The Artist Formerly Known As . . .
Shirley Ardell Mason
People escaping a past many times successfully establish themselves in new communities with new identities. Sometimes they live quietly and discreetly among their neighbors without anyone's ever suspecting his or her true identity.
A special Lexington, Kentucky, artist was able to shed her infamous past and live peaceably by simply living under the name with which she was born.
The rest of the world, however, knew her as the controversial multiple-personality psychiatric case, "Sybil".
The woman who would become Sybil, the world's most famous psychiatric patient, was a
neurasthenic lass from Dodge Center, Minnesota (a town about 85 miles SSE of Minneapolis). Shirley Ardell Mason was born in this ordinary Midwestern town on January 25, 1923.
Her father, Walter Wingfield Mason (a hardware store clerk and carpenter born in Emmetsburg, Iowa, on September 21, 1884), doted on his baby girl, and all indications are Shirley would have an unremarkable life.
When Shirley was seven she had her tonsils removed at a doctor's home office. The experience was so traumatic (being lured to the doctor's under false pretenses by her parents, the fright of being held down and subdued with ether) it stayed with her all her life. [In later years, under hypnosis, Shirley's description of this event was completely misinterpreted by her therapist who jumped to the conclusion she had been raped instead.
Barring a restrictive Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, nothing in her background was unusual except for her mother. The mater Mason was a woman with problems.
Martha Alice "Mattie" (née Atkinson) Mason had been born in Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Aug 17, 1883 (died: Kansas City, Missouri, on July 27, 1948). She was from the same small town as her future husband, whom she married in that same small town on February 16, 1910. Mattie Atkinson came to marriage late in life by the day's standards – she was almost 27 years old at the time of her nuptials, a bit long in the tooth to start a family. However, a few sources note an unverified surname for her ("Hageman"), and it is possible Mattie was married once before marrying Walter Mason.
Mattie Mason exhibited classic paranoia symptoms and the persecution complex of one suffering from a schizoaffective disorder. Years later after Shirley gained international attention (once it was learned after her death who she was) the investigative trail led to Dodge Center, Minnesota. Residents who had lived near the Masons (one woman directly across the street as a child) recalled Mattie as "strange". She often sneaked through the neighborhood, peeping in people's windows. She then maliciously gossiped about what she saw, not comprehending hers was the greater sin. She also did things such as anonymously defecate in the yards of neighbors whom she believed had slighted or offended her somehow. Shirley, in therapy later, reported a series of bizarre physical and sexual abuses at the hands of her mother [most of which were fabricated].
The neighbors reported Shirley as a shy child who was overprotected by Mattie Mason (considering Mattie was almost 40 the year Shirley – the only child – was born, she may indeed have had an overprotective sense of her). Dodge Center residents did not report any clear indications of abuse on the girl except for Mattie's constant haranguing. Her teachers found her sullen and withdrawn, though bright and diligent in her schoolwork. She also displayed an early talent for painting and drawing.
Words such as "sullen" and "withdrawn" generally indicate an abused child. For the untrained denizens of America in the 1930s, though, such sensitivity and insight was beyond the ken of the person on the street . Dealing with the Great Depression and the harshness of surviving was more critical than worrying over a possibly abused little girl.
Out into the World
The overprotected Shirley Mason managed to survive her home life, and graduated from her local high school. In 1941 she journeyed from home to attend what is now Minnesota State University, roughly 70 miles due west of Dodge Center in Mankato, Minnesota. Her intent was to study art and design. According to researchers looking back, Shirley blossomed in college her first two years and was featured heavily in the yearbooks in clubs and activities.
In 1943, Shirley had an undiagnosed mental or emotional breakdown. She left college and retreated back to Dodge Center. The family then moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Shirley enrolled in the University of Nebraska in Omaha. In 1945, she had another breakdown at school. It was at the University of Nebraska that she met the woman who would steer her life from then on, Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur.
Dr. Wilbur was a classically trained Freudian psychiatrist (graduated 1930 from the University of Michigan and got her medical degree in 1939). Meeting Shirley for the first time she found a nebbishy, sensitive, and emotionally stunted young woman. Shirley complained of blackouts and disturbing behaviors that included disappearing for hours when her parents took her around town on errands. She told Wilbur of her ailments throughout her life – anorexia, nervousness, anemia, and feelings of worthlessness. She talked about her childhood as an only child of Seventh-Day Adventists in Dodge Center.
