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Who was the real Sybil?

The New Yorker, January 4, 1999

During the upcoming New York Antiques Show, anyone with an interest in so-called outsider art should make his way over to Pier 92, where the firm of Parrett/Lich is selling twenty-seven paintings by the most famous unknown artist in America. Priced between a thousand dollars and thirty-five hundred, the paintings are proficient, although not particularly distinguished. What is striking, however, is their stylistic range- eerie gray cityscapes, dreamy watercolors, surreal melting forests- a range so broad as to suggest that they are the work of several artists rather than just one. And in a sense they are, since the artist in question is Shirley Mason, who is better known to the world as Sybil.

That the identity of a woman who once claimed she possessed sixteen distinct personalities could remain secret until now is a testament to the dedication of her longtime guardians: her psychoanalyst, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who died in 1992, and Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of the best-selling 1973 book “Sybil,” who died ten years ago. Although the book portrays doctor and patient parting ways after a dramatic break-through which ended Sybil’s eleven-year analysis, in fact Mason trailed her analyst when she moved away from New York. Both eventually settled in Lexington, Kentucky, where Mason died this past February, at the age of seventy-five.

Together, the three women are responsible for shaping the modern notion of multiple personality disorder (M.P.D.) and “Sybil”- whose royalties they split three ways- became the movement’s bible. Before 1973, there were fewer than fifty known cases of M.P.D.; by 1995, more than forty thousand had been diagnosed, prompting skepticism in the mental-health field. As the controversy over over M.P.D. has brown, “Sybil” has come under scrutiny, and the search for Sybil herself intensified. In April, 1997, Dr. Herbert Spiegel, a New York analyst who had also treated Sybil, told The New York Review of Books that she was not a multiple personality but merely a suggestible hysteric. In August, Dr. Robert Reiber, a psychologist at John Jay

College, used tapes of conversations between Wilbur and Schreiber to argue that “Sybil” was a fraud. “It is clear from Wilbur’s own words that she was not exploring the truth but rather planting the truth as she wanted it to be,” he wrote.

It is not until now, however, that Sybil’s identity has finally come to light. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, a professor of comparative literature at the University Of Washington, and Peter Swales, a critic who has gained notoriety for digging up the true names of many of Freud’s early patients, set out last spring to discover the truth about Sybil’s life. Swales noticed that in Schreiber’s book the doctor in Sybil’s small Midwestern home town has a Hispanic pseudonym, Dr. Quinones. “As with Freud, I always assume that there is at least a tenuous connection between the true facts and a fabrication,” he told me. In September, 1998, and after searching the medical registry for Hispanic physicians in similar towns during the nineteen-twenties, he found a Dr. Otoniel Flores, who had practiced in Dodge Center, Minnesota.

A call to the Dodge County Historical Society solved the case with surprising speed. “Are you familiar with a woman painter born around 1923, whose grandfather was a sawmill owner with a wooden leg, whose father was a carpenter with a crippled hand; and whose mother may have been emotionally disturbed?” Swales asked an elderly clerk at the society. “Are you talking about Sybil, by any chance?” the clerk replied Swales was stunned. Sybil’s identity, a mystery to the rest of the world, had been an open secret in Dodge Center.

What’s more, Swales and Borch-Jacobsen were not the only ones who had managed to unmask Sybil. In 1995, a Lexington antique collector named Mark Boultinghouse bought a number of paintings by an artist he knew as Shirley Mason. When Mason died, her executor offered Boultinghouse the rest of the estate’s art. On examining the paintings, he noticed that one canvas had “Property of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur” stamped on the back. Boultinghouse had heard Wilbur lecture on the subject of muliple personality and was aware of her connection to Sybil. He compared the paintings with the illustrations of Sybil’s art work in his copy of Schreiber’s book, and saw that they were nearly identical.

Once Boultinghouse had established Mason’s identity as Sybil, he sold forty-six of her paintings to the Parrett/Lich firm, which, in turn, decided to show them at the New York Antiques Show. In the meantime, Swales and Borch-Jacobsen, who are now collaborating on a documentary called “Sybil: Who’s Who?,” learned of the paintings, and Swales will be visiting the show. “As art, the paintings aren’t anything really so special,” Rod Lich, the firm’s co-owner, told me. “But as Sybil’s art they’re pretty interesting.” It is a judgment with which Mason would no doubt have agreed. “They ought to be worth quite a lot,” Wilbur once quoted Sybil as saying, “because the artist no longer exists.”