Name at birth: Shirley Ardell Mason
Shirley Mason's story was told in Sybil, a bestselling book of the 1970s that described a woman with 16 personalities -- what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder and is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder. Mason grew up in a small town in Minnesota and was plagued with emotional and physical ailments, yet still managed to get a degree in art in 1949 from Mankato State Teachers College (now Minnesota State University Mankato). While in college, she had a breakdown and sought treatment in Omaha, Nebraska with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, a psychiatrist. Although she only had a few meetings with Wilbur, Mason developed an attachment. Nine years later, Mason was at Columbia University's Teachers College working on a graduate degree and Dr. Wilbur was practicing in New York, and Mason again began seeing Dr. Wilbur for psychiatric treatment. Between 1954 and 1965, Mason was Wilbur's patient, and her incredible story made it into print at the hands of journalist Flora Schreiber in 1973. Sybil sold millions of copies and was made into a widely-seen TV movie (Sally Field won an Emmy for her starring role), and the idea of multiple personalities -- especially as a result of childhood abuse -- grabbed the popular consciousness. The true identity of "Sybil Dorsett" was not revealed until the late 1990s. Mason had been living in Lexington, Kentucky, keeping a low profile and operating an art business, while maintaining her relationship with Dr. Wilbur, who lived nearby. After her death in 1998, it became public knowledge that Mason was the woman described in Sybil, but questions arose as Dr. Wilbur's methods, and skeptics suggested that Mason merely claimed to have several personalities to satisfy Dr. Wilbur. Although the debate rages on, Sybil stands as one of the first books to bring about public discussion of the disorder.
Sybil was again made into a movie in 2006.
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