The idea of Munchausen syndrome was first noted in 1951 in The Lancet, when British physician Richard Asher described a condition in which “someone invents or exaggerates medical symptoms, sometimes engaging in self-harm, to gain attention or sympathy.”
In 1977, the term Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP) was coined by British pediatrician Roy Meadow, who described it as “a condition in which a parent or other caretaker persistently fabricates symptoms on behalf of another, causing that person to be regarded as ill.”
In recent years, many law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have tried to distance themselves from MSP for fear it would cause some to incorrectly blame mental illness for criminal behavior.
In Tarrant County, investigators and prosecutors now simply call these cases medical child abuse.
Two years ago, the American Psychiatric Association introduced a new name — Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another — while officially recognizing the behavior as a mental diagnosis for the first time.
What’s in a name
Munchausen syndrome is named for Baron von Munchausen (1720-1797), a German officer who was known for embellishing the stories of his life and experiences, including those during the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774).
In his 1951 article, Asher wrote, “Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him are both dramatic and untruthful.”
Besides having a medical condition named after him, Munchausen was developed into a fictional character in magazine pieces and a book, and inspired a set of advertising cards printed for Little Joker Tobacco and movies retelling his legend, including a comedy in 1988, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
MSP in pop culture
Rapper Eminem has claimed that he was a victim of Munchausen by proxy, including in these lyrics from Cleanin Out My Closet (2002, The Eminem Show).
Now I would never diss my own mama just to get recognition/ Take a second to listen who you think this record is dissin’/ But put yourself in my position, just try to envision/ Witnessin’ your Mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen/ Bitchin’ that someone’s always goin’ through her purse and shit’s missin’/ Goin’ through public housin’ systems, victim of Munchausen’s syndrome/ My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t/ ’Til I grew up, now I blew up, it makes you sick to your stomach, doesn’t it
Movies and documentaries
A Child’s Cry for Help (1994), by Sandor Stern. A TV movie starring Pam Dawber that pits a doctor against a mother accused of making her son sick.
The Sixth Sense (1999), by M. Night Shyamalan. Popular supernatural thriller starring Bruce Willis that includes a scene that shows a mother putting a cleaning fluid in her daughter’s soup, a case of Munchausen by proxy.
A Boy’s Life (2003), by Rory Kennedy and Nick Doob. A documentary that chronicles a grandmother’s abuse of her 7-year-old grandson, including medicating him for psychotic disorders that don’t exist.
Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood (2003), by Julie Gregory. An autobiographical account of the medical child abuse Gregory encountered.
A Mother’s Trial (1984), by Nancy Wright. The story of a mother diagnosed with Munchausen by proxy who is put on trial for the death of her adopted daughter.
Recent national cases
Rachel Kinsella, 35, Meadville, Mo.
November 2015: Charged with endangering welfare of a child
Rachel Kinsella was arrested Nov. 6 after being accused of repeatedly poisoning her 9-year-old son for 11 months.
Prosecutors in St. Louis County charged Kinsella with endangering the welfare of a child and she was ordered to have no contact with her son until further notice.
Gregory Smith, a St. Louis attorney representing Kinsella, told The Associated Press that his client maintains her innocence.
The alleged poisoning took place between March 2014 and February, according to a probable-cause statement written by St. Louis County police investigator Kenneth Skala.
The investigation was launched after doctors at St. Louis Children’s Hospital determined that the boy’s symptoms were related to medications he should not have received, Skala wrote.
Skala alleged that investigators found Kinsella, the child’s only caretaker, “surreptitiously” having her son treated at two hospitals and getting unspecified prescriptions at both, according to The Associated Press. Kinsella told police she “accidentally” gave her son the wrong medication on “an occasion,” Skala wrote.
Lacey Spears, 28, Chesnut Ridge, N.Y.
April 2015: Sentenced to 20 years to life in prison
Spears was found guilty by a Westchester County, N.Y., jury of fatally poisoning her 5-year-old son, Garnett Spears, with heavy doses of sodium that she administered through his stomach tube.
She had been charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.
Garnett’s death on Jan. 23, 2014, followed five years of being in and out of hospitals with a variety of illnesses, many of which were documented by Spears on Twitter and through a blog called Garnett’s Journey.
Her attorneys portrayed Spears as a loving, caring mother; prosecutors say she made Garnett sick on purpose to gain attention from her family, friends and doctors.
While her attorney did not use Munchausen syndrome by proxy as a defense and it did not come up in testimony, acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary invoked the words as he explained why he didn’t sentence Spear to the maximum penalty for a crime he described as “unfathomable in its cruelty.”
“One does not have to be a psychiatrist to realize you suffer from Munchausen by proxy,” Neary told Spears, according to The Associated Press.
Spears has maintained her innocence.
Compiled by Lee Williams