Imagine being surgically cut open and having doctors insert tubes and wires into your body — when there is nothing physically wrong with you.
This horror was a reality for Julie Gregory, the best-selling author of “Sickened: a Memoir of a Münchausen by Proxy Childhood,” who gave a talk Wednesday in William L. Harkness Hall to an group of 12 students. Gregory spoke about her childhood experience with an abusive mother who forced her to receive treatment for diseases she did not have.
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“It’s hard to imagine a mother committing such atrocious acts against her own child, but it happens every day,” Gregory said. “These women are psychopaths.”
Growing up in southern Ohio, Gregory experienced severe emotional and physical trauma at the hands of her mother, a perpetrator of Münchausen syndrome by proxy, a term used to describe a case where a primary caregiver intentionally fabricates or induces sickness in a dependent, usually to gain the attention and sympathy of others.
Throughout her childhood, Gregory’s mother took her from doctor to doctor, convincing hospitals that her daughter was extremely sick and in need of serious care, she said. At her mother’s insistence, Gregory had cartilage shaved from her nose to aid her “breathing problem” that was causing “mental retardation,” neither of which were true, Gregory said. Her mother also starved her, withholding foods like dairy and meat because her mother said Gregory was “allergic” to them. Gregory’s mother even convinced cardiologists at Ohio State University to operate on her daughter in order to diagnose a heart problem, and actively sought doctors to perform open-heart surgery on Gregory, even though Gregory had a perfectly healthy heart, Gregory said.
Although Gregory managed to escape her mother’s abuse (she did not discuss the details during the talk), other victims are not as fortunate, she said. Gregory now dedicates her life to informing others about Münchausen syndrome by proxy, and she is a consultant for court cases involving illness falsification.
“Our whole society breaks down if we don’t protect our children,” Gregory said.
She said the mothers who practice this abuse are often well-dressed and well-spoken, and appear to be in distress about their children’s “diseases,” which is why they are so hard to catch. Furthermore, doctors are usually resistant against reporting suspected cases because it is hard for doctors to admit that a mother could have tricked them into harming a child, Gregory said.
Near the end of her talk, she showed a hospital surveillance video that caught Münchausen syndrome by proxy perpetrators in the act. Audience members gasped audibly as they watched a woman climb on top of her child in a hospital bed and suffocate him long enough to make him pass out, while another mother forced her fingers down her young boy’s throat to induce vomiting. There were also recorded interviews with some of the mothers, including one who fed her daughter paint thinner in order to cause bleeding of the girl’s eyes and mouth, and another who caused permanent mental retardation in her son by injecting him with large doses of diabetic insulin.
Gregory’s personal story, the sensitive subject matter and the controversial video sparked many questions and comments from the audience. Gregory asked for people’s opinions about what steps should be taken to improve the way society deals with child abuse and protection. Right now, the judicial system often places children back in the custody of abusive parents, and that needs to change, Gregory said.
Two students at the talk said they thought Gregory was moving and inspirational.
“The first time I heard about [Münchausen syndrome by proxy,] I thought it was something extremely rare because it sounded so unbelievable,” Jasmine Lau ’12 said.
New Haven resident Chris Schuck ’98said he thinks Münchausen syndrome by proxy should be publicized more so that more people are aware that it is a problem.
According to a study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, 9 percent of the victims subjected to Münchausen syndrome by proxy die as a result of the abuse.