31 January 2005

Ghosts of Students Past

I think sometimes that the public must wonder how teachers don’t notice certain things about students. There are truly some terrible things that happen in homes—and as long as a kid isn’t vocal about it, it will definitely slip beneath our radar. Why is that? Don’t we care about these kids?

Of course we do. But being in a classroom is not as simple as shutting the door and getting to be each student’s mentor and guiding light. I wish it were that simple. Connecting with kids is the rewarding reason we keep coming back to the classroom. But as much as we might try, relationships with every single child are not built with every teacher. At the high school level, I have come to accept this, as I see that nearly all kids find one adult in the building with whom to identify. If I can’t be the best reason for a kid to be in school on a given day, there is someone else here who fulfills that need.

However, I have one kid in my past who has haunted my mind over the last two years. I love to read, both fiction and non-fiction, and I happened to pick up Sickened after reading a review. The author is a Munchausen-by-proxy (MBP) survivor.

According to http://www.mbpexpert.com/ MBP is a "label for a pattern of behavior in which caretakers deliberately exaggerate and/or fabricate and/or induce physical and/or psychological-behavioral-mental health problems in others. This pattern of behavior constitutes a separate kind of maltreatment (abuse/neglect) that manifests as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or a combination. The primary purpose of this behavior is to gain some form of internal gratification, such as attention, for the perpetrator."

In other words, a parent causes a child to be ill in order to gain some attention for themselves. Julie Gregory (the author of Sickened) had a parent who did these things (and continues to do them to foster children, believe it or not). Her memoir is powerful reading.

As I read the book, I was reminded of Lisa J., a student I had 7 or 8 years ago. She was a sophomore in my Honors Biology class; a soft-spoken blonde girl with glasses. She was ill a lot, which in and of itself, is not all that noticeable. I almost always have a student with health issues. But what sticks in my mind is an assignment I gave the class. They could either choose to research a genetic disease, or they could write about their own medical history. Lisa chose to do the latter. When she turned in the assignment, it was three full pages of tiny font, detailing all that had happened to her body since birth. For a 15-year old, she had a formidable health record. I was absolutely stunned to see all the medications she’d had and the hospital stays she’d endured. But instead of raising a red flag in my mind, it induced a great deal of pity. This kid had been through a lot.

I was always very sympathetic when mom would call and ask for homework. Gee, Lisa was out again. The poor thing. Mom was going to take her to Seattle to see a pediatric neurologist. She might have to have an operation. Or perhaps mom was taking her to Mary Bridge in Tacoma for testing. Mom even told me that she herself had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. What a tragedy for this family, I thought.

This pattern continued a second year, as I also had Lisa in my chemistry class. The second year, she was absent even more. I don’t believe she even attended our school as a senior.

Perhaps Lisa’s story was completely accurate, but after reading Julie Gregory’s book, I really have to wonder. Was Lisa a MBP kid? Had her mother been creating reasons for Lisa to spend so much time in doctors’ offices and in hospitals? These are the questions which haunt me. What could I have done for this girl, if anything?

I looked once on classmates.com and saw that Lisa was registered. I have thought at times about paying the fee in order to get her e-mail address. I just want to ask and see if she’s all right. I wonder if she might have advice for me. Maybe even absolution. But I haven’t taken that step yet and don’t that I will. For a girl whose been poked and prodded as much as she has been, maybe her adult life has given her a fresh start and no reason to look back. I certainly have to hope so.


Anonymous said...

No reason to look back? Wouldn't that be nice to survive MBP and then never look back. While I agree there is no reason for you to contact her now, it should be said that you did indeed fail Lisa by not reaching out a hand to save her, as did all the other "professionals" along the way. But it's just so much easier not to get involved in something so messy, isn't it?

Brian Morgan said...

When James Frey's memoir was exposed by The Smoking Gun as at least partly fabricated I dusted off the papers and photographs sent me by Julie Gregory's mother Sandy (who wanted help with rebutting what she said was a highly defamatory campaign against her and two adopted children) and took a close look at Sickened, starting at the beginning. By the time I had reached page 12 in my UK paperback edition I had found so many false claims that I actually sent the evidence to Random House US.

They wrote on April 26th 2006 saying they agree there are mistakes, they need correcting when a reprint is produced, but deny responsibility - they say Julie Gregory merely repeated what she had been told by her mother about the family history.

Sandy, her mother, says this is not true. Julie made it up. The book is supposed to be about Sandy's falsehoods - so why did the publishers not check with public domain documents, as I did, whether what was said was true or not?

Take just one damaging claim - Sandy's mother and her family came from backwoods West Virginia and practised incest. No - they came from Ohio as far back as records exist - and one branch actually part owned and ran a local newspaper there. How wrong can you get?

Well until Julie and the publishers do what Sandy has asked and produce the medical records for independent assessment we do not know. We know parts of the book are fabricated.

I say watch this space.