lifestyle

Munchausen by Internet and Belle Gibson: the rise of faking it online.

Social media is making it easier for people to fall prey to Munchausen syndrome – where people concoct an illness and then bask in the glow of the sympathy of others.

Last week, Belle Gibson was a social media star. She was the vivacious young woman who had beaten cancer with little more than a healthy diet and a positive attitude. She had just partnered with mega-brand Apple, to have her Whole Pantry app included on their new watch. Her book was about to hit the shelves in the UK and the US.

She was, it seemed, on the precipice of a global healthy living empire, with carefully curated social media pages that reflected her truth: she was a cancer survivor who beat the dire predictions of conventional medicine and she was a hero to her 200,000 social media followers.

Belle Gibson son feature
Belle Gibson. (image via Pengiun.com.au)

But, just one week later, Belle’s carefully constructed world has fallen apart. First there were questions about whether the profits from her commercial enterprises were really being donated to charity. And then the other shoe dropped: Belle’s claim to being a cancer sufferer couldn’t be substantiated and her personal backstory was becoming increasingly shadowy. Even her age could not be verified.

It seems every day brings another revelation about Belle’s deception. And the social media pages that once proclaimed her message of wholesomeness and positivity have all been quietly disappeared or locked away.

More: Belle Gibson interview: “I’m really honest about my journey with my health.”

The internet, it seems, was the beating heart of Belle’s deception. While there are reports of her telling others around her (as early as high school) about a number of illnesses including a heart condition and an operation during which she said she died on the operating table, it wasn’t until she took to the internet and social media that her tales took hold. She was active in chatrooms and on twitter, and she had her own blog; but in 2013, she started an Instagram account under the name @healing_belle and presented to the world the persona for which she has become famous: a young mum who has turned to natural medicine to cure her brain tumour. She wanted, she said, to make “health and wellness accessible to the world”.

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Belle Gibson’s publishes have confessed they did not check the veracity of her story before going to print.

It was on Instagram last July that she wrote that her brain tumour had spread:

“With frustration and ache in my heart… it hurts me to find space tonight to let you all know with love and strength that I’ve been diagnosed with a third and forth (sic) cancer. One is secondary and the other is primary. I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus, and liver. I am hurting.”

The outpouring of grief and sympathy was instant, from all across the globe, with fans wishing her well and praying for her survival.

Do you know about someone who has faked their illness online? Let us know via email: [email protected]

Belle’s pattern of disclosing a terrible illness and enjoying the sympathy that it brings is a condition familiar to psychiatric medicine.

This tendency to make up an illness, or even cause your own symptoms, is known as Munchausen syndrome. The syndrome was first coined by British doctor, Richard Asher in medical journal The Lancet in 1951. He described it as “when someone invents or exaggerates medical, symptoms, sometimes engaging in self-harm, to gain attention or sympathy.” It was named after a German military officer, Baron von Munchhausen, who was known for telling exaggerated stories about his own life. In psychiatric texts, the disorder has since been renamed “factitious disorder”, which can be “imposed on self” or “imposed on another”.

It is becoming clear that Belle concocted at least some of her conditions. And, through the vehicle of the internet, she was able to reach a seemingly infinite number of people who were ready and willing to provide her with the love, sympathy and support that she desperately craved.

It would have been harder for Belle to prove to people who saw her every day that she was suffering from brain cancer (and later blood, spleen, uterus, and liver cancer). But with the power of the internet behind her, Belle was able to perpetuate her fantasy life – one where she was a long-suffering but ultimately triumphant hero and role-model.

Without the internet, it’s clear that Belle’s Munchausen-fuelled deception would have been narrow in scope and almost undoubtedly short-lived.

Lacey Spears and her son Garnett.

The internet has been the defining feature of another recent Munchausen case, this time a suspected case of Munchausen by proxy – a condition in which a parent or other caretaker “persistently fabricates symptoms on behalf of another, causing that person to be regarded as ill.”

