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Social Media and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

This summer I realized I might be obsessed with criminal law. I worked as an intern at the Kanawha County Public Defender’s office, which was the greatest experience of my law school career. I loved being in the courtroom, interacting with our clients, and writing motions to exclude evidence. Even though I was eating and breathing criminal law 40+ hours a week at work, I caught myself obsessing over criminal law in my free time. I took up watching the original seasons of Law and Order, read nonfiction books like “The New Jim Crow,” and couldn’t put down multiple crime thriller novels until I devoured them in only a few days. One of my favorite crime thriller authors is Gillian Flynn. You might have seen the trailer for Gone Girl, a movie coming out in October starring Ben Affleck.


The movie is based on Flynn’s novel by the same name. Once I read Gone Girl, I had to read her other books—warning, they are all very, very addicting.

Gillian Flynn’s first novel is called Sharp Objects. The novel follows a newspaper journalist who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on a series of brutal murders of local preteen girls.

Spoiler Alert!

The journalist discovers that her preteen stepsister murdered the local girls because she was jealous of the attention her mother was giving them. The journalist also discovers that her younger sister’s illness and ultimately her death was caused by Münchausen syndrome by proxy. Crazy, right?!

According to the Cleveland Clinic’s website, Münchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP) “is a mental illness in which a person acts as if an individual he or she is caring for has a physical or mental illness when the person is not really sick.” The adult directly produces illness in the child through poisoning or lies about symptoms of a child under his or her care. The caregiver acts this way to get attention and sympathy given to ill people and their families. The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children considers it a form of abuse.

A case this summer put Münchausen syndrome by proxy in the news. Lacey Spears, a 26-year-old from New York, is accused of fatally poisoning her son. Prosecutors accused Ms. Spears of feeding her 5-year-old son toxic levels of sodium through a feeding tube in his stomach.

Lacey Spears

She’s been charged with second-degree depraved murder and first degree manslaughter. Ms. Spears wrote about her son Garnett’s illness on her blog titledGarnett’s Journey, had a twitter account, and was very active on Myspace. Days after Garnett was admitted to the hospital, he was found unresponsive on his back. An EEGdetermined he was brain-dead. Garnett was declared dead on January 23, 2014. Ms. Spears pleaded not guilty to all the charges in the indictment. If she’s convicted she faces a max sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

The Journal News, a newspaper in New York that serves the suburbs of New York City, did a five-day series called “Losing Garnett the Great.” Yes, I have read every word of it.

Investigators believe Spears was motivated to medically abuse her son because she got some much attention and sympathy through social media. She discussed Garnett’s illnesses on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog. With social media, Spears was able to tell more people about her son and gain sympathy from strangers.

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