Prey­ing on the kind­ness of strangers

Peo­ple who suf­fer from Mun­chausen by In­ter­net go to in­cred­i­ble lengths to cre­ate fake tragedies to get at­ten­tion and com­pas­sion from oth­ers

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOCUS - MEERI KIM

THE DIRRS of Saskatchewan had all the mak­ings of a young power cou­ple. John “J.S.” Dirr worked as an of­fi­cer of the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice, while his wife, Dana, was a trauma sur­geon at a hos­pi­tal. The two ran a busy house­hold brim­ming with adorable, smil­ing chil­dren — 10 in all, in­clud­ing 5-year-old Cliff Elias, nick­named “War­rior Eli” for his on­go­ing fight against can­cer.

On Mother’s Day in 2012, tragedy struck. Dana died af­ter a head-on col­li­sion with an out-of-con­trol speed­ing car. She held on just long enough to give birth to the cou­ple’s 11th child, Eve­lyn Danika. J.S.’s heart­break­ing Face­book posts de­scrib­ing his wife’s strug­gle to live and her even­tual death went vi­ral, and out­pour­ings of sym­pa­thy and sor­row from thou­sands of strangers, in­clud­ing many par­ents of chil­dren with can­cer, came flood­ing in.

But the many fol­low­ers of their story soon dis­cov­ered that the Dirrs didn’t ex­ist.

The fam­ily and its so­cial cir­cle of at least 71 Face­book per­sonas were be­ing pup­peteered by a sin­gle per­son. Emily Dirr, then a 23-year-old woman from Ohio, had spent count­less hours over 11 years on fic­tional posts, pro­files and vir­tual fundrais­ing cam­paigns for child­hood can­cer foun­da­tions. She even went so far as to send “War­rior Eli” wrist­bands and care pack­ages to hun­dreds of sym­pa­thiz­ers.

The ruse is be­ing la­belled a case of Mun­chausen by In­ter­net, a mod­ern take on a men­tal dis­or­der that in­volves fak­ing an ill­ness for the pur­pose of ex­tract­ing at­ten­tion and nur­ture from oth­ers.

Mun­chausen syn­drome was iden­ti­fied and coined in the 1950s and is in­cluded in the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion’s Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders. The In­ter­net-abet­ted ver­sion, not yet rec­og­nized in the DSM, is one that men­tal health of­fi­cials say is also a real ail­ment, not just an on­line ruse to ex­tract money.

“Ac­tu­ally, Mun­chausen by In­ter­net has now be­come more com­mon than real-life Mun­chausen syn­drome be­cause it’s so easy to do. It used to be that real-life Mun­chausen pa­tients would have to go to med­i­cal li­braries, re­search the ill­nesses they would feign and go to doc­tors’ of­fices to reen­act the symp­toms,” said Marc Feld­man, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama who coined the term “Mun­chausen by In­ter­net” in 2000. “Now they don’t need to do any of that — in­stead, they can go on­line and de­ceive hun­dreds or thou­sands of peo­ple.”

Un­like ma­lin­ger­ers, who play the sick role for mone­tary re­ward or to avoid some­thing un­de­sir­able (e.g., work, school), peo­ple with Mun­chausen by In­ter­net crave only the emo­tional grat­i­fi­ca­tion that comes from elic­it­ing care and con­cern. Emily Dirr ex­plic­itly asked J.S.’s fol­low­ers not to send any do­na­tions to him, in­stead di­rect­ing them to a fundrais­ing page where all of the pro­ceeds went to le­git­i­mate child­hood can­cer re­search.

They go to ex­tremes to tug on the heart­strings of In­ter­net strangers with sad sta­tus up­dates and pho­tos: post­ing im­ages of their shaved heads; steal­ing pho­tos of real pa­tients and post­ing them as their own; and us­ing med­i­cal ex­per­tise to cre­ate be­liev­able lies about their sup­posed ill­ness or in­jury.

How­ever, one Burling­ton woman who faked can­cer did raise about $12,000 for her bo­gus char­ity, and even­tu­ally pleaded guilty to fraud. But dur­ing her sen­tenc­ing, court heard she was do­ing it for at­ten­tion and sym­pa­thy.

