Friday, December 9, 2011

Exposing *Sybil Exposed* (Or: Throwing Down With Debbie Nathan)

Today opened like every other day: I woke at 4am. I pulled on my workout clothes.  I grabbed my water bottle and towel.  I drove to the gym.  I hopped on my elliptical machine because, yes, I am a rigidly unchanging, territorial, "this is my gym equipment" person.  In fact, I function on auto-pilot until 9am every day, unless something unusual happens to interrupt the trance. 

But this morning, as I enjoyed my 5am, daily dose of Dr. Drew Pinsky on CNN (always a replay from the night before), the unusual happened.  And the trance broke.  Dr. Drew was interviewing Debbie Nathan, the author of Sybil Exposed.  I'm probably not the only person who immediately thinks "Sally Field" and "Multiple Personality Disorder" whenever the word "Sybil" enters a conversation, and I am always intrigued and somewhat frightened by the Sybil story.  Even so, I was not entirely sure, at first, that Dr. Drew was talking about the title character of Flore Rheta Scheriber's 1973 book until I began reading the subtitles marching across the bottom of the television screen.  But sure enough, Ms. Nathan's raison d'etre, at least today, was exactly what I assumed:  her book-promoting attempt to discredit Ms. Schreiber's account of Shirley Ardell Mason, who suffered from dissociative identity disorder, and was known to the world, very simply, as Sybil. 

Now, maybe it's because I am in the process of writing a memoir as I battle my own versions and expressions of truth, or maybe it's because Flore Rheta Scheriber died in 1988 and can not defend the allegations against her, or maybe it's simply because I take exception to anyone jumping into the mental illness arena to offer nothing but criticism and negativity, but I felt an immediate, intense dislike for Ms. Nathan.  And the longer she talked, the more I disliked her. Instead of redeeming herself, she shed doubt on her own legitimacy, offering neither fact-based arguments nor productive solutions to what she alleges is a dishonest portrayal of the first documented account of a woman with sixteen identifiable personalities.  What she did offer was her alleged discovery of several boxes of clinical notes at the New York Public Library filled with "proof" that Ms. Scheriber fabricated her book for the sake of sensationalizing a serious, debilitating, terrifying condition.

And who better than Ms. Nathan to provide unsolicited expertise in how to sensationalize a non-truth in order to sell a book?  Perhaps she would be better suited to a 10-Step Guide on How To Profit By Exploiting the Deceased and the Vulnerable.

Over the years, I have heard the term "Sybil" used as a generic insult lobbed at anyone who appeared moody, depressed, or angry. And (in the case of women in particular) assertive.  I have listened to people confuse and conflate dissociative personality disorder with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia.  And I have been on the receiving end of the name-calling during times of anxiety or depression, when the only support offered was a snide "Oh come on, Sybil.  Snap out of it."  Discrimination against the mentally ill is one of the few remaining, socially condoned forms of abuse, and I believe that Ms. Nathan's book is an attempt to garner support for her own position (and her lucrative book deal) with no regard or respect for the true experts  - the mentally ill population, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, treated or untreated, acknowledged or in denial.

Don't get me wrong - there was a time in my life when I preferred to write about other people's writing, too.  I was nineteen years old and majoring in English Literature, where I took pride in my ability to critique Shakespeare, and examine the gaps in Yeats, and expose the inconsistencies in Dickinson.  I was youthful speculation mixed with arrogant pontification.  I was nineteen, after all.  And I thought I knew everything.  About everything.

Until I realized that the only thing I knew for sure was that I knew nothing.  Because nothing was consistent.  Nothing was infallible.  Nothing was definite, or absolute. So why not just write my own words, then?

And that is what I have decided to do. I know, as a writer, that there will be critics and naysayers of my work.  There have already been plenty.  But I welcome them with the knowledge that their legitimacy lies in my mistakes.  In fact, I almost feel sorry enough for the Debbie Nathans of the world to take a few intentional missteps in their direction, to give them an opening. A voice.  A purpose.  I almost want to give them that artificial gift  Almost.

I wondered, this morning, what Ms. Nathan may have contributed to this world if she had written her own words, shared her own ideas, provided an alternative to a problem, rather than devoting herself to (and distracting herself with) a problem of her own creation.  But I guess if Ms. Nathan is happy with the outcome of all her hard work (and I believe that she is), then I have no business criticizing her. After all, I don't want to play on her team, anyway.  I prefer enjoying the organic purity of my own homemade words and ideas, rather than indulging in someone else's toxic leftovers, especially when I didn't even enjoy their flavor first time around.

1 comment:

  1. Debbie Nathan is the most dishonest reporter in the country.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.