Munchausen by Internet

While following a trail of links from an article about Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, I rediscovered this excellent article from The Stranger (a weekly newspaper in Seattle) about people — mostly women — who lie about illnesses online. It’s a terribly interesting read.

“Munchausen by Internet” is not considered a unique illness, though that was debated for the DSM-V, but is a form of Munchausen Syndrome in which a person fakes his/her own illnesses.  (There is also Munchausen by proxy, the most common example of which is a mother who exploits exaggerated or imaginary illnesses in her child.)

It’s easy to say that these illness fabricators are pathetic or predatory, emotional vampires who feed on the sympathy of others.  However, I find myself thinking about Ong’s work with Malaysian factory workers, Nichter’s “Idioms of Distress”, or accounts of spirit possessions (mostly of women) in various cultures.  Should we consider this an individual psychiatric disorder when the condition centers around relationships with others?  Why is it largely a female phenomenon?  Is this a culture bound syndrome?

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2 thoughts on “Munchausen by Internet

  1. Great post, and some excellent questions. I was thinking about the Manti Te’o story in a similar way… and also about the ethnographies we’ve read from Nancy Scheper-Hughes or Marilyn Nations, in which people come to believe convenient interpretations (about their children’s health and likely recovery, or about whether or not what they are doing counts as abortion). There was a lot of pressure on Manti to come up with a compelling narrative; to what degree was his self-deception (if that’s what it was) really conscious?

    A friend of mine who does her research in Samoa points out that this may be more culture-bound than you think; and wonders just why it is that relatively little intelligent commentary in all this media hype has considered Manti’s cultural background (as a Mormon, say, or as someone who grew up in a Samoan migrant community)? She directs me to this post for some ethnographically-informed analysis: http://culturedigitally.org/2013/01/a-samoan-hoax/

  2. Pingback: Munchausen by Internet | Supervision Today

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