Liars and Fakers
More Every Week is a collection of surprising stories and counter-intuitive ideas.
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More Accepting of Marital Lies
You and your spouse might have lied to each other before. But you have never lied to each other like Binjamin Wilkomirski and Laura Grabowski lied to each other.
Wilkomirski survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz as a child. He was even experimented on by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. He wrote an award winning memoir about his experiences called Fragments that won multiple awards and quickly took the world by storm.
Drawn by his story, Grabowski wrote him a letter coming forward as a fellow Auschwitz survivor. They quickly bonded over a shared memory of a cute little girl named Ana who did not survive the camps. They shared rare blood disorders that came as a consequence of Dr. Mengele’s experiments. It was a match made in suffering. Soon enough, they married.
But there was a problem. Neither of them had been in the concentration camps. Wilkomirski wasn’t even Jewish. They were both lying, to each other and to the entire world.
I can’t imagine how stressful their marriage must have been. Each day, they must have woken up wondering if today was the day their spouse caught them in their lie. But since they were both lying, neither was ever able to catch the other one. Like a pair of high stakes poker players, they were both bluffing, pushing the lie as far as they could.
Eventually, the book was outed as a fake and the liars were caught. But not before they traveled the world on speaking tours, detailing their fake suffering to audiences of actual Jews.
Hopefully this story makes your spouse's latest lie look like peanuts in comparison!
More Empathy for Fakers
What makes people lie in these dramatic, gigantic ways like the story above? As it happens, there is a name for this kind of behaviour: Munchausen Syndrome.
In short, Munchausen is the Faker's Disease. It comes in three medically recognized flavors:
- Munchausen Syndrome, where people consciously invent fake medical problems for attention, often going so far as to get actual unnecessary surgeries. This is shockingly common: it's estimated 1% of all hospital cases in the US are unnecessary Munchausen cases.
- Munchausen by Proxy, where a caretaker purposefully makes others (usually their kids) sick for attention. Famously, the rapper Eminem's mother had Munchausen by Proxy and would feed him pills unnecessarily in order to make him sick.
- Munchausen by Internet (MBI), a new form of the disease where people go onto online support groups and pretend to have cancer, etc, to elicit sympathy from strangers. It’s hard to estimate how many people in support groups are faking, but the authority on MBI believes it's significantly higher than the 1% seen in real world hospitals. Many social media support groups have had an MBI scandal at some point.
Helen Lewis of The Atlantic has persuasively argued that we should recognize a 4th type:
- Social Munchausen, like in the above story about the Holocaust pretenders. Social Munchausen manifests around many large-scale traumatic events (i.e. 9/11), as well as historical events. You might remember Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who pretended to be black, but she is far from the only one. In fact, a number of high profile "black" and "LatinX" academics have recently been found to be lying about their heritage.
I know it's hard to feel too much empathy for these people. What kind of person would cheapen the suffering of others by pretending to suffer themselves, just to get attention?
The answer, of course, is a really sick person! And I don't mean "sick" in terms of "evil", but "sick" in terms of "medically ill."
People with Munchausen typically suffer some kind of trauma as a child (e.g. sexual assault, emotional abuse, etc). They then sublimate their trauma into something much greater than themselves by lying. They feel like they can't get sufficient attention and sympathy for their lived experience, so they make a bigger trauma up that lets them get the attention they crave.
Now I'm not saying that every liar has Munchausen, nor that personal trauma excuses someone's Munchausen. But I think about it kind of like depression.
Before it was a medical term, people who were depressed were judged to be lazy and somewhat useless. But once we gained an appreciation that depression had to do with your mental wiring, society stopped being so judgemental.
Similarly, I think we ought to be less judgemental of people with Munchausen. There is something underlying that causes them to behave the way they do, and they should be treated with a degree of empathy, rather than pure derision.
Maybe you need a breather after reading about the prevelance of liars and fakers. I sure did after writing about it. So here's a calming guided meditation GIF to help you relax.
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