EMILY DIRR was a med­i­cal stu­dent in Ohio who started the hoax as an 11-yearold look­ing for a dis­trac­tion from her trou­bled fam­ily life.

“It started al­most as a fic­tion writ­ing, but the more time I spent es­cap­ing to it, the more ‘real’ it be­came,” she wrote in a pub­lic apol­ogy posted af­ter a med­i­cal-hoax blog­ger grew sus­pi­cious and found a trail of stolen on­line pho­tos that even­tu­ally re­vealed the lie. “This was never about per­sonal gain for me. This whole thing snow­balled from an es­cape for me into try­ing to raise aware­ness and fund­ing for pe­di­atric can­cer, al­though it was com­pletely in the wrong way.”

In 1951, Bri­tish physi­cian Richard Asher de­scribed three cases of what he called Mun­chausen’s syn­drome — named af­ter a fic­tional char­ac­ter who told ab­surd tall tales about his many ad­ven­tures — in the Lancet. The pa­tients checked them­selves into hos­pi­tal af­ter hos­pi­tal, in­sist­ing they had acute ill­nesses and of­ten re­count­ing fan­tas­ti­cal his­to­ries to any­one who would lis­ten. To­day, Mun­chausen is con­sid­ered the most se­vere type of fac­ti­tious dis­or­der, a group of men­tal ill­nesses in which a per­son feigns a phys­i­cal, emo­tional or cog­ni­tive con­di­tion.

Dirr’s hoax reads sus­pi­ciously like the plot of a bad soap opera. In the first six months of 2012 alone, for in­stance, J.S. suf­fered from a heart con­di­tion that al­most killed him, War­rior Eli’s can­cer re­lapsed for the fourth time, and J.S. and two of his chil­dren were hit by a semi whose driver was both drunk and tex­ting. Then, as a crown­ing touch, Dirr chose to have Dana killed off on Mother’s Day, but only af­ter giv­ing birth to the fam­ily’s 11th child.

“We’ve all heard the ex­pres­sion ‘It’s too good to be true’ — but it’s also the case that if it’s too bad to be true, you start to won­der,” said Feld­man, who has stud­ied pa­tients with Mun­chausen syn­drome and other fac­ti­tious dis­or­ders for more than two decades. “Some of th­ese in­di­vid­u­als just pile on the catas­tro­phes.”

Be­cause of his spe­cial­iza­tion in fac­ti­tious dis­or­der, Feld­man hears from both vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors of Mun­chausen by In­ter­net. One of Feld­man’s favourite cases in­volves a sup­posed 15-year-old boy named Chris who suf­fered from ter­ri­ble mi­graines. He posted about his many strug­gles on an on­line dis­cus­sion board of­fer­ing sup­port to mi­graine suf­fer­ers: Not only did Chris have a deaf mother, an al­co­holic step­fa­ther and a brother who had re­cently died from AIDS, but his es­tranged fa­ther also had phys­i­cally abused him and left him with a seizure dis­or­der.

Yet Chris wrote com­pelling, in­spi­ra­tional tales about his life as a med­i­cal stu­dent, skate­board­ing nearly five kilo­me­tres a day to take the bus to class and moon­light­ing as a night­club drum­mer to pay for his mi­graine med­i­ca­tion.

“I’ll never for­get that case, even though it’s been 15 years since I learned about it,” Feld­man said. “It was so egre­gious and in­volved that it’s the per­fect teach­ing case. I talked to five of his vic­tims who were all oth­er­wise won­der­ful and in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, but there must have been a part of them that wanted to be­lieve this was true. This was when ‘Doo­gie Howser, M.D.’ was pop­u­lar, and who knows, maybe that’s why they thought 15-year-olds could be doc­tors?”

Nev­er­the­less, the pain and be­trayal ex­pe­ri­enced by vic­tims of Mun­chausen by In­ter­net are real. Peo­ple can be­come emo­tion­ally en­tan­gled with per­pe­tra­tors and may use false med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion to in­flu­ence their own health-care de­ci­sions.

“One of the vic­tims called it emo­tional rape, which sounded melo­dra­matic when I first heard it,” Feld­man said, “but some of th­ese peo­ple have spent dozens if not hun­dreds of hours de­voted to this per­son” whom they en­coun­tered on­line. “They felt robbed, cheated and even de­pressed.”

