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Telling Tales of Sick People

There probably are many medical conditions that you and I never hear of prior to learning about them from the media, but I doubt whether any has ever been behind a public riot before, let alone several days of rioting, such as broke out in mid-July in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim.

You may have read about it. An ultra-Orthodox woman was arrested by the police for allegedly starving her 3-year-old son, who had to be hospitalized for malnutrition at Hadassah Hospital. The woman denied mistreating the child and claimed that the boy was suffering from cancer. The hospital’s physicians insisted he had neither cancer nor any other organic illness. Ultra-Orthodox demonstrations held to protest the woman’s arrest as a secular vendetta against religious Jews turned violent, and abated only when she was released for psychiatric observation. It was suspected, the police said, that she was suffering from a rare emotional disturbance known as MBPS — or, to give it its full and bizarre-sounding name, Munchausen by proxy syndrome.

Come again? Of the several accounts of Munchausen by proxy syndrome that I was able to find, here is part of one:

“In MBPS, an individual — usually a mother — deliberately makes another person (most often his or her own preschool child) sick or convinces others that the person is sick. The parent or caregiver misleads others into thinking that the child has medical problems by lying and reporting fictitious episodes. He or she may exaggerate, fabricate or induce symptoms…. Typically, the perpetrator feels satisfied by gaining the attention and sympathy of doctors, nurses, and others who come into contact with the child.”

Munchausen by proxy syndrome is a variation on an emotional disorder known as Munchausen syndrome, in which physically healthy individuals come to doctors with invented illnesses for which they seek to be treated. Unlike hypochondriacs, who really fear or believe that they are sick, Munchausen patients know very well that they are not, but they are determined, sometimes by inflicting physical injury on themselves, to fool others into thinking that they are. The condition was first diagnosed in 1951 by British physician Richard Asher, who named it after the semi-legendary German yarn spinner, Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen.

And just who was Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen? Born into a family of lesser German nobility in the German state of Hanover in 1720, he served as a page at the court of the Duke of Braunschweig-Luneberg and joined the army, eventually rising to the rank of a cavalry captain. In 1752 he retired to his family’s country estate, where his favorite pastime until his death in 1797 was regaling his friends with imaginary stories of his adventures as a soldier, hunter and sportsman. Some reached a writer for a Berlin magazine, which published comic versions of them from 1781 to 1783; these, in turn, caught the attention of German scientist, librarian and part-time rogue Rudolf Erich Raspe, who embellished them further, added new and even more fantastical yarns, and put out the lot in 1785, under the title “Baron Münchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.”

A year later, German poet Gottfried August Bürger took the stories from Raspe just as Raspe had taken them from the Berlin magazine that took them from Münchhausen. He rewrote them again, and issued them as the highly successful “The Wonderful Travels on Water and Land, Campaigns, and Merry Adventures of Freiherr von Münchhausen.” It was Bürger’s book that established Münchhausen’s reputation as one of the great all-time tall-tale tellers and inspired various literary works and three films, the last of them a 1987 Hollywood production.

Raspe’s and Bürger’s versions of Münchhausen’s yarns are indeed highly entertaining. In a typical one, the baron is out walking in some ancient ruins in England one day when he throws a stone into a crumbling tower; at once, a nesting eagle comes flying out so fast that the baron is carried away on its back and proceeds to take a long airborne voyage around the world, during which he subsists on two large fruits that he picks from the treetops along the way, one tasting like roast beef and the other full of a liquor like Dutch gin. Over the North Pole, the eagle collides with a cloud that has frozen solid. The bird plummets to the ground, whereupon the baron is attacked by a fierce polar bear, which he blinds by squirting gin in its eyes. He is finally let down to earth next to the eagle’s nest in the old tower.

There is, of course, nothing funny about the incident of the child in Jerusalem, whose mother was found by a psychiatrist to apparently be free of MBPS, though clear-cut results, her examiner declared, could not be expected from a single meeting. Indeed, since MBPS sufferers are known to be adept at manipulating and deceiving doctors, even a longer examination might be indecisive. Meanwhile, the streets of Me’ah She’arim have quieted down. The child has been released, many pounds heavier, from the hospital; the mother is reported to be in hiding; the authorities seem disinclined to risk new riots by prosecuting her, and even Münchhausen might find the whole story improbable.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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