Features Nov 21, 2012 at 4:00 am

Why Would Someone Want to Fake a Serious Illness on the Internet?

Paul Hoppe


omg this makes me want to smash my computer to bits. people are so seriously disturbed. this enrages and sickens me beyond belief.
This was extremely interesting, thank you. It also explains why my sister was turned away from an online support group she tried to join when she was diagnosed with a disease not normally seen in people 50 years older than her. She told me they said they didn't believe her, and I was so sad for her. I thought that they were so horrible, I guess they were just protecting themselves from something that really does happen.
I mean a disease that isn't usually diagnosed until a person is 50 years older than her...
First and most important of all, best wishes Valerie.

I'm struggling to find the proper words for this other than, that's really, really messed up. The sick minds who cling to these falsehoods for their own selfish reasons have no idea the harm they're causing; and I doubt they would even care.

Blogging my experience with cancer quite possibly saved me mentally and emotionally while I was going through chemo. It was my support system.

So much happens not only to your body but also your mind. Not just the coping with what you're going through and mortality itself, but the chemo drugs seriously mess with you mentally (search on “chemo brain”).

Having to deal with any extraneous bullshit just adds on top of an already extremely difficult situation. To have your mind fucked with like that... I'm at a loss for words...

A very well done piece. Excellent job.
when someone manages to pull the wool over your eyes in such a deep way (which is easy to do when they have sociopathic tendencies -- they have the ability to make you believe that they shit gold. "of COURSE you shit gold!"), the after-effects can make you feel deeply shamed. and for a lot of people, shame = silence. of course, staying silent is a way of letting them have power still, and speaking out and telling this story is brave and awesome.
This is a really excellent article, Cienna. Thank you for delving into it.

Being a cancer survivor is something I don't talk about much exactly because I fear that people who didn't know me then will think I'm lying about it, or bringing it up for sympathy or attention. Despite the fact that it's probably the central defining experience of my life, I'd rather downplay it or keep it a secret than be suspected of that kind of attention-seeking behavior.

Best wishes of increasing health and happiness to Valerie and all her village.
Most of the crimes we commit against each other are not illegal.
Connecting online around health issues, especially mental health issues is really sketchy. It can be so helpful, but the trolls will beat you down.

Valerie - I wish you health and a long life. So sorry you had to deal with other people's crazy.
This is intriguing and beautiful and terrifying. Thank you for writing such a fluid, well paced article!
Wow, that was so good I actually forgot I was reading the Stranger.
This is just fascinating in a sort of horrifying way. It reminds me a bit of the Msscribe debacle several years ago in the Harry Potter fandom, only that person made up fake stalkers and fans in order to get attention from well-known people in the fandom.
When the internet was young, Armistead Maupin got sucked into an internet Munchausen drama. Later he wrote a fictionalized account of it, "The Night Listener."

Back when my children were young and I frequented mommy discussion boards, I ran across a couple of internet Munchausen liars. The worst was one who supposedly had a heart attack while reading our board, and then posted under other names as her sister-in-law giving updates and as someone supposedly unrelated trying to get everyone to send get well gifts as she was fighting for her life.
This is a riveting article. Thanks for it, Cienna.

Valerie, I hope that you continue to heal and grow stronger, away from the negativity of the internet,
As with people who claim more accomplishments than any normal human could possibly rack up, I tend to be very skeptical of people who claim more tragedies than seemingly any human could bear. A deaf, cancer-ridden, AIDS patient who had been raped as a child? The sheer amount of misfortune should raise red flags for most of us, but maybe that's the problem. A big lie is harder to disbelieve, especially since doing so makes you an asshole
Wow, Cienna, this is a stunning piece. I really feel a bit unhinged after reading this. And a little less safe.

Well done.

My God, it all makes sense now - Fnarf and Will in Seattle are the same person! Pompous academician and ignorant man-child in perfect apposition, they're his two covers.
@17: ZING!!!!
Great piece, Cienna, and a great service. Thanks.
My laptop needs a Silkwood shower. Lots and lots of scrubbing. I was riveted to the end of the article. Bravo and Huzzah to Cienna Madrid.
This was incredible and sad and creepy and a little bit beautiful. Amazing job, Cienna, thank you.
Frickin' awesome article, from someone who cyber-knows almost all the players in this drama and was internet-present for most of it. Well done.
Fantastic reporting.

