Shirley Ardell Mason
Shirley Ardell Mason
Born(1923-01-25)January 25, 1923
DiedFebruary 26, 1998(1998-02-26) (aged 75)
Other namesSybil Isabel Dorsett
OccupationCommercial artist
Known forHaving dissociative identity disorder

Shirley Ardell Mason (January 25, 1923 – February 26, 1998) was an American art teacher[1] who was reported to have dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder). Her life was purportedly described, with adaptations to protect her anonymity, in 1973 in the book Sybil, subtitled The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities. Two films of the same name were made, one released in 1976 and the other in 2007. Both the book and the films used the name Sybil Isabel Dorsett to protect Mason's identity, though the 2007 remake stated Mason's name at its conclusion.

Mason's diagnosis and treatment under Cornelia B. Wilbur have been criticized, with allegations that Wilbur manipulated or misdiagnosed Mason. Mason herself eventually told her doctor that she did not have multiple personalities and that the symptoms had not been genuine,[2] although whether or not this statement accurately reflected Mason's views later in life remains controversial.


Shirley Mason was born and raised in Dodge Center, Minnesota, the only surviving child of Walter Wingfield Mason (a carpenter and architect) and Martha Alice "Mattie" Atkinson. In regard to Mason's mother: "...many people in Dodge Center say Mattie" — "Hattie" in the book — "was bizarre," according to Bettie Borst Christensen, who grew up across the street. "She had a witch-like laugh.... She didn't laugh much, but when she did, it was like a screech." Christensen remembers Mason's mother walking around after dark, looking in the neighbors' windows. At one point, Martha Mason was reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia.[3]

Shirley Mason graduated from Dodge Center High School in 1942 and became an art student at Mankato State College, now Minnesota State University, Mankato. In the early 1950s, she was a substitute teacher and a student at Columbia University. She had long suffered from blackouts and emotional breakdowns, and finally entered psychotherapy with Cornelia B. Wilbur, a Freudian psychiatrist. Their sessions together are the basis for Flora Schreiber's book on Shirley Mason. From 1970 to 1971, she taught art at Rio Grande College in Rio Grande, Ohio (now the University of Rio Grande).[4]

Some people in Mason's hometown, reading the book, recognized Mason as Sybil. By that time, Mason had severed nearly all ties with her past and was living in West Virginia. She later moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where she lived near Wilbur. She taught art classes at a community college and ran an art gallery out of her home for many years.[3][5]

Wilbur diagnosed Mason with breast cancer in 1990, and she declined treatment; it later went into remission. The following year, Wilbur developed Parkinson's disease, and Mason moved into Wilbur's house to take care of her until Wilbur's death in 1992. Mason was a devout Seventh-day Adventist. When her breast cancer returned, Mason gave away her books and paintings to friends. She left the rest of her estate to a Seventh-day Adventist TV minister. Mason died on February 26, 1998.[3]

Over one hundred paintings were found locked in a closet in Mason's Lexington home when it was being emptied after her estate sale. These paintings, often referred to as the "Hidden Paintings",[6] span the years 1943, eleven years before starting psychotherapy with Wilbur, to 1965, the year that Wilbur diagnosed her as having her alternate personalities integrated. Several of the paintings were signed by Mason. However, many remained unsigned, and include examples of some of the artwork presumably created by, and signed by the alternate personalities.[citation needed]


Main article: Sybil (Schreiber book)

Flora Rheta Schreiber's non-fiction book Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities told a version of Mason's story with names and details changed to protect her anonymity. In 1998, Sigmund Freud historian Peter J. Swales discovered Sybil's true identity.[7] Schreiber's book, whose veracity was challenged (e.g., Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan[8]), stated that Mason had multiple personalities as a result of severe child sexual abuse at the hands of her mother, who, Wilbur believed, had schizophrenia.[9]

The book was made into a highly acclaimed TV movie, starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, in 1976.[citation needed] The TV movie was remade in 2007 with Tammy Blanchard and Jessica Lange.[citation needed]


Mason's diagnosis has been challenged. Psychiatrist Herbert Spiegel saw Mason for several sessions while Wilbur was on vacation and felt that Wilbur was manipulating Mason into behaving as though she had multiple personalities when she did not. Spiegel suspected Wilbur of having publicized Mason's case for financial gain. According to Spiegel, Wilbur's client was a hysteric but did not show signs of multiple personalities. In fact, he later stated that Mason denied to him that she was "multiple" but claimed that Wilbur wanted her to exhibit other personalities.[10] Spiegel confronted Wilbur, who responded that the publisher would not publish the book unless it was what she said it was.[11]

Spiegel revealed that he possessed audio tapes in which Wilbur tells Mason about some of the other personalities she has already seen in prior sessions. Spiegel believes these tapes are the "smoking gun" proving that Wilbur induced her client to believe she was multiple. Spiegel made these claims 24 years later, after Schreiber, Wilbur and Mason had all died and he was finally asked about the topic.[12]

In August 1998, psychologist Robert Rieber of John Jay College of Criminal Justice stated that the tapes belonged to him and that Wilbur had given them to him decades earlier. He cited the tapes to challenge Mason's diagnosis. Rieber had never interviewed or treated Mason but asserted that she was an "extremely suggestible hysteric." He claimed Wilbur had manipulated Mason in order to secure a book deal.[13][14]

