They Call Her Sybil: The Case of Shirley Ardell Mason

Shirley Mason, Center, in 1943
Photo from the Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 6 June 1999

It was a case that entranced the entire nation and, arguably, the world during the 1960s and 1970s. Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur, a medical doctor, and psychiatrist, previously on staff at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, presented the case of Sybil Isabel Dorsett to the nation. The case of young Sybil resulted in a book, written by Flora Rheta Schreiber, and a TV movie simply titled Sybil. So who was Sybil? Sybil, born Shirley Ardell Mason, was born in 1923 in Dodge Center, Minnesota. Shirley’s father was Mr. Walter W. Mason and her mother was Mrs. Martha Alice Atkinson. Martha was better known as Mattie but, in Schreiber’s book, she was simply referred to as “Hattie.” For the sake of brevity, Martha will be referred to as “Mattie” through this post. Mattie was often referred to as being strange or weird when she lived in Minnesota. Her neighbors would remark on her bizarre laugh and they (the neighbors) would report that Mattie would walk at night and look into windows. Additionally, it was reported that Mattie had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, though it remains unclear if this entirely true. Shirley would go on to graduate from Dodge Center High School in the early 1940s and then attended Mankato State College. Later, Shirley became a substitute teacher in the 1950s and even attended Columbia University.


Shirley Mason, Painting
Photo from the Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 6 June 1999

Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur
The Boston Globe, Boston, Massachusetts, 14 June 1973

As time progressed, Shirley reported having periods of blackouts in her life and had emotional breakdowns. The consistent breakdowns would lead Shirley to seek therapy to resolve her issues. Shirley sought treatment by Freudian psychoanalyst Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur. Shirley would be under Dr. Wilbur’s care for approximately 11 years and her case would spark a psychiatric and cultural phenomenon. Dr. Wilbur would go on to practice and teach around the country before settling into Lexington, Kentucky for a period. This was when Shirley followed Dr. Wilbur and moved to Lexington as well so she could be closer to Dr. Wilbur and completed her treatment.

Flora Rheta Schreiber
The Boston Globe, Boston, Massachusetts, 14 June 1973.

From a young age, it was alleged that Shirley Mason had suffered extensive physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her parents. Schreiber’s book would highlight many instances of abuse; one of those detailing Mattie’s alleged break from reality. “We don’t want anyone looking in, spying on us,” the words of Mattie, Shirley’s mother. Mattie would proceed to lock the kitchen door, pull the shades for the door and windows, and then placed Shirley atop the kitchen table. According to Shirley, her mother would not always do the same things to her, though they were all usually terrible. Shirley reported that Mattie would separate Shirley’s legs with a long wooden spoon, tie her feet to the spoon with dishtowels, and then string her to the end of a light bulb cord hanging from the ceiling. Shirley also alleged that Mattie would give her enemas, forcing the catheter tip into her urethra and would fill her bladder full of ice water. It was also alleged that Mattie would force a flashlight, a small bottle, or a silver knife into Shirley.

It was Dr. Cornelia Wilbur who discovered these atrocities during her therapy sessions with Shirley. Though Shirley sought help, she was so young, she had no advantage over her parents. And thus, it was posited that Shirley stopped looking outside for help and focused from within. That is when she developed 16 alters or personalities to help her deal with her traumatic experiences as a child. In the early stages of her pathology, Shirley attempted to create a fantasy world where she had a caring and loving mother. In time, she allegedly split into 16 alters to help her cope with and survive her abuse. Shirley’s father, Willard, was noted as being passive; he largely ignored the abuse and the signs, the burns, and the scars. He never responded to Shirley’s screams.


From the Charlotte Observer, 15 July 1973

A list of Shirley’s Alters:

(Note: these are listed in Flora Rheta Schreiber’s book and the alters’ names were also changed as Shirley was still alive at the time of publication of the book.)

  1. Sybil Isabel Dorsett – Served as Shirley’s primary alter
  2. Victoria “Vicky” Antoinette Scharleau – A young, but enthusiastic French girl
  3. Peggy Lou Baldwin – Was often angry
  4. Peggy Ann Baldwin – Was the opposite of Peggy Lou in that she was often fearful instead of being angry
  5. Mary Lucinda Saunders Dorsett – Maternal figure
  6. Marcia Lynn Dorsett – Prolific writer and artist
  7. Vanessa Gail Dorsett – Happy, upbeat, and a musician
  8. Mike Dorsett – The first of two male alters, was also a builder
  9. Sid Dorsett – The second of Sybil’s two male alters, was a carpenter
  10. Nancy Lou Ann Baldwin – Evangelical and also very political
  11. Sybil Ann Dorsett – A largely lifeless alter
  12. Ruthie Dorsett – Infant alter
  13. Clara Dorsett – Constantly critical of Sybil and quite religious
  14. Helen Dorsett – Consistently afraid to set or achieve goals
  15. Marjorie Dorsett – Easy going, loved to laugh
  16. The Blonde – A teenage alter that was upbeat

A drawing by one of Shirley’s alters, “Marcia,” depicts the town of Willow Corners. Marcia is in the lower left corner, separated from the townspeople. Sketch also depicts a neighbor’s garden, the scene of Mattie’s embarrassing activities during Shirley’s early childhood. Shirley was nine years old when “Marcia” did this sketch.
From the Charlotte Observer, 15 July 1973