Really? No one thinking that there's something wrong with everyone in this article?

Don't have enough friends in the real world? Need to blog/post all the time? Calling people friends you have never ever met? Falling for the exact same shit three times?
What did you do with your lives before you got sick?
Get a life. An authentic one.

Sorry for the cancer - all the best! I just doubt that it has anything to do with the underlying problems other than the platform it provided (blogs)...

I can't fight the feeling that this whole article is made-up, or Munchhausen, isn't it?
I'm only two pages into this, and I'm already thinking The Stranger's going to get another Pulitzer.
Valery was targeted by a sociopath. I say this with 100% certainty because my late brother used to do the EXACT same thing: he would choose a website to hit, then he'd create multiple accounts for trolling, making up stories that elicit pity from everyone, and scamming people. It's all about manipulation, control, and profit.

I HIGHLY suggest updating the article to mention sociopathy by name, and maybe even to ditch the disingenuous references to "The Lying Disease" and Münchausen Syndrome. Sociopathy isn't mysterious or hard to detect once you know what to look for – heck, I saw it coming by the bizarre "inconsiderate" and "Blah, blah, rant over lol :)" references Beth made – they aren't very good at attaching the right emotional words to things. Everything else only further confirmed it.
Valery was targeted by a sociopath. I say this with 100% certainty because my late brother used to do the EXACT same thing: he would choose a website to hit, then he'd create multiple accounts for trolling, making up stories that elicit pity from everyone, and scamming people. It's all about manipulation, control, and profit.

I HIGHLY suggest updating the article to mention sociopathy by name, and maybe even to ditch the disingenuous references to "The Lying Disease" and Münchausen Syndrome. Sociopathy isn't mysterious or hard to detect once you know what to look for – heck, I saw it coming by the bizarre "inconsiderate" and "Blah, blah, rant over lol :)" references Beth made – they aren't very good at attaching the right emotional words to things. Everything else only further confirmed it.
is there any chance the ups and downs of her involvement with the munchhauseners actually helped the real cancer patient?

wondering more about the gender aspect to the syndrome....why does this affect women more?
Amazing article. Let's hope the next DSM considers adding this disorder.
This phenomenon also reminded me of the spate of middle-aged female authors (RJ Ellory, most famously) who have been outed over the past couple decades for pretending to be young gay men with tragic life stories. Then there's cases like Gay Girl in Damascus, where people pretend to be bravely blogging from dangerous situations to draw attention and praise to themselves and their cause. Related manifestations of sociopathy, maybe?
@27: There's a lot of academic debate about ASPD vs Münchausen, not at least in part because mostly men get Dx with sociopathy, while mostly women get the Münchausen diagnosis. Are they the same thing, except with different techniques, or are they different? Too soon to tell.
@32: I've never heard of this debate – some Münchausen patients are sociopaths, while some are not. Syndromes only describe a set of symptoms that are shared by multiple underlying causes. However, sociopaths may also create multiple false personas with the intention of taking advantage of vulnerable people.
Cienna, I was gripped by this article. You've done an incredible job here.

@27, People with Munchausen need the attention on them--the sympathy, the energy, the concern. They specifically like to look like a beaten-down but valiant sufferer or victim. Psychopaths will manipulate others for whatever reason they wish. They do not want to look like victims unless it helps them to achieve some self-interested "goal." They also don't seem to experience fear in the same way and engage in reckless behavior.

There's lots of crossover between borderline, ASPD, and factitious/Munchausen. But they have their subtle differences, even if it doesn't really matter--very few of them want treatment and if they did, it's rare that it helps at all. Often, therapy just helps them learn how to feign genuine emotion better than ever.
@32 & @33: Maybe Munchausen's is a form of sociopathy? The narcissism and sadism mentioned in the article are both criteria for diagnosing sociopathy, at least as far as I understand it. And it seems like the people with Munchausens, like sociopaths, also lack empathy - how else could they wreak such havoc with others' lives?

Excellent reporting, Cienna.
Cienna, this was a fantastic article. Thank you!
Looked over a DSM yesterday. The crucial difference between factitious disorders and malingering (faking either physical or psychological symptoms) is the presence or absence of external reward. Psychopaths will malinger to get themselves out of a punishment. I think that if a psycho/sociopath thought that faking an illness could bring them money, sex, or help them avoid punishment, they'd do so. With factitious, there is no external reward. It's only about assuming the sick role.
It's all part of a spectrum of attention-seeking, isn't it? Compare it to alcohol use. Some sip socially, and some ruin their livers.
The interwebs is a crazy place. It can step up the addiction bone exponentially. Porn, shopping, trolling.

