How stupid can Americans be?

My Facebook friends attribute Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 to a relatively sudden outbreak of stupidity, racism, and sexism among American voters.

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s (won both “A Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2015” and “A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015”) suggests that, if we are in fact The Stupid Country (TM), this is not new.

Starting in the 1970s, for example, we convinced ourselves that multiple personalities could dwell within one physical human.

In 1973 the results of one of these experiments were published under the title Sybil: The True and Extraordinary Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Separate Personalities. Written by a magazine journalist named Flora Rheta Schreiber, the book purported to tell the story of Sybil Dorsett, a shy and lonely woman who, in 1953, had “embarked on one of the most complex and most bizarre cases in the history of psychiatry.” The book reconstructed the therapeutic encounters between Sybil and her heroic, Upper East Side psychoanalyst, and it laid out the awful discoveries brought to light during Sybil’s time on the couch. “Sybil Dorsett’s” real name was Shirley Mason, and her psychoanalyst was Cornelia Wilbur. The two first encountered one another in 1945, when Mason, then a college student, went into psychotherapy with Dr. Wilbur.

Shirley Mason grew up in a Minnesota farm town where her Seventh-Day Adventist parents prohibited novel reading, story writing, and making drawings with weird colors in them—all activities that Shirley loved. Pretending was also expressly forbidden, but Shirley had imaginary friends named Vicky and Sam, though the rigid, self-lacerating piety of the church sometimes made their company difficult to enjoy. She had an intimate and confusing relationship with her mother, who sometimes alternated between bouts of nervous energy and long episodes of impenetrable depression.

When Wilbur had early success in the treatment of hysterics, she believed she had found a line of work to which she was exceptionally—even uniquely—well suited. Years later she would describe her clinical abilities as those of a “genius” and “a magician.” She also referred to herself as a maverick. In the years preceding her move into psychoanalytic practice, Wilbur consistently found herself working, sometimes recklessly, at the experimental frontiers of clinical psychiatry. She conducted a number of experiments with barbiturates, administering large doses of these powerful drugs to psychotic patients and noting the results. Wilbur was interested in shock therapy, and she also assisted on some of the first couple of hundred lobotomies performed in the United States.

Then, as now, we thought that it would be a great idea to give psychologically-troubled patients a whole cabinet full of drugs:

By this point Wilbur had also given Mason prescriptions for Demerol, Edrisal, Daprisal, and Seconal, the last of which is a highly addictive barbiturate. A week and a half later, Mason arrived at Wilbur’s office for a weekday appointment, and there seemed to be something different about her. “I’m fine,” Mason said, “but Shirley isn’t. She was so sick she couldn’t come. So I came instead.” “Tell me about yourself,” Wilbur said, and Mason replied, “I’m Peggy!” That Mason should have turned out to have Multiple Personality Disorder, of all things, was very exciting on its own—the condition was vanishingly rare in the 1950s. But within two sessions Mason had displayed four separate personalities. Wilbur had never heard of a documented case of four separate personalities. She decided to psychoanalyze all of them.

When it was finally published in 1973, Sybil included a list of the sixteen personalities that Wilbur eventually found inside Mason, complete with birth dates and personality characteristics. Victoria Antoinette Scharleau, born in 1926, was a “sophisticated, attractive blonde.” Peggy Lou Baldwin, born the same year, was an “angry pixie with a pug nose.” Mason had male personalities as well: Sid Dorsett was a carpenter and a handyman. Sybil describes Wilbur teasing out these personalities, one by one, gaining their trust, playing them off one another in search of information. It is a long and arduous process. Some of Mason’s personalities are so wary of Dr. Wilbur that she doesn’t even learn of their existence for months. The personalities know all about one another, however, and unbeknownst to the host personality—that’s Shirley—they argue and exchange information as part of a big, collaborative effort to help Mason survive the trauma that brought them into being in the first place.

