The fine New York writer Nancy Willard once described something fictional as “being true, the way stories are true.” That is a great observation. Fiction can take you on a trip that feels emotionally, intellectually, and physically real. It gives you heroes and villains. It can help you live your life.
Unlike stories, reality is messy. Its messages are mixed. It is full of events that in fiction would be dismissed as impossible, and it rarely presents itself in black and white. Reality is notorious for ambiguity and not getting to the point, and Murphy’s Law operates freely.
The difference between truth in fiction and truth in nonfiction is on my mind because I just read Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by journalist Debbie Nathan. This 2012 book is a masterpiece of persistent, dogged research. Nathan’s subject is a famous case of multiple personality: the young woman about whom the 1973 blockbuster best-seller Sybil was written. The real name of the psychiatrist who treated her for years, Connie Wilbur, was used.
However, Nathan discovered during her research that the book was fictionalized. Big time.
Connie Wilbur was an ambitious (and I couldn’t help thinking, none-too-sane) shrink who repeatedly drugged Mason and then asked manipulative questions. The horrific abuse described in Sybil probably never happened.
Reality: Shirley Mason willingly colluded with Connie Wilbur for years on the multiple personality diagnosis.
Reality: Connie Wilbur committed spectacular malpractice, while at the same time seeming to honestly care about Mason.
Reality: Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of Sybil, had doubts about the accuracy of the story, but told it anyway. She ended up writing something that was true, as Nancy WIliard would have put it, in the way that stories are true.
Good as Nathan is, I think she misunderstood the power of fiction when she wrote in the Introduction:
Why . . . when Sybil was first published, had so many millions of people like myself, mostly young and female, so fervidly embraced as truth a story whose mythic qualities should have immediately made us skeptical? How had we been so naive?
The mythic qualities are the reason the book packs such a wallop. The story invented by Mason, Wilbur, and Schreiber—and they all played their parts in fictionalizing it—was about a heroine’s journey. The young woman in the book fought great battles to become whole, meaning that the different roles she assumed in life were not masks hiding the real person.
By the end of Sybil, its heroine was showing up for life 100%. In reality, Shirley Mason gave up her hard-won career to move near her shrink in Lexington, Kentucky. She died in poverty.