If attention is the ultimate goal, everyone here is guilty of seeking that, in a small way. Why comment at all if no one will read it? We all crave interaction. Will someone comment on my comment? The difference is what you're willing to say to get a reaction--whether it's just adding your two cents to the conversation, trolling with pointless but irritating comments (like, say, @25), flaming another commentor (and saying things you'd never say to a human being face-to-face) or creating an entire false life just to see what effect you can have. Most of us draw the line well before bat-shit.
Great article!
Blogs as support groups?

I'm wondering if an unstructured venue is really a good place for this function. Support groups are fine. But there have to be rules and mediators to ensure that one or more members don't drag everyone down a black hole of grief and tragedy. And without serious training or experience, I don't think that a sufferer is in a position to evaluate motives of other group members objectively and keep the focus headed in a constructive direction.

I have no direct experience with people recovering from such devastating diseases. But I have pitched in to help friends over things like divorces. And I have observed the existence of 'tragedy addicts' that look for victims to suck down along with them. Its a lifestyle for such people. Whether they manufacture an ailment, exaggerate one or whatever. As one of the 'normal, well adjusted' friends, part of my job is to beat these losers off of my suffering buddies until they get back on their feet.

the answer is easy....they are attention seeking morons....like the people who write for the stranger
Fascinating (and disturbing & creepy story). So sad that we have this sickness in our society.

I know someone who had a Munchausen by Proxy parent (who poisoned her to make her sick). Now she (the victim) also has an honesty problem.
This was disturbing to read, and at the same time I couldn't believe what I was seeing! The world is sometimes a scary place...made up of sick people, with no concern for others. I suffer from a "mental illness", but still don't fathom how people can do this? God help this world!!
@38, you bring up an interesting point. You highlight the precise differentiating quality between normal behavior and pathology (drinking responsibly vs. having no control/it ruining your life). In illness and in life, everything is a spectrum. Wanting human social interaction and attention is natural--needing attention so desperately that you install catheters and IVs into yourself is not.

I do think that regular trolls like 25 do have issues, but aren't full blown bananas. They fling their insecurities at the world through scathing comments which remain conveniently anonymous. They get to fulfill the sad piece of themselves which feels gratified by tearing others down without showing their faces.
Well written piece, very disturbing concept. I've not read from this site before though.

Lies in general destroy. They break links between people; they complicate, slow or even stop communication; they are, to humanity, worse than what water in a gas tank is to a modern car engine. The proliferation of them damns us as a race to be far less than we could be. As evidenced by this article, they can sometimes even injure or literally kill individuals or entire groups. Ultimately, I say they profit no one, not even the teller.

But I'm saying nothing new, and nothing that will fix the problem.

I believe the only thing that has a chance of fixing the problem is the realization that there is One who sees all truth and knows all lies for what they are. As I don't know all, I am glad it's not my job to go after those who poison our streams of communication. But to those who do, I leave this remark, which I have posted elsewhere before:

No one can wage war and win against the enemy whose ally is truth, for the strongest ally of truth is time itself.

In other words, eventually, all lies - ALL lies - fail. There are zero exceptions.

Ad gloriam Dei.
I'm not above asking... what is the real name of "Alex?" This piece is fascinating, and I'd love to poke around for more on her.
I'm not above asking... does anyone know the real name of "Alex?" This story is fascinating; I'd love to poke around the internet for more about her.

These young women in the story seem to want to control the emotions coming their way, and to be exceptional, when their lives are ordinary. They are most certainly just sad, mentally ill women, without a lot of defined self worth. It is awful that people have to take things said on the internet with a grain of salt, and not as totally truthful, but as painful as it is to believe, there are always going to be a certain number of people who simply cannot be trusted, and since the internet is world wide, that number, as small a percentage as it may be, are all going to be able to focus on what brings them the most attention the quickest. This may be faking an illness or disease.

