Identity hoaxers and 'social Munchausen syndrome'

The Atlantic published an interesting piece today on the prevalence of identity hoaxers, i.e. people who claim to be another race in an effort to garner attention or influence. Author Helen Lewis points out that this phenomenon has a lot in common with Munchausen syndrome, i.e. people who fake illnesses and repeatedly go to hospitals for tests.

Baron munchausen lived an eventful life. He rode a cannonball, traveled to the moon, and was swallowed, Jonah-like, by a giant fish. When his horse was cut in two, he substituted a laurel tree for its missing legs.

You will not be surprised to hear that none of these stories is true. The 18th-century German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe borrowed the name of a real-life aristocrat for a series of fantasies. The actual baron, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen, had told tall tales about his military career, and his name became a byword for exaggerated claims.

In 1951, the baron’s name was used by the British physician Richard Asher to describe a syndrome that he claimed “most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written.” A patient would arrive at a hospital with an acute illness, but no cause could be found. The presence of a large number of abdominal scars, from investigative surgery, was one clue to physicians that they were in the presence of a faker. But otherwise, such patients usually managed to string along their doctors for days or weeks; it took, Asher wrote, a “bold” emergency-room doctor to refuse them admission.

And something similar seems to be happening with identity hoaxers. Last September I wrote about the strange story of Jessica Krug, an associate professor of history at George Washington University who suddenly wrote a long post on Medium outing herself. “I am a culture leech,” she wrote. She was in fact a white woman who’d been posing as black. Krug resigned her position at GW a few days later.

In today’s piece Helen Lewis points out there’s a longer history of people like this who take on identities that don’t belong to them, apparently just for the attention. Rachel Dolezal is sort of the ultimate example of this but, again, far from the only one. And arguably not even the most famous. Let’s not forget Sen. Elizabeth Warren who told Harvard and other employers she was Native American based on a story she’d heard as a child. Lewis points to the story of Binjamin Wilkomirski and Laura Grabowski, a pair who claimed they had survived the holocaust as children.

Wilkomirski had published a memoir of his childhood, called Fragments in its English translation, that detailed how he had been separated from his family in Latvia at age 3, and found himself in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. The story, told through the naive eyes of a child, recounted how he had been brought to see someone at the camp who he was told was his mother. She gave him a crust of bread before he was taken away. He never saw her again.

But none of it was true. Wilkomirski wasn’t Jewish and hadn’t spent any time in a concentration camp. Grabowski’s story was even worse. Her claim to be a survivor of the Holocaust not only wasn’t true, it wasn’t even her first such hoax.

Laura Grabowski wasn’t even Laura Grabowski. She was Laurel Willson, born in Seattle in 1941. Before claiming to have survived the Holocaust, she had posed as a survivor of satanic abuse, and had published a book on the subject, called Satan’s Underground, using the name Lauren Stratford.

Lewis goes over the similar social fraud of Alicia Esteve Head who had a very specific story about being in the World Trade Center on 9/11. None of it was true. In fact it’s not even certain she was in the United States at the time. There are many more like this:

You would be surprised at how many there are: the “pretendians,” who claim Native American ancestry, including the former Klansman who reinvented himself as a best-selling “Cherokee” author; the Syrian blogger “Gay Girl in Damascus,” who turned out to be a straight American man named Tom MacMaster; Scott Peake, who presented himself as a fluent Gaelic speaker from a remote Scottish island when he took over the Saltire Society, which promotes Scottish culture. (He was really from South London, and couldn’t speak Gaelic.)

What these people often have in common is, first, they are most often women and, second, the often have some genuine tragedy in their childhood that seems to motivate them somehow. Lewis argues that with the advent of the internet the possibility for pretending you are another identity online has only increased. Anyone can create a profile on Twitter and portray themselves as black or Asian or gay whether they are or not. So long as they know the right lingo, they might even get away with it for a while.

Last August I wrote about BethAnn McLaughlin, who made a name for herself online as a social justice warrior crusading for #MeToo in STEM fields. Her online persona was under the Twitter name @Sciencing_Bi. She presented herself as a bisexual, Native American. And then, in the midst of some push back online, BethAnn announced under her own name that @Sciencing_Bi had died of the coronavirus. And she also claimed they’d been lovers and that she was distraught over the loss. It turns out she’d made up the whole thing. The university said there was no such person on their staff and Twitter suspended both accounts at once.

Another example? Hilaria Baldwin, who is briefly mentioned in the story, comes to mind. She’s a white woman (born Hillary) who seems to have adopted a Hispanic persona including an accent and five children with Spanish names along the way.

Why do people do this? It’s usually not for money. It’s often for some kind of in-group authority and respect. Being just another woke white woman doesn’t go very far on social media these days, but if you can be Native American and gay, now you’ve got instant intersectional cred. Lewis calls it “social Munchausen syndrome,” faking social injuries the same way people sometimes fake physical injuries. Lewis concludes, “Right now, there are people out in the world claiming pain that isn’t theirs—and hurting others in the process.”