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Münchhausen by Internet - No joke


If you're reading this post, you've almost certainly used the Internet before, even if you just started recently. More likely, you've been doing this "web" thing for some time. Most of the bloggers I follow have been "in the business" for at least five years, some closer to ten. The fact that you read a blog, or keep one, indicates a degree of sociability.You care about people, or people-related issues, and wish to have people care about you, or those subjects that matter the most to you.

You might be dysfunctional -- and I'm not judging.  But you might be.  For some people, the lure of a mass audience tuned in to their personal issues is irresistible. It can be (pardon the cliché) a slippery slope, in which that little bit of attention is a drug of sorts, leading you to put out more "bait," even if it turns out to be phony as a plastic fishing fly.

Jenny Kleeman's recent piece in the Guardian explores a phenomenon that's come to be known as Münchhausen by Internet. It is related to Münchhausen Syndrome, in which a person deliberately inflicts illness or injury on him or herself in order to have attention paid by medical professionals, and Münchhausen Syndrome by Proxy, in which children are made ill, with the perpetrator aiming to win accolades from professionals as a good or caring parent.  Münchhausen by Internet, or MBI for short, is a condition in which an individual creates fictitious personal crises for the purpose of gaining sympathy from other Internet users.

If this sounds far-fetched, I'd invite you to think back to the last time you were affected by a novel, movie, or TV show. Even though you knew the characters were completely fictional, they seemed real and felt authentic. This same phenomenon occurs with online relationships. After a few exchanges, that anonymous two-dimensional individual takes on a voice and an appearance (sometimes completely imaginary, sometimes aided by a photo or avatar). You know there's a real person out there answering to their name, and if it expands to include phone calls, Skype, video or in-person meetings, then you're hooked. It's no longer two-dimensional. When they share their tales of woe, and you respond, you're hooked, for better or for worse. So when the sad circumstances turn out to be gimmicky lies, the sense of betrayal is very real indeed.

Approximately eight years ago, my friend GL half-jokingly uttered the phrase "Münchhausen by Internet" as an amateur "diagnosis" for a member of a fanfic community we belonged to. GL was moderating the forum. By a happy confluence of events, GL, Kabby and I, along with a few other people, had discovered our little fandom right around the same time, in the spring of 2001. Soon enough, the friendship began expanding beyond just words on a computer screen. GL, Kabby and I are still friends to this day.

Another person we encountered at about the same time was Helene, a woman in her mid-thirties. She was very outgoing, very interested in the writing process ... but while none of us came right out and said it, we weren't ecstatic about her offerings. The original subject matter was rather serious and profound, yet Helene insisted on injecting such a light touch into her stories, they often resembled fluffy sitcoms from the 1960s. But Helene very bluntly insisted that, rather than settling for the faint praise we dispensed in emails, we publicly praise her on the forums. "I need it," she said, and how could we be so cruel as to withhold it? So we fell into a rather cynical pattern of churning out the most bland, cookie-cutter comments: "Loved it!" "Wonderful!" "Great!" etc. 

Helene was pushy. While she labeled herself as a "busy wife and stay-at-home mom," she never, ever seemed to be off-line. Day and night, she was there, popping onto the screen of anyone who happened to have instant messaging. When the opportunity came to switch Internet service providers, I did so, and claimed falsely that IM was not available with this service, thereby breaking that one particular link to her. 

It didn't slow her down, though. She was so caught up in the frenzy and passion of our fandom, that when one of the movies came out on DVD, she emailed me to advise that she'd been "masturbating non-stop for hours." TMI, anyone?

But this fandom was busy in 2002, with a new movie release. We were all interested in meeting one another and we took advantage of timing and airfares to meet in Helene's hometown for the occasion. She was friendly, outgoing and generous, no question. She bought our tickets and paid for meals. She invited us to her modest home. But interestingly her husband (who also participated occasionally in our forum -- we thought) and her children were absent. She explained this by saying that the grandparents had taken them for the weekend so we could enjoy our little mini-convention.

Before this meeting, we had already been subjected to the drama of Helene's pregnancy and miscarriage. Here's where the Münchhausen comes in. Initially, every one of us believed her and sympathized. We sent flowers, and even collected money so that a star could be named for the child who didn't survive the pregnancy (she'd already chosen a name for the baby). And so, when we visited her house, we asked if we could see what the "star-naming" company had sent, since we'd never actually seen it. She was effusive about how amazing and thoughtful our gesture was, but then said her husband had taken it to his office to display "as a comfort." 

