I 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.
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.