The Friend Who Disappeared
The world’s most famous psychiatric patient was a Dodge Center native who loved to write letters...until she mysteriously dropped out of sight. Eventually, her Minnesota pen pal set out to find her.
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When Muriel Coulter talks about the gift she received in the mail almost 40 years ago—a cotton tablecloth dyed a cheerful citrus orange—her face pinches, as though she’s trying to hold back tears.
The package came in late 1972. Muriel was 22. Her last name was still Odden, but she was about to get a new one through marriage: hence the wedding present. It was from Shirley Mason, a much older woman who had grown up in Minnesota but now lived elsewhere. All her life Muriel had loved Shirley—though, oddly, she’d never met her in person. Theirs was a pen-pal relationship, conducted with stationery and stamps. Shirley was an old schoolmate of Muriel’s mother, Luella. In the 1940s, the two women had attended Mankato State Teachers College, which today is Mankato State University. After graduating they’d stayed in touch. Decade after decade, Luella wrote to Shirley and Shirley wrote to Luella. Shirley often enclosed a second letter for Muriel. She sent birthday and Christmas presents, too.
The very first gift Muriel received from Shirley came just days after her birth in 1950. Luella unwrapped the package to find a tiny, crocheted jacket and a baby bonnet. As the years went by, Shirley followed up with homemade puppets and hand-stitched doll clothes studded with lace and pearly buttons. She enclosed cards for even the minor holidays. “This big black cat is watching you,” one card said, “but he’s not one bit mean! He’s only making sure you have a happy Halloween!” When she found out Muriel liked cats, Shirley wrote funny stories about how her own cat licked herself to a shine and liked to jump on warm ironing boards. As the years went by, the letters kept coming, along with the thoughtful gifts. For Muriel’s high-school graduation, Shirley put a dictionary in the mail. Four years later, Muriel received an art-history book to mark her graduation from college.
Shirley herself was an artist. She was from Dodge Center, a tiny town on Highway 14 in the southern part of Minnesota, not far from Rochester. She’d left years earlier and lived in many places—including two decades in New York City, where most of her letters were postmarked. Later, she’d landed a job teaching art at a small college, and lived nearby, in West Virginia. Occasionally she sent photographs of herself to Muriel. They showed a mousy but pleasant-looking woman, her hair styled with what looked like a home permanent, her eyes peering from spectacles that a librarian might wear.
Shirley had never married or had children. But, as she once wrote to Luella, she felt she’d helped to raise Muriel. “Many thanks to you for sharing her,” she added. She hoped to one day meet her surrogate daughter. Maybe that would happen, the Oddens thought. Someday, Shirley would come back to her native Minnesota for a visit.
But not long after Muriel’s wedding, something went terribly wrong with the pen-pal friendship. Today Muriel recalls how, in 1973, during the festive run up to Christmas, she and her mother realized they had not heard from Shirley for months. They sent letters to her in West Virginia, asking if she was okay. Their letters came back marked, “Return to sender. Moved, left no forwarding address.” Luella contacted other former Mankato students who she knew had kept up with Shirley. They’d written to her, too. Everything was returned.
What had happened to the friendly, generous woman who loved to send letters and gifts? Was she ill? Incarcerated? Dead? Shirley’s friends had no idea how to go about finding her. They were mystified. Then, in 1978, Muriel found a book at a library. What she learned by reading it would send her reeling. It would launch her on a three-decade search for the truth about Shirley Mason.
Sybil was the title of the book Muriel pulled off the shelf. Its cover described it as a bestseller about “The True and Extraordinary Story of a Woman Possessed by 16 Separate Personalities.” This was the second time Muriel had read the book. Her first time was immediately after it came out, in 1973. Like millions of other readers, most of them young women, she’d been fascinated by the tale of a woman with a rare and severe case of multiple-personality disorder. Her circus of alter selves were constantly competing with each other, creating so much internal havoc that by the time Sybil was an adult, she could barely function. Child personalities would take control of her body at random, and she would wander out of town until suddenly returning to herself days later, remembering nothing. Sometimes she found clothing she did not recognize in her apartment. She would locate the receipts, but she couldn’t remember buying it. As she put it, she “lost time.” The problem was terrifying.
Like everyone else, Muriel had been chilled to learn the cause of Sybil’s frightening illness. According to the book, her mother was a psychotic who acted out her schizophrenia by sexually torturing her preschool-age daughter: tying and hanging her with ropes, piercing her genitals with kitchen implements, administering adult-sized enemas as the immobilized child screamed in agony. These atrocities, the book said, caused the little girl’s consciousness to split into many selves. Her mind became whole again only after she grew up and found a kindly woman psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, who spent 11 years providing therapy.
The patient’s name wasn’t really Sybil, of course. That was a pseudonym. Within a few years after Sybil was released, the book sold almost7 million copies and was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning TV movie. Sybil became the most famous patient in the history of psychiatry—yet the public didn’t know who she really was. The book said she’d grown up in the Midwest and was an art teacher. These details could have applied to thousands of people, and when Muriel first read the book in the early 1970s, she did not give Sybil’s true identity a second thought.
But in the late 1970s—a few years after Shirley’s disappearance—while Muriel was pursuing a master’s degree in education, she took a psychology course. Sybil was on the reading list. When Muriel saw the title, she remembered the horrifying but inspiring story of the woman who’d been abused so miserably but ultimately vanquished her terrible suffering.
On the Friday after she received the reading list, Muriel went home for the weekend to visit her mother in the tiny town of Echo, Minnesota. The next day, the two went to the public library in nearby Granite Falls to check out a copy of Sybil.
After Muriel pulled it from the shelf, Luella took a look at the book—she was always curious about her daughter’s studies. As she thumbed the pages, a piece of paper fell out. It was a newspaper clipping. Luella read it and beckoned to Muriel. “Look!” she said, pointing to the book. “This is about our friend Shirley!”