On Jan. 23, 5-year-old Garnett Paul Spears—a boy who had seemingly been sick his whole life—mysteriously died at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. Yesterday, his mother, 26-year-old Lacey Spears, was arrested and charged with his murder.
Prosecutors are painting Spears as a woman desperate for attention, to the point where she allegedly poisoned her only child by administering sodium through a stomach feeding tube. This accusation, along with the medical evidence that Spears reportedly sought to destroy, has led to an armchair diagnosis of Münchausen syndrome by proxy, a pattern of manipulative behavior in which a caregiver distorts, embellishes, or induces health problems in their charge.
This is an already slippery psychiatric phenomenon, but Spears’ case features a 21st-century twist sure to set the Internet ablaze: She documented her son’s illness on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and a personal blog titled “Garnett’s Journey,” from which the images in this post are taken. Posts from these pages are now fueling speculation that Spears saw social media as an engine of endless sympathy and may have been driven to extremes by a desire for online celebrity.
A closer look at Spears’ fractured Web presence, however, reveals a woman too impatient or inept to establish a successful voice: “Mommy Blogger” is maybe a stretch when you consider that “Garnett’s Journey” contains just two posts published over two years. Spears only tweeted 92 times in late 2009 before the @GarnettsMommy account lapsed into silence. Neither lackadaisical effort resembles the work of someone consumed with curating their Web image.
My Sweet Angel Is In The Hospital For The 23rd Time :( Please Pray He Gets To Come Home Soon...— Lacey E Spears (@GarnettsMommy) November 11, 2009
Even before Garnett was born, however, Spears had disturbing Internet habits: a long, fascinating exposé in the Journal News revealed that she had posted photos of a child she was babysitting to Myspace with captions and comments that indicated she was his mother. That unhealthy sense of attachment, as well as strangely chronic ailments, were apparently later transferred to Garnett, but the extent to which a culture of digital oversharing influenced Spears’ actions is unclear. We may instead be seeing how that culture can obscure problems of neglect and abuse—and magnify them in retrospect. A comment on Raw Story’s article about Spears indicates what kind of skeptical sleuths we’ve accidentally become in the age of the avatar.
I have a friend who shows some signs of Munchausen by proxy but nothing on this scale. A large percentage of her Facebook posts are about her daughter and some medical condition or another. She takes the girl to the doctor about twice a month for some phantom condition. Last week she took her to the eye doctor because she suspected she needed glasses (she didn't) and FBed the entire thing. I have no doubt my friend does it for the attention, as she always gets dozens of comments of prayers and support, which seems to feed her. Her daughter isn't sickly but she goes to the doctor more than any kid I know. I KNOW she would never do anything like this and I think she just seems to enjoy taking her daughter to the doctor. But the amount of tests and antibiotics that girl has had IS concerning. This is a horrific story but maybe it will help shine a light on any parents we know and any warning signs.
Perhaps Spears was also enjoying the level of attention described here; no doubt more details will emerge as her trial unfolds (she pled “not guilty” on Tuesday and faces 20 years to life in prison if convicted). Even then, we’ll likely never understand her motivations—and a false assumption of Münchausen by proxy has clouded court proceedings in the past.
In some ways, the Web seems to have been more of an escape for Spears, rather than a tool for courting emotional support: Excepting recent hateful sentiment, the comments section of “Garnett’s Journey” is barren. Her Pinterest page is virtually indistinguishable from any other, a collection of fantasies about interior design and home cooking. It would have been easy to make an utterly dependent Garnett a part of this illusory life, though we can’t say if it’s a dreamworld she needed strangers to see. It’s possible the Internet was merely a convenient surface for self-projection.