Is Writing Like Munchausen Syndrome?

Taryn Harper WrightI was listening to On the Media and there was an interview with a woman named Taryn Harper Wright. She has investigated a number of cases of the Munchausen syndrome — or in these particular cases, Munchausen by Internet. This is where a person pretends to be ill in order to get sympathy. They will apparently go to great lengths — for example, shaving their heads as though they are going through chemotherapy. My first thought was that it would be amusing to do some kind of parody of this. But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable it made me feel.

One of the great problems with the modern globalized world is that there isn’t enough meaning to go around. It isn’t enough to be the greatest violinist in a small village, you must be James Ehnes. You can’t even be the town drunk; now you have to be Rob Ford. So can we really blame people for grabbing onto anything at all that they think will make them feel special? We are so focused on economic issues, but it is ultimately a lack of meaning — a lack of belonging — that causes people to kill themselves. (In our society, meaning is too often defined in terms of economics — but I’ll leave that for now.)

But it would be especially bad for me to mock these people. There is nothing very different between pretending to have cancer and being delusional enough that you would think that other people should be interested in your opinions about literally anything that floats into your head. And that is, ultimately, the entire point of Frankly Curious. Writing itself is an incredibly narcissistic endeavor. While it is, for me at least, a way that I come to understand the world, it doesn’t need to be done in public.

One of the things that Wright mentioned with the people who pretend to have an illness is that it usually starts off small. But sometimes it snowballs and the person who had only started out running a little con to get a bit of sympathy finds herself in a situation where she is creating a real time novel for all the people who have gathered around her in support. Obviously, such people could get out of it by simply saying something like, “Good news! I met with my doctor and my cancer seems to be in remission!” But once you get on a treadmill like that, it’s hard to see the opportunities to jump off.

This too is like writing. You start writing because you like it. And then you get better at it. Sometimes, I feel like a fraud. I worry that my writing is a lot stronger than my thinking. So I can sound authoritative about things that I’m really not. On the other hand, all the writing over the years has gone along with a lot of reading, so I do know far more than I even did a couple of years ago. But this isn’t really about me. When I read someone like David Brooks, I think he’s pretty much a pretender — as much as any Munchausen syndrome sufferer. Because he is a good writer, but he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about despite the fact that he writes for The New York Times.

Regardless, it is something to be constantly on the lookout for. It’s easy to lie without trying, just because the words come so easily. I don’t think I do that. But then, I would probably be the last to know.

Afterword

If you think about it in terms of fiction writing, the Munchausen sufferers seem even more similar. Or think of mentalists who are just magicians but who insist that they can really read minds. It’s a kind of performance art. Of course, then we get into the issue of reality shows and how people are so much more accepting of bad art if it is “true.” But just because art is bad doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

4 thoughts on “Is Writing Like Munchausen Syndrome?

  1. Anybody spending more than two minutes a day on the Internet has something wrong with them. I include myself, of course, and half the planet at this point. (And because our social systems are so broken, probably the other half would jump at the opportunity.)

    It’s an interesting David Brooks / Munchausen comparison. There’s nothing wrong with asking others to pay attention to your thoughts & feelings. It starts getting ooky when you lie about those thoughts/feelings to exploit others. We care about the sick (most of us.) And we’re aware that we don’t have enough time to know about everything going on around us, so we turn to Trusted Authorities like big-name columnists. (I don’t trust Brooks, but there are several writers I do trust, thee art among their number.)

    They’re also both very damaged people. In the case of Munchausen sufferers, it’s probably from deep emotional pain. In the case of a Brooks/Friedman type, it’s being damaged by wanting the approval of semi-high society, which is a pretty diseased culture.

    This is where the comparison breaks down for me. Yes, there’s something wrong with any of us who seek attention. Granted. But there are ways to do it which harm others and ways which only harm ourselves. You mentioned mentalists. Well, they prey on other people’s vulnerabilities. An expert card magician doesn’t prey on people, she entertains them. It’d probably be saner not to spend 20 years playing with card decks, but few of us are sane.

    • It depends upon the mentalist. Some of them do use their tricks for evil. I’ve seen mentalists who work at religious gatherings and so on. I have a problem with that — because they are selling God with it and that’s fraud. But I haven’t had a problem with The Amazing Kreskin or Uri Geller — who always claimed publicly that what they did was “real” This is actually far more common than people like The Amazing Randi want to admit. Where is the outrage at Criss Angel, whose reality shows talk about how dangerous what he’s doing is? So I think as long as the person doing it is only preying on people to the extent that any entertainer does (selling tickets), it’s okay. Personally, however, I find mentalists tedious.

      In the article, I didn’t mention Friedman because he actually is knowledgeable about something: certain kinds of foreign affairs. If he would stick to what he knows, I wouldn’t have a problem with him. But he’s totally ignorant of economics (far more so than I am), yet he pontificates about it constantly. It’s hard not to psychoanalyze Brooks. He was a liberal who was taken in by conservatives and then bought the whole thing. He reminds me somewhat of myself when I was a libertarian: desperately trying to make the ideology fit where it doesn’t belong. Of course, by this point, he’s so full of himself that any lingering liberalism is swamped by pomposity. And note: if he had stayed a liberal, he would not have had 1/10th the success he’s had.

  2. I really agree with this quote: “We are so focused on economic issues, but it is ultimately a lack of meaning — a lack of belonging — that causes people to kill themselves. (In our society, meaning is too often defined in terms of economics — but I’ll leave that for now.)”

    I don’t know exactly why I blog; but I know that I write because it’s the only way I can make sense of the world. And blogging in particular allows me to gain some sense of meaning from my dumb, banal, day-to-day circumstances. If I write it down and share it with others who relate to it, it becomes a redemptive experience rather than just another existential annoyance. It makes me feel connected to other people. I really love blogging, as hard as it can be to get a post up every week, and perform the magic trick of sharing just enough in just the right way where I can express my truth without dragging a lot of other people into it and messing with their privacy.
    I hope that I don’t come to it from an audacious ego-level–I don’t tend towards that, (I scored very low on the Narcissist Test), but I do sometimes have questions about what’s really driving me. I hope that I blog just because I just enjoy sharing parts of my life in what I hope are entertaining ways, and and getting a little relief out of it as well. I guess I see communication in some ways as a form of healing. Then again, I don’t write about anything important–it’s mostly about my process as a writer, my clothes frustrations, and dryer sheets. So maybe there is an unhealthy ego-involvement that I’m not not aware of. But I’m okay with that if it gives someone a little extra kick to their day now and then. I like reading other people’s banal stories if they are told in an entertaining way.

    • You bring up a really important — positive — aspect of it that I didn’t even think about in my haste to self-flagellate: the communal aspects of blogging. It is part of building community. Since I’ve gotten into RSS, I enjoy being reminded once a week to go check out what you are doing. But I very much like the idea of “blog as hangout.” I’m not so interested when some random person comments here as I am when one of the regulars does. And people will go away for months — even years — and then pop back in. It’s very nice.

      BTW: I should have noted it in the article, but the woman who does the investigation has become friends with a number of the people she uncovered. She said, “I would hate to be judged by the worst thing I ever did.” Indeed. Although in my case, it’s more like the top hundred…

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