Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Multiple Personalities: Crime and Defense

Eve and Sybil

The Three Faces of Eve, the videocover
The Three Faces of Eve, the videocover
The case described in The Three Faces of Eve, a 1957 book and film based on a case study by Thigpen and Cleckley, was initially presented to the professional community in 1953. It features Eve (a.k.a., Chris Sizemore), who suffered from a rare disorder that came to be called MPD. Prior to her case, very little was known about this condition.

The doctors speculated that Eves splitting into several different personalities was rooted in a series of traumatic events she had witnessed growing up in the south during the Depression. She saw several terrible accidents and her first split appeared to have occurred when she witnessed her mother cut her arm. She felt dissociated as she ran to get help. After that, she experienced periodic amnesia. Despite substantial hypnotic probing, she never described childhood abuse, so the doctors determined the triggering trauma had largely been to people around her.

According to Thigpen and Cleckley, Eve felt as if she were three different little girls: good, bad, and indifferent. People who knew her just thought she was deceptive and eccentric. She married at the age of 21, but when she was under stress she continued to have episodes. The therapists believed her condition was a way to deal with her conflicted sexuality. At one point, Sizemore tried to strangle her own daughter and afterward had no recollection of the act, so she checked into a psychiatric hospital

The doctors referred to her personalities as Eve White, a wife and mother; Eve Black, a party girl; and Jane, a mature intellectual. After a year of therapy, they declared her three alters had integrated, which meant she was cured. They went on to write their sensational book.

But Sizemore was not cured. Many more personalities emergeda total of 22--and she re-entered therapy with someone else. She wrote her own book on the subject, Im Eve, stating the truth about her experience. It took twenty years of intensive work before she realized she could control her own life. She eventually became normal, but her condition had lasted some 45 years.

Sybil, on the other hand, was said to have fragmented as the result of extreme abuse. Her true name, discovered many years later, was Shirley Mason, and she was an art student. Her case set the standard as a syndrome rooted in child abuse. It made multiple personality disorder or syndrome famous, especially after the 1976 television miniseries, starring Sally Fields, which was based on the 1973 bestseller. Sybil was described as having 16 separate personalities, all having unique talents and characteristics, such as piano playing or having a British accent. A couple of the alters were male.  

Sybil, aka Shirley K. Mason
Sybil, aka Shirley K. Mason
At the age of 31, Mason found herself in the office of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. She reported sadistic sexual abuse at the hands of her mother. According to the book, says Acocella in The New Yorker, she probed the childs vagina with a knife and a buttonhook. She hung her upside down and, using an enema bag, filled her bladder with ice-cold water, then tied her to the family piano and forbade her to urinate while she, the mother, played Chopin. This, apparently, had caused Sybil to split into alters who were able to deal with various life situations on her behalf.

Many people used this book as their Bible, the case against which all others were to be measured. Prior to that, MPD had been considered an extremely rare mental disorder. Research performed by W.S. Taylor and Mabel Martin in 1944, had come up with fewer than 100 documented cases. However, from 1985 to 1995, there were an estimated 40,000 new cases.

Dr. Wilbur, a Freudian psychoanalyst, promoted the idea that repressed memories were the foundation to each of the alters and had to be recovered in order for the person to become whole again. In 1980, the symptoms became a formal diagnosis. Wilbur opened a hospital ward specializing in multiples.

Then in 1998, several publications exposed the case as a sham. Robert Rieber at John Jay College of Criminal Justice listened to the Sybil tapes and concluded that Wilbur had induced the personalities in the patient. Her sessions included hypnosis and sodium pentothal and her technique was to name different emotional states as personalities. She would not allow Sybil to protest. Rieber realized that no evidence for the reported abuse had been found.

Then Peter Swales, a historian of psychoanalysis, discovered Sybils true identity and located her. He discovered she bore little resemblance to the patient presented in the book. It was the case, said Swales, that Shirley was only a multiple personality in the full-blown sense in the psychoanalytic setting. Newsweek and The New Yorker followed up these revelations with startling stories.

It came out that Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who took over Wilburs cases while she was on vacation, discovered the deception during a session with Sybil. According to him, she told him that during her sessions with Wilbur, she was encouraged to be Helen or another of her alters, although, she was much more comfortable just being herself. According to Spiegel, Sybil was not a multiple but an extremely suggestible hysteric.

He then discovered, he claimed, that to ensure the book deal, Sybil had to be a multiple. It was what the publisher wanted. All three principals involved in the book have died, so it remains for Dr. Wilburs archives to be opened in 2005 for this debate to be resolved.

In many ways, this revelation came as no surprise, since it followed on the heels of the highly controversial crumbling of the structure of the MPD movement that had become so popular during the 1980s and early 90s.

To understand why these cases are controversial in the courts, its important to grasp the basic history of what occurred.

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