I actually stumbled upon Sickened in a rather odd way – it was recommended in one of my Psychology textbooks as a good book to read to develop more of an understanding of Münchausen’s disease and Münchausen’s by Proxy (MBP). Always keen to procrastinate actual study by reading a novel that will “expand my understanding”, I quickly got hold of it and began a very interesting journey with Julie Gregory through her childhood.
Sickened is a true story.
Münchausen’s by Proxy is a real disease.
Münchausen’s is a psychological illness in which someone exaggerates or invents symptoms of a disease or illness in order to gain attention or sympathy. The lengths that these individuals go to – unnecessary surgeries, painful examinations and tests, and self mutilation – show the seriousness of this illness. It becomes even more serious in the case of Münchausen’s by Proxy – similar to Münchausen’s except that the individual fabricates or induces illness in another person in order to receive the attention they crave. In over 90% of cases, the perpetrator is a mother who inflicts this abuse on their child.
The foreword in Sickened states that by the time Münchausen’s by Proxy is finally recognised, up to 25% of the siblings in the family have already died. Often it is only when there is a repeated pattern of extreme illness and disease being present in several children in a family – some of whom die from their “illness” – that alarm bells start to go off.
Julie’s story is one filled with abuse, not just in the form of her mother forcing her through tests, surgeries and to take countless drugs for her fabricated symptoms, but also verbal and physical abuse from both her parents.
“For starters, I was a sick kid. Beanpole skinny and as fragile as a microwave soufflé, I bruised easily and wilted in a snap. Kids in school used to walk straight up to me and ask point-blank if I was anorexic. But I wasn’t; just sick. And Mom bent over backwards trying to find out what was wrong with me.”
Her mother practically starves her to create the impression of a young girl who is sick and convinces doctors, Julie, and it seems even herself, that Julie has a heart condition which any doctor who refuses to operate on is too incompetent to recognise.
“Her voice trailed after any doctor who said no more tests could be done, stalked him down the corridor, sliced through the silence of the hallway. “Jesus Christ,” she hissed, returning to the examining room, “I cannot believe that incompetent son of a bitch.” “Don’t worry, Mom. It’s okay. We’ll go find another one.” “
The incredible story that Gregory shares is heartbreaking. Not only the abuse and mistreatment of herself and her younger brother, Danny, but the abuse of foster children and Veterans who Julie’s parents manage to convince the government they are “caring” for.
The special times Julie shares with her mother are almost always tainted by the fact that they are on the road travelling to yet another Doctor, a new test – not discussed with Julie beforehand and, as a result, even more frightening for her – or one of their numerous shopping trips that were deemed more important than an education. There are times when Julie questions why her mother is listing symptoms she doesn’t seem to have, but she keeps quiet, a mixture of fear of making her mother angry, and self-doubt: maybe she actually is really sick. Above all, she trusts her mother. And, really, why shouldn’t she?
“But happiness is relative when you’re twelve, sitting in a chrome-on-steel examination room, goose bumps giving you that plucked-chicken look, with a nubbly paper sheet tucked into your clammy armpits… Never anything code-red enough to get me completely, legitimately diagnosed. But they kept looking. Because Mom was positive that the answer was right there in my heart. A mother knows these things.”
Sickened follows Julie through her life from early childhood to young adulthood. You sit in the examination rooms with her, wanting to hold her hand and tell her everything will be alright. You watch the abuse that is reigned down on the foster children living with her family, and feel quietly proud when Julie rises above all she has been taught and is, instead, kind and loving to the “others”. All you want is to pick them all up, and run out the door with them, never to return to their nightmare of a home.
I think that a bit of research on this disease before reading the book might be worthwhile. I have read a few reviews that seemed to believe the book was written for revenge and was unbelievable and very hateful. I can’t say I wouldn’t feel a little bit of hate towards someone who poisoned me to get attention for themselves, but I also honestly didn’t see the book as being written to “get back at” her mother, or the countless doctors who truly did fail her as a small helpless child. Yes, the novel does explore her anger at these doctors, and a letter written to one of them – but she doesn’t write the novel in an angry way, she is describing the process she went through to come out on the otherside, still wounded, but recovering.
I found this book to be so enlightening, above all for helping me to understand how something like this could possibly happen. Seeing the reality of how difficult it is for a child to speak up and say, “My mother is lying, I am not sick” – especially when they are ignored when they try – makes it much easier to realise that this is possible. Combining this with the difficulty the doctors and nurses have in telling the difference between real, physiologically caused symptoms, and the same symptoms, caused by deliberate methods such as forced malnutrition and exposure to toxins provides a reality check for anyone who thinks that the children “go along with” their parents or caregivers abuse.
Julie Gregory is beyond brave for writing this very important book. Though it is still not understood why Münchausen’s exists, or what causes it, hopefully this book will make some headway in providing a greater understanding of this disease. Hopefully, too, some efforts may be implemented to track medical records nationally and reduce the incidence of “doctor shopping”, which greatly assists Münchausen’s sufferers and Münchausen’s by Proxy perpetrators to continue feeding their disease.