Shirley Ardell Mason, whose story about an abusive childhood became a hot-topic book about the multiple personalities of Sybil and then a movie in the 1970s with Sally Ann Field and Joanne Woodward, was born one hundred years ago.
The dramatization of her deeply disturbing early childhood memories set off a viciously fought controversy about whether the condition existed at all which is still running today. Various psychological professionals and others have gone to great, almost desperate, lengths to deny it was anything other than a fiction, invented by a fame-hungry psychiatrist.
While it is true that it was over-diagnosed at one point, there is no doubt that Dissociative Identity Disorder as it is now known can be adopted as a strategy to defend against massive and terrifying early abuse, usually by the primary caretaker, normally the mother. Although MPD or DID is an extreme disorder most of us have traces of ‘splitting’ in our everyday interactions, some more than others. But for it to extend as far as creating separate defensive personalities, there has to be massive psychological trauma such as being tortured as a baby.
Quite why this sets off alarm bells in some people’s heads I have never understood but the denial lobby is alive, well and determined to blow out of the water any suggestion that what?? — the psyche is so vulnerable it fragments under severe stress and unbearable fear. It seems to me a skillful adaptation for a psyche under mind-bending pressure. The kinds of stories that DID patients relate are often beyond most people’s capacity to witness.
Shirley Mason (Sybil) was born 25 January 1923 3am Dodge Center, Minnesota, and her mother was reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and deemed “bizarre” by neighbours; and Shirley had several episodes of blackouts and emotional breakdowns as an adult. She had a quick witted 3rd house Sun Mercury in Aquarius and later became an art teacher.
Her Mercury opposed a 9th house Neptune and squared onto a 12th house Jupiter; and she had a Water Grand Trine of Jupiter trine an 8th house Pluto trine Uranus on her IC. So she would live in her own private bubble to blot out reality with a Water Grand Trine plus the Jupiter Neptune which would make her gloss over unpleasantness.
A strong Jupiter as she had would make it possible to overcome difficulties. Of Fred West’s children – the UK child abuser – the ones who survived had strong Jupiters.
Shirley did have a 4th house Mars square her 8th house Pluto suggesting anger, violence and fear in her childhood. Her Taurus Moon was on the midpoint of her Uranus IC trine the 8th house Pluto which suggests a mother who was unpredictable, unstable and wrestling with her own demons from that 8th house Pluto.
I have seen worse charts and you can’t diagnose psychological conditions per se from a chart. What can be problematic about early memory as was discovered with second and even third generation children of Holocaust survivors is that the parents’ unspoken trauma can be handed down as quasi-memories to the children. So at times the trauma may not be the individual’s but an unconsciously transmitted memory from the past.
Her psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur, 26 August 1908, was a sharp-eyed Sun, Mars, Mercury in Virgo – with her Pluto as well as Venus Neptune in Cancer falling in Shirley’s 8th house – which would make for a deep connection though perhaps also a confused one. There’s no proof either way.
Whatever the truth – and mother being schizophrenic and Shirley suffering blackouts and breakdowns prior to therapy does point to severe early trauma – it did shine a light on the byzantine workings of minds under pressure.