January 25, 1923 – February 26, 1998
The inspiration for Sybil.
by Mark Langlois
When Shirley Ardell Mason died in her modest Lexington KY home in 1998, only a few knew the truth about her. The unassuming neighbor and local painter on Henry Clay Boulevard had lived in relative obscurity, but it wasn’t long before the world learned that she was the “real” SYBIL.
Shirley Mason was the psychiatric patient whose story of multiple personality disorder had been told in the fictionalized best selling book by Flora Rheta Schreiber and inspired the Emmy-award winning 1976 two-night TV event starring Sally Field.
The TV film had shown American audiences that their former “Gidget/Flying Nun” could really act – as well as proving that the exploration of multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder) could make for creepy compelling drama. The film was laid out like a horror-mystery in which a savvy psychiatrist named Dr. Cornelia Wilbur learns that her patient, Sybil Dorsett, has developed separate personalities to cope with the sadistic childhood abuse dealt by a schizophrenic mother. Through therapeutic hypnosis Sybil’s mother, “Hattie” (chillingly played by actress Martine Bartlett), is revealed in flashbacks as inflicting daily ritualistic abuse on her child, involving cold water enemas and sexual probing with kitchen utensils.
Nobody will know if Shirley Mason ever truly received that kind of abuse from her mother or if it was fabricated by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. There is a great deal of controversy regarding Shirley’s case – but more on that later.
Shirley Mason was born January 25, 1923, and raised in Dodge City, Minnesota – the only child of Walter Mason and Martha “Mattie” Atkinson. Her father was a carpenter/architect and the family were devout Seventh-Day Adventists.
While the book paints mother Mattie as having clandestine lesbian orgies in bushes and defecating on lawns for kicks, the most that neighbors could muster about her in recent years was that Mattie was an odd bird: voyeuristic after dark and having a witchy screechy laugh.
One factual childhood episode that caused Shirley trauma was used in the book. At age 7, Shirley was lured to the home office of Dr. Flores (in the book, he’s “Dr. Quinones”) to supposedly play with his daughter, but instead was given a needed tonsillectomy. The child was forced onto a table, held down by assistants and the town pharmacist, and given ether (via a cloth held on her face). The terrified Shirley kicked and flailed under the “flashlights” and looming people (“The People! The People!”) and awoke terrified.
Critics of psychiatrist Dr. Wilbur believe that she heard fragments of Shirley’s story and assumed she had also been sexually abused and blamed the mother, assumed by Wilbur to be a paranoid schizophrenic.
Since the death of Shirley Mason, there have been NY Times articles, NPR stories, and books (Sybil Exposed) claiming that remaining records show that Dr. Wilbur was not exploring the truth but rather planting the truth as she wanted it to be. They claim that she was planting false memories (via sessions with thorazine and sodium pentothal injections) on an eager-to-please, highly hypnotizable hysteric who had a deep crush on her doctor.
There is another reported story that tells of Shirley Mason seeing another shrink, named Dr. Spiegel, when Dr. Wilbur was out of town, and Shirley asked him if he “wanted her to switch to other personalities?” When he asked where that idea came from, Shirley claimed Dr. Wilbur wanted her to do that.
Shirley’s fundamentalist sect in Minnesota had forbade reading fiction, and some theorize that the imaginative creative child was drawn to making up stories into adulthood. There are claims that Dr. Wilbur had an interest in multiple personalities and had suggested Shirley read up on the subject. Soon Shirley was revealing childlike “Peggy” (the name her mother called her, based on popular dolls of her childhood) and then later asked to be the subject of a book.
Theories abound that Dr. Wilbur wanted the notoriety of a landmark discovery and had made a book deal with author Schreiber early on – and had to deliver the sensational goods.
Fun fact: Joanne Woodward won a 1957 Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve and later played Dr. Wilbur in the 1976 film.
Shirley later recanted her multiples in a letter to her doctor saying it was all a ruse for attention. This was dismissed by Dr. Wilbur (and included in the book/movie) as a manipulative ploy to avoid further treatment.
Nobody will know the 100% truth since patient, doctor, and author are dead – but we do know that in the 25 years after the book and TV movie, diagnoses of MPD went from dozens to 40,000 in North America alone.
Shirley Mason got a job teaching art at a college in Ohio. She later relocated to Lexington, Kentucky, and began selling paintings from her home. Dr. Wilbur had relocated to that city as well. Shirley became more reclusive and depended on Dr. Wilbur for support. Shirley eventually nursed Wilbur in her final years with Parkinson’s. Wilbur died in 1992 and left Shirley $25,000 and all Sybil royalties.
Shirley Mason spent her final years painting, gardening (she was vegetarian), and taking care of her cats. She remained devoted to her Seventh-Day Adventist faith, which helped her through a battle with breast cancer.
In 1997, the cancer came back and Shirley told her home health aide friend, Roberta Guy, that she was declining further treatment. She began giving away books and paintings and left most of her estate to a TV minister.
Her friend Roberta said at the end of her life Shirley was peaceful and not afraid of dying. On February 26, 1998, she called for her friend, who lived 10 minutes away – but by the time Roberta pulled up to the house, Mason had died.
Shirley Mason was cremated.
Her paintings have been sold, auctioned, and displayed in galleries.
The Lexington, Kentucky, home that she died in was sold a few years ago. These photos show the interiors and mailbox.
Have a nice trip! See you next fall!
Not the green kitchen.
Look! It’s the Mailbox!