Monday, January 22, 2007

Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome.

Recently in my spurt of serial killer reading, I came across a reference to an arcane disorder entitled "Munchausen By Proxy Syndrome" (MBPS). I had heard of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a film by British director Terry Gilliam), and I was aware that the name applied to some sickness... but I didn't know exactly what it referrered to. It's no doubt the oddest-named illness that I have ever heard of. Before trying to understand what MBPS was, I thought I'd check out Munchausen syndrome... to learn about the syndrome in its direct form.

Munchausen syndrome is a disorder whereby the individual feigns illness in order to get attention. He/she may also actually create symptoms in order to lend credibility to claims of illness. Somehow, for those who suffer from Munchausen, hospitals and doctors represent comfort. These individuals often create elaborate medical case histories, peppered with medical terminology and concepts gleaned from their research into health affairs. Oftentimes they are very convincing, and manifest the signs and symptoms of whatever sickness(es) they have chosen to simulate.

The disorder's title derives from a historical figure named Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, a.k.a. Baron Munchausen (1720-1797). As a young man he served in the Russian military against the Turks, and came home with a litany of ridiculous tall tales. But it wasn't until the 1950's that an English doctor named Sir Richard Asher made the dubious association between the man and the disorder. In fact this is all pretty straightforward... if frankly a bit of a letdown. There are but few maladies named for literary figures. One would hope, at the very least, that an individual so honored would have at least suffered from the illness that bears his/her name. Sadly that is not the case here.

While this information by itself is of mild interest, another dimension of wierdness is unveiled in Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. In cases of MBPS, a parent applies the manufactured symptoms and signs of sickness to his/her child. It is one of the most twisted and devious forms of child abuse that I have ever read about. Women (98% of MBPS cases are committed by female perpetrators) struck with the disorder have been known to actually provoke actual illnesses in their children. The motivation of such women is twofold: to gain attention and to enter into a dependent realtionship with doctors/hospitals while fooling them. Psychoanalysts file this type of behavior under a category of behavior called "perverse relating". This character disorder entails the "conscious violation of social norms, and a certain gleefulness at being able to fool powerful, sought-after parental figures" (source link). I have read accounts of women who have had multiple infants die from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) until suspicious relatives alerted the police.

But to make this story even more compelling... it seems that there is a group of people dedicated to exposing MBPS as a fraud. The group is called MAMA- which stands for Mothers Against MBPS Allegations. Their claim is that the disorder was invented by doctors hoping to avoid malpractice suits, and is deliberately misused by opposing parents in custody suits. While they acknowledge that incidents of child abuse occur, and must be taken seriously... they discount MBPS as a genuine threat.

This idea that MBPS exists is so peculiar for many, that they just can't get their heads around it. A "normal, well-adjusted" parent can't conceive of deliberately hurting their child. But yet I can't help but look around at the sophisticated ways people have developed to manipulate reality... and believe that MBPS fits within that scope of individual capability. Accounts of infanticide are well documented, both in popular media and scholarly journals. Why would it be so difficult to believe that some mothers have such urges, yet flirt with them over a long period of time? I find that too many in our society tend to view things through a black-and-white perspective. But one need not look too far in the distance to find hints of humanity's destructive urges. The signs are all around us. The truth is that human psychology may be infinitely more complex than previously thought by romantics, idealists and priests.


Blogger TeeBubba said...

I used to work in the child abuse field.
This particular syndrome was not something that was being willy nilly thrown around then, labeling mothers as unfit because they didn't get along with their doctors.
One of the criteria to verify that this exists is that there must be a well established pattern of incidents , not just a single few disagreeable encounters with the pediatricians and psychaitrists who are the only ones who can really diagnose it.
There will always be organized opposition to any attempt to regulate human activity because our news media thinks there are two legitimate sides to every controversy even if one represents perverted behavior and thinking.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yeah, I didn't get the feeling that people would apply this diagnosis lightly. I would think that people would actually be cautious with it, since it implies a responsibility to do something about it. And then again, it would have to be proven in a court of law, which I am sure is not an easy process.

11:47 AM  

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