Marketing the Bieber Study: Cornelia Wilbur's Other Scandal

Monday, I wrote about a new book by Debbie Nathan which examines the famous multiple personality case of Sybil, a young woman who claimed 16 personalities. For her book Nathan reviewed the notes of Flora Rheta Schreiber, the journalist who collaborated with Sybil’s psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur in order to turn the case of Shirley Ardell Mason (Sybil’s real name) into a media sensation. Nathan’s findings debunk the claims of Wilbur and expose the distortions and fabrications which led to the famous case. In looking into Sybil’s history, Nathan also takes a long look at psychoanalyst Wilbur. It turns out that multiple personality was not the only controversial diagnosis Wilbur treated.

While Wilbur was discovering Sybil’s personalities, she also collaborated with Irving Bieber on his study of male homosexuality. Wilbur was one of nine co-authors of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study, published in 1962. Wilbur also had the distinction of being involved as co-author of the other study of homosexuality conducted by the Society of Medical Psychoanalysts published in the 1960s. Wilbur worked with psychoanalyst Harvey Kaye on a team to research female homosexuality, co-authoring a report in 1967.

With the publication of Sybil by author Flora Schreiber, Wilbur became famous. However, the book about Wilbur’s patient Shirley Mason was not the first collaboration between Wilbur and Schreiber. According to Sybil Exposed, Wilbur and Schreiber met when Wilbur was pitching the findings of the 1962 Bieber study. According to Nathan, Wilbur claimed that the Bieber study reported the causes of male homosexuality and boasted of the 27% cure rate as the result of work with analysts like Wilbur.

Schreiber, a free lance writer, was interested in the research and pitched the idea of a story on the subject to several magazines. Cosmopolitan accepted the pitch and assigned her to write a story about a mother with a gay son “eager to help him go straight.” Schreiber then asked Wilbur for a case which could be turned into an article.

According to Nathan, Wilbur turned over information about Case 129 from the Bieber study. You can read about this case on pages 54-58 of Bieber’s 1962 book (click the links to read it – A, B, C). The case is important for two reasons. One, Schreiber did not like it because the main character was an adult and she was assigned to write about a mother and teen son. Two, according Nathan’s research, the case may have been a thinly veiled reference to Wilbur’s work with actor Roddy McDowall.

After summarizing Case 129 from Bieber’s book, Nathan connects the dots,

The public knew that Roddy McDowall’s father had worked on ships. They know his mother had pushed him into voice lessons and Hollywood, and that he’d later moved to New York and found success in show business. What McDowall never talked about openly was that he was gay and that after arriving in New York he’d begun an affair with the charismatic, bisexual actor Montgomery Clift, who was eight years his senior and a raging alcoholic. When Clift called off the affair, McDowall tried to kill himself. These facts did not become widely known until after McDowall died in 1998.

Indeed, McDowall’s homosexuality was considered an open secret and one Clift biographer, Patricia Boswell, said that McDowall was suicidal after a breakup with Clift.

However, since Schreiber needed a teen-aged homosexual, the case, no matter how interesting, had to be altered. So, according to her own notes, Schreiber changed the subject of case 129 into an adolescent, Don, who tearfully confessed his homosexuality to his mother, Eve, in a fit of desperation. In the first draft of the article, according to Nathan, Schreiber used many of the details from Wilbur’s case 129 except for the age of the young man.  The adolescent boy attended psychoanalysis with Wilbur, who explained the causes of homosexuality right from the Bieber study. Unfortunately for Schreiber, this clinical tale did not suit the Cosmo editor who insisted on changes just before going to press. Nathan writes:

One afternoon just before press time, Flora was summoned to Cosmopolitan’s offices on Fifty-seventh Street. When she got there she was informed that her piece was not acceptable. Eve, the homosexual boy’s mother, was overly intelligent, and her son, Don, seemed too sophisticated. The editors and printers ordered Flora to do an immediate rewrite. She sat down and worked as fast as she could.