Helene gave us a tour of her home. We saw the spare room where she kept the computer; we saw the master bedroom, and we saw the room where her daughters slept. It was all very nice and conventional. 

The mini-con gave GL and me the opportunity to compare notes. We were each relieved to see that the other had the same reservations about Helene's mental state. We went back to our respective homes feeling closer to one another and better able to deal with Helene.  This was a good thing, because  within a month after we met, Helene's emails took on a much more emotional tone, and GL got the brunt of it. By this time, Helene reportedly was "trying again" with a pregnancy.

When she reported to our group that the doctor had advised her to stay in bed, I tried to encourage her in this by suggesting that her family and personal health were more important than online friendships.  She categorically refuted this, saying her cyber-friendships were more or less her life, and scolded me for even implying that her behavior could have played any role in the previous loss. Talk about "no defense like a good offense."

Here are some excerpts from her emails that GL and I shared:

To GL:  

You know, you can still call me to check up on me if you want.  I'm not banned from using the phone.  Or am I not worth calling now that I'm not around as much?

And the reason I got annoyed last night is because, yes, in a way I think you're a bit "relieved' that I'm out of comission, but it's a subconcious relief....and I'm not the only one who picks that up, either.  Now you have no real opposition to whatever you want to do or whoever you want to let on the board, but you can have it.  You've lost two good authors and commenters (Peter won't be around as much, either). Just remember this: I'm your biggest ally and know these people like the back of my hand and know just how things run.  I have very good instincts.  I can't be fooled.  I know deep down that's how you feel because quite frankly, I'd feel the same way and we both can't be wrong, but I have other priorities now and I have to go with that.

I've invested alot of personal time and emotion into these boards and this fandom only to be at times, unappreciated and disrespected.  Enough is enough.  I've accompished what I've set out to do.  Time to move on.  And obviously it's not just me, because look at the long list of people who are gone: 
[inserts names of a dozen and a half other members. We still think some of these were her alter-egos. One of them definitely was, more on that later. We also are sure that those who were real left because of her, not GL] 

It can't be just me.  The only reason you're still around is because your board was able to take the place of the original one..I hope it can still do that and it seems to be the case.   

Yes, I'm gone for health reasons, but quite frankly, it's other reasons and if you weren't so busy kissing everyone's ass, you would have picked up on it.  The first thing out of your mouth should have been "What is it, Helene?  Is it really just your health?"..Instead, I get an email saying "Bye for now!  Talk to you soon!"..I could practically hear you whistling "Ding, Dong, the witch is dead" - 

Is it just my perception?  Am I being totally unfair?  Perhaps.  But I can't help the way I feel. 

I've been a very good friend to you and extremely helpful.  I know you appreciate it, that's not my point here.  I just think you're a bit immature sometimes and short sighted.  I can't be a fuck buddy anymore. I don't have the time, energy or patience.   
You're not a mother...I am.  I'm married longer too and am older.  I can't expect you to see things the way I do.  Being married to someone who dissects personalities  for a living helps. 

Anyway, this email didn't start out this way.......it was made one by months of systematic bullshit.  

I hope I can return after the birth of my child and would like to, but just don't know how much time I'll have or what things will be like by then.  We'll see what happens. 

I hope I didn't hurt your feelings, but friends are honest with each other, right?  Why be hampered by constraints?  We know each other too good to beat around the fucking bush. 
 

~

GL gave back as good as she got on that one. Helene's controlling nature was the centerpiece. Things picked up speed as they went downhill, becoming more and more dramatic. In response to GL's email,  Helene curtly requested that she and her psychologist husband Peter be dropped from the forum.

Obviously, according to you, everyone has just been being "nice" to me and not the true friends I thought they were.

And I knew that was the case all along, believe me.

Tomorrow I have a sonogram to determine wether or not I'm carrying twins and what exactly  is going on with this pregnancy.  I have alot on my mind and then you hit me with all of that.  I'm not sure who is "complaining" about my post alerts, but shame on you for trying to hurt my feelings.

This place has gotten alot friendlier since I got here.  I don't think anyone made phone calls, sent snail mails and met in real life until I got here.  I have NOTHING to be ashamed of.

I never want to speak to you again.
~
The silence lasted a day or two, but Helene couldn't really bring herself to stay away. She was soon back at the same levels as before.

Peter had contributed a few stories and comments.  Or at least, that's what Helene wanted us to believe. It was interesting to see how often Peter would chime in when anyone dared to criticize Helene in even the tiniest way. He would take the opportunity to make "observations" about the critic's behavior and recommend that they seek professional help.  Aside from this, Peter seemed courteous and articulate.  All of this exploded one evening when I had occasion to call Helene and a man's voice answered.

