The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Fiction as a Regulator of the Mental Health Field: The Case of Sybill

Authored by Margaret Otto

Murray Bowen, MD developed the concept of differentiation and societal emotional process. The basic idea is that emotional forces in families correlate to emotional forces in society. This process can be progressive or regressive with individuals and families at the lower level of differentiation being the most vulnerable to environmental influence.  As anxiety increases and individuality decreases, functioning lowers and symptom severity increases. Broader societal processes and the stressed emotional fields created can have a debilitating effect on individuals and the social functioning of some segments of society.

This post is a summary of the presentation, given at the 31st Annual Midwest Symposium, May 2 – 3,2014. The presentation began with family diagram and family evaluation of three individuals: an ambitious psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur M.D., an imaginative journalist, Flora Schreiber and a very willing “patient” Shirley Mason. All three collaborated to produce the book Sybil that was published in 1973. Society was eager to receive it.

The main character Sybil (Shirley Mason) was diagnosed by Dr. Wilbur with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), to whom she revealed extensive sexual abuse by her mother. The process of a book being ranked by the NY Times as among the 10 best-selling nonfiction books of the year to being categorized as fiction over time was examined.  In addition, the rates of MPD diagnosis and the perception of the validity of the diagnosis was traced from 1973 to the present.

Emotional process is spread through interlocking triangles. The basic molecule of emotional systems is the triangle. The emotional process, fusion and interdependency between these three individuals was described as well as the interlocking triangles they created that influenced the broader professional environments of the mental health, legal and publicity fields. These professional fields simultaneously moved on fiction, perception and emotion immaturity, not fact.

Bowen family systems theory can make a contribution to the understanding of societal process and the fluctuation of symptoms in society. Does emotional reactivity and cause and effect thinking prevent society from knowing what is in front of it? From “knowing what it knows” as Murray Bowen, M.D. asked during the course of his research.  Knowledge changes constantly and inconsistencies  and contradictions need to be examined, thought through and tested with robust discussion to see if the concepts holdup over time. The mental health field will stay vulnerable until it is based in the reality of science or “knows what it knows”.  Perhaps the continued development of Bowen family systems theory and efforts to continue to be in contact with the sciences will lead to the further development of the science of human behavior. This might work against societal regression and the suffering it brings.

Margaret Otto LSCSW

Margaret Otto, LSCSW

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