Column, Movie Diary

One tall tale: A story of Munchausen Syndrome

By Dom Cioffi

Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire fought 12 separate wars. These wars make up one of the longest series of military conflicts in European history.

Overall, these conflicts ended disastrously for the Ottoman Empire, which was stagnating as a world power. Conversely, the wars highlighted how Russia was ascending to a major position on the world stage.

One of these 12 wars was the Russo-Turkish War, fought between 1735-1739 in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

At the start of the war, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen, a young man from an aristocratic family, was sent to fight in the calvary. During the course of the war, he would rise from a low-level cornet to a lieutenant, proving himself to be an reliable battlefield soldier.

Münchhausen fought in a few other conflicts before finally retiring as a captain in 1750. He then returned home to live as a nobleman on his family’s estate until his death in 1797.

During his retirement, Münchhausen was famous for throwing elegant parties for area and visiting aristocrats. It was during these parties that Münchhausen made a name for himself as an outlandish after-dinner storyteller, by fabricating fantastical tales about his adventures during the Russo-Turkish War.

It was well understood that the allure of Münchhausen’s stories were not about the possibility that they were true (in fact, most understood that they were whimsical), but that his ability to orate was so charismatic. Nevertheless, throughout Münchhausen’s retirement, he was heralded as wildly entertaining by all who kept his company.

Eventually, in 1781, a young man named Rudolf Erich Raspe, who had likely met and dined with Münchhausen, wrote a collection of anecdotes inspired by the old man’s stories. This collection appeared in a German humor magazine and became very popular. Two years later, Raspe would publish a second collection of stories in the same magazine.

Due to the popularity of these stories, Raspe decided to create a short English-language book, eventually publishing it to low-level success. The book was published several more times before Raspe sold the ownership of the manuscript.

The new publisher completely rewrote the manuscript and added drawings so that it would appeal to a higher-class audience. They also added many new stories and even a sequel.

By the 1790s, “The Adventurous of Baron Munchausen” was a literary success throughout Europe. The book would reach the United States in 1803 and experience the same commercial success. Eventually the story would be adapted into stage plays, radio shows, and even Hollywood movies.

The real-life Baron Münchhausen was never keen on the book and looked to bring lawsuits against the publishers. He felt deeply that the book insulted his honor as a nobleman. At the end of his life, Münchhausen became a recluse, refusing to host parties or tell his famous stories. He died alone and childless in 1797.

Nearly 150 years later, a prominent British physician named Richard Asher (whose daughter, Jane Asher, briefly dated Paul McCartney of the Beatles), described and named a syndrome that he studied in his practice.

Munchausen Syndrome (today known as factitious disorder) is when a person feigns illness or psychological trauma in order to gain attention or sympathy from others. Patients with this disorder have a history of recurrent hospitalization and extreme tales of their past experiences.

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is when someone abuses another person (usually a child) in order to gain attention or sympathy for themselves. The desire to create symptoms for the victim can result in countless hospitalizations and numerous unnecessary corrective or diagnostic procedures.

This week, I watched a documentary called “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” where a child was victimized by her mother for over 20 years. The mother, Dee Dee Blanchard, convinced numerous doctors that her daughter, Gypsy Rose, was mentally retarded, paralyzed from the waist down, and suffering from a host of maladies. Because of this, she was able to procure a new home, trips to Disney World, and host of other gifts and contributions from duped agencies.

This is one of those documentaries that will have you completely transfixed. And the original premise doesn’t even begin to tell the full story, which is ridiculously unbelievable.

You can watch this documentary for free on YouTube, but you may also want to check out Hulu because they created a dramatic mini-series called “The Act” (starring Patricia Arquette), which follows the story of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter.

A sick “B” for “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.

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