In a strange breach of patient-doctor professional relations Wilbur also talked about her own life. She told the impressionable Shirley of her talent for treating hysterics. Wilbur also advised Shirley she had a knack for treating people suffering from the rarest type of hysteria: multiple personalities. Professionally, Dr. Wilbur clearly understood something was wrong with Shirley and she believed through session work they could get to the root of her emotional and mental problems. They had a few "talk therapy" sessions, but nothing intensive then.
Shirley, though, became unhealthily attached to Wilbur. In July 1948 her mother, Mattie, died. Dr. Wilbur then took a job in New York City in 1949. Shirley had graduated from the University of Nebraska, and she followed in Dr. Wilbur's wake to New York, a haven for artists. She enrolled in Columbia University for graduate work.
The Three Faces of Sybil
In 1954 the great American author Shirley Jackson had written a popular novel called The Bird's Nest. Its subject was a woman with multiple-personality disorder, a dubious and faddish facet of human psychology developed as a behavioral theory. People with multiple personalities apparently were fractured and dissociated from reality. Personality A might be gregarious and outgoing; Personality B might be more combative. Shirley Jackson's book was a sensation.
Shirley Ardell Mason was suffering from anxiety and began seeing Dr. Wilbur again in New York. She vented more about her frustrations professionally. As a means of identifying with Dr. Wilbur, she related that long ago she had wanted to be a psychoanalyst like Wilbur. But, she added, her parents said she was too weak and nervous to complete the schooling and training. Wilbur told Shirley, on the contrary, that she was strong and brilliant, and more therapy would help her realize her dream of being a psychoanalyst.
During her days not in session, Shirley went to Teachers College. She kept a journal at Wilbur's suggestion; she wrote that her nights were spent fantasizing and tossing with insomnia. In sessions, she brought up the old feelings she'd expressed in Omaha of loneliness, her simultaneous sense of superiority and worthlessness, her puzzling body aches. Shirley's insomnia worsened and so did her menstrual pain. The doctor wrote prescriptions for Seconal (to help her sleep) and Daprisal (for her cramps). [Seconal was later determined to be habit-forming (it is now typically prescribed for no longer than two weeks) and Daprisal eventually proved so addictive that it was taken off the market]. Dr. Wilbur, though, sometimes gave Shirley higher doses than was customary.
Wilbur immediately concluded Shirley was having fugue episodes, a condition she treated in 1940 in her very first patient. A person suffering from these "black outs" might leave home for hours or even weeks and behave like someone else entirely. Fugue states were a rare form of hysteria caused by dissociation.
Shirley was sickly, and had been all of her life. She was apparently anemic, and given her symptoms of fatigue, etc., it is likely that she suffered from what is called pernicious anemia (the inability of the body to properly absorb and store Vitamin B12). Shirley, for her part, began telling Dr. Wilbur of "blackouts" (periods where she would function but have no recall of what she did), and time loss (fugues). Shirley (in her 30s by then, but a lonely young woman with no men in her life) also developed a girl crush on Dr. Wilbur.
During the ensuing years of exploring Shirley's personalities Dr. Wilbur used hypnosis and sodium thiopental (better known by its trade name Sodium Pentothol, the "truth serum") on her. Shirley actually became addicted to the drugs Wilbur used on her to elicit more and more biographical data about the personalities inside her, and was hospitalized at one time for addiction.
In 1965, Dr. Wilbur left New York to take another job. [In the movie, this is when all Sybil's personalities integrated into one, thus making Sybil whole. That never happened – Wilbur just left.]. She and Shirley had been in intensive therapy sessions since 1954, well over a decade. Shirley was devastated. Her own personality was so intertwined with Dr. Wilbur's that she almost could not function without her. Shirley had confidently and competently held several jobs, one as a substitute teacher. She also had some small gallery showings of her art. Though obviously able to care for herself, she left New York feeling co-dependent, and followed Dr. Wilbur to West Virginia.