I guess the real answer is to assume that until you get it confirmed in person, people may just be telling stories to get attention, much like the three year old who saw the dragon in his bedroom. It may be a specific mental disorder, or simply the manifestation of one already well known, with only the connectivity of the internet being a new factor.
These young women in the story seem to want to control the emotions coming their way, and to be exceptional, when their lives are ordinary. They are most certainly just sad, mentally ill women, without a lot of defined self worth. It is awful that people have to take things said on the internet with a grain of salt, and not as totally truthful, but as painful as it is to believe, there are always going to be a certain number of people who simply cannot be trusted, and since the internet is world wide, that number, as small a percentage as it may be, are all going to be able to focus on what brings them the most attention the quickest. This may be faking an illness or disease.

I guess the real answer is to assume that until you get it confirmed in person, people may just be telling stories to get attention, much like the three year old who saw the dragon in his bedroom. It may be a specific mental disorder, or simply the manifestation of one already well known, with only the connectivity of the internet being a new factor.
Sorry about the duplication of the comments, I'm new.
My husband died in a car accident when I was 8 months pregnant and also had our 15 month old daughter. I was completely lost. In shock. Out of my mind with grief, with no close friends or family to turn to. In desperation I went to two different grieving sites, hoping for a live chat room in my hour of need. I only found message boards. So I posted and pleaded for a kind word, support, anything to help believe the sun would still rise without my husband. They said I was a fake and chased me away like witches with brooms. Talk about kicking someone while they're down! I thought I was at rock bottom, but they showed me there was another rock bottom ever further down. Six years later, I have survived, with two beautiful smart and healthy children, but a big F U to all the fakers who ruin it for people in desperate need of support. Your games are not a joke.
My friend Janice Erlbaum wrote a book.........which has a surprise ending involving a teen runaway, that she befriended. It turned out that the girl was a serious case Munchausean. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the same gal. I know there's many. But not many that play their game so broadly. Sorry to spoil the surprise ending for all, but I don't think anyone here was planning on reading it otherwise, if they have they have done so already. So read "Have You Found Her" for an amazing factual story of a girl who called herself "Sam"......not much different than a shortened girl name that becomes a boys name "Alex".....both are completely false names. So we may have a connection here.
When I was around 15 I assumed an internet persona and talked a lot about her life as bullied and depressed, sometimes hinting at a past rape, all to get attention. The thing was, the moment I realized that this persona actually had people CARING about her, people who were upset and angry and sad to read about her suffering, and who genuinely suggested ways of supporting and helping her, even going so far as to offer to travel to meet her... well, I was horrified and ashamed by my own behaviour, officially outed myself on that internet forum, and apologized to everyone I had lied to.

I've always known that I have a tendency to fake not feeling well - to a much smaller degree than cancer, but as a way of getting attention nonetheless, and at that point I realized how deceptively easy the internet made it to act in such a way. I guard myself every day even against the smallest of lies, because I know those are what lead to the big ones. Because I don't want to hurt people ever again just because I selfishly crave attention and affection.

It sickens me to see how these people have acted - and towards people who are genuinely ill, at that - and that they don't seem to stop unless called out... and not even then, in some cases. I may have some problems that make it easy for me to lie, but I still have a conscience, and I know that faking for attention is WRONG, and something I actively have to work with so I don't hurt people. But these people... they don't even seem to care. How DARE they? Having a mental disorder might be a reason, but it sure as hell is not an excuse.
Valerie seems to be an exceptionally strong and beautiful person and that - beyond all this BS from mentally unstable women - is the best part of this article.
As a Seattle transplant myself with some similar stories, I can only wish her the best. Full remission, continued support and to be back on the Burke Gilman by Spring!
This just, it breaks my heart, really.

I remember following some of the people mentioned in this article and I recall when this all started to happen. It was sickening then, and it has the same feel now. I can put the real names to the fake names and I just cannot, and could not ever understand why someone would feel the need to fake cancer.

I do not have cancer, but I have other health issues that I blog about and even those are occasionally questioned by those who follow me. It's sad but it's so hard to trust people. A support system would be lovely but my sanity is more important.

