I originally posted this review on Epinions.com. I reposted it on the original blog on May 13, 2015. I am reposting it again, as is. This is a fascinating story.
A person who has Munchausen syndrome deliberately makes themselves ill so that he or she is forced into a doctor’s care. People who suffer from Munchausen syndrome by proxy don’t make themselves sick; instead, they deliberately make their child sick. It’s said that both forms of Munchausen syndrome arise when a person has a bizarre need for attention from medical professionals.
It’s hard to imagine a loving parent intentionally hurting their child. It’s even harder to imagine such a parent working as a trusted social worker. And yet, Nancy Wright’s book A Mother’s Trial is about such a parent. In the mid to late 1970s, Priscilla Phillips was convicted of second degree murder for the death of her adopted Korean daughter, Tia. She was found guilty of deliberately making Tia sick by poisoning her with sodium which eventually led to the child’s death. She was also found guilty of endangering the life of a second adopted daughter, Mindy.
Priscilla Phillips met her husband, Steve, in the mid 1960s, when she was a student at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She planned to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and then go on for her master’s degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley. The Phillipses were able to meet Priscilla’s goals; after she finished her bachelor’s degree, they moved west. Steve got a job at a juvenile detention center and Priscilla earned her master’s degree and became a social worker.
The couple had two sons, Erik and Jason, but a medical issue required Priscilla to have a hysterectomy. Feeling that their family was still incomplete, Steve and Priscilla decided to adopt a baby girl. Tia was born in 1975 and at the time, there were a lot of Asian babies being adopted and brought to the United States. The aftermath of the Vietnam War made it especially popular for childless couples to adopt Vietnamese babies sired by American G.I.s. Steve and Priscilla had originally planned to do just that. But fate led them to Tia, a tiny Korean girl. As he held the baby just moments after her arrival from Korea, Steve Phillips was sure his family was complete.
But then Tia got sick. She had a fever and multiple infections that had plagued her since her arrival in the United States. She was vomiting and had explosive diarrhea. Priscilla took her to see a pediatrician and eventually Tia was admitted to Kaiser Permanente-San Rafael. The child suffered for months until she finally died, wasted by dehydration caused by diarrhea.
Suspicions arose when Steve and Priscilla Phillips adopted a second Korean infant, a daughter they named Mindy, in 1977. Mindy was not biologically related to Tia, yet she soon developed the same troubling and unusual symptoms and landed in the same hospital ward her older adopted sister had. By all accounts, Priscilla Phillips was a loving and devoted mother who was helpful to the staff taking care of her daughters… until she fell under suspicion for poisoning them.
Nancy Wright has done a pretty good job relating the complicated tale of a woman who had seemed so good doing the unthinkable. Wright, who has worked as an English teacher and a screenwriter, keeps this book conversational with dialogue and a writing style that sort of conveys an earthiness, especially on the part of Steve Phillips, whom she makes out to be a very simple, blue collar type of guy. She includes information on the court case that eventually put Priscilla Phillips behind bars, though there are no photos included in the Kindle edition of this book.
A Mother’s Trial was originally published in 1984, but was recently offered on the Kindle in a 2012 edition. As far as I can tell, A Mother’s Trial was not updated for the Kindle, except to clear up the educational details of one of the prosecutors. I was a little taken aback by how old this case was; I guess I didn’t read the book description very carefully before I downloaded it. Nevertheless, this is a pretty interesting case, since books about Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen syndrome by proxy tend to be somewhat rare.
Most of the time, true crime writers tend to take a decided tone against people who commit crime. Wright’s tone seemed almost sympathetic toward Priscilla. Indeed, even as I was finishing this book, I wondered if it was going to turn out that Priscilla had been wrongly accused. It wasn’t until she was sent away to prison that I realized she had been convicted, though I’m still not sure if she actually committed the crime. I realize this may be a turn off for some readers. Also, Wright has not updated the book with information about what happened to Priscilla. It’s been over three decades since her conviction. I wonder if she’s still in prison (ETA: I just discovered from a news article that she served four years).
I’ve read better true crime, but I do think A Mother’s Trial is interesting reading for those who want to learn more about Munchausen syndrome by proxy. I do wish Wright had updated this book, though, and would have appreciated some photos. For that reason, I give it three stars and my recommendation.
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