Shirley, a fairly gifted natural artist, had refined her techniques in commercial art in college and in New York. Her portfolio was sufficiently impressive, and in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, she settled and found a job. She worked in the questionable field of art therapy (a protocol by which patients are encouraged to express themselves, and thus aid in diagnoses, through visual art). The art was also used as a therapeutic tool. She saw Dr. Wilbur when she could.
Meanwhile, the cash cow of Sybil was waiting in the wings. Dr. Wilbur's documentation of the case over the decade she'd worked with Shirley Ardell Mason would make for a compelling read. She contacted a journalist named Flora Rheta Schreiber (died, 1988). Decisions had to be made about Shirley's back-story. Schreiber came up with the pseudonym "Sybil Isabel Dorsett", and she titled her book simply Sybil. Schreiber ran with the project, and the result was a 1973 runaway best seller.
When the book hit the streets some cautious readers in Shirley's old hometown of Dodge Center, Minnesota, thought they recognized her mother Mattie (not so cleverly re-christened as "Hattie") and some other Dodge Center landmarks. Sybil's background in the book was changed to another state, but some residents felt this was perhaps the skinny little Mason girl who could draw. They couldn't prove it, and nothing much was made of it at the time.
Shirley, Schreiber, and Wilbur shared equally in the proceeds from this book, and it eventually sold millions of copies worldwide. That same year, as a result of the book's popularity, the University of Kentucky in Lexington offered Dr. Wilbur a very lucrative position in its psychology department. Dr. Wilbur moved to Lexington. Feeling adrift without Dr. Wilbur, Shirley felt she could not live without her sensei. She uprooted and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1973, too.
Little Grey House
Shirley managed to keep her secret as did Dr. Wilbur. Sybil, the celebrity, lived in a quiet neighborhood, working on her art. She was a decent enough addition to the neighborhood, and she had a few friends. No one knew Shirley Ardell Mason was Sybil. She taught art classes at a community college. She also ran an art gallery out of her home. She lived without arousing any suspicions about her real identity.
Almost . . .
Dr. Wilbur, in direct contrast to Shirley, lived rather large. She had a sprawling home far beyond what Shirley would have felt comfortable in (although Shirley's royalty cut from Sybil was substantial, she chose to live humbly). "Sybil" became a household name in 1976 when Sally Field played the title role in a surprisingly disturbing made-for-TV movie of the book (and Sally deservedly won an Emmy for her performance). This was one of the few times when broadcast television did something right, and a phenomenal 20% of America watched this drama. Sybil was parodied on Saturday Night Live, and she became a pop culture icon, all while living quietly on a Lexington side street in a little grey house with a flower garden, her art, and some poodles.
Sybil in Suspicion
Suspicions about Sybil's case history had been voiced almost as soon as the book was published in 1973, and over the years many professionals disbelieved the case was real on its face. Discovered later was a letter Shirley had written to Dr. Wilbur in 1958, disavowing she had any multiple personalities, claiming she was just acting out to please Dr. Wilbur (meeting the doctor's expectations). Dr. Wilbur pooh-poohed this letter, claiming Shirley was in denial about her condition. Dr. Wilbur even rebuffed Schreiber (the book's author, questioning the truth of Shirley's case before going to print): "It has to be true, or else it won't get published!"
One particular psychiatrist who had seen Shirley many years before, filling in for Dr. Wilbur a few times when she was unavailable, described Shirley as not dissociative but emotionally dependent and neurotic. As far back as 1994, this doctor (Herbert Spiegel, an acclaimed psychiatrist and hypnotherapist) told reporters that he occasionally treated Shirley when Wilbur was away. Spiegel recalled that in those sessions Shirley asked if he wanted her to switch to other personalities. Since he had no real idea of what she was speaking, he asked her some questions about it. When he asked where she got the idea, Shirley told him that her regular doctor wanted her to show alternate selves [this fits in with Shirley's "recantation" letter of 1958 when she says she was doing only what she thought Wilbur wanted her to do].
