Today, I made a concerted effort to finish reading my latest book, My Mother, Munchausen’s and Me: A true story of betrayal and a shocking family secret by Helen Naylor. This book was just published in November 2021. I decided to read it because I’m a sucker for true stories, especially when they are about people who have psychological issues. I’ve always found Munchausen’s Syndrome to be a fascinating disorder, although this was the first time I had seen a book about Munchausen’s Syndrome and not its related malady, Munchausen’s By Proxy.
Munchausen’s Syndrome, also known as “factitious disorder imposed on self”, is a psychological disorder in which a person either feigns illness or injury, or deliberately makes themselves ill. They do so to get narcissistic supply, attention, comfort, or sympathy from healthcare providers, their friends, and especially their families. People with Munchausen’s Syndrome exaggerate any real symptoms they have, often insisting that physicians do very thorough examinations, procedures, and tests. They are often hospitalized, and they have a tendency to know a lot about diseases.
If you search this blog, you’ll find that I’ve already reviewed a couple of books about Munchausen’s By Proxy (MbP). One book was written by a woman who was raised by a narcissistic mother who constantly and deliberately made her ill so that she could get narcissistic supply from medical professionals. The other is a true crime book about a social worker who adopted two babies from Korea in the 1970s and deliberately made them sick, resulting in the death of one of the babies. Again, it was so she could get attention and regard from medical professionals, praising her for her devotion and dedication to her children. MbP is an especially horrifying disorder, as it’s often imposed on people who are helpless, like children, elderly people, or the disabled.
In British author Helen Naylor’s case, she was not a victim of her mother doing horrifying things to her physically in order to get attention. Instead, it was Helen’s mother, Elinor, whom Helen describes as a narcissist, who was making up illnesses and demanding attention from her family and friends. Elinor is now deceased, but Helen writes that her mother pretended to have chronic illnesses for about thirty years. Helen’s father, who predeceased his wife by some years, actually was debilitated with a serious heart disease. When he passed away, Helen, as the only child, was left to take care of her mother, whose constant pleas for attention and emotional outbursts caused real hardships for Helen, who was also married and raising two small children.
For years, Helen endured the constant dramas and stresses surrounding her mother’s mysterious illness, called ME in the book. I looked up ME and found it defined as myalgic encephalomyelitis, perhaps better known to us Yanks as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). CFS made a lot of news back in the late 1980s and early 90s. Elinor Page had supposedly contracted ME at around that time. The ME made it difficult for Elinor to care for young Helen, whom she described as a “difficult child”. Helen writes of her mother not having the energy to take her places or spend time with her. Or, so it seemed, anyway.
Throughout her life, Helen’s mother required her daughter to attend to her every need. She convinced many people that she was very sick, and Helen soon found herself being scrutinized and judged by other people, who expected her to take care of her mother. Most of those people never saw Elinor’s true personality. Most of them never saw Elinor when she was full of energy and fully capable of socializing and taking care of herself. They only saw the fake persona she put on in a pathetic bid for sympathy and attention. Elinor would do things like deliberately starve herself so that she looked sicker and weaker. She would stage falls near emergency pull cords and insist that she was in dire need of medical attention. She would get the attention, and nothing notable would be found. Elinor would demand full time “carers”, but she didn’t really need them. So she would call her daughter, who was very busy with her own life and raising her own children.
After Elinor died, Helen found her mother’s diaries, which she kept quite religiously. It was after she read them that Helen realized just how psychologically sick her mother was, even though she insisted that she was debilitated by ME and later by Parkinson’s Disease. Elinor did have mild Parkinsonism, which is not the same as the full blown disease. But Elinor wanted to be regarded as very ill, and she would do all she could to convince people that she was unwell and needed hospital care. I think it’s important to point out that again, this book is set in the United Kingdom, which has the National Health Service. So, while these repeated medical episodes would cost a lot in the United States, money to pay for Elinor’s repeated medical visits and hospitalizations was much less of an issue in England.