My prayers go out to Valerie. Dear, I do hope that things continue to improve for you. Chin up, sweetheart.
this is probably a great biz oportunity for a mental health prfessional to make a moderated, verified and subscription based peer support group(s) business online. password protected, logins, etc. have an association of peers who could verify IDs and medical diagnosis - maybe paid interns to do that legwork? create a safe space for people who need to share their experiences etc.

and, btw, is anyone really that surprised by scams, imposters, fakes and frauds on the internet anymore?
@37: That's why Münchausen by internet is so complex. There *is* an external reward. The reward is attention, care and concern from strangers. So, is Münchausen by internet a breed of factitious disorder or closer to ASPD? Still lots of questions.
Wow, Cienna. Really great article. Thanks.
Fantastic article Cienna! What an intriguing subject. Great job!
This kind of behavior has gone on in disabled communities for so long, it's not even a surprise to me anymore. It's only gotten worse with the internet. As the article says, it makes it so easy to do. You have to be constantly on your toes for checking new people for faking when they join your online community. Hell, I'm afraid to join new disabled communities online because I have a bunch of unrelated things that disable me, and that kind of stuff is a tip-off to lying.
Excellent article, and absolutely spot on in describing how those with this mental illness operate, and the devastation they leave in their wake.

I have first hand experience with this - in person, not online - in a former friend. She had a long history of presenting mysterious medical ailments. The worst symptoms always manifested when she was alone, though her friends were treated to the full descriptions after they picked her up from the doctors office or emergency room (and always at the curb, never inside).

Eventually it boiled down to ovarian cancer - a disease with mysterious and inconsistent symptoms and a high mortality rate. While our friend was in the grips of this disease, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, at age 38.

As my wife went through agressive chemotherapy treatments at the same cancer clinic our friend said she attended, we saw more and more in our own direct experience that contradicted what we had been told. It became increasingly apparent that our friend was faking it all, and had been for years.

My wife's cancer spread to her liver. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she died.

Through it all - my wife's diagnosis, treatment, decline, and death - and after, our friend maintained her fiction. Although we had gradually cut her out of our lives after we learned of her lies, she still kept trying to contact us and to seek support in her "illness" from us.

The only reason I can say I don't hate my former friend is that I realize that while she didn't have cancer, she still sick. She had, and has, a mental illness that I believe has blighted her life far more severely than she blighted mine.
spam on aisle 54!
I've never been so passionate about an article before to read it in the paper and come online just to comment on it, but I had to for this one.

THANK YOU for this, for the past 4 years I've tried to make sense of what was going on with someone I thought I was close to, and this article put a similar situation of what I went through so elegantly.

While I didn't suffer from a life-threatening condition like Valerie, my college roommate who I lived with for 3 years had Munchausen's. Her various lies over the years: she was in remission from esophageal cancer, her cancer had returned, the cancer was because she had bulimia, she had a brother (that died in both a car accident and from a drug overdose- 10 months apart, as told to two different friends, she had gotten in to Harvard, her sister and her husband got in a horrific car accident, her father got in a horrific car accident and it goes on and on and on an on. As the article mentioned about those with Munchausen's being obsessed with the medical system, she just started nursing school in September.

I've struggled for years to express my anger and deep, deep resentment I feel for this woman, and this article gave me so much reassurance that I'm not alone in being devastated by people like this. I try to explain to friends how hurt I was, but unless you are directly affected by someone with Munchausen's, it's hard to understand.

Again, THANK YOU, this article is so incredibly meaningful to me.
What an incredible article. Pass on my best to Valerie please. I will definitely be reading more articles by Cienna.
I wish I could hug Valerie...I've dealt with some messed up shit on the internet, but nothing like this. It's horrible that she had to take her blog down. I would have liked to have read it.

Valerie...if you ever read this...I hope you realize that your story matters.
In related news, I just finished Person 4 The Golden
@25: Really? People go to internet support groups when their friends aren't really up to the task, usually because they don't know what to say.

This is a really sad illness, but I think it's kind of an outgrowth of teenage/young adult tendencies in general. When I was a teenager, I lied about things all the time- never huge things like a terminal illness, but little things- claiming I'd had ex-boyfriends when I hadn't, claiming I'd been in more fights than I had been, things like that. As someone said above, it was a function of wishing my "boring" life was more exciting than it was. I was both an insecure teenager and very depressed. Essentially, I was under the impression that my real experience wasn't good enough to admit to people, so I had to embellish it to make it interesting enough to talk about.

This is merely speculation, but I wonder if I would've been okay with faking illness if I hadn't actually dealt with a lot of death already. I find lying about terminal illness horrifying, but I wonder about people who haven't been close to it and have only really experienced it as something dramatized in fiction.

