern, found it worked and continued to build on it.
Sybil said she was upset and anxious the day she initially identified herself as Peggy, and that disappearing for hours and pretending she didn’t know where she’d been was pretty exhilarating.
Shirley went on to say that she didn’t believe MPD was real and referred to other patients as “hysterics with nothing better to do.” She also stated that her claims of sexual assault were false.
Dr. Wilbur regarded Sybil’s letter as a massive defensive maneuver, saying it simply demonstrated how traumatized she was. Shirley later wrote a second letter, blaming one of her personalities for the original one’s composition.
Experts now see MPD as a frequent coping technique in those who have experienced trauma. Dr. David Spiegel from the American Psychiatric Association said:
Many of us find ways to detach ourselves from painful or unpleasant experiences. However, people typically restore their usual perspective over time.
Before you leave, find out whether Billy Milligan killed Michael Pierce Madden.