In a review of Rieber's book, psychiatrist Mark Lawrence asserts that Rieber repeatedly distorted the evidence and left out a number of important facts about Mason's case to advance his case against the validity of the diagnosis.[15]

Debbie Nathan's Sybil Exposed[8][16][17] draws upon an archive of Schreiber's papers stored at John Jay College of Criminal Justice[18] and other first-hand sources. Nathan claims that Wilbur, Mason, and Schreiber knowingly perpetrated a fraud and describes the purported manipulation of Wilbur by Mason and vice versa and that the case created an "industry" of repressed memory.[19] Nathan hypothesizes that Mason's physical and sensory issues may have been due to untreated pernicious anemia, the symptoms of which were mistaken at the time for psychogenic issues. She notes that after Mason was treated with calf's-liver supplements for chronic blood disorders as a child and young woman, her psychological symptoms likewise went into remission for years at a time, and that Wilbur herself noted that "Sybil" suffered from pernicious anemia later in life. Nathan's writing and her research methods have been publicly criticized by Mason's family and by Dr. Patrick Suraci, who was personally acquainted with Shirley Mason.

In addition, Suraci claims that Spiegel behaved unethically in withholding tapes which supposedly proved Wilbur had induced Mason to believe she had multiple personalities. Spiegel also claimed to have made films of himself hypnotizing Mason, supposedly proving that Wilbur had "implanted false memories" in her mind, but when Suraci asked to see the films Spiegel said he had lost them.[20][21] Although Wilbur's papers were destroyed, copies and excerpts within Flora Rheta Schreiber's papers at the Lloyd Sealy Library of John Jay College were unsealed in 1998.[18]

In 2013, Nancy Preston published After Sybil, a personal memoir which includes facsimile reproductions of Mason's personal letters to her, along with color plates of her paintings. According to Preston, Mason taught art at Ohio's Rio Grande College, where Preston was a student. The two became close friends and corresponded until a few days before Mason's death. In the letters, Mason claimed that she had multiple personalities.[22]


  1. ^ "The Minnesotan behind Sybil, one of America's most famous psychiatric patients". Star Tribune. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  2. ^ "Real 'Sybil' Admits Multiple Personalities Were Fake". NPR. Retrieved July 15, 2022.
  3. ^ a b c Miller, Mark. "Unmasking Sybil". Newsweek. Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  4. ^ "Class Notes". Retrieved May 8, 2018.
  5. ^ Van Arsdale, S (August 2, 2001). "Sybil: Famous multiple personality case was a stranger in our midst". Ace Weekly. Retrieved April 16, 2012.
  6. ^ "Welcome to". The Hidden Paintings of Shirley A. Mason... Sybil. Retrieved March 6, 2019.
  7. ^ "Identity of 'Sybil' Finally Revealed," Orlando Sentinel, Dec 26, 1998.
  8. ^ a b Tavris, Carol (October 29, 2011). "Multiple Personality Deception: The famous patient who inspired the panic was more the victim of her psychiatrist than of mental illness". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on November 18, 2015.
  9. ^ Schreiber, Flora Rheta (1973). Sybil. New York: Warner Books, Inc. p. 460. ISBN 0-446-35940-8.
  10. ^ Nathan, Debbie (October 14, 2011). "A Girl Not Named Sybil". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 18, 2016.
  11. ^ Borch-Jacobsen, M (April 24, 1997). "Sybil-The Making of a Disease: An Interview with Dr. Herbert Spiegel". New York Review of Books. 44 (7). Retrieved April 2, 2009. The Making of a Disease abstract,; accessed November 1, 2015.
  12. ^ Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. "Dissociative Identity Disorder, MPD/DID, Sybil: The Making of a Disease? Dr. Herbert Spiegel's View". Retrieved May 8, 2018.
  13. ^ Rieber, R (1998). "Hypnosis, false memory and multiple personality: a trinity of affinity". History of Psychiatry. 10 (37): 3–11. doi:10.1177/0957154X9901003701. PMID 11623821. S2CID 41343058.
  14. ^ Schreiber, Flora Rheta; Rieber, Robert W. (2006). The bifurcation of the self: the history and theory of dissociation and its disorders. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 0-387-27413-8.
  15. ^ Lawrence, M (2008). "Review of Bifurcation of the Self: The history and theory of dissociation and its disorders". American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. 50 (3): 273–83. doi:10.1080/00029157.2008.10401633. S2CID 219594172.
  16. ^ Harris, Ben (2011). "Sybil, Inc". Science. 334 (6054): 312. Bibcode:2011Sci...334..312H. doi:10.1126/science.1212843. JSTOR 23059333. PMID 18212991. S2CID 220089080.
  17. ^ Nathan, Debbie (2011). Sybil Exposed. Free Press. ISBN 978-1-4391-6827-1.
  18. ^ a b Nathan, Debbie (October 14, 2011). "A Girl Not Named Sybil". New York Times. Retrieved October 16, 2011.
  19. ^ Smith, K (October 16, 2011). "'Sybil' is one big psych-out". New York Post. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  20. ^ Patrick Suraci, Sybil In Her Own Words: The Untold Story of Shirley Mason, Her Multiple Personalities and Paintings. Abandoned Ladder, 2011.
  21. ^ Patrick Suraci, "Sybil In Her Own Words", Review of Sybil Exposed with commentary about Nathan and Spiegel, Huffington Post, December 15, 2011.
  22. ^ Nancy Preston, After Sybil: From the Letters of Shirley Mason. Infinity, 2013.