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What is dissociative identity disorder?

The Mass Media and Multiple Personalities

In 1957, a book written by two psychiatrists, "The Three Faces of Eve," detailed the case of "Eve White" -- in truth, a patient named Chris Costner Sizemore. The patient was referred to them for blinding headaches and periods of amnesia, and during her time working with them, two alters emerged. Over the course of treatment, the doctors were able to reintegrate the personalities into a single, unified host personality. And then they quickly wrote a book, which was soon made into a movie blockbuster.

"The Three Faces of Eve," along with other books and movies that came out shortly before and after its release, brought what was then called multiple personality disorder to the forefront of public consciousness. It was also the most highly publicized modern case of a DID patient having more than two personalities.

In 1973, another high-profile book, "Sybil," about a case involving psychiatrist Cornelia B. Wilbur, was published by Flora Rheta Schreiber. It told the story of a DID patient who had 16 personalities as a result of early childhood trauma of an almost unbelievably cruel nature. This root cause of the disorder was only discovered after intensive therapy and hypnosis.

"Sybil" was later turned into a major motion picture (and re-made as a made-for-TV movie) and had a major influence on Americans' perceptions of DID. The number of patients seeking help for the disorder increased dramatically, and the movie more or less established in the public consciousness certain dimensions of DID -- forgotten early-childhood traumas creating a split in consciousness, allowing numerous personalities to form. In the years since "Sybil" was released, it's not uncommon for doctors to see patients with dozens -- even hundreds -- of alters.

Some doctors have cast doubt on the validity of the case, the diagnosis and Wilbur's treatment of the patient. It was alleged by another doctor who took over sessions for a period of time while Wilbur was out of town that case notes and the patient's own statements indicated that the highly suggestible patient was made to believe she had DID in part to facilitate Wilbur's sale of the subsequent book and movie.

These doubts -- along with other DID-related cultural phenomena we'll discuss next -- created a backlash against DID diagnoses and the psychiatric industry that grew larger with each mass media account of a case.