Maybe some of these people are sociopaths, but I can't help thinking that they might be people with incredibly serious insecurity. Beth seemed like the former, while Alex seemed more like the latter- every time she was caught in a lie, she'd get suicidal? Sounds to me like she thought a life in which no one thought she was extraordinary wasn't worth living. Maybe she'll grow out of that.
Amazing article - bravo!

As a cancer surv-just kidding...I've been lucky enough not to have to fight for my life yet. While I personally highly value/appreciate stoicism and humility, it saddens me that those who HAVE can be made to feel an extra burden of wariness and even guilt if they dare to discuss their own very real problems.

I empathize with those who have mental issues as well and would just try to urge them to "do no harm". We all have some burdens...let's just try to keep them from crushing each other, eh?
@58, it's not that a person with factitious disorder couldn't also meet the criteria for ASPD, but I think it's unlikely. Psychopaths usually wind up in jail, dead, or are wildly successful. This is thanks to their fearlessness and willing to manipulate anyone to get what they want, without remorse. And by "external reward," I mean something tangible. Like, we all want money, sex, and power, but a psychopath will do whatever it takes--even destroy lives--to get it. Most people don't want others to be worrisome over them or to care for them 24/7 the way someone with a factitious disorder does.

Also, that whole thing where they are ashamed of getting caught in a lie? Not so in ASPD. For them it's "well, everyone's out for themselves anyway," or some superficial rationalization of their lies. Also, the "can't-stand-if-people-hate-me" attitude is a sign of a fragile, maladjusted person with factitious. Someone with ASPD doesn't give a shit who likes them, only that others give them what they want. A psychopath won't get suicidal if people reject them. I think they're largely different disorders that manifest themselves for different reasons.

I've gotten so wrapped up in the psychology of this all that I haven't yet to say that I wish Valerie a full recovery and a beautiful life. She is a strong person, and should be proud to tell this story which very much needed to be exposed.
Floored. Incredible article, Cienna.
As the victim of a fabricated, nearly fatal car crash involving a moose, I want to thank for you opening my eyes to the damage liars can cause. Thank you.
Relax guys.
All these "Syndromes" are simply aspects of the human being, part of what we are.
Everyone is made up of them.
It is only when one of these aspects begins to control our lives that it becomes a "syndrome".

In order to survive, life will try every possible permutation (You,yourself, are the result of only one of life's uncountable attempts to survive.) so some people will be on the extremes and some will be so normal (and so seek to be that they will drive a grey car on a grey road on a grey day and still not put on their lights) because they don't want to be noticed.
All these new "syndromes" are simply people noticing another facet of the diamond that each and every person is.
It's all about through which facet YOU choose to look at them, their life, what choices they were offered and what choices they made.
I just want to remind people that this is not confined to the internet. Been there, done that. One of the things I noted - looking back on it, was that she burned through friends. She would find someone that would believe her, and help her with everything, then when that person figured out she was lying and stop listening she would just find another friend to take care of her.
I would like to point out that, as a cancer survivor and (obviously) a former cancer patient, I was able to live a life mostly uninterrupted by my treatment. I stayed in school full-time, lived in a dorm apartment, and had my infusions outpatient. I was a bald, but otherwise functional and indistinguishable-from-normal student. These liars scare and hurt me for many reasons, but to judge whether a person is "sick and telling the truth" or "healthy and lying" based on their appearance or their ability to participate in everyday life is discriminatory against people with invisible illnesses. Many disabilities and serious, chronic illnesses have no visible signs and symptoms. Please, please do not judge, harass, or condemn people based solely on what you believe a "sick person" should look like. Get to know people and their struggles before you pass judgment.

check this out for some insight... written by a sociopath.
fascinating writeup. I've heard of people faking illness on the internet before but the fact this one actual cancer survivor kept running into--and being run over by--fakers, it was like watching a train wreck in slo mo.

Also if people are interested in more internet liar/fakers of epic proportions, just google "Amy Player" and be prepared to make popcorn. There's a classic.
Great article, Cienna. Well-researched, well-balanced and well-put-together. The topic has since sparked some lively and intriguing conversations with friends (which, in my opinion is a reflection of a fantastic piece.) Please keep it up!
Reminds me of Gina "Gigi" Silva, the knitter who faked her own death on the internet... only to "come back to life" a year or so later as a beauty blogger named "Georgiana Grey". Gross.
@57 - the problem with that idea is that illness support boards become overrun with people who have/claim to have functional somatic disorders like "fibromyalgia", "chronic Lyme", "chronic fatigue syndrome".

