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.

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!”
 

 

Muriel was incredulous. “It’s not!” she protested, “I’ve read Sybil. It’s not about her.” But Luella was sure. “Look at this article,” she said. “Read it!” Muriel sat at a table and pored over the clipping.

It was from the Minneapolis Star—the Twin Cities’ evening paper before the Star-Tribune merger—and it was dated from three years earlier: August 27, 1975. “Sybil,” the headline boomed. “A shocked Dodge Center thinks she grew up there.”

The article described months of alarm and confusion in the tiny, rural community just west of Rochester. Sybil had barely been published when the residents of Dodge Center began to recognize themselves and their neighbors in the book’s pages. The locals recalled a sensitive, artistic girl named Shirley Mason, who’d grown up in their town from the 1920s to 1940s. They also remembered a writer named Flora Rheta Schreiber visiting in the summer of 1970, and asking lots of questions about Shirley. Now, Schreiber was listed on the cover of Sybil as the book’s author.

The book said that Sybil’s hometown was in Wisconsin. But many unusual details applied to Dodge Center. The “Wisconsin” town’s telephone switchboard operator had a tic, for instance. So did Dodge Center’s. The iceman had a low IQ. Dodge Center’s did, too. In Sybil, an old man crafted violins by hand on a balcony above the town pharmacy. In how many little Midwestern towns could this have occurred—or in all of America, for that matter? The headline on page two of the Minneapolis Star article summed things up: “Too many details match for coincidence.”

In Dodge Center, people were divided over whether Sybil was a true story. No one remembered Shirley’s mother—a slender, elegantly dressed woman named Mattie Mason—acting psychotic, violent or perverse. Nor had anyone ever seen Shirley displaying different personalities. The book said that from third to fifth grade, Sybil’s body had been taken over by Peggy, a child personality. Peggy learned everything in class, including arithmetic. When Sybil’s self suddenly reappeared, she did not know her multiplication tables, and her straight A’s in math suddenly plummeted. But the Star quoted Shirley’s fifth-grade teacher saying the girl’s grades were consistent. Dodge Centerites were of two minds. On the one hand, they scoffed at Sybil. On the other, they wondered if they’d failed to pay enough mind to little Shirley Mason to notice her suffering and call the authorities on her mother.

Even after she read the shocking article in the Star, Muriel did not believe that Sybil was Shirley. When she got back to her mother’s home in Echo, she rushed to the closet of her old bedroom. “That’s where all my old letters were stored,” she recalled recently. “They were in a shoebox.”

She emptied the box and arranged the letters by date. She got her mother’s letters, too, and put them in order. She opened the book and studied it, comparing the details of “Sybil’s” life with those of Shirley Mason. The book said that in the 1950s, Sybil had been a student at Columbia University, in New York City, and had lived nearby. In her letters, Shirley wrote that she was a Columbia student with an apartment a few blocks from campus. The book talked about Sybil’s father being on his deathbed on April 12, 1962. A letter from Shirley noted that her father had died on that date. And the book said that Sybil had a cat named Capri. In a letter to Muriel, Shirley talked about her own cat: “Did I tell you her name? It is Capi, as she has a sort of black cap on her head and also because Capi is short for Caprice.”

Reading these and other details, Muriel broke out in goose bumps. She told her mother she agreed: Shirley Mason was Sybil. Muriel says that Luella, who passed away in 2001, “always found it difficult to talk about subjects like mental illness.” But during this conversation, she confided to her daughter that Shirley had suffered from emotional problems while in college. She didn’t give details. But she did say that Shirley had gotten help from the school nurse, whose name was Johanna Weblemoe, and that Shirley and Weblemoe had stayed close over the years. Muriel wondered if the nurse was still alive. If so, perhaps she would know Shirley’s whereabouts.

