book reviews, healthcare

Repost: My review of Sickened, by Julie Gregory…

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote for Epinions.com in 2005. It appears here “as/is”.

Over this past weekend, my husband Bill and I ventured out to the local Borders bookstore in search of a DVD of the fabulous film Baraka. After I got my hands on a copy of the movie, I started looking through the books, leaving Bill to continue mulling over the movies. I wandered into the psychology section, where I happened to run across a misplaced copy of Julie Gregory’s 2003 book, Sickened: A Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood. Those of you who regularly read my book reviews may know by now that I’m a sucker for books about psychological disorders, especially personal accounts. Gregory’s book looked like it was right up my alley. Unlike a lot of folks, I had heard of Munchausen by Proxy (MbP). But I hadn’t ever read a personal account by someone who has actually suffered through it.

For those who don’t know about MbP, Gregory has included a foreword written by Marc Feldman, MD. The foreword explains in laymen’s terms what Munchausen by Proxy is. I’ll try to offer my own take on what I understand MbP to be. Simply put, MbP is a syndrome in which a person purposely and repeatedly makes another person ill. Victims of MbP are repeatedly submitted to medical care in which they endure endless tests, procedures, hospitalizations, and surgeries as doctors try to find the sources of their mysterious and debilitating symptoms. Most of the time, victims of MbP are children, and the perpetrators are their mothers, as was true in Julie Gregory’s case. Gregory was also abused by her maternal grandmother. Ironically, her parents moved her away from her grandmother in order to protect Julie from her grandmother’s abuse.

Julie Gregory was lucky enough to survive her ordeal and make it to adulthood relatively healthy… at least physically. Born to “crazy” parents, Dan and Sandy, Gregory spent most of her childhood in the backwoods of southern Ohio. Her mother, Sandy, had also endured a tough childhood and was, as a teenager, initially married off to a much older man named Smokey. Smokey taught Sandy how to trick ride horses and pose as he threw knives at her. When Smokey later died and Sandy became a widow while still in her twenties, she found herself taking up with Julie Gregory’s father, Dan. Dan had spent a very short time in Vietnam before he was exposed to Agent Orange and medically discharged. Julie literally describes her father as “crazy”, but after reading her book, I was left thinking that her mother is far crazier.

Trying to convince people that people in the medical community that her daughter suffered from heart problems, Sandy Gregory regularly shuttled Julie to doctors throughout her childhood. When a doctor found nothing wrong with Julie, Sandy simply carted her off to the next one. She gave Julie pills, the identity of which Julie never identifies by name. She tells Julie how she’s supposed to be feeling and admonishes her to “act sick” for the doctors so that they can help her “get well”. She starves Julie as she forces her to work very hard so that Julie is chronically tired and feeling weak. Julie also misses many days of school, almost failing a grade because of her chronic absenteeism.

Sandy Gregory, who simultaneously took in foster children and war veterans as a means of making money, pored over medical books and became well-versed in the jargon so common in a medical environment. She convinced a cardiac specialist that Julie needed to be catheterized. Gregory writes of this experience she endured as a skinny, fragile 13 year old child at the Ohio State University. The hospital made her feel safe. She was fed, cared for, but also left alone. She didn’t want to leave the safety of the hospital and go back home to her parents.

As I read this book, I really felt sorry for the child Julie Gregory was. It seemed like no one had a clue what she went through. And when Julie finally did speak up as a teenager, after years of enduring her mother’s sickness, she ended up being shuffled into the state’s child welfare system. She poignantly describes the plight of teenaged children who are in “the system”, making the point that even though she had done the right thing by talking to a caseworker about what her parents had been doing, she ended up being punished for her efforts. It almost made me want to become a foster mom myself.

Sickened is a fast and interesting read. Julie Gregory writes about her experience using vivid prose and humor. She includes pictures of her family as well as a sampling of medical notes and letters from the many doctors she saw over the course of her childhood. I got a good idea of what Julie’s family was like, particularly her mother, who really sounds like she wasn’t playing with a full deck. Julie Gregory does a fine job of capturing her mother’s voice so that I was able to get a real sense of who her mother was. And Julie Gregory has a knack for colorful similies and descriptions so that her story held my attention.

With that said, though, I did find a few weaknesses in Sickened. First of all, I think that this book could have used a good editor. I noticed that at times, Gregory wrote in past tense. At other times, she wrote in historical present tense. It wasn’t enough to be confusing, but it was noticeable and somewhat annoying. Secondly, I think this book is a little short on content. I would have liked to have read a little more about MbP from Gregory’s perspective. She does include, toward the end of her book, the story of how she came to figure out that she was a victim of MbP.

Today, Julie Gregory is supposedly an expert writer and speaker about MbP. Yet in Sickened, she provides very little analysis about MbP, instead forcing readers to rely on the foreword written by Dr. Marc Feldman. She doesn’t tell readers how she came to be an expert of MbP either, aside from just being a victim. According to the notes about her, Julie Gregory, who lives in Ohio, is a graduate student at the Sheffield University in England. She doesn’t reveal what she’s studying or what subject she earned her undergraduate degree in, so again, I was left wondering how she became an expert. Moreover, about two-thirds of this book consists of Julie Gregory’s experience as a child. The last third is the story of her progression into young adulthood. The last section feels rushed in comparison to the first. It seems to me that Gregory’s story is compelling enough that she could have taken a little more time with the ending and told her readers a little more about what her life as an adult has been like.

I also want to comment about this book’s cover art. It’s partly why I picked up this book in the first place. On the cover of the paperback edition of Sickened, a very young, skinny, Julie Gregory is pictured in a too short dress with a toy under her right arm and her left hand at her eye, as if the camera had caught her wiping a tear. She looks very vulnerable in the picture. Whoever decided to use it for this book’s cover obviously knew how to catch the consumer’s eye while pulling their heartstrings. The pictures in Sickened are also somewhat revealing of Julie Gregory’s plight. She’s shown in two snapshots posed as if she were a model. Gregory explains that her mother would periodically have her pose for Polaroids and then she would send the pictures to modeling agencies or keep on hand in case Sandy ran into “a nice older man” who wanted to see Julie’s pictures.

Although Sickened is a book about a fascinating and somewhat sensational topic, I haven’t run across any other personal accounts of people who have been affected by MbP. For that reason, I think this book is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the MbP phenomenon. However, I also believe that anyone who really wants to learn a lot about MbP will need to do more research to supplement what they read in Sickened. This book is long on personal drama and short on facts and figures. The drama keeps the book entertaining, but the lack of facts and figures makes it less useful for those who want to learn something concrete about Munchausen by Proxy.

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