We still don’t know exactly what happened in the Jussie Smollett case that has dominated the news cycle for the past week. What we do know is that after the Empire star revealed he was allegedly the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime, conflicting reports started to emerge suggesting that Smollett may have been involved in orchestrating the incident. Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, the two brothers who were originally considered suspects, both knew Smollett in advance of the attack and told Chicago police that they were hired by Smollett. After the Chicago PD announced they were “shifting the trajectory” of their investigation, Smollett said in a statement that he is “angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with” and that anyone claiming he played a role in his own attack “is lying.”
While it’s too soon to render a verdict on what exactly went down, if the case does prove to be a hoax, the ramifications are hard to overstate. As we’ve seen in the extremely rare cases involving false rape allegations, they serve as ammo for people looking to undermine the credibility of genuine victims (like clockwork, Donald Trump Jr. is already tweeting about Smollett’s story, in which his attackers were originally described as two men shouting, “This is MAGA country”). But what would motivate someone to pretend to be the victim of a hate crime? We called up Dr. Marc Feldman, who is not involved in the case but is an expert on factitious disorder and Munchausen syndrome by proxy, to learn more about “factitious victimization” — a disorder that causes people to feign victimhood for psychological reasons — and how it could come into play in the Smollett case.
What did you think when you first heard this case might be a hoax?
Munchausen syndrome refers to the most extreme examples of “factitious disorder,” which is the official psychiatric term for people who feign illness or injury for intangible reasons. Ever since I encountered my first case of a woman who faked cancer for emotional reasons back in 1989, I’ve obviously been more sensitive to that possibility than most people ever would be. I try not to falsely accuse people and that’s why I am approaching this subject with a little timidity. But when it does arise I think it’s important that we identify it and help educate the public about it.
This case made me think of factitious victimization because there have been some somewhat similar cases in the past where individuals have engineered their own apparent hate attacks, hate crimes, and it turns out the individual himself coordinated the whole thing. I first became aware of it in the context of the 9/11 attacks, where way more people claimed to have been victims than was conceivable. They claimed to be in the World Trade Center or they claimed to be first responders who suffered a lot of physical consequences. Some of them did it for money but there were also some people who seemed to do it just for the notoriety or the fame and the attention it would predictably attract. In my book Dying to Be Ill: True Stories of Medical Deception, I talked about a police officer who committed suicide but created a scenario in which it appeared he was a homicide victim in the line of duty, so he got a hero’s burial. That’s obviously an extreme case but he so badly wanted to be honored after his death that he contorted the situation to meet these emotional needs. And there are many other cases. I have studied factitious rape claims, and that’s another controversial area. The FBI says only about 5 percent of rape allegations reported to police are not true. But when it does arrive it can be extraordinarily disruptive.
As you said, it’s a controversial area; I think some people would argue that giving too much attention to these very rare false reports could be a way of sowing distrust about genuine accusations, which are much more common.
Of course you’re right. Even in a 1994 paper I wrote about it, it concluded by saying that even if a woman has a known history of deceptive behavior, new claims should be assiduously reviewed and analyzed as if they’re valid reports.
Is there a difference between cases where someone feigns sickness or feigns being the victim of a crime for a tangible gain like money or revenge versus more intangible aims?
If the behavior is deliberate in that the deception that has been planned and executed in a deliberate way in order to mislead other people, we would call that factitious disorder in most cases, or Munchausen syndrome. It used to be thought that all cases of Munchausen syndrome involved false illness claims. But in the most recent iteration of the DSM-5, they specify that people can feign illness, injury, or impairment. So, for example, there have been individuals who have faked being drug addicts because it has a certain cachet in certain communities like the rock music community, where you’re viewed as triumphant if you’ve been able to turn your back on such an addiction that in fact really didn’t even occur in your life. Malingering is the term we use when a person does it for tangible reasons like disability payments or opioid medications. And the two can coexist. With Smollett, there was at least the scuttlebutt originally that he was perhaps trying to ensure his continuing on Empire by presenting himself as a severe victim in another context, because it would be hard for the producers to let him go. And that would be malingering, if he sought to preserve his income, for instance. But if he also did it or did it exclusively for emotional reasons, we would call it Munchausen syndrome or factitious disorder.
Is Munchausen syndrome a mental illness that someone could claim in court, like as part of a “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense?
Yes. I don’t know of cases where that defense has succeeded, but the defense can be raised because it is an official psychiatric diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association has recognized factitious disorder since 1980 and it has actually expanded [the] terms of its definition.
You mentioned something called factitious heroism, can you tell me how that may be relevant here?
It’s the correlate to factitious victimization, and we often see elements of both. Jussie has been clear about his own victimization, but at the same time his heroism, and talking about how the attackers ran away and not him, because he fought back. So he’s touting his own heroism at the same time he’s proclaiming his own victimization. You see that in the choice of cancer as an illness to be feigned in Munchausen syndrome, because we often think of people who have moved on from cancer as survivors and fighters, which is admired by society.
Presuming he did create this alleged hoax because he wanted some sort of attention or sympathy, what’s the kind of psychological profile you’d expect to see?
It would be very unusual to have someone who has good social and verbal skills and is successful to engage in factitious victimization. What we usually see in these cases is a personality disorder, which is that the individual has long-term problematic ways of trying to get emotional needs met and so they resort to the victim status as a way to almost instantly get what they feel unable to get by asking for [it] in a straightforward way. We tend to see a lot of people with borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, and we don’t know all the reasons people develop those, but the Munchausen patients I’ve talked to often talk about emotional neglect as they are growing up, and as they got older their need to pretend to be ill to get attention grew more acute. They may have discovered that in childhood they only got authentic care when they were sick.
Were there things about this case that felt either typical or unusual to you in terms of a case of factitious disorder?
What’s atypical is Smollett’s success in life. Most of these individuals are not achievers, they don’t have many obvious talents, and the factitious victimization is an act of desperation, in essence a cry for help.
Can you think of any other cases where there’s been an alleged hoax of this sort with such a high-profile individual?
Not really. [If these allegations are true,] this case stands out in that respect. Does Mr. Smollett have this bottomless pit of need for attention, is there something about his personality structure that makes that the case? I don’t know, I would relish the opportunity to meet with him and talk with him about it.
If this does turn out to be a hoax, it would seem to set a terrible precedent that will make future victims of real hate crimes less likely to be believed.
I do think the residual effect of the Smollett claim is that we’ll be overeager to consider a claim might be false, and the right-wing advocates will make a big deal out of this; I saw one of the Trump boys has already posted. It’s a broad sociological and cultural concern. It is isn’t damage-free when someone invents a widely acknowledged hoax.