EX­PERTS BE­LIEVE Mun­chausen by In­ter­net has sim­i­lar ori­gins and mo­tives as other forms of fac­ti­tious dis­or­der, which is thought to in­volve both bi­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors. Fac­ti­tious dis­or­der is as­so­ci­ated with child­hood sep­a­ra­tions, emo­tional ne­glect or abuse, hypochon­driac pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and a his­tory of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion in early life. Ac­cord­ing to one study on fac­ti­tious dis­or­der, half of pa­tients also had bor­der­line per­son­al­ity dis­or­der, while a third showed signs of nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der.

“It sounds al­most too ba­sic, but most of them say that they have this deficit in their lives where they feel iso­lated and alien­ated,” Feld­man said. “They could guar­an­tee that go­ing on the In­ter­net to join a sup­port group would counter that iso­la­tion, and they’d be able to get what they can’t get any other way.”

A 2007 sur­vey of 109 doc­tors in the jour­nal Psy­cho­so­mat­ics re­ported the fre­quency of fac­ti­tious dis­or­der among their pa­tients to be around 1.3 per cent. How­ever, the preva­lence of Mun­chausen by In­ter­net is dif­fi­cult to mea­sure due to the breadth and anonymity of the web.

“The irony with peo­ple who com­mit Mun­chausen by In­ter­net is that they do of­ten have men­tal ill­nesses,” said Jac­qui Tay­lor, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Bournemouth Uni­ver­sity in Eng­land who spe­cial­izes in the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pacts of the In­ter­net. “Some re­searchers look at when th­ese peo­ple were chil­dren — such as emo­tional trauma or other ill­nesses that have re­sulted in them seek­ing med­i­cal at­ten­tion that then be­comes ex­ac­er­bated when they are adults. But most of the work that I’ve re­viewed is show­ing it could be some kind of men­tal-health con­di­tion un­der­ly­ing this type of be­hav­iour.”

“No one who is happy in their lives de­cides to cre­ate 71 fake Face­book pro­files and a kid with can­cer,” said Taryn Wright, the blog­ger who ex­posed Emily Dirr in 2012.

Wright dis­cov­ered through a Google Im­age search that sup­posed pho­tos of the Dirrs — de­pict­ing such events as hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, car ac­ci­dents and chil­dren’s birth­day par­ties — had been lifted from blogs and pub­lic Flickr ac­counts.

“It just seemed fishy to me. I fig­ured the news would have picked this up, but I couldn’t find any­thing. I thought, ‘That’s re­ally frickin’ weird,’ and I couldn’t find any­thing on Google that wasn’t writ­ten by some­one from the fam­ily,” she said. “Th­ese peo­ple had high-pro­file enough jobs that I fig­ured I would have found some­thing about them if they were real.”

On the day af­ter Mother’s Day, she wrote out all of her find­ings on War­rior Eli Hoax, a blog she cre­ated. Wright said she re­ceived 100,000 hits that first night, in­clud­ing many from the child­hood can­cer com­mu­nity who had been taken in by the tale.

Wright now heads a team of In­ter­net sleuths whom she calls on to help in­ves­ti­gate pos­si­ble hoaxes that she comes across. Mem­bers of the group — a can­cer sur­vivor, a para­medic and a med­i­cal in­struc­tor — each have an area of ex­per­tise. So far, Wright says, the team has found and pub­li­cized 17 med­i­cal hoaxes.

“We’ve all heard the ex­pres­sion ‘It’s too good to be true’ — but it’s also the case that if it’s too bad to be true, you start to won­der. Some of th­ese in­di­vid­u­als just pile on the catas­tro­phes.” MARC FELD­MAN CLIN­I­CAL PRO­FES­SOR OF PSY­CHI­A­TRY AT THE UNI­VER­SITY OF ALABAMA “No one who is happy in their lives de­cides to cre­ate 71 fake Face­book pro­files and a kid with can­cer.” TARYN WRIGHT THE BLOG­GER WHO EX­POSED EMILY DIRR IN 2012


Emily Dirr sent "War­rior Eli" wrist­bands to sup­port­ers of a boy with can­cer.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.