Muriel desperately wanted to find Shirley. Partly, she needed to know that her old friend was all right. But she also wanted to investigate the Sybil story, because she found it very puzzling. Luella told Muriel that in college, no one ever saw Shirley acting as though she had another self—much less 16 selves. Nor had Shirley’s mother seemed abnormal. Luella often saw Mrs. Mason on campus when she came to visit Shirley; except for dressing a bit more stylishly than most, she seemed no different from the other mothers. Yet, according to Sybil, the woman who’d written Muriel and Luella all those letters suffered from multiple-personality disorder as far back as childhood, and had a mother who was noticeably, dramatically psychotic. Muriel didn’t know what to think.

On the Monday after she read the letters, Muriel returned to Mankato, picked up a White Pages, and found nurse Weblemoe’s listing. She was long retired from her job, but answered the phone. Weblemoe verified that yes, Shirley was Sybil, and she was doing fine. “But [the nurse] told me she’d promised not to tell anyone where Shirley was,” Muriel remembered. “‘Leave her alone,’ Weblemoe said.” She refused to talk further.

Muriel felt defeated as she hung up the phone. In her living room, she took the orange tablecloth off her dining-room table. “It was like someone in the family was gone,” she said. “I felt like I was never going to hear from Shirley again. I didn’t want the tablecloth to get dirty or stained. It was all I had left of her.”

Years passed with the tablecloth in storage—and not a word from Shirley. Meanwhile, Muriel and her husband, John, started a family. Their first child, Emily, was born in 1980 with Down’s syndrome. Emily was followed by a boy, then twin girls. With a special-needs daughter and three other children, plus her work—she was a special-education teacher—Muriel had no time to look for her lost friend.

Still, she never forgot.
 

 

In the mid-1990s in New York City, a historian of psychiatry, Peter Swales, started looking for Shirley. Though he was unaware of the Star article from years ago, Swales had his own doubts about the Sybil story, and he wanted to identify the patient to see how the facts of her life compared with the tale in the book. Swales learned that Sybil author Flora Schreiber had died in 1988 and left 37 boxes of her papers to a college library in Manhattan. One contained information about “Sybil’s” treatment and life—including, presumably, her real name. But that box was sealed because librarians didn’t know if the real Sybil was alive or dead. They wanted to protect her privacy.

Swales examined the contents of some of the other boxes, and in one he discovered a letter that the librarians had misfiled. Dated in 1975, it had been written to someone named Shirley, by a woman living in North Dakota who’d grown up in Dodge Center. The woman had just gotten back from visiting family there, and wrote that her grandfather had told her “Shirley had ‘been through hell and we never knew!’ Then he told us about the book Sybil.”

Swales rushed to Dodge Center, where people told him they’d known for years that Sybil was Shirley Mason. They handed him the old Star clipping, the same one Muriel had pulled from the library book two decades earlier.

With her real name in hand, Swales determined that Shirley Mason’s last known address was in Lexington, Kentucky. Checking further, he learned that she’d died just a few months earlier, in February 1998. He contacted the national press with his findings. Reporters trooped to southern Minnesota from as far away as England, interviewing locals who said the same thing they had, years ago, to the Star: Shirley had not acted as though she had multiple personalities. And her mother did not seem psychotic.

Another person the reporters spoke with was Dr. Daniel Houlihan, a psychology professor at Mankato State University. Like many people in the area, Houlihan had known for years that Sybil was Shirley Mason, and he’d used yearbooks to research her student days from back when the school was a teacher’s college. After Houlihan was quoted in newspapers, Muriel contacted him. She told him about her and her mother’s boxes of letters.

Once again, Muriel’s curiosity about Shirley was piqued. On a trip down Highway 14 to take her daughter to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, she detoured to Dodge Center. There she visited Shirley’s childhood home, a neat little wooden two-story that Shirley’s father had built before World War I. “I asked the gentleman living there if I could go through it,” Muriel remembers. “I toured it and could almost feel her spirit there; almost visualize her sitting out on the porch, playing with her dolls.” After the tour, Muriel went next door to talk with Joan Larson, who reminisced about visiting the Mason family when she was a child. Shirley had seemed like a perfectly normal person, Larson told Muriel. And Mrs. Mason was nice.

