Arminzerella's Reviews > Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood

Sickened by Julie Gregory
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Julie Gregory’s mom is obsessed with her daughter’s health. She spends years convincing everyone that Julie is a very sick little girl. Even Julie starts believing that there’s something wrong with her. Her illness keeps her out of school, keeps her from graduating, keeps her from making friends, keeps her from having a normal life, and keeps her right under her mother’s thumb. Mom also makes her take medicines she doesn’t need, and has her on a variety of diets to control her illness that only serve to make Julie more sick and malnourished. Julie and her brother (and eventually the foster children their parents take in) are marched off to specialists to have their problems diagnosed. In one harrowing experience, Julie is forced to spend a week in the hospital for testing and exploratory surgery. In desperation she screams that her mother is making it up! But the nurse doesn’t believe her. In fact, every time Julie is able to articulate and identify her mother’s abnormal behavior, no one believes her. She finally breaks down at work one day and confesses everything to her supervisor, who makes sure that Julie gets to talk to someone who can help her. Melissa, her savior, gets both Julie and the foster children out of mom’s reach.

For years after this, Julie has an uneasy relationship with her parents – her mother, in particular. She is in and out of foster care, returns home for awhile, lives in her own apartments and houses, but she can’t find a direction, and when she’s under a lot of stress she recreates the habits and behaviors (and the sickness) her mother ingrained in her when she was growing up. Finally, sick and attending a class in abnormal psychology she learns, for the first time, about Munchausen by proxy (MBP) – and runs out of class. That’s her mother they’re talking about! But identifying what’s wrong doesn’t suddenly make everything better. Things are still very bad for her. Most people she talks to, therapists, even, have no idea what MBP is. Julie ends up living by herself, making up her own cure. And when she emerges from her self-imposed, self-devised therapy, she’s almost whole. She goes to see her mother in Montana. She finds her perpetrating the same kind of treatment on yet another little girl in her care. Julie cannot stand it. She writes:

“I have come back to prosecute my mother, to tell her secrets, to rip from her a veil burnt, sewn, crusted onto her skin. I don’t know what shape the process will take, but I have got to stop my mother. Stop her from taking each new girl she lures into her life under a false pretense…I have pushed the last bubble of my guilt from out behind the wrinkle of wallpaper. I owe her nothing…I will save that eleven-year-old girl, that next-generation replica of me…Because my mother is not done yet; she never will be.” (p. 244)

This was a very powerful and moving memoir. The thing that is so awful about these memoirs of terrible childhood experiences is that you can’t do anything to save them. Their powerlessness becomes shared, becomes your powerlessness. You can’t reach them, can’t touch them, can’t rescue them. They are trapped until someone does see, or they can escape under their own power. The waiting is suspenseful, awful, frustrating. I’m hesitant to “rate” abuse, but on the scale of graphic and physical abuse, this was somewhat less horrifying than Dave Pelzer’s memories of his mother. There’s plenty of crazy mother to go around, though - and crazy father, and crazy-in-denial doctors/society/world. We can learn the reasons, perhaps, behind the crazy, but it’s awfully hard to forgive it or even understand what compels them to do what they do. Julie has got to be an extraordinary person to have come out of her abusive childhood with such strength and determination. She may have been sprung initially from her mother’s clutches by an outsider, but she had to be her own healing influence. Now, how did she manage to cling to sanity when abuse has destroyed so many others? What about her made a difference?
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