Dr. Wilbur never divulged any information about Sybil's true identity. In 1990 Dr. Wilbur herself diagnosed Shirley with breast cancer. Shirley had a lifelong fear of hospitals and refused outside treatment. Wilbur did what she could, and Shirley's cancer went into remission. In 1991, Dr. Wilbur developed Parkinson's disease, and she declined rapidly. Shirley Mason cared for her in the last months of her life. Dr. Cornelia Wilbur died in 1992. She bequeathed Shirley a $25,000 cash sum and all of her future royalties for Sybil-related projects (books, movie, etc.).
After Dr. Wilbur's death, the fragile Shirley became even more reclusive. She had rarely been seen around town much, and now she cut herself off from most of her friends. She had one close friend who drove her places as needed. Shirley was a vegetarian, and this friend took her routinely to a health food store, or to the bank. This woman later reported Shirley spent most of her time gardening, caring for her cats, and painting until her arthritis stopped her. Despite her bad memories of her repressive Seventh-Day Adventist childhood, she remained strong in that denomination and was devout in prayer. In the summer of 1997, Shirley's breast cancer flared again, and as before she refused treatment. She told her friend she had "enough trauma in her life", and she decided to let the disease run its course. A few weeks before her death she had also finally told this friend the truth about who she really was.
Shirley started giving away her books and her paintings to her remaining friends, and she began shredding her personal papers as well. Her cancer spread rapidly, and her close friend arranged for nursing care at Shirley's home round the clock. Shirley Ardell Mason died on February 26, 1998. She was cremated and her ashes given to a friend. Shirley had never married nor had she any offspring or relatives to claim her estate (she had severed all ties years before). Bizarrely, she left the bulk of her estate to a Seventh-Day Adventist TV minister.
Within weeks of Shirley Ardell Mason's death, her identity was discovered and confirmed as Sybil Isabel Dorsett. An amazing cache of over 100 artworks was found hidden in a secret closet in her home. The majority of these materials were painted or drawn by several of her "personalities" early in her therapy years with Dr. Wilbur (and signed by the personality in question or attributed so). Many of these works have gone on to either sell or be featured in shows. In 2003, for example, a number of these were displayed at Vanderbilt University Hospital, and several other pieces were auctioned in New York. These materials are interesting works in that they document an artist finding her style while also purporting to be works of "alternate" personalities as well.
Sybil, Ever After
In January 1999 once her identity was clearly known, a friend reported to a local newspaper, "I can tell you definitively that Shirley was very content and happy in the last quarter century of her life. She had her little house, her garden, her flowers, her paintings, and her pets and her prayers, her devotions." Shirley Mason was remembered by people who knew her as a quiet, thoughtful woman,
and a good neighbor who minded her own business and was rarely seen about town. Her little grey house has since been spruced up, and painted a sunny, pale yellow color.
The serious downside to Sybil is it allowed a debunked psychiatric "treatment" called "repressed memory recovery" to flourish. In this ridiculous practice patients are hypnotized (often with the aid of drugs), then encouraged to bring forth memories of repressed childhood traumas of rape, sexual abuse, Satanic ritual baby killing, and other horrors. Mostly, the "memories" are false (or as in Shirley's case of her tonsilectomy) misinterpreted. As with anything faddish, such as Scientology, many celebrities jumped on this absurd "recovered memory" bandwagon and appeared on talk shows telling of hideous childhood traumas such as being anally raped by their fathers, etc.
Unfortunately, when this practice was at its peak, in the late 1980s throughout the 1990s, several people were jailed for alleged molestations they committed against their children that never really happened. This is junk science, and its ignorance is no better than the "spectral" testimony the Salem Witch Trial courts heard in the late 17th century in New England to convict people of witchcraft.
In the end, though, Shirley Ardell Mason's life was directly affected by multiple-personality disorder. Even though she made it up, it gave her a psychiatrist as a lifelong friend, she became independently wealthy, and it allowed her to pursue her art. She did not contrive to do this, but like many frauds or hoaxes, what starts out innocently enough (such as Shirley's trying to please her therapist, with whom she was in love) can snowball out of control, and the resultant vortex is too strong from which to break free.
Shirley Ardell Mason could have been a very successful commercial artist, and could have lived an unremarkable but successful life, if not for Sybil. She had artistic talent, and she grew as an artist over the years. But one has to wonder these days: are the buyers of her artworks really buying the art? Or, are they simply purchasing a piece of Sybil?