Let me start by saying I am not currently involved in any of the Secular Homeschooling groups online, nor did I ever meet the person going by the name of Mike Feigen. But as the story has unfolded in one of the Atheist groups I am in, I can’t help but recognize the pattern. And, surprise surprise, I have some opinions on the matter. But then, my regular readers already know that I have extensive experience in the area of Munchausen by Internet.
We’ll need a good working definition of this disorder. Wikipedia has a nice, concise one that I’ll borrow, including their original sources:
Münchausen by Internet is a pattern of behavior in which Internet users seek attention by feigning illnesses in online venues such as chat rooms, message boards, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). It has been described in medical literature as a manifestation of factitious disorder or factitious disorder by proxy. Reports of users who deceive Internet forum participants by portraying themselves as gravely ill or as victims of violence first appeared in the 1990s due to the relative newness of Internet communications. The pattern was identified in 1998 by psychiatrist Marc Feldman, who created the term “Münchausen by Internet” in 2000. It is not included in the fourth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).
That sounds a lot more benign than what it actually is. Which is someone sucking the emotional life out of others through their monitors. These people prop up their stories with research from WebMD and Google University, often bringing in multiple characters – or sockpuppets, as people call them in less-medical-more-fandom circles. In any case, the ones that get somewhere are all the same. They’re incredible, wonderful, inspiring, charismatic people, who are bravely facing whatever tragic condition, living situation, disease or drama (eventually, a string of them). Sometimes they have a horrific past that they are overcoming. Some are the brave parents of a dying child. Some are dying themselves, of some tragic, drawn out illness.
Most of them end up having shocking, sudden, or especially poignant deaths. Usually announced by someone close to the alleged deceased: A sister, a friend, etc. Occasionally there will be a miraculous recovery – but invariably there will soon be even more peril. A relapse. An accident. A “secondary” condition. It will never end; even when they “die” they will either pick up with the “friend” as the lead character, or they will just move on to the next disorder.
If found out (and they usually are, especially in the wake of a death that can’t be proven) they generally delete everything they can. These days, lots of people automatically screencap a site when they realize it’s probably a hoax. Sometimes the phony will try to spin it to their advantage; usually they just vanish until, again, they show up someplace else.
Honestly, it’s stunning how common this is. Granted, I full on drank the kool-aid and crossed into Real World Crazy, but almost everything Andy* did (and does) online has fallen under Munchausen By Internet. From pretending to have been a child prostitute to the eye infection to being on the run from the IRA to the various rare physical maladies, most recently the heart defect that has miraculously healed. Furthermore, there are elements of it in the characters he created to “bring” through the Mindhole/Hellmouth. They too had the dramatic backstories, diseases, miraculous healings, horrific tragedies, etc. ad nauseam.
But this isn’t about Andy, or Janna St. James, or April Rose, or Kaycee Nicole. This is about Mike Feigen. I only started hearing about him as the hoax is uncovered, but it’s the same story. From Just Enough And Nothing More:
Mike Feigen claimed to homeschool three boys, two of which were his twin sons with cystic fibrosis, as well as a nephew who also had CF. He had said his wife died in
20042003 of CF as well, and he at that point stopped working in order to be a full time dad.
January 11th, Mike and all three of the boys were reportedly killed by a drunk driver. The announcement came from his mother-in-law on his Facebook within hours of the alleged deaths. Within days people were asking questions, and of course all the relevant Facebook accounts and webpages vanished. So far, there are some “persons of interest” (to the internet, not real law enforcement, which is usually the case) but research is ongoing. I cannot improve on the research from Just Enough And Nothing More as linked above, if you want a full recap from someone who was there.
Once you’ve fallen for one of these liars your guard is up and they’re easy to spot, and the above two paragraphs fit the profile very well. The behavior of these people is consistent enough that Dr. Marc Feldman has described seven “clues to detection of false claims” (as presented here) based on case studies.
- The posts consistently duplicate material in other posts, in books, or on health-related websites;
- The characteristics of the supposed illness emerge as caricatures;
- Near-fatal bouts of illness alternate with miraculous recoveries;
- Claims are fantastic, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved;
- There are continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention;
- There is feigned blitheness about crises (e.g., going into septic shock) that will predictably attract immediate attention;
- Others apparently posting on behalf of the individual (e.g., family members, friends) have identical patterns of writing.
Looking at the wake of this (given that many of the original posts have, of course, already been deleted), it’s a lot easier to spot. Wealthy family, tragically widowed, twin sons, BOTH with Cystic Fybrosis? Oh, and a nephew too? AND he’s a stay at home dad who homeschools? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? Especially when all traces of all of Mike, his sons, his mother-in-law, etc. were limited to a few webpages, and no deaths matching the description given can be found. The death of three special needs children and a widower would almost certainly reach the mainstream media. That’s why Munchausen By Internet works – we all love a good story, even when it has a tragic ending. It must be heady attention indeed for the people who spin these stories, given that pseuecide is not as easy as it sounds anymore. Not when 4chan can end up personally harassing people.
So what can we take from all this? This kind of behavior isn’t going to stop anytime soon, so it seems the only defense is skepticism over fantastical claims. Which I endorse in all cases, of course. These people want attention above all things, so indifference is the only thing that sends them away. We should of course be compassionate and supportive of others in need, especially when we’re in a support group. The majority of people, online and off, are generally telling something close to the truth most of the time, and most honest people aren’t unreasonable when asked for some kind of confirmation of their story. Perhaps it’s good to keep in mind that, just as if something seems too good to be true, if it seems to bad to be true, it might not be. Or maybe we should take a note from The Simpsons: when it’s becoming a garish display, just don’t look.
*Note: if you’re new here, you might want to check out the FAQ.