We live in an age, or if not an age a country, where seemingly novel disorders of the mind or body are given names that leave you in no doubt as to their novelty. Who would have thought, for example, that the 18th-century shooter of lines, Baron Munchausen, would one day have his place on the list of state-of-the-art ailments as the patron of something called Munchausen's syndrome by proxy? This is not the snappiest form of words that diagnosticians have at hand to scare a patient with; indeed, it trips so uneasily from the tongue that you wonder how often it actually gets said when the professionals confer on what they take to be cases of it. (Short Cuts being by definition compelled to brevity, the condition will here be reduced to MSbP.) MSbP is not an entirely new syndrome, but a recent extension of an earlier one, the bP having been tacked on by way of a postscript to what, under the headword 'Munchausen', the dictionary defines as 'a syndrome in which a person feigns injury or illness in order to obtain hospital treatment'. That's not something that the Baron himself was ever remotely guilty of so far as I know; a liar he may have been but a heroically implausible one, not even asking to be believed let alone hustled off into hospital. The proxy bit that is now used, if not to fine-tune the diagnosis then at least to confuse it, is potentially rather sinister, implying as it does that whoever's held to be suffering from MSbP feigns illness or injury on behalf of someone other than themselves: except that whenever MSbP enters the public domain, as it now quite often does, it seems to involve not the feigning of illness or injury in the someone other, but the infliction of an injury or even death on them.
LRB 7 October 2004 | PDF Download