True horror of tall stories: Cal McCrystal has come across the warped world of Munchausen's syndrome before

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The Independent Online
ONLY when the case against Beverly Allitt had progressed to the point where Munchausen's syndrome was mentioned did I think of Edith and the disturbing story she related nearly 10 years ago. I am unqualified to determine whether or not Edith, then a London social worker, was a Munchausen victim. But, having followed the Allitt case, I felt instinctively that she was. A telephone call last week to Dr David Enoch, a consultant psychiatrist who has studied Munchausen's for 30 years, confirmed my suspicions.

Edith (not her real name) was introduced to me by a mutual friend, whom I shall call Joan, also a social worker. Edith was self-consciously cheerful at times, but given to quiet periods. Once, I put her silence over a dinner at my home down to pain in her bandaged arm, the result, she said, of a silly accident. On one occasion she had a black eye which she attributed to a careless encounter with a door. On another both her wrists were bandaged.

I only learned later from Joan, in whom she confided, more about the story behind her injuries - or, at least, what seemed to be the story.

Edith told Joan that she had been raped by her father. The assaults began before she entered her teens and continued after she had left home and moved into her own flat. Edith, now in her thirties, was still being raped regularly and ruthlessly. Whatever she did, she could not avoid being waylaid by her elderly parent. She would park her car, walk to her flat and insert her key in the front door. Herfather would appear from behind a wall, bundle her into the hall and rape her on the stairs. He would punch her, sometimes blacking her eyes. He would twist her arm up her back, tearing muscles and breaking her fingers.

On one occasion - according to Edith - her father grabbed her on the street, threw her into his car, drove her to Highgate Cemetery and raped her among the gravestones. On another, he took her to Hampstead Heath - in daylight - and raped her there before beating her up.

Appalled, I asked what the police were doing about it. Joan said Edith had been told she would be killed if she informed the police and that her father had brought along a 'friend' - a younger, very muscular man, - to underline the threat. Later, Edith tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists.

Edith told Joan that she had decided to go to the police, though only after Joan had threatened to call in the police herself. According to Edith, the police asked her to be a decoy; to walk near her father's home outside London on a certain Sunday. If her father pounced, the police would leap in, catching him in the act.

But on the Monday following this unusual set-up, Edith informed Joan that while her father had turned up and raped her, the police had gone to the wrong location, allowing him to escape. Then, some days later, Joan told me some good news: Edith's father had been caught and charged with rape and grievous bodily harm.

But that was not the end of the matter. It later emerged from Edith that her father had been sent to an institution, from which he had escaped. On the day she revealed this, Edith's face was puffy and bruised. Her father had raped her again, she said wearily. I voiced my doubts to Joan. Could Edith be making all this up? Was there any corroborative evidence, even circumstantial, to support her fantastic claims? Should not Joan, at the very least, consult a psychiatrist?

By now, Joan had become deeply involved. She approached the psychiatrist and, without identifying Edith, explained how she had listened to her sympathetically and tried to help. He asked: 'Is this something you want to do?' Joan shook her head, said the burden of being Edith's confidante was too great, but she found it hard to 'break it off'. The psychiatrist said: 'You can - you must - break it off.'

Before doing so, Joan persuaded Edith to talk to the psychiatrist. Whether or not Edith repeated her desperate story to him, I do not know. Subsequently, however, Edith told Joan she had been referred to a brain surgeon at a hospital in the Home Counties.

Months later, a bewildered Joan told me she had bumped into Edith once more. 'Well, how did the operation go?' she asked. There was no operation. On the day before Edith was due to enter hospital, the operation was cancelled. The surgeon, she said, had been killed in a car crash.

At long last, here was something that could be checked easily. I telephoned the police in the hospital area. The crash story was false. So I prepared to forget Edith and her horrors - indeed had forgotten her until Nurse Allitt's case.

Beverly Allitt suffered from a mental state in which she invented ailments or inflicted them on herself to attract attention. In 1951 a London doctor, Richard Asher, identified, in the Lancet, the phenomenon which he called 'Munchausen's syndrome' after the 18th-century German baron who captivated his dinner guests with fanciful tales of his heroic deeds. Such patients, Dr Asher wrote, demonstrated 'an immediate history which is always acute and harrowing, yet not entirely convincing'. Among possible motives was 'a desire to be the centre of interest and attention'.

Edith's disclosures to Joan certainly were harrowing. I cannot be sure that all of them were untrue; only that my call to the police made them seem likely to be so. Nor can I guess at her motivation. But Dr Enoch, whose book, Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes, devotes a chapter to Munchausen, thought that Edith's case was 'an excellent example' when I described it.

A major difference between Edith's and Nurse Allitt's cases is that the latter went on to develop Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, in which the sufferer injures other people (usually children) so that in the ensuing crisis they may assume a heroic role. I do not know where Edith is now. I believe she gave up social work. I hope she is not working with children.