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Sybil Exposed

Sybil Exposed

The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case

  • reading group guide
  • bestseller
Sybil: a name that resonates with legions of obsessed fans who followed the nonfiction blockbuster from 1973. The book rocketed multiple personality disorder into public consciousness and played a major role in having the diagnosis added to the psychiatric bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But what do we really know about how Sybil came to be? In her news-breaking book Sybil Exposed, journalist Debbie Nathan gives proof that the allegedly true story outlined in the megabestseller was largely fabricated. The actual identity of Sybil (Shirley Mason) has been available for some years, as has the idea that the book might have been exaggerated. But Nathan reveals the trio of women behind the legend: the willing patient, her ambitious shrink, and the imaginative journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

Sybil Exposed draws from an enormous trail of papers, records, photos, and tapes to unearth the lives and passions of these three women whose story exploded into an epic movement with consequences beyond their wildest dreams. Set across the twentieth century and rooted in a time when few professional roles were available to women, this is a story of corrosive sexism, bold but unchecked ambition, runaway greed, utter human vulnerability, duplicity and shared delusion, shaky theories of psychoanalysis exuberantly and drastically practiced, and how one modest young woman’s life turned psychiatry on its head and radically changed the course of therapy—and our culture, as well.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439168288 | 
  • June 2012
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Sybil Exposed

Sybil, one of the first and most highly publicized cases of Multiple Personality Disorder comes under new light with Debbie Nathan's examination and subsequent proof that the story was an elaborate fraud—albeit one that the perpetrators may have a...

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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Sybil Exposed includes discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The book Sybil, by journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, was first published in 1973 and immediately became a blockbuster bestseller. A made-for-TV movie followed and was viewed by a fifth of all Americans. Today, the movie is in constant reruns and the book is assigned for high school English and college psychology courses. If you’ve read the book or seen the telemovie, what scenes do you remember best, and what effect did Sybil have on you?

2. Sybil was always marketed as non-fiction. Every torture incident, and every detail of the patient’s terrible mental illness, was presented as true. If you read the book or saw the movie, did you believe everything portrayed? Why or why not?

3. Sybil Exposed makes the case that Shirley Mason – the real “Sybil” – began acting as though she had multiple personalities because her psychiatrist pressured her to behave this way. Do you think Sybil Exposed makes a good argument that this happened?

4. Have you ever known anyone with Multiple Personality Disorder (now called see more

About the Author

Debbie Nathan
Photograph by Morten Naess

Debbie Nathan

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.

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