Monday, October 17, 2011

Sybil: Another Example of Fritz's First Law

Fritz's First Law of Science:  Half of all the science in the mass media is wrong, and the other half is exaggerated:

Fritz's Second Law of Science:  All models are wrong; the only question is by how much and in which direction.

Fritz's Third Law of Science: It is highly probable that a model is biased in the direction its author believes is correct.

So how does #1 apply to Sybil?
Sybil’s real name was Shirley Mason. She was a jittery girl who grew up quivering in a Minnesota family of Seventh-day Adventists who believed that the world was about to end and that any fiction divorced from God’s truth was a sin. As a little girl, she was so terrified of God’s watchful eye that, when she made up stories, she hid this habit from her parents. She was also made to participate in a health fad of the day, the “internal bath,” or enema. She developed a germ phobia and at one point examined her hands obsessively.

As a student in New York City in the 1950s, she met a Park Avenue therapist named Cornelia “Connie” Wilbur. The two women adored each other even as Connie gradually got Shirley hooked on a series of “therapeutic” drugs, many of them new and seemingly wondrous, including Seconal, Demerol, Edrisal and Daprisal. (The last two were so addictive that they were soon banned.) Connie also strongly believed in giving patients Pentathol, which invariably got them blabbing, sometimes about fantasies that could not possibly have occurred. Still, the drug was widely believed to be a “truth serum.”

One day, Shirley started talking about blackouts in which, she claimed, she became others with various names and personalities -- Peggy Lou, Peggy Ann, Vicky, etc.

Fascinated, Connie offered, “Would you like to earn some money?” She suggested that her patient could be the subject of a book. Connie offered to pay Shirley’s medical-school tuition and living expenses.

The personality split was a lie, Shirley confessed in a five-page 1958 letter that sits in the archives at John Jay. She said she was “none of the things I have pretended to be.”

Shirley continued, “I do not have any multiple personalities ... I do not even have a ‘double’ ... I am all of them. I have essentially been lying ... as trying to show you I felt I needed help ... Quite thrilling. Got me a lot of attention.”
Sally Field and Joanna Woodward in "Sybil"
So, a little lie, to keep the therapist happy, get a little attention and make some money.  What's the harm in that?

Soon, “multiple personality disorder,” or MPD, became an officially recognized diagnosis, and a handful of cases exploded into 40,000 reported sufferers, nearly all of them female. The repressed-memory industry was born. Only in the last decade or so has the psychiatric profession begun to question the validity of Sybilmania.

And  it made Sally Fields a reputation as a serious actress with the Emmy winning 1976 movie "Sybil", in which she starred in the title role. 

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