Wednesday, June 7, 2017


Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

In 1998, a retired art teacher named Shirley Mason died in Lexington, Kentucky. She had breast cancer, for which she had declined treatment because she felt she had been through enough trauma in her life. A few people already knew, and many more soon learned, that she had been the famous psychiatric patient known as Sybil.

Shirley Ardell Mason was born in Dodge Center, Minnesota, in 1923. She was an only child whose mother was well known around town for her strange behavior.

A neighbor of the Mason's named Betty Borst Christensen stated:

"She had a witchlike laugh. 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.

As a young woman, Shirley went away to college to study art, but suffered a breakdown that precipitated her psychiatric treatment with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.

The treatment led to Dr. Wilbur discovering that her patient had sixteen separate personalities––some were children and two were male––a disorder that resulted from horrific abuse Shirley suffered at her mother's hands.

Patient and psychiatrist cooperated with author Flora Rheta Schreiber to create the book

that was released in 1973 and became a bestseller. The three shared in the profits.

In 1975, the book became the basis of a TV movie starring Sally Field that helped the actress leave behind her Gidget and The Flying Nun reputation to become a two-time Academy Award winning dramatic actress.

A number of people in Dodge Center are said to have known immediately that the family described in the book were the Masons.

The book and movie resulted in thousands of diagnoses of what was then called multiple personality disorder, and later, charges that Dr. Wilbur manipulated Mason into recalling or creating the personalities, which were

The "real' patient, Sybil was "extremely suggestible'
Warm and cultured, claimed total recall
Peggy Lou
Assertive and eager, but obstinate and quick to anger
Peggy Ann
More tactful than Peggy Lou, also more fearful
The most religious personality; a maternal homebody
A fiery painter and writer; British accent
Attractive and dramatic, Vanessa scorned religion
A proud, swarthy carpenter; wanted to "give a girl a baby'
Also a carpenter, but fair-skinned and less outspoken
Paranoid; obsessed with Armageddon and conspiracy
Sybil Ann
Pale, timid and extremely lethargic; the defeated Sybil
A toddler, the Ruthie personality was poorly developed
Very religious; critical and resentful of Sybil
Timid, afraid, but determined "to be somebody'
Serene and quick to laugh, enjoyed parties and travel
The Blonde

A nameless teen, fun-loving and carefree

Whether Shirley Mason really had multiple personalities, we'll probably never know. But Mason and Wilbur remained close friends, with Mason moving to be near Wilbur when she accepted a position at the University of Kentucky. When Wilbur was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Mason moved into Wilbur's home to care for her.

Wilbur died in 1992. She left Mason $25,000 and her share of the royalties from Sybil.

Shirley Mason seems to have spent most of her life quietly. A close friend shopped for her and helped care for her during the final stages of cancer. 

Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug

"Blue Is The Color of Love,"
a painting by Shirley Ardell Mason


  1. Hi Janie - I hadn't heard of her - but know of the film ... though I'd have never have watched it ... but now it's on my radar - I probably will at some stage. What an interesting post ... thanks for alerting me - cheers Hilary

    1. The book sold millions of copies. I remember reading it and was horrified by what her mother allegedly did to her.

  2. There was a book published in 2012 called Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan. I haven't read it but I did read the original book years ago. Reading this revelation would be interesting.

    1. I noticed that book as I looked at information for this post. During the 1950s, Shirley wrote letters to Dr. Wilbur in which she said she had invented the personalities. Dr. Wilbur was asked about them by another psychiatrist who treated Shirley for a time, who did not believe she was a "multiple." Dr. Wilbur said that Shirley wrote the letters when she was still in denial about her mental state.

  3. I had read a book about the real Sybil back when the movie with Sally Field came out. Interesting to hear what happened to her in the rest of her life and that she and the psychiatrist stayed close friends. I have no doubt that she had multiple personalities.

    I did an internship at the Anoka State Mental Hospital (Human Services Tech) and met one there (she had a nasty male protector, a dancing little girl, and an infant, even).

