Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood
Published September 3, 2003
244 pages (hardcover)
I really need to stop reading memoirs. As a rule. No matter how interesting the subject matter may seem, the memoir is inevitably terrible. And this book is no exception.
Sickened is a memoir about a chick who was, for years, the victim of Münchausen syndrome by proxy (at the hands of her totally loony mother). Münchausen syndrome by proxy (“a psychological disorder in which a parent and typically a mother harms her child (as by poisoning), falsifies the child’s medical history, or tampers with the child’s medical specimens in order to create a situation that requires or seems to require medical attention”) is pretty gross and creepy. The book, which is peppered with the author’s actual medical records from childhood, promised to be interesting—in a American Horror Story kind of way.
And, there is definitely a lot of creepy/crazy in there. An example:
I’d sit on Mom’s lap and rummage through her purse.
“You looking for the suckers, honey? Here, let me get ‘em for you.”
Mom pulls out a new book of matches and carefully bends back the cover to expose two fresh red rows of the minipops she’s been giving me for as long as I can remember. My mouth waters when I see their shimmery crimson tips. The first one is always the best, and I pluck it out and get it fast on my tongue, waiting for the metallic zolt to rush my taste buds. Once the hardest layer dissolves, I flip the match against the side of my teeth and crunch the softer bits off the stick, spitting the white flimsy paper to the floor, swallowing the rest.
But I should have heeded the warning signs. The jacket blurb proclaims that the book “speaks in an original and distinctive midwestern voice.” That, apparently (and, in retrospect, obviously) is publisher-speak for “is poorly written.” Admittedly, this book’s writing is nowhere near as bad as that in Coming Clean . . . but it suffers from similar faults (for one: jumping willy-nilly between past and present tense).
My biggest beef about the book, however, is that it hinted of inauthenticity. I’m a bad person for questioning a victim, I know . . . especially because I can’t pinpoint a particularly false-sounding paragraph or inconsistency. For me, the overall vibe of the book just seemed a little too overdramatic and, thus, made it hard for me to take it at face value.
Immediately upon finishing, I hopped online to do some research. I wanted to know what I could find out about the mom. The author uses real names (her own and her parents’), so I figured I could drum up some arrest records and such (not to ruin the book, but the end talks about how the author returned home after many years away “to prosecute my mother, to tell her secrets, to rip from her a veil burnt, sewn, crusted onto her skin”).
I didn’t find any mug shots or criminal records, but I did find this blog post from a guy who claims to have investigated the author’s mom’s claims of innocence and some of the book’s inconsistencies. He concludes: “Where the allegations can be checked they have been proved false.” I also found a posting here by Julie’s mother (the misspellings and such are in the original post):
I am Julie Gregory’s Mother, Sandy Gregory-Parocai. Julie wrote the book: “Sickened,Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood”. Totally unknown to me and without my permission the book used my actual name and pictures.Written as a true story the book has shattered our home and the well being of our two adopted children,Misty and Doug.To promote her book Julie flew from Ohio to Montana in 2003. She made a “Referall” to Childrens Services that she had been abused all her life by me and I was doing the same thing to our adopted children. Julie also presented herself as a graduate student of Psychiatry from Sheffield University, England. There is no Masters Degree for Julie there, nor did she graduate. Convinced that the children were in grave danger our children were immeadately taken from our home. Not only were Ed and I in shock but it terrified our children to be abruptly taken from the home that they had been in for 7 years. Both children were crying and terrified. Misty was 13 years old at the time and Doug was only 7 years old. I was put under a 90 day investagation and Ed and I only had “Supervised” visits with our children. Then there was the National T.V. Program and a write-up in a nationally known magazine makeing me out as a horrible child-abuser,a mentally ill person and a mother that had continually tried to take her own life. Capitalazing on the fact our children were taken from our home ,this was used as a GIANT COMMERICAL to promote Julie’s book. Meanwhile, Ed was hospitalized 6 days from the stress! The truth is that Julie was never abused to begin with. I have the court records showing she tried to accuse me of child abuse in 1986 to get out of being found guilty in a court of law for an offence that she committed. I was investaged then and found not guilty but Julie was charged as being an UNRULY child and sentenced accordingly. I have never been arrested for anything in my life,EVER!! I have never had a mental illiness or tried to kill myself,EVER!!The 90 day investagation by Childrens Services in 2003 here in Montana proved I was not guilty of Julie’s alligations. Our adopted children have THRIVED HERE since thier placement in 1997.I was not charged with anything in a court of law and our children were returned to Ed and I. But,2 years after the book was written, Julie is still trying to get our children removed from our home. This is terriozing our children as Julie is petioning Oprah Winfrey to use her “CLOUT” to remove our children. Misty and Doug are in counciling to try and help them cope with this. Julie petioned the Attorney General of our state and the Governor here too besides her web-site petition.No One has removed our children because, COULD IT BE THAT THERE IS NO ABUSE GOING ON HERE?? I will be happy to provide records to our innocence as well as recent pictures of our adopted kids if interested. Does anyone have any suggestions for us? I can prove that 90% of Julie’s book is untrue.
You can draw your own conclusions, but after my “research,” here is my take: Did Gregory embellish certain stories/details for dramatic affect? It’s certainly possible. But this is not a case of A Million Little Pieces (the book that was originally released as a memoir that became an Oprah’s Book Club pick and #1 bestseller . . . and then was exposed as having been fabricated). The mom denies the allegations of abuse . . . and who wouldn’t?! Münchausen syndrome by proxy is extremely difficult to diagnose, “because of the dishonesty that is involved.”
In short: The book is likely completely true, but it’s so poorly and dramatically written that it seems fake. Just as bad, if you ask me (and, honestly, probably worse).
Like many memoirs, this is a book that had potential. It’s certainly a fascinating topic. And the inclusion of medical records was somewhat interesting. But the overall tone of the book is extremely overdramatic, heavy-handed, and woe-is-me.
One of these days, I will learn my lesson and stop reading memoirs altogether.
- Best Book of the Year by The Sunday London Times
- Top Ten Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly
Who should read it: Don’t read this. Join me on my anti-memoir bandwagon.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Newbery Medal Award Winner in 2010; School Library Journal Best Book of the Year for 2009; IRA Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Award for Young Adult-Fiction in 2010; Indies Choice Book Award for Middle Reader in 2010; YALSA Best Books for Young Adults (Top Ten) in 2010)
- All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014 and New York Times best seller)