Me: Oh, hi, is this Peter?
Man (polite, interested): Yes.
Me: It's so nice to talk to you. This is Vol-E, I'm in the fanfic group. How are you?
Man (no longer polite or interested): Oh, just a minute.  Helene!  It's for you!

The phone clunked down and Helene came on a few seconds later, explaining that Peter just had "one of his migraines." But that brief conversation shattered any illusion that he was "one of us." It hinted at a divide in their marriage.

The only other contact we had with "Peter" came about two months after that. Peter sent a long email to everyone on the roster of writers, advising that Helene had been in a very bad car wreck and was currently "in a mild coma." He demonstrated extensive knowledge of one of our writer subgroups, known as The Harpies. But what struck everyone as exceedingly odd was that he was taking time to write this long thing when he had two young daughters to take care of, in between visits to the hospital, where he was apparently keeping a vigil by Helene's bedside.

Just another thing to make us say "Hmm."

As 2003 began, we were treated to stories of Helene's stormy and risky pregnancy, the aftermath of the "coma," and the death of a couple of her pets. Then we got more emails of a "confessional" nature. Here's one:

Dear GL and Vol-E,

This is going to come as a shock to you both but I'm sorry - my time with all of you is up.

It's been a ton of fun, but I can't do this anymore.

If you want to know more, please ask H [original leader of the group. Helene claimed to be long-time friends with her. H denied ever having met her.].  This was all never supposed to last this long and it was just supposed to be for fun and to help me win a scholarship to Drew University, which it did.

And yes, I do know [the originator of the fandom, an author] personally, only I couldn't say it before.  In truth, I'm a mystery novelist. I have three children, not two, and my husband really is a psychologist, but he's not in the forum. I'm not only [the screen name she used for herself] but DrPeter, too [her husband's alleged screen name].

I love you both, always have, always will.

Helen Ann

~
It certainly did not end there; it just got soapier by the day. In a separate email to me, she added:

My legal name is Helen Ann, but everyone calls me Helene. And the most important thing I didn't say was that I have a 5 year old son who is mentally challenged that I don't like to discuss online. All of this is what contributes to my stress level. I need to take care of myself so I don't lose this baby and all goes well. But we'll talk later. 
Love,
Helene

Not long after that came another miscarriage, this one followed by a tubal ligation and a classic soap opera declaration, awash in tears, about how she'd "never be able to have any more children." More on that later!  By this time, while we were still communicating with her, most of us were worn out from the drama of the previous months and she got little more from us than "Oh, we're so sorry. Things will get better, we're thinking about you." No flowers, no poems, no stars.  I suspect she believed she'd taken the pregnancy/miscarriage routine as far as it would go and the "tubal ligation" was a subconscious or symbolic way of ending that.

But that didn't mean she'd run out of drama in general.  Oh, nooooo.

She was quiet for a few months, but in June of 2003, there came yet another bombshell. The "hidden" child with cognitive issues suddenly died.  She said.  And somehow, that opened the floodgates throughout the community. As detailed in the Guardian article, MBI's seem to show a predictable pattern: The perp escalates the tales of woe until they defy credulity, and then someone tentatively postulates that maybe, just maybe, none of the stories are true -- oh, but aren't we just the most horrible people for doubting it!?  Up until that time, GL and I had been dealing with it between ourselves, with one or two other people occasionally being let in on what was transpiring behind the scenes. But it turned out that many, many other people in the group had simply ducked out of participating because they were tired of her volatility.  Helene's strategy was "divide and conquer." She had everyone thinking "I can't stand Helene, but it must be me; everyone else seems to love, admire and respect her." Once a new person emailed to express her opinions and they were almost identical to ours, we realized we had a genuine revolt on our hands. Soon an email that GL and I called The Manifesto (a chronology of events similar to this one, just much more detailed and angsty) had made its way to nearly everyone in the community. And oh boy, did we hear back.

