|Copyright Stephanie Wrobel|
For as long as I can remember, human behavior has fascinated me. So much so that, for a time, I considered becoming a psychologist. I quickly realized I was more adept at observing people than helping them solve their problems, but the interest lingered—particularly in society’s outliers. Geniuses, outcasts, liars, killers: I’m dying to know what goes through all of their minds, how they make sense of the world, why they’re so different from you and me (presuming, of course, you’re not a murderer).
I first learned of Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) from my best friend, who is an elementary school psychologist in Colorado. For those who are unfamiliar, MSBP is a mental health disorder wherein a caregiver fakes or induces illness in the person they’re caring for, usually a child, in order to get attention or love from doctors and nurses. My friend suspected a couple of the parents whose children she worked with have undiagnosed MSBP.
As she explained it to me, I was riveted, needed to know more. With a few clicks of the keyboard, I discovered that perpetrators of MSBP are usually women, often mothers. I was stunned—wasn’t the mother/child bond supposed to be sacred?
The answer was, apparently, not always.
I kept researching, poring over short- and long-form accounts of survivors, as well as news articles and a medical textbook. I examined MSBP in broad strokes, then began to build profiles of both perpetrators and survivors. From these general profiles I was able to establish a few traits my main characters had to have before fleshing them out to make them my own. I studied commonly faked illnesses, rigged lab tests, harmful substances to put in the bloodstream, and how real-life perpetrators trick doctors. These topics are not for the faint of heart!
One firsthand account in particular stuck with me: a memoir called Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood by Julie Gregory. Julie’s mother had MSBP, and Julie is the survivor of her abuse. In the book, she recounts driving home from the doctor’s office with her mom one afternoon. Her mother praises her for being such a good girl, says she deserves a treat—“here, have a lollipop”—and pulls out a box of matches. Julie was just a little kid and didn’t know any better. She ate the match, having no idea it was one of the things making her sick.
That image of a child sucking on a match has haunted me for years. What could possibly be going through the mind of a person to make them willing to do such a thing to their own daughter? It got me wondering about these women, these mothers: do they know that they’re lying to everyone around them? Or do they honestly think they’re doing what’s best for their children?
These questions were the impetus for my book—a story about mother Patty and daughter Rose Gold. Though the latter is the titular character, it was Patty’s head I first wanted to walk around inside. How would she behave if everyone discovered her deepest, darkest secret? Would she seek revenge on the daughter who betrayed her, who testified against her in court, thereby sending her to prison? Would she be able to stage a comeback?
I wondered, too, how that daughter would fare once she finally broke free of her mother. Would she flail or fly? How would she feel toward the mother who fussed over and adored her while also routinely poisoning her?
The hardest part of writing the novel was getting Rose Gold’s voice right. She was socially isolated for most of her childhood, so both her worldview and vocabulary are limited to what Patty has taught her. At the beginning of the novel, she has not yet learned social norms, colloquialisms or pop culture references, things the rest of us take for granted. I was constantly going back and rephrasing chapters so they sounded less like me and more like her.
Patty, on the other hand, came to me quite easily—perhaps worryingly so! Her voice is closer to my own, and she doesn’t experience much emotional growth throughout the novel. If you give her credit for nothing else, you have to admit: she sticks to a story. My goal in writing unlikeable characters is to try to make the reader empathize with them at some point—even if it’s for one chapter, one scene, one sentence. If I’ve laid the groundwork properly, that just might happen here. I can’t wait to see what readers make of Patty and Rose Gold Watts.
The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel. Published by Penguin Books. (Out now)
Rose Gold Watts believed she was sick for eighteen years. She thought she needed the feeding tube, the surgeries, the wheelchair . . . Turns out her mother is a really good liar. After five years in prison, Patty Watts is finally free. All she wants is to put old grievances behind her, reconcile with the daughter who testified against her - and care for her new infant grandson. When Rose Gold agrees to have Patty move in, it seems their relationship is truly on the mend. And she has waited such a long time for her mother to come home. But is she still the pliable young girl she once was? And is Patty still as keen on settling an old score? Because if mothers never forget then daughters never forgive.