Shortly after her son, Garnett was born, Lacey Spears began to tell her friends and family that her son was sick. He was frequently hospitalised with a range of illnesses including, ear infections, fevers and digestive problems. Concerned for the well-being of her son, Spears cultivated a loyal and supportive group of social media followers and regaled them with details and images of her son’s many illnesses.

She blogged about it on a site called, Garnett’s Journey and she tweeted about it as @garnettsmum. Through the window of her blog, Facebook and Twitter, Spears reflected the persona of a super-mum who was tireless in the face of 23 trips to the hospital by the time that Garnett turned one. Her social media followers were doubly sympathetic because they heard about Spears’ soulmate, Blake, a police officer who was killed in a car crash.

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From Lacey’s blog. Commemorating one year since her partner “Blake” had passed away.

Five years later, authorities discovered that while she was basking in the warm glow of internet support and affection, Spears was systematically poisoning her son with salt through a feeding tube in his stomach. He died in January 2014, aged 5. Investigators found contaminated gastronomy feeding bags in her home, and just this month, the jury convicted her of Garnett’s murder.

Throughout his short and tragic life, Garnett’s mother posted updates and appeals on her social media accounts, including “my sweet angel is in the hospital for the 23rd time” and “pray that he gets to come home soon”. All the while, she was methodically and deliberately abusing her son (perhaps unsurprisingly, her dearly departed soul-mate, Blake, was also a fabrication).

Closer to home, in 2011, a 22-year-old Gold Coast mother (who cannot be named) was nursing her four-year-old daughter through a life-threatening illness. She used social media as a way to keep herself sane and her family and friends informed. The mother’s Facebook page amassed 7000 followers, who closely followed every hospital visit, every heartache, every restless night.

The Gold Coast woman’s daughter who was poisoned with chemotherapy drugs. (Image via Facebook).

Over the course of the little girl’s illness, the four-year-old lost her hair, went through numerous operations and tests. She spent many nights in a Brisbane children’s hospital.

“Hopefully we can find a reason why she got this horrible disease. Hopefully, when she is older, she can look back on everything she had done and realise how strong she is,” her mother wrote.

The reason for her daughter’s disease turned out to be tragically simple: the woman had been poisoning her daughter with chemotherapy drugs that she had purchased over the internet.

More: What would lead a mother to do this to her child?

Doctors eventually twigged and the woman was arrested for doing grievous bodily harm to her daughter. She was sentenced to 6 years prison. Reports indicate that the mother had a history of seeking attention for medical illnesses. When she was 21 she claimed to be suffering from eating disorders and cluster headaches, sharing her struggles on YouTube.

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Lacey Spears and her son, Garnett.

The few studies that have been done on Munchausen by proxy reveal that boys and girls are equally victimized, and 77% to 90% of the time, the perpetrator is the patient’s biological mother.

Interestingly, 29% of these perpetrators tend to have symptoms of Munchausen syndrome themselves. Experts have suggested that perpetrators tend to have experienced emotional neglect, if not abuse, in their own childhood.

The victims of Munchausen by proxy are not always children. Ten years ago, the family of physicist Professor Stephen Hawking alleged that his wife, Elaine, was secretly harming the world-renowned scientist after he suffered severe sunstroke and sunburn as well as a series of unexplained injuries, including fractured wrists, and deep cuts and bruises on his face. Police confirmed that they were investigating the matter, but the investigation was dropped after Hawking refused to cooperate with police enquiries (and threatened to sue them for harassment).

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, between 15 and 25 cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy are diagnosed in Australia each year – but given the mysterious nature of the disorder and the variety of ways it could present, it is possibly much higher.

The tendency of some people to fake an illness (or the illness of others) on the internet has been described by professor of psychiatry, Dr Marc Feldman, who coined the phrase “Munchausen by Internet” in his book, Playing Sick.

The Gold Coast woman’s daughter who was poisoned with chemotherapy drugs. (Image via Facebook).

Feldman says that Munchausen by internet is increasingly common – especially among people aged in their 20s and 30s: “I am hearing about a new MBI case approximately every four to six weeks. I can’t estimate how many there are overall because of under-recognition; the only cases that can ever be counted are the ones in which the deception has failed.”

