A Rare Kind of Psychopathic Disorder You’ve Probably Never Heard Of: Munchausen by Proxy

A Rare Kind of Psychopathic Disorder You’ve Probably Never Heard Of: Munchausen by Proxy

I remember when I was in graduate school and first heard about the disorder Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP). First off it’s a strange name. It is named after Baron von Munchhausen, an 18th century German nobleman known for allegedly making up stories about his travels and experiences in order to gain attention.

As it turns out, that’s not even the actual name of the disorder. Its real name, in the DSM-5, is Factitious Disorder by Proxy. Factitious means artificial, fake, false, sham, bogus, phony, unreal.

But like many unusual names, Munchausen by Proxy was the name that stuck, and it is now used widely in the press, courtrooms, and among many mental health professionals. So Munchausen by Proxy, it is.

The disorder, it turns out, is as strange as its name. Munchausen Syndrome describes patients who lie about their own states of health, and in MSbP they fabricate or exaggerating symptoms in someone in their care (usually their children).

MSbP is a rare form of child abuse (by some counts 2,000 cases worldwide, and approximately 600 cases annually in the U.S.) where the caregiver purposely creates or falsifies a child’s symptoms, exposing the child to unnecessary and invasive procedures and hospitalizations, riding an endless medical circuit, and becoming experts in medical terminology, all for the purpose of gaining attention for the caregiver.

Some in the medical profession know it as Medical Child Abuse. Medical professionals end up becoming pawns in this deviant act of attention seeking behavior. There are cases where MSbP has been proven by the placement of cameras in hospital rooms.

I recently ran across an Associated Press article by Jim Fitzgerald which has since been widely quoted on the Internet.  Jim reports on the current case of Lacey Spears of White Plains, New York (formerly of Scottsville, Kentucky). Lacey is accused of killing her five year-old son by poisoning him with salt.  She has pleaded not guilty. It is assumed that the prosecution will claim it is a case of MSbP.

MSbP has been reported in the medical literature at least as early as the 1950’s, but in a 21st century twist, some experts are now making a case that social media is fueling more cases.

Dr. Marc Feldman, author of Playing Sick?  (now on my reading list, thank-you), makes this case. It turns out that Lacey Spears had Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace accounts and a blog where she posted multiple updates on her son’s hospitalizations, right up until the end of his life.

Dr. Feldman, a psychiatrist and forensic consultant said, “There are instantly accessible and endlessly supportive groups out there who will pray with you and cry with you if you purport your child to be ill.”

So what makes these mothers tick? (It’s more often mothers than fathers.) They lack empathy and feelings of guilt. They are attention seeking and will go to any length to manipulate and gain that attention, even putting their own children at risk of severe harm or death.

Psychopathy gets my vote. And not the lite version. This is the real deal.

In my research I also ran across a book by a survivor. Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood, by Julie Gregory. (Also on my reading list now.)

Will let you know any new information I discover from Dr. Feldman and Ms. Gregory about this rare and potentially lethal disorder.

In the meantime, follow the case of Lacey Spears if you’re interested. And by all means: hug your kids, your nieces, nephews, and/or pets (yes, there is a subset of MSbP that abuses animals).

Love others; serve life. Let’s defeat the bad guys with knowledge.

Sanity now!

One comment

  1. “Psychopathy gets my vote”.

    Mine, too.

    A completely under-appreciated, and profoundly malignant, one at that.

    I’m thinking this is one of the ways in which women make up for lost ground in the realm of murder, but with the added element of complete concealment, in which the perpetrator takes no pleasure in laying claim to her work.

    Her satisfaction seems to come in her ability to conceal, not only her identity, but the element of murder in a child’s death.

    Lacey Spears, for example, must view as her downfall, not only that she was caught and brought to justice, but that she failed to adequately conceal the murderous fact of her son’s demise.

    Even more chilling was her nearly manic presentation as the unstintingly engaged and loving mother.

    Her acts, and those of others like her, fail to convince me that the underlying cause of her condition is delusion or ‘honest psychosis’ so much as a complete absence of genuine empathy or a desire to see her child survive and thrive. Instead, there exists a gaping void where a loving (and genuine) mother would ordinarily dwell.

    To her way of thinking, her failure must be (if she were to admit to fallibility, which is unlikely), to perform convincingly for her audience.

    These are, essentially, both play-writes and actresses for the stage which is their life. Woe be to those so unfortunate as to become its bit-players.

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