The result was an article which was published in January, 1963 under the title, “I Was Raising a Homosexual Child” (click the link to read it on Google books). In this fabrication, Don’s homosexuality was revealed to his parents by means of a phone call from police. Don had been arrested for cuddling with another man in Central Park. However, Schreiber maintained the same causal narrative about smother-mothers and distant fathers advanced by the Bieber book. In the story, the fictional Don saw Dr. Wilbur for psychoanalysis and eventually decided that he didn’t really like guys after all. The Cosmo piece reads like a promotional piece for Bieber and Wilbur’s book, which is apparently what Wilbur hoped for. According to a letter from Wilbur, referred to by Nathan, Wilbur said Schreiber “had gotten things right” in the Cosmo article. Wilbur then thought of Schreiber when it came time to pitch the book about her multiple personality patient, Shirley.

(Note that the article says the names have been changed, implying that the case was real.)

There are many other shocking details about Wilbur’s work with Sybil detailed in the book. For instance, Wilbur supplied Shirley/Sybil with money and hired her for a variety of projects. One of the projects was typing up the manuscript for Bieber’s book on the study of male homosexuality. Although not mentioned in her book, Nathan told me in an interview that Shirley/Sybil was hired to type the book manuscript and even submitted an idea for the cover art.

So before Wilbur pitched the case of Sybil to Flora Schreiber, there was the pitch to Schreiber about the Bieber study. As it turns out, Sybil was a fictional tale only loosely tied to Shirley Mason. However, Don, the allegedly “cured” homosexual, was a complete fabrication.

The Bieber study is at the heart of the reparative narrative about the cause of homosexuality. Many articles on The National Association for the Research and Treatment of Homosexuality website refer to Bieber’s findings as authoritative. Most observers outside of NARTH dismiss the study as hopelessly subjective and flawed. However, for those inclined to give it weight, the study rises and falls on the credibility of the reports from the psychoanalysts who contributed cases since the patients were never surveyed. With the publication of Sybil Exposed, it is now reasonable to call into question the credibility of those reports.

“Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case,” by Debbie Nathan, is published by the Free Press and went on sale this week.

Additional note: After Wilbur died, Richard Kluft edited a book on multiple personality disorder and included a tribute to Cornelia Wilbur. Wilbur’s work with Sybil and other patients changed the way dissociative states were treated. An interview with Wilbur is included in the opening pages of the book. Here she notes the connection of the Cosmo article on Don, the fictional cured homosexual, and her decision to use Schreiber to write Sybil. Note Wilbur says that Schreiber got everything right.

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  • mark

    Warrren,

    are you accusing Irving Bieber of out and out lying and misrepresentation? Just because one or any of of his associates fabricated a story for Cosmo or anything else doesn’t necessarily mean that Bieber should be discredited. If so, then someone who studied or consulted with you could be accused or guilty of something and by implication because of association, you should be discredited also? I don’t think it is that simple, is it? Is there a witch hunt going on here?

    Mark

    • Mark – No, my plain words were that it is reasonable to question the study due to the methodology of relying on analysts to characterize their patients history and attitudes. Given that one of them clearly collaborated with a journalist to fabricate a story, I think this calls into question the method as well as her contribution. I am not saying Bieber knew anything or that he engaged in any wrong doing. I don’t know how many cases she submitted, but she was more than simply a contributor. She was a co-author with some involvement via Shirley in getting the manuscript to print. Please stick to what I actually wrote.

  • Frank

    Mark, given that Bieber introduced the enormous bias caused by selecting a population of patients under treatment and the bias caused by interviewing only their therapists, ,I as a statistician, can

    only conclude that the man was either incompetent or a fraud. What he did was indefensible and was tolerated because of the non- existent counseling standards of the day which allowed mental health professionals to commit nothing less than crimes against humanity (torture, psychosurgery, etc) which should have earned the practitioners a trial in the Hague.

    For you to complain about a witch hunt is absolutely reprehensible.

  • David Blakeslee

    Frank, no one at this site is reprehensible…take it easy.

