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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.

The Friend Who Disappeared
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 3)

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!”

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Mar 20, 2012 11:22 pm
 Posted by  ruthgerann28

This article repeats many of the same incorrect statements made in other articles. Sybil's mother was stated to have suffered from Schizophrenia. Sybil's father verified that she was abused. Sybil exhibited many odd behaviors as seen by Sybil's childhood friends.

Sybil's childhood friends have been interviewed in the last decade and they have stated that they thought her mother was an old witch, that Sybil had trouble concentrating in school, that Sybil's mother would peak in their windows when they had company, but did not visit them and that Sybil's mother relieved herself in a neighbor's yard. Sybil's mother by Sybil's childhood friends was described as strange, stern and raucous and someone to stay away from, that she had a shrill voice and ridiculed Sybil and that she played the piano too loudly, bombastically, venting anger and was harsh. One of Sybil's childhood friends when asked about the abuse stated she believed that some of what was written in the original book was true.

The recantation letter of Sybil was misinterpreted by the new book. It is common for those in treatment for any diagnosis, addiction or illness to deny their illness. Sybil later in life stated that every word in the original Sybil book was true.

The new book on Sybil mentions that Sybil exhibited the possible symptoms of MPD in its book. Other relatives later described Sybil exhibiting the symptoms of MPD. Other clinicians later verified that Sybil did suffer from MPD.

There is no evidence that Sybil developed alternate selves to her gain attention. There is also no evidence that Dr. Wilbur encouraged Shirley to generate personalities.

The Sybil story was not a hoax. Sybil suffered horrible abuse and Dr, Wilbur did ground breaking work in helping her heal. A good balancing book to read about the Sybil story is "Sybil in her own words."

Mar 20, 2012 11:29 pm
 Posted by  ruthgerann28

should be: Sybil's mother exhibited many odd behaviors as seen by Sybil's childhood friends.

Mar 21, 2012 12:07 am
 Posted by  John Graham

I don't understand this article. I read the book "Sybil Exposed" and have followed Nathan's articles, interviews, comments on Amazon, her affiliations with groups who do defend those accused of child abuse, and her past work. Clearly, she has an agenda - to do whatever, say whatever, write whatever it takes to not only negate the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID), but to mock those who live with, treat, or research it. Her attempt to 'prove' the book "Sybil" a fraud has fallen way short as it has been shown again and again that she did not include all of the sources needed to back her opinions or conclusions, the sources are mainly 'hearsay' or carefully chosen from literally hundreds of boxes of journals, her book is written much as this article is - 'tabloid' style.

After all, Nathan is no more than a sensationalist 'looking for a story' that people will buy - at the expense of three women who are not here to stand for themselves. She is not qualified to make conclusions about this disorder or 'how' someone with it might 'act'. Nor, is she qualified to 'decide' how an 'abuser' might behave. I doubt that abusers 'flaunt' themselves to the public, for instance. After all, Nathan is also obsessed with 'protecting the abusers' and drastically underestimates not only the amount of cases of DID, but also of child abuse and how severe and hidden it can be.

This article is just more of the same of "Sybil Exposed" - though a few of her leaps are a bit higher here.

I feel so very sad for those who suffer(ed) from child abuse, the children and the survivors. If you believe what Nathan writes, possibly - you should contact her organization, donate to help the defense of abusers. She will even give you lists of convicted abusers to visit, because they need support - according to her site - The National Center for Reason & Justice.

I feel like just saying, "Haven't you done enough? Move on to some new obsession! Enough ppl have been hurt."

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