They self diagnose, or get doctors to diagnose them, which is easy because there are no tests that can prove or disprove it. Diagnosis is made purely on the basis of invisible symptoms described by someone whose blood tests and scans show nothing but an absence of physical evidence. The "diagnosis" for fibro is to push on someone's body in certain places (helpfully mapped everywhere online!) with enough force to blanch the thumbnails (try it on yourself. Hurts, no?). If they express that it hurts, then they are diagnosed.

So you'd be paying interns who'd have nothing to check but whether someone either had clean tests and was faking, or had clean tests and "suffered from" fibromyalgia/chronic lyme/CFS etc.

Every disability support group essentially gets swamped with their pity parties. "But You Don't Look Sick" was an amazing support for people with invisible chronic (often potentially fatal) illnesses like Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, AVM, Chiari Malformation, Crohns, Coeliac Disease, IIH, diabetes, Epilepsy, Sickle Cell Anaemia, etc.

Now? It's the world's biggest functional somatic disorder cry-in. It's useless if you suffer one of the problems I listed, because (as with every other online support group) even if you post in the forum specific to your illness, an FSDer or 40 will pop up and say "OMG I have that symptom, should I get tested for that?", often adding it to the looong list of "diagnoses" in their forum signature anyway. Or, they hog threads with things like "Well I don't have cancer/MS/HIV/Lupus but I know exactly how you feel" or "I wish I had [potentially fatal disease], it would be better than what I've got".

If you ignore them? They "die", or their "mother" posts saying they're in a fibro-coma or something.

It's like playing Whack a Mole. Most of us give up, suffering quietly, not wanting to post about our struggles in case someone lifts our words and claims them as their own, for sympathy.

Nowhere is safe. Fakers and FSDers are like bedbugs. Everywhere, unkillable, irritating and parasitic.
mtnlion - thank you for adding your additional thoughts, they helped as much as this article did in making sense of nonsense.
Just so you know, a quick google search finds that "Valerie" is Melissa Nicole "Nikki" Mickey... and "Alex" is some chick named "Cara Goodman."

Nikki/CatsNotCancer seems pretty open to honestly talking about it anyway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9C046j_f…

I'm being serious when I say "quick" search: I googled "Kimya Dawson fake cancer" and this was one of the first results.

I'm just thinking, if you're really trying to protect their identities, maybe give fewer details...?
@83, As I state in the beginning of this article, because this story takes place online, most of it is public record and thus searchable. I changed the names of many of my interviewees to make them more comfortable. Fictionalizing the details would not only be totally against my rules as a journalist, it would be a pretty heinous thing to do given the nature of the subject: Lying.

But I suppose you've proven your mastery of Google, so congratulations there.

@83, you're the one who broadcast these people's real identities on Slog for all to read. Let's not get confused here.
This would make a great movie. Such a movie would be a great public service and a potential thriller. Consider it.
Sounds like a great plot for a movie. An informative one and a potential thriller. Think about it.
I'm a friend of Valerie's and helped her uncover hoaxer number 2. I think the lesson I learned from all the hoaxers that went after her is that sick individuals will do whatever they can for attention, validation. And it's made me very distrusting toward any other illness bloggers. If the story seems to be too good to be true or too grandiose, then probably not true.
Wow.. I've never heard of that disease before. I have heard of people that create fake accounts and pretend to be other people, but not this. It really sucks to be sincerely caring for others but finding out they were full of lies. It's also very scary how much drama they cause (I almost feel that 'internet troll' is an understatement!) Great article though.
It did strike me odd that someone who had been so duped would go for it again and yet another time...but when you are cut off from face to face social relationships the interweb does seem to take on much more importance.

I became a member of the 'young widows' site. (Yay, fuck you 2009, lost my mom same year).
But point being there was SO much craziness there, it was almost good distraction. I did actually meet a couple of awesome women, one of whom I met in person.

Anyhow, it's a great topic because we all have met liars in real life and sometimes missed the red flags at first. The internet just adds that web of believability, and the willingness to open yourself up.
There's a reason your shrink (ok, well maybe not everyone has a shrink) wants to see you in person.