Think that your fellow citizens are stupid because they were credulous enough to believe Donald Trump’s statements that regulations and high tax rates are retarding economic growth? Here’s some stuff from Sybil that Americans had no trouble believing…

At home Mason’s conservative, fundamentalist parents would bring their young daughter into the bedroom at night and force her to watch as they had sex. In the woods Hattie [the patient’s mom] would gather up neighborhood children and take them to a secluded place. “‘Now lean over and run like a horse,’ [Hattie said]. As the children squealed with delight at the prospect, Hattie would motion them to begin. Then, while the little girls, simulating the gait of horses, leaned over as they had been instructed, Hattie from her perch on the floor, revealed the real purpose of the ‘game.’ Into their vaginas went her fingers as she intoned, ‘Giddyap, giddyap.’” In 1962 Cornelia Wilbur would serve as one of the editors of an influential study of homosexuality identifying the phenomenon as an “illness,” one most frequently caused by improper mothering, and this belief is reflected in Sybil’s descriptions of Hattie’s abuse. Hattie orchestrated lesbian orgies in the forest. Hattie separated Mason’s legs with a wooden spoon, suspended the small girl from the ceiling, upside down, and then administered enemas. “‘I did it,’ Hattie would scream triumphantly when her mission was accomplished. ‘I did it.’ The scream was followed by laughter, which went on and on.” Sybil described Hattie’s motivation for these abuses as her pathological hatred of men. “‘You might as well get used to it,’ her mother, inserting one of these foreign bodies, explained to her daughter at six months or at six years. ‘That’s what men will do to you when you grow up. . . . They hurt you, and you can’t stop them.’” Wilbur obtained these stories by slowly and methodically turning Shirley Mason, who never displayed her “alter” personalities to anyone other than her analyst and her roommate, into a drug addict. When Mason had a particularly bad day, Wilbur would regularly give her up to five times the prescribed dose of Daprisal, Amytal, Demerol, or any number of other medications, and as therapy progressed, Wilbur added a powerful antipsychotic called Thorazine. At the center of this pharmaceutical regimen was Sodium Pentothal, a barbiturate so renowned for its ability to lower patients’ inhibitions that it was colloquially, though inaccurately, known as “truth serum.” Wilbur administered Pentothal injections with such frequency and in such large doses that Mason would often come out of a therapy session unable to remember anything she had said. “Under Pentothal,” she once confessed in a letter to Wilbur, “I am much more original.” As Mason’s personalities multiplied, and as the stories those personalities provided became more horrifying and more lurid, Wilbur decided a book had to be written about the case. To ensure Mason’s cooperation, Wilbur said she would cover Mason’s living expenses in exchange for her full-time devotion to therapy. Mason agreed. She spent at least fifteen hours a week in Dr. Wilbur’s office, and as a consequence of the drugs she consumed, she slept for roughly the same amount each night. As [Debbie] Nathan put it in Sybil Exposed, “she was a professional multiple personality patient.” Mason would stay on the job for more than a decade.

Did we have any incentive to be this dumb?

One explanation for Sybil’s runaway popularity is that it provided an elegant companion narrative to the growing consensus that child abusers committed their crimes not because of social conditions but because they were mentally ill. The tendency to see abusers as pathological aberrations from a healthy norm made them more interesting and less frightening: they could either be treated and then returned to nonabusive normalcy or, in cases that resisted treatment, they could be cordoned off from society for the rest of their lives without any misgivings. In any case, one would not have to get involved in a tricky conversation about what many people regarded as parents’ right to subject their children to disciplinary violence if they wanted to. By giving the victims of abuse a mental illness of their own, Sybil accomplished much the same thing, pushing attention away from the circumstances that cause abuse to happen in the first place and toward the elaborate treatments that might be administered after the fact.

The author’s explanation: As American society fell apart starting in the 1960s and none of the expensive anti-poverty programs were working, Americans wanted to believe that poverty (“social conditions”) was not an important driving factor.

