Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sybil: Multiple Personality, Hoax, or Vitamin Deficiency?

After [Dr. Connie Wilbur's] presentation a Q & A followed, and someone asked how [recovered multiple personality disorder patient] Sybil was doing. Connie's answer was brief, almost throwaway. Sybil had lived for a long time without much energy, she said, because in addition to everything else that was wrong with her, she had suffered for years from a disease called pernicious anemia.

Another audience member followed with an unrelated question, and that was the end of pernicious anemia and Sybil. No one stopped to think about the bombshell Connie had just revealed. -from the book Sybil Exposed(1)

My, how times have changed. In days of old, people who acted strangely enough were said to be possessed and put through bizarre and dangerous rituals to cure them.

Wait, we're still living in that era. Change "possessed" to "multiple personality disorder" (or "dissociative identity disorder" as it's called now) and you have the story of Sybil, a woman whose 16 separate personalities were brought on by child abuse, which shattered her life. Psychiatrist Connie Wilbur treated her for 11 years, integrated the personalities, and Sybil, free of her demons, got on with her life. So say the book Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber and a TV movie of the same title.

A new book called Sybil Exposed claims the story is mostly fiction. Author Debbie Nathan cites interviews of Sybil's friends and family by freelance investigators who uncovered Sybil's identity, records that have recently been unsealed, and a letter written by Sybil herself recanting the accusations of abuse and her other personalities.

How did a nice but troubled church-going girl get caught up in this? Possibly, Sybil's doctor was interested in multiple personality disorder and wanted to make a name for herself. Perhaps neither was aware that some "confessions" made under "truth serum" (sodium pentothal) and barbituates, which the doctor liberally prescribed, are fantasies. Perhaps she was unaware that "recovered memories" (now largely discredited) are often false as well. Add loneliness, ambition and financial need of Sybil, Dr. Wilbur and Ms. Schreiber, and Sybil, Inc. became the result, says Ms. Nathan.

Nevertheless, Sybil was troubled enough to seek a psychiatrist. She was extremely thin, depressed, withdrawn, and walked into walls. As a child, she was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, which we now know is a lack of vitamin B-12. Injections of hog liver helped her. The National Institute of Health says,

The body needs vitamin B12 to make red blood cells. To provide vitamin B12 to your blood cells, you need to eat enough foods containing vitamin B12, such as meat, poultry, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products...typical symptoms of B-12 deficiency include...fatigue...loss of appetite...confusion or change in mental status...problems concentrating...depression [and] loss of balance...(2) 

Pernicious anemia can be caused by an inability to process vitamin B-12, but Sybil's case may have had another cause: she was brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion that prescribes a vegetarian diet. Sybil was devout. Sybil Exposed describes the fake meat made by Sybil's mother, who suffered some of the symptoms of pernicious anemia as well.

Following the recipes in Adventist cookbooks, she kneaded dough from wheat flour, then washed and washed it until the starch was rinsed out, leaving a wad of glutinous plant protein. She mixed the gluten with ground peanuts and tomato sauce, pressed it into tin cans, baked it, and sliced it into rounds of substitute meat.(3)
No meat, poultry, shellfish, or even egg or dairy (or B-12) in any of that.(4)

Some are taking away from Sybil Exposed the message that multiple personality disorder, or dissociative personality disorder, aren't real. I don't know if they are or not. What I take away are two things.

  • Many of Sybil's original problems were related to diet. (This applies to a lot of emotional problems. See my post Lousy Mood? It Could be the Food.) 
  • Don't depend on a guru.  Remember that even a well-meaning doctor might have motives that aren't obvious: Sybil and her doctor became far too close, even by the professional standards of the day. Look to various sources for information, and see if your n=1 experiments are working for you. Stop and think about whether what you're hearing has the ring of truth.

1. Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan, 2011, p. 218.
2. "Pernicious Anemia." Accessed November 2, 2011.
3. Sybil Exposed, p. 11.
4. entries for wheat flour, peanuts and tomato sauce. Accessed November 2, 2011.

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