Is Multiple Personality Disorder Real? One Woman’s Story

In the 1970s, the TV movie “Sybil” introduced much of the nation to multiple personality disorder and launched a controversy that continues to resonate.

In 1976, millions of viewers tuned in to watch “Sybil,” a television movie based on the best-selling book of the same name, and were introduced to the agonies of a young woman said to have 16 different personalities.

The TV movie elevated a rarely diagnosed mental illness – multiple personality disorder – into a cultural phenomenon and a talk show staple. By 1980, The American Psychiatric Association officially recognized the disorder. And soon thousands of patients were being diagnosed with it.

But as the case numbers rose in the 1990s, so too did questions about the disorder, and the woman who had become the face of it.

Today, the controversy over Multiple Personality Disorder – now called Dissociative Identity Disorder – continues to shape mental health issues.

Related: Debate Persists Over Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders, Long After ‘Sybil’ by Clyde Haberman New TV Series Explores the Debate Over a Multiple Personality Diagnosis by Sarah Weiser

Additional Information: Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan

For teachers
  • Producer: Barbara Dury
  • Editor: Bret Sigler
  • Reporter: Sarah Weiser

For Educators


This 12-minute video introduces students to the story behind “Sybil,” a sensational but scientifically fraught case study in multiple personality disorder that became the subject of a best-selling book and popular movie. Chronicling the questionable research and treatment procedures that led to a crisis of misdiagnosis and maltreatment of patients, the video explains how the now-debunked concept of multiple personality disorder came to be replaced by the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. Useful for setting up a class discussion on the fallibility of diagnostic labels and their evolution over time, the video fits in well with any unit on clinical psychology, and provides students with a deeply contextualized introduction to the basic elements of dissociative identity disorder.

Background reading

In 1976, “Sybil,” a television movie based on the life of a mentally disturbed young woman, shook the foundations of psychiatry.

The movie was based on a best-selling book of the same title, and transformed a little known malady, multiple personality disorder, into a cultural phenomenon, and, eventually, an officially recognized diagnosis by 1980.

By the 1990s, as many as 40,000 cases had been reported, according to some estimates. But as the numbers rose, so too did questions – about the disorder and its treatment, and about “Sybil” herself, a woman named Shirley Mason.

Mason suffered from chronic emotional problems but her 11-year treatment at the hands of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur was fraught with interventions – including hypnosis and sodium pentothal injections – that are no longer recognized as professionally valid. Those interventions may have induced false memories in Mason.

More troubling, after identifying Mason’s alleged 16 personalities, Dr. Wilbur did not publish her findings in a peer-reviewed medical journal, but instead joined with a journalist friend to write a mass-market paperback that sold 6 million copies.

By the mid-1990s, cases of multiple personality disorder began to wane, after a number of patients sued their therapists for malpractice and were awarded millions of dollars.

In 1994, multiple personality disorder was dropped as an official diagnosis, and replaced with dissociative identity disorder.

Lesson Plan 1: Psychology: Dissociative Disorder

Students will learn how a best-selling book and a popular movie about multiple personality disorder gave rise to a crisis of misdiagnosis and maltreatment, and how that now-debunked diagnosis has been replaced by a new one: dissociative identity disorder.

  • How the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder was created and popularized.
  • How ethically troubling research and treatment procedures surrounding multiple personality disorder contributed to the misdiagnosis and maltreatment of patients.
  • How multiple personality disorder came to be replaced by the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.
Essential questions
  • What was Dr. Wilbur’s method of interviewing Shirley Mason?
  • How did Dr. Wilbur popularize her case study of multiple personality disorder? How did popular culture contribute to the spread of Wilbur’s theories, both among the general public and among psychologists and psychiatrists?
  • Why did some patients who had been treated for multiple personality disorder file lawsuits against the professionals who had provided their treatment?
  • Why was multiple personality disorder removed from the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists? What aspects of the procedures used to treat and diagnose multiple personality disorder are now considered “radioactive” by most psychiatrists and researchers?
  • What is dissociative identity disorder? How is it different from multiple personality disorder?
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Psy.9.9-12.Describe how biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence behavior.
  • National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula
    • Psychological Science Domain: Standard 1: Perspectives on Treatment1.1: Explain how psychological treatments have changed over time and among cultures.
  • AP Psychology
    • Topic 8.5: Trauma – and Stressor-Related, Dissociative, and Somatic Symptom and Related DisordersSkill 1.B: Explain behavior in context