Despite these reassurances, Muriel still felt confused. She worried about what her friend might have gone through. What if Shirley really had been sexually abused as a child? What if she’d suffered terribly?
 

Like Muriel, I’d spent years wondering about Sybil. As a young woman when the book first came out in the 1970s, I’d been fascinated by the idea that people could harbor different selves without knowing it. Later, I became a journalist, and in the 1990s, while writing about multiple-personality disorder, I learned that the diagnosis was very controversial. In 2007, I found out about those 37 boxes at the library in New York City, where I live. By then, the box with the Sybil material had been unsealed, and more information had been published suggesting there were serious flaws in the story. From this new material I learned of Dr. Houlihan and, through him, Muriel and her letters.

I got in touch with Muriel, and we began a fruitful collaboration. She mailed me copies of Shirley’s letters, and went with me when I visited Minnesota to interview Shirley’s neighbors and former classmates. When Muriel traveled to New York for a vacation, I took her to the Flora Schreiber archives. I’d spent months sifting through the collection, unearthing countless documents that suggested the Sybil story was a hoax.

There were papers indicating that, as a child, Shirley had been weak, depressed, and extremely fantasy prone. As a young adult she’d still felt bad, and in college she had often fainted for no apparent reason. Additional papers showed that when Shirley was sent for help to Dr. Connie Wilbur, she learned about multiple-personality disorder because the psychiatrist told her she was interested in the condition. Back then, Dr. Wilbur did not think Shirley had multiple personalities. But Shirley developed a crush on her doctor, and sensed that developing alternate selves—or pretending to—would help her gain much-wanted attention. Dr. Wilbur unwittingly encouraged Shirley to generate the personalities—she wanted to write a blockbuster book about a fascinating case. Shirley, she decided, would be that case. She proposed a literary partnership.

After Shirley agreed to help write the book, Dr. Wilbur engaged in even more unethical conduct. She gave Shirley money, clothing, household appliances—even Capri, the pet cat that Shirley had written to Muriel about. Documents in the archive also revealed that after Sybil came out in 1973, Shirley feared that old friends would recognize her as the protagonist of the book and tell the world the story was fiction. So she fled West Virginia and went into hiding in Kentucky, where Dr. Wilbur had also moved. From then on, her friends, including Muriel, never heard from her again.

On our visit to the archives, I showed Muriel a long, typed letter from Shirley to Dr. Wilbur, dated 1958. It was a confession. “I do not have any multiple personalities,” the letter said. “I have been essentially lying.” Nor had Shirley’s mother ever abused her, the letter continued. My own book, I assured Muriel, would tell the whole story.
 

Last Year, on a chilly Friday in November, I visited Muriel at her home in Tracy, Minnesota. Later, I gave a talk to her book club at the public library, where club members and librarians had laid out cookies, cake, and coffee next to copies of my newly published book, Sybil Exposed.

Muriel had already read it. Introducing me to the audience, she described me as someone who would talk about the real story of the most famous psychiatry patient in history. She then told the group how she’d lost her friend years ago, but had recently—finally—found her again.

That woman was long dead, of course, and what was found was only a reassurance that her childhood had not been one of torture. But this was enough for Muriel. In preparation for the meeting, she had pulled the orange tablecloth from storage, wrapped it, and brought it with her. As she unfolded it before her fellow readers, she admired—as she’d done years before—its good weave and bright color, reveling in her beloved friend’s fine taste in presents.

“This was from Shirley,” Muriel said, her eyes welling up. “Finally, I know what happened. I can use her gift again.”
 

Debbie Nathan is a New York City-based journalist. Her latest book is Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case (Free Press, 2011).
 

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