    To be fair, this was the nature of analytical research at the time, statistics generally had not been applied to the profession in any of its assertions.

    Bieber did not introduce the idea of homosexuality as mental illness…it was a well established assumption at the time.

    It was a diagnosis in search of a theory and a treatment.

    Think Autism and the many corrosive bad theories that came out associated with psychodynamic theory.

  • David Blakeslee

    Mark,

    It is not a witch hunt…but if you have been around lately you would see that Warren is doing a good job discovering fundamental flaws in the original research which fuel the development of reparative drive theory.

    These are important facts to face with courage, compassion and humility.

    Stick around and collect the facts and come to your own conclusions.

    Our gay and lesbian friends deserve an open airing of the “facts” which have driven a debate that has so misled and mischaracterized them.

  • Frank

    David Blakeslee writes:

    “Frank, no one at this site is reprehensible…take it easy.”

    I call someone’s words reprehensible, not the person writing them.

    “Bieber did not introduce the idea of homosexuality as mental illness…it was a well established assumption at the time.”

    It was a cultural assumption- not a scientific assumption. Ten years earlier Freud wrote his letter to an American mother which denounced the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness. Moreover, he strongly condemned attempts to “fix” it.

    “To be fair, this was the nature of analytical research at the time, statistics generally had not been applied to the profession in any of its assertions.”

    C. Evelyn Hooker published a statistically based study four years before Bieber et. al., proving that experts like Bieber were no better than a random classifier when it came to detecting sexual orientation or its effects on personality.

    Bieber et al. were hacks at best and unscrupulous careerists victimizing their own patients at worst.

  • Michael Bussee

    It was a diagnosis in search of a theory and a treatment.

    It always has been this way. And for the “ex-gay” and “reparative therapy” programs, it still is. They begin with the conclusion that homosexuality is somehow disordered, broken, evil or sick — and then look for proof to support their prejudice. It’s social stigma, not science.

  • David Blakeslee

    Frank,

    As a statistician, you must see the flaws in Hooker’s research.

    Outrage is a pleasant sensation, that is facilitated by making things seem simpler or clearer than they are…or were.

    Freud’s thoughts on homosexuality have been documented here as well; and emphasize his view that it was a developmental error which was not in need of any treatment; or more accurately, would not respond to treatment. In addition, he rightly encouraged respect for homosexuals as they were and are.

    It is important to remember Freud’s focus, or preoccupation with Sexual Drive theory, postulating all sorts of absurdities about the sexuality of a child; and the assumption that ‘repression’ would cause mental illness and so on.

  • ken

    Frank# ~ Oct 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    “C. Evelyn Hooker published a statistically based study four years before Bieber”

    I’m not sure what study you are referring to, but it would be virtually impossible to be able to get a statistically unbiased sample of gays in the 50s & 60s. Much of her initial work was in demonstrating that homosexuality was not a disorder, but that wasn’t based on statistical sampling.

  • David Blakeslee

    Ken,

    I think statistical bias was a difficult thing to control for generally in psychological research prior to the 70’s.

    This went all the way down to intelligence test sampling; and is highlighted by much of psychological research which is based upon samples gleaned from college campuses.

    Much of the research on gay promiscuity was based upon research samples gleaned from bath houses and gay bars. Christians did not select these samples…usually they were convenience samples. The results were alarming…but could not be generalized due to the problems with the sample. No Christian bias or plot here; except if a Christian professional makes assertions about the general population of gays (today) based upon this flawed research.

    There have been an amalgam of factors leading to the situation we have today; getting the facts on the table helps us all see each other more accurately

  • This discussion is going in a differenct direction. The point is that you cannot trust many people. You have a psychotherapist who to advantage of a patient(s) for financial gain. That is reprehensible. My heart goes out the physcially and most importantly emotionally abused children as well as, the gay individuals that have been oppressed. I hope that humanity finds a better path and we can all live peacefully without the greed and distruction of others for self -fufillment.