    Later on in Wisconsin I worked transporting adults with mental illness and ran a rec group. Picked up one personality from the hospital (hadn't met this lady before) and halfway home there was someone else in the car. Your gut instincts tell you it's real. When you see someone change--voice, body language, but most of all the very sincere essence of them--well, I believed. They were not trying to convince me of anything at all. I didn't matter, you know.

    1. That's so interesting. I'd love to hear more about it.

  4. Probably one of the most famous pyschiatric patients in the world, no matter what her true diagnosis may have been. I remember that movie with Sally Field very well and yes, after that movie, she was regarded as a "serious" actress.

  5. So heartbreaking. I think I've read about Sybil before. Her childhood was horrible and I can't blame her for wanting a quiet life later on.

    1. She had a hard life, and worked at keeping her identity a secret.

  6. I can see all of us having those same personalities, but all in one person. Her's just split and she acted out each one as an individuals. I don't think she was misled because the brain is so complicated. I can see it happening.

    1. After she died and friends cleaned out her house, they found some paintings by her other personalities that were completely different from her usual style.

  7. I remember reading the book when it was first published. I thought it was interesting and also thought MPS would be a handy excuse to use as an explanation for anything I had ever done wrong. I do remember once when my sons were young and complained because I forced them to take a couple of bites of cauliflower before they could leave the table to just call me Sybil's mother.

    1. Cauliflower? Cooked cauliflower? That is cruel.

  8. I must check this out. I'd never Shirley Mason until today. I'll have to look into that book.

    1. The book might still be in print, or available at used book stores.

  9. Thanks for sharing the story behind the story. I read the book and also saw the movie. Fascinating case study! It's a little disheartening to think the multiple personalities were bogus, but 16 seems like an incredible number. 'The Three Faces of Eve' was a little more plausible.

    1. Christine Sizemore was the woman behind The Three Faces of Eve. Psychiatrists who treated her later believe she actually had twenty personalities. Who knows?

    2. I didn't know that. Even more interesting! Hard to fathom how one mind can form so many different personalities.

    3. The mind sometimes protects the primary identity from the knowledge of terrible events.

  10. Interesting post, Janie. I read the book and saw the movie, and was fascinated by both. Ditto the story of Christine Sizemore and a number of other case studies I've read.

    Like Rita said, I think Sybil was legit.

    Have a super weekend.

  11. I was aware of the movie but not much else. Thanks for the additional information.

  12. Fascinating - both the human mind and this story.

    1. The mind sometimes protects itself by splitting into another identity (or disassociating) so that the primary identity doesn't remember horrible events.

  13. Hm. This is kind of weird. Your post made me recall that I recently read an article about Shirley Mason and Dr. Wilbur, but I can't recall where I encountered it or why it was written. I mean, it's not like Shirley, Dr. Wilbur or Flora Rheta Schreiber died recently, or anything like that...

    That's going to bug me until I can think of where I read it! Maybe it was on someone's blog during A to Z Challenge month.

  14. I found this interesting as I heard of the book and film but really didn't know who they were based on

    1. Shirley Mason did whatever she needed to do to hide her identity.

  15. This story has always fascinated me. I've always wanted to see the movie but never have. Thank you for reminding me to do that.

  16. I'd really love to read the book. I have surprisingly yet to read it. I might have to take Susan's suggestion too!

    Sounds like a very sad story.


  17. I, of course, saw the TV movie more than once and even that movie was horrific. I still hear the actress, who played the mother, say, " Have a nice fall" after tripping her daughter down the stairs. The kitchen was a big problem for Sybil also....and regardless, that poor woman went through hell with that mother. The shame is why she was never taken out of the house. I read some fmthe commments and I believe what the lady who worked with these people said. It might be easy for us to say it doesn't exist but we can not judge and I have never met anyone with this condition so, until I do, I will never say it doesn't exist. I believe it does.

  18. I never read the book but the movie was wonderful!!


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