More articles like this please!! Loved it!
As a student at Ball State University in Muncie, IN in the early 2000s, a woman named Brooke(lyn) Walters lived in my dorm. She was the first person I had ever heard of who faked cancer. She did it well, and without the social media we have today. Google Brookelyn Walters to see the trail of devastation she has left, much like these women. I vowed never to forget her name because I was so disgusted that someone could exploit something so awful for their own financial gain. She fooled so many giving, trusting people. And she's been doing it for almost 10 years now, maybe longer.
Glad to hear that Valerie is feeling better.

I can understand feeling hatred toward someone who's personally duped you or scammed money from you -- especially during such a vulnerable time in your life -- but as a reader, I feel compassion for all parties involved here. As others have noted, while these young women didn't have cancer, they're clearly sick, and that sickness has taken over their lives and alienated eveyone around them. They'll be lucky to ever develop a healthy, authentic relationship with anyone. Sounds like a very lonely life.
Is says this article has been updated. Anyone know where the "update" is?
@93, in the original version of the article, one line read: "Alex admits that she posed with a picture of a lifelike doll with a feeding tube months prior--incidentally while pregnant." In our interview, Beth had told me that she saw the picture on Alex's Tumblr blog after Alex announced her pregnancy (which Alex confirmed). After the article's publication, Alex contacted me to correct the record--she had proof that the photos had been taken *before she became pregnant. In light of that, I struck "incidentally while pregnant" from the online version of the article.

That is the only correction made to this piece.
A fascinating read! I feel terrible about what happened to Valerie. It's hard enough to deal with cancer, but to have people mess with you on top of that is so incredibly cruel. All my best wishes to Valerie for a long, cancer free, drama free life.
Please give Valerie my best wishes. I pray that she is still in remission and feeling better every day. It's unfathomable to me that one could go through such a serious illness and be threatened by outside forces at the same time. Insane! I hope Valerie is well and the nightmare is behind her.
I have a sister whose behavior is somewhat reminiscent of this. But after looking up "narcissism" I came across something that seemed to fit her a lot better--Histrionic Personality Disorder. Factitious disorder is one of many symptoms with HPD. It's number one characteristic seems to be an addiction to attention. Just thought I'd throw that out there for anyone who is having an ongoing problem with a drama queen/king in their lives.
I've personally run into this, not on the net, but in person. In the tiny town where I live and work, I've run into two Munchhausen's women. What are the odds of that?! One was claiming she had "terminal cancer", yet when confronted had not seen a doctor or had chemo or anything else (?). We later found out she was up on bad check charges and had a lot of dysfunctional family stuff going on.
And the other was a co-worker who claimed to be a former scrub nurse, and who had a continuous series of "health problems", but whose narrative of those problems never quite added up. She subsequently quit, saying she didn't want to "work that much", but soon was managing a convenient store in the next town (?).
That's how you know someone has this mental condition - the stories never add up.
I don't think it's true that therapists aren't aware of Munchausens or don't recognize it when they see it -- it's in the DSMIV, you learn it in any psychopathology class, and it's one of the interesting disorders that is likely to stick in your mind. I think rather, that people with this disorder are unlikely to seek mental health treatment, when they do seek treatment, as noted, there is a whole host of co-occurring disorders which may take priority, and finally, there are currently no good treatment protocols for the disorder.

this is just men's right's advocate material trying to convince us that all women are lying about rape and getting sick. what trash journalism

I've seen so many attention whores and drama llamas lying about illness/rape/dead parents/whatever that my first reaction to someone claiming shit is that they're full of BS until proven otherwise. It's that common. Just poke around deviantART or tumblr or whatever long enough and you're bound to run into someone crying about how their friend (who looks suspiciously like them) committed suicide or how they were totes raped by their creepy neighbour lol or how they're a female-to-male transgender begging from random strangers online for top surgery or whatever but are suspiciously comfortable parading around in dresses and makeup and mysteriously doesn't show to any gender therapist appointments made for them by online friends (hell, people claiming to be transgender are so common right now they've garnered the nickname "transtrenders").

Yeah, I know it's cold, but when someone's lifestory sounds more like a bad wangsty Mary-Sue backstory than the experiences of a real person, they're gonna have to prove to me they aren't full of shit until I even begin to believe them.

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