From Deb:
...I really, really can't deal with these recurring disasters with her and the resulting moods they put her in. I tried to, for awhile, with the pregnancies and all that, but of late it has become too  much for me especially in the face of what I'm dealing with here. It has been too much and too often, if you know what I mean. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, has this many disasters all at once. May God strike me down if I'm wrong on that, but I can't help but think he'll cut me some slack especially since I've had to take quite a bit of flack from her in the last year with all these things going on. I'm normally not one to talk out of school, but seeing as you're one of our writing buddies who has been around the longest, I felt I could tell you.  I tried to be her friend as much as I could, but right now it's just too much for me. I have a house to rebuild and a site to get back in order, and her constant in-and-out of the fandom and mailbox addies has really soured on me. She is constantly going in and out of the groups, and I'm sick of it. I just don't feel we deserve to be treated this way. I, too, have been on the receiving end of Helene's irrational railings because I have or have not done something she liked or disliked. I really hated it when she asked me to write you, NF and H about this latest tragedy, especially since I was not convinced it had really occurred. But then I berated myself for disbelieving her and so did what she asked. I felt like an idiot in case it would turn out to be another of her ploys for attention. God! I feel awful admitting this but I just have to say it to someone.

From Holly:
Aside from what we talked about, it seemed everyone (myself included) was afraid about stepping over the line and mentioning it as a problem. The bullying, the post-alerts, the updates of her family and their seemingly never-ending list of tragedies...let's be honest, the list goes on and on.  I mentioned that I was warped and frustrated in the fandom, and yes, Helene was the predominant cause of that.  It got to the point where I dreaded checking my mail, the boards, writing a sentence of anything for the impending headache of that minuscule detail I know she'd ridicule me for -- or write me a one-way ticket to Banned-ville.  And it's not that I couldn't take it, but there was no reason for me to.  Her constant bitching took away what I loved about the storyline and the fandom to the point where I began to hate it.  My hobby was becoming one of the greater sources of my stress, and I needed to get out.  I'm only sorry about a couple of things in that regard...one being that I have an unfinished fanfic that I have absolutely no desire to complete, and the other that I'm - in essence - withdrawing from a group of people that I respect very much, even if I'm still there to post commentary and read their stories. 

~

And yet, even as we responded back to these other members, we were still inserting caveats such as, "There's a tiny chance  we're completely off-base, in which case neither of us has any malicious motive to hurt Helene."

But by July of that year, we had all come out as doubters regarding anything Helene said. GL took the step of deleting her screen name from the forum.  After two years of this, it was not entirely possible to refrain from firing a shot back. One member, who had experienced the worst abuse from Helene and been unjustly banned for awhile as the result of Helene's temper tantrums, composed a long email reflecting some favorite dialog from our fandom. It was sent to Helene under all our names, but none of us ever got a response. Unfortunately, the negativity had gone on so long, most of those who'd been staying away continued to do so and the community was really never the same, though it still exists, and people still pop in and out.  But for several months, there was serious paranoia anytime a new member appeared. Helene was such a chronic fabricator, we suspected she was trying to play with us and "put one past us" every time. 

The memory lingers. One member, who still did persevere with the writing, commented that Helene's crazy, pushy presence online made her feel like Helene's hands were going to shoot out through the computer screen and grab her around the neck, like in a horror movie. Every one of us who experienced her has confessed to "checking up" via Google.  So far, we have found an obituary for her husband -- not in an online version, not in the Social Security Death Index, but on a spurious-looking website for a church, not listed in any phone directory, which later vanished from the web. There was also a one-line "in memoriam" notation in another church's bulletin to this effect, so we're allowing maybe 50% probability that this is real.  We've also found a Facebook page under the name of her poor, mentally challenged son who so tragically died. No other info other than "male" appears on the page. 

I think MBI is a chronic condition, like pedophilia, which can be contained, sometimes controlled (from without), but never completely cured.  We await her next stunt, even eight years later.  We're older, wiser, and sadly far less innocent.  

My intent in posting this rather long account is to validate the suspicions of anyone who might be dealing with someone who manifests this disorder. Is someone imposing themselves on you beyond the boundaries of the venue (such as a blog or online forum) via email, persistent invitations to talk on the phone or IM? Does this insistence make you feel uncomfortable in a way that you can't define? Does the person impose "friendship" early on, making you wonder about their sense of boundaries? Do they try to guilt-trip you for not wanting to get close to them the way they'd like? Do they try to catch you up in a never-ending soap opera of their bizarre misadventures and miseries?  

There's a huge difference between the average person who discloses personal information online, and a person with MBI.  Most of us have sufficient intuition to tell when the sad tales are credible. It's been my observation and experience, too, that genuine serious misfortunes result in decreased time online and less disclosure. They will narrow their circle of people that they share information with, because simple common sense dictates that beyond a certain point, you know who your true friends are and it's a waste of time and emotional energy to try drawing everyone else in.  When someone can't wait to update you on every last breathtaking detail, several times a week, with increasing drama -- especially when they only know you online, it's a red flag.

I'd love to know if anyone reading this has had a similar experience. How did you deal with it, and what did you take away from it?

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