Pretending that You Have Cancer—It Never Really Ends Well

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
April 2 2013 1:32 PM

Pretending that You Have Cancer—It Never Really Ends Well

Victoria Ann Marut
Victoria Ann Marut

Courtesy of Adair County Jail

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

Last year, Truman State University grad student Victoria Ann Marut apparently became overwhelmed by her schoolwork. This happens to a lot of grad students, and there are some standard methods of coping with the pressure: working harder, drinking more, dropping out. Marut chose a different strategy: She announced that she had been diagnosed with cancer. The ruse worked for a while—some well-wishers bought her a wig to replace the hair she had shaved off to mimic the effects of chemotherapy; her professors started cutting her some slack.

Advertisement

But eventually the principal of the school where Marut was interning noticed “some inconsistencies” in her story and contacted one of her professors. Marut, showing real ingenuity, forged a doctor’s note attesting to her condition. Unfortunately, her professors called her bluff and contacted the doctor whose signature she had forged. Last November, she admitted that she had invented the entire story. On Monday, she pleaded guilty to one count of felony forgery. She will probably get probation.

Faking cancer is not unusual. Facing criminal charges for doing so is a lot more rare. Munchausen syndrome, according to the website of the Mayo Clinic, is “a serious mental disorder in which someone with a deep need for attention pretends to be sick or gets sick or injured on purpose.” In recent years, these pretenders have increasingly moved online, duping unwitting victims into expending emotional energy on sick people that don’t actually exist; a psychologist named Marc Feldman has dubbed this “Munchausen by Internet.” You might know it as a form of catfishing, as seen in the Manti Te’o/Lennay Kekua affair.

As disturbing as it might be, faking cancer and other diseases isn’t illegal on its own. Generally, it only becomes a legal matter when someone starts asking for money under false pretenses. When a New Jersey woman named Lori Stilley told her friends she had bladder cancer, they decided to raise money to help defray the cost of her imaginary treatment. Stilley took in nearly $15,000 before she was arrested last September. (“This New Jersey woman is a real cancer—on society,” said the Daily News.) A New York woman named Stephanie Vega feigned terminal cancer to convince various merchants to contribute free goods and services toward her “dream wedding.” The scheme fell apart when Vega’s husband noticed that his terminally ill wife didn’t appear to be dying. She was indicted on fraud and grand larceny charges.

As for Victoria Ann Marut, I’m really conflicted. The stakes were so low here: She wasn’t trying to scam thousands of dollars in cash, or a dream wedding; she wasn’t trawling for self-validation by hanging around cancer patient support groups. And who among us hasn’t gotten caught in a lie that spun out of control? A few years back—I don’t know why I did this—I told a barber that my name was Colin. Unfortunately, this barber was very good with names, and kept calling me Colin whenever I’d come in for a trim. When I called to make an appointment, I would even make it under the name “Colin.” Eventually it got to be too much for me, and the only solution was to stop patronizing that barber shop. And they gave great haircuts! Lies will destroy your life.

Yes, Marut’s circumstances are a lot more serious. But sometimes a crime isn’t a crime so much as a cry for help. Students: If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or lonely, there are resources out there to help you. Call a psychiatric hotline. Visit the student health center. Talk to your professor. Whatever you do, don’t fake cancer. It won’t end well.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.