Feldman refers to one confessed faker, “Sara”, who explained why she made up her own illness. “I have never felt more loved and cared for in my entire life. I suddenly craved for everyone’s attention, love, care, concern and affection…It became very appealing to me. I decided to play with it more. I do not know how or why, I just did.”

In article in the Village Voice on “cyber-sickness”, another sufferer of Munchausen by internet explained her motivations: “When I’d do something to attract the paramedics and police, I got an adrenaline rush. I believe I got addicted to it. At the time, it didn’t occur to me I was hurting anyone but myself.”

Belle Gibson had “just partnered with mega-brand Apple, to have her Whole Pantry app included on their new watch.”

Feldman says that the motivations of people with Munchausen by internet can go beyond a desire for sympathy or simply seeking the attention of others. He says, it can be something more sinister – a sadistic need for control.

“In some case, the deceptions are so engaging and heart-rending that I believe there is an undeniable element of sadism; in such cases, when apologies ultimately emerge, they tend to be facile and unconvincing. I also think MBI is a way that people can feel “in control” of their lives by controlling the thoughts and reactions of others.”

According to Feldman’s research, there are some common clues to detect whether someone is exhibiting Munchausen by internet, including the person alternating between almost dying and miraculously recovering, sharing contradictory or obviously false information about their condition, and the making of new and dramatic announcements in order to put them back in the spotlight. Occasionally, it might appear that someone new has shown up to post on behalf of the person – but this person has the same writing style as the person who is apparently ill.
Followers of the Belle Gibson case will recognise some of these red flags. Her apparent health, her miraculous recovery and her occasional dramatic announcements (presumably because she was not receiving the attention she craved).

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But Belle’s case is certainly not the only one.

Mamamia’s Bern Morley wrote last week about her experience of being duped by a woman who she believed had cancer. Bern (and others) became friends with Janelle after reading online about her battle with cancer. They supported her as she went through six months of chemotherapy. Her deception was elaborate with images of chemotherapy drugs, hair that had apparently fallen out and a self-portrait with a distinctive head scarf to cover her hair loss.

For more on this: “One of our friends told us she was dying of cancer. She wasn’t”.

At different times, Janelle said that she had been in a coma or was at death’s door. On those occasions, Janelle’s social media accounts were taken over by Ariel, a paediatrician at the Royal Brisbane Children’s Hospital. Bern writes: “Soon, we were all friends with Ariel on Facebook. Before long, Janelle and Dr Ariel were in love. Dr Ariel declared it often and loudly on her Facebook page, updating us when Janelle was too weak to engage.” Unsurprisingly in retrospect, Ariel turned out to be a fake personal created by Janelle to further her deception.

“Evidence” of her cancer treatment posted on Janelle’s blog.

One key element of Janelle’s “illness” and “treatment” was the sale of monogramed post-it notes to raise money for cancer research. She set up a fundraising page and people duly donated.

This financial aspect of Janelle’s deception reflects seems to be an interesting new dimension of Munchausen by internet. On a somewhat different scale and with a greater level of sophistication, Belle Gibson also managed to turn her need for sympathy into a money making enterprise.

The bespoke post-it notes created for sale by Janelle – with reference to a donation to charity, that could never be confirmed.

For at least some of these people, the internet doesn’t just provide a seemingly endless supply of sympathy – it also provides the ideal forum to monetise their deception.

Reportedly, Belle isn’t wanting for much. She drives a BMW 4WD and has a grand family home. And the value of a deal with global brand, Apple could run into the millions.

Despite all of her material wealth, it is not clear that greed was Belle’s central motivation. It appears to have been simply a means to an end.

Seemingly afflicted with a pathological desire for sympathy since childhood, the internet allowed her to magnify the attention of the public, but it also became the tool of her destruction when her lies spiralled beyond her control.

Perhaps if she had been diagnosed with Munchausen sooner, her fall would not have been so far and so hard.

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