I’ll be honest. I found this book compelling, but kind of hard to get through. There were a few parts of the book at which I started to think I didn’t like it very much. But then, toward the end of the book, when Helen writes about the extreme drama her mother put her through as she was trying to raise her children, my heart went out to her. I realized just how incredibly toxic that situation was for everyone involved. Yes, it was very hard on Helen, her husband, Peter, and their two children, Bailey and Blossom, but I think it must have been very hard on Elinor, too. At one point, Helen writes an insightful comment about what had caused Elinor to behave in this way. She was desperate for attention, and must have felt she would die without it.
Of course, it’s easy to have sympathy for the person with Munchausen’s Syndrome when you’re not the person having to deal with their constant emergencies and pleas for attention, coupled with the angry tirades, dismissive hairflips, and outright dramatic scenes that come from narcissists. Having heard from my husband’s daughter about what it was like for her to grow up with a narcissistic mother, I definitely felt for Helen Naylor.
It really is tough when your mother is not a mom. And you are forced to grow up years before your time, taking care of things that children shouldn’t have to worry about. And that demand for duty continues even after you’ve come of age, left the house, gotten married, and have small children of your own to tend. In my husband’s daughter’s case, at least there are siblings– notably, her older sister, who has been recruited to stay home and take care of their mother and youngest brother, who is legitimately disabled. Poor Helen was an only child. And her mother had enlisted a number of “flying monkeys”– friends who were there to help do her dirty work, guilting, and grifting. Helen Naylor didn’t have a “mum”– as she put it. She had a mother who parasitically fed off of her own daughter– for narcissistic supply and to serve as an emotional punching bag. Later, when she found her mother’s diaries, she realized that not only had her mom been faking everything for decades, but Helen was also severely neglected as a helpless baby. She suffered an unexplained and untreated broken arm at six months old, and her mother would leave her alone for hours while she went out drinking.
When I finished My Mother, Munchausen’s and Me this afternoon, I came away with a basically positive opinion of it. It’s reasonably well-written and offers a different look at Munchausen’s. Again, most of the books I’ve seen about Munchausen’s are written about mothers who make their children sick. This book is about a woman who deliberately made herself sick or schemed to make herself look like she’d taken a fall. She fooled a lot of people, except for those who caught her when her facade had slipped. I would imagine that when that happened, it was also traumatic and embarrassing for Helen, who had to deal with the fact that her mother did this stuff. It’s pretty clear to me that Helen is normal and just wants to be a good mom and wife.
People who have to deal with narcissists often hear about going “no contact”. I’m pretty sure that Helen’s husband eventually advocated for that. Or, at least not coming right away when Elinor called. But it’s very hard to turn your back on your own mom. I’m sure that is what kept Helen trapped for so many years. Now that her mother is dead, Helen no longer gets the dramatic phone calls from her mother or people taking care of her mother or worse, finding out that her mother has been hospitalized or moved days after the fact. She no longer has to deal with her mother’s friends, trying to horn in on overseeing her mother’s care and take her things. The traumatic memories linger, however, and I’m sure she is still haunted by them. When I stop and think about just how much this must have been for Helen to deal with, it just blows my mind.
Anyway… I think My Mother, Munchausen’s and Me is well worth reading for those who are interested in psychology, narcissists, or unusual psychological disorders. I will warn that this book is written in a distinctly British style, so some of the terminology and slang may be foreign to American readers. Personally, I found this book kind of hard to finish, but I appreciated that it offers a different perspective of people who need attention so badly that they have to make themselves or other people sick.
It’s pretty clear that Elinor is primarily very narcissistic, but she has a number of other behaviors that augment that already unbearable personality trait. She has the Munchausen’s, but there are also elements of a potential eating disorder and perhaps body dysmorphic disorder, as well as depression and anxiety. She must have been a miserable person, and I am sure she was very miserable to be around. I hope wherever she is now, she’s finally resting in peace. And I hope writing this book helps bring peace and closure to her long suffering daughter.
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