It was not until Shirley was 42 years of age, in 1965, that all of her 16 alters melded into one and marked the birth of the “new” Shirley. To reach that point, Shirley had to endure 11 years of therapy with a total of 2,354 office sessions. These sessions varied but some included the use of Sodium Pentothal and hypnosis to help delve into Shirley’s experiences with abuse. The integration of all of Shirley’s alters was a slow and sometimes grueling process. Dr. Wilbur believed that each of Shirley’s traumas had to be “uprooted and analyzed” to integrate and thus Shirley would no longer need any of the alters. Shirley, according to Dr. Wilbur, often struggled against meeting her various alters. In the aftermath of her treatment, Shirley would report that some people had a difficult time believing that her mother and father would do the things she alleged. It is, largely (at least back then) hard to see how a mother or father could do that to a child. Dr. Wilbur was certain, however, that it happened and Shirley’s response, though rare, was one that helped her cope with the nightmare she was living.

When Dr. Wilbur started treatment with Shirley, she was charged between $15, $20, or $25 per visit but primarily stayed at $15 per visit. Over her 11 years of treatment, Shirley racked up a bill of more than $35,000. By 1973, just before the book was published, Shirley had paid over one-third of the total bill. Additionally, the Sodium Pentothal treatments were more expensive and, over time, Dr. Wilbur had to discontinue these treatments as Shirley began exhibiting signs of becoming addicted toward it. Dr. Wilbur said that royalties from the book would be shared by Shirley, Dr. Wilbur, and the author.

Aftermath

After Shirley “integrated,” she went on to live a quiet but successful life, according to most reports. Shirley would go on to teach art at a community college and was a painter herself, even hosting her own art gallery. In the 1990s, however, researchers, academics, and clinicians, after the deaths of Shirley and Dr. Wilbur, began suspecting that the case of “Sybil” was not as it appeared. A psychologist in San Francisco reported that he found tape recordings of sessions of Shirley and Dr. Wilbur that cast doubt on Dr. Wilbur’s diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (today known as dissociative identity disorder). Psychologist Dr. Robert Rieber from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York reported that, based on the found tape recordings, it was suggested that the alters Shirley developed were created during therapy through suggestions to a highly pliable young woman. Additionally, Dr. Rieber believed that the conversations between Dr. Wilbur and the author of the book were “not totally unaware” that the story was wrong yet they wished to believe it, irrespective of the evidence. Others, like the clinical professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Richard Gottlieb noted that Dr. Rieber’s report failed to show that the book was a conscious misrepresentation. Yet there was still no consensus as to whether or not the diagnosis was fabricated or misrepresented. Dr. Leah Dickstein at the University of Louisville in Kentucky stayed in touch with Shirley after Dr. Wilbur died. Dr. Dickstein reported that Shirley told her, “Tell people every word in the book is true.” Additionally, Dr. Dickstein, who personally knew Dr. Wilbur, was steadfast in her belief that Dr. Wilbur did not need to make up the events of “Sybil.”

In yet another interesting twist, Dr. Wilbur diagnosed Shirley with breast cancer in early 1990; however, Shirley would go into remission without treatment. Just a short year later, Dr. Wilbur was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and, at that time, Shirley moved in to help care for Dr. Wilbur until her death in 1992. By early 1997, Shirley’s breast cancer had returned; she once again decided against treatment. Shirley donated her house and paintings to the Seventh-day Adventist church and would die in late February of 1998 at the age of 75. Years later, in Shirley’s house in Lexington, Kentucky, a horde of approximately 100 paintings were found in the basement. Some of the paintings were signed by Shirley, some were unsigned, and some even included the signatures of her alters. Shirley’s paintings sold at auction in 1999 for between $30,000-$100,000 to an unidentified collector from Leawood, Kansas. Though many will see the case of “Sybil” as a cultural phenomenon, Shirley Mason was a living, breathing human being. Whether one believes her story is true is entirely up for debate.


Doves in Flight, by Shirley Ardell Mason
From the Courier-Journal, 11 March 2011


Shirley A. Mason
Image from NPR*

Contributed by Shawn Logan | contact@kyhi.org

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. Schreiber, Flora Rheta. 1973. Sybil. New York: Warner.
  2. Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, p. 69, June 1999.
  3. The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte, North Carolina, p. 39, 15 July 1973.
  4. Johnson City Press, Johnson City, Tennessee, p. 5, 17 August 1998.
  5. The Miami Herald, Miami, Florida, p. 100, 20 April 1973.
  6. Detroit Free Press, Detroit Michigan, p. 31, 25 May 1973.
  7. *NPR: https://www.npr.org/2011/10/20/141514464/real-sybil-admits-multiple-personalities-were-fake

Important note:
If you would like to use any information on this website (including text, bios, photos and any other information) we encourage you to contact us. We do not own all of the materials on this website/blog. Many of these materials are courtesy of other sources and the original copyright holders retain all applicable rights under the law. Please remember that information contained on this site, authored/owned by KHI, is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Photographs, text, illustrations and all other media not authored by KHI belong to their respective authors/owners/copyright holders and are used here for educational purposes only under Title 17 U.S. Code § 107.

Creative Commons License

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s