It turns out that Americans who are making money by believing in something are unlikely to abandon that belief. “Sybil” actually wrote a letter to her now-famous therapist admitting that it was all made up:

By the time Shirley wrote the letter, she had no life outside of therapy, her friendship with Dr. Wilbur, meandering walks through New York, and a lesbian roommate who sometimes tried to get into bed with her. The letter was written as a four-page entry in a therapy diary that Mason maintained and allowed Dr. Wilbur to read. It began with a kind of forensic analysis of the doctor-patient relationship in which Mason found herself: At various times over the years you have told me you thought I was more than average in intelligence, or that I was clever, or that I was sensitive, imaginative, creative, original, etc. Well, I am. And, you see, I am also egotistical. . . . But I have played on it long enough now. It isn’t getting me anywhere, so this time I will be honest. . . . I have tried to tell you this before, but I couldn’t hold out very long when you showed doubts. . . . A person likes to be admired, and so I let it slide rather than to disappoint you or risk your anger if you should become convinced. I felt I couldn’t lose you again. After three paragraphs building up in this way, Mason came out with it, writing, “I do not have any multiple personalities. I don’t even have a ‘double’ to help me out. I am all of them. I have been essentially lying in my pretense of them, I know. I had not meant to lie in the beginning. I sort of fell into a pattern, found it worked, and continued to build on it.” While Mason thought it possible that there were real cases of Multiple Personality out there, she suspected that others diagnosed with the disorder could be cases “just like mine, hysterics with nothing better to do than ‘act a part’ and put off onto ‘another personality’ the things they cannot quite dare to pretend themselves, and then act as if they had forgotten in order to avoid punishment or feeling some sort of guilt or shame for the lie.”

As for the elaborate stories of abuse, Mason couldn’t say exactly where they had come from. They “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued.” She said she made up all the stories about fugue states and Philadelphia, and she asked that Dr. Wilbur stop demonizing her mother, Hattie. She may have been anxious and controlling, but she hadn’t been a sadist, and she hadn’t raped Shirley with a flashlight. Though the letter had obviously been difficult for Shirley to write—she had no idea what Dr. Wilbur would make of it—the result was clear-headed and comprehensive. Mason seems to have been surprised to find herself in a state of mind where such honesty was possible, and she didn’t want to waste the opportunity—usually she was either high or sleeping.

Did the psychiatrist issue a press release saying that she’d made a big mistake in treating this patient? Not exactly…

Dr. Wilbur’s response to this letter, which she regarded as “a major defensive maneuver,” was to tell Mason that her confession was a sign of “resistance.” It showed that Mason was frightened of the memories she had yet to uncover, that her mother really had tortured her, and that she needed to prepare for the important work that remained. The implication was that Mason could either agree to have Multiple Personality Disorder or she could stop seeing Dr. Wilbur. Mason went home and composed a second letter. Some irresponsible alter had written the first one, she said. She started seeing Dr. Wilbur five times a week.

More: read We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s



  1. jerry

    March 7, 2017 @ 1:54 pm


    Perhaps related:

    “What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Had Swapped Genders?
    A restaging of the presidential debates with an actress playing Trump and an actor playing Clinton yielded surprising results.”

    tweeted out by various folks as:

    “So a woman who acts like Trump would never get away with it? That’s what these experimenters thought too. Until after the experiment.”

    “NYU gender-swaps Trump/Clinton debates. Audience surprised at T’s likeability. “Now I understand how this happened.”

  2. Tom

    March 7, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

  3. M

    March 7, 2017 @ 5:40 pm


    We need to have more women in this country, and that’s a job that Americans won’t do! One way to see it is that an escort price is way too high, So much higher than in accounting! Way, way higher than in, e.g., Singapore! Sad!!!

    Only a billionaire can afford a legal fee of an objective way of interviewing, aka grabbing them by the p**sy! This is clearly an anecdotal evidence, for all you fans of 539 plus or minus 7 with confidence of 95%.

    At the same time, there are thousands and thousands of foreign women willing to relocate to this country and to offer their unique expertise at a very competitive price. (You can have a dedicated experienced worker in Kamathipura, Mumbai for as low as $7/hr.) Some of them have a PhD in this matter. Just give them an H1B and ask Tata Consulting for a quote!

  4. Tom

    March 8, 2017 @ 4:38 am


    “We need to have more women in this country, and that’s a job that Americans won’t do!”

    The law is ahead of you there. Denied!

  5. M

    March 8, 2017 @ 3:23 pm


    The law is so horrible. Bad!!!

    But my post was not about marriage: it was about growing our economy and staying competitive as a nation in the 21st century.

    How about absorbing all those women as undocumented immigrants then? We can declare Las Vegas a sanctuary city, too.

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