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Faking It

by C.J. Mittica

Recent headlines have uncovered a disturbing trend around South Jersey.

The boy was sick. Very sick. Stage-3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his mother told him. The diagnosis was devastating, and it certainly would not be easy for Susan Stillwaggon, a mother of four with a trucker husband who spent much of his time on the road.

What was she supposed to do? She appealed to her friends and her son’s school for help, and the Pennsauken community rallied to their side, holding bracelet sales and Bingo fundraisers that generated more than $6,000 for his treatment.

Sympathy turned to anger on April 25 when Stillwaggon was arrested. Medical records proved what some had come to suspect: The boy did not have cancer. The 35-year-old mother had allegedly lied—lied to her son, lied to her husband, lied to countless others who donated money and went out of their way to help another in a time of need. At the time of her arrest, Stillwaggon’s mother said her daughter was in a psychiatric ward undergoing evaluation. Others could only speculate about the effect on the boy who believed he had cancer, only to learn that he was healthy.

Perhaps even more shocking was this wasn’t the first incident like this involving Stillwaggon. Years prior, after her twin daughters were born prematurely, she held two fundraisers for Virtua Memorial only to never relinquish the money, according to Sgt. Cheryl Duffy of the Pennsauken Police Department.

For years “she presented herself as all different kind of things,” says Duffy. “She started with presenting her own injuries, telling people she had to have surgery on her feet and wore a boot for two years.”

Once the truth about her son was revealed, those who were duped felt a mix of emotions from betrayal to anger to frustration. “I know one parent that sent a letter to the husband demanding a refund,” Duffy says.

As for all those funds that were collected? “The money is gone,” Duffy says simply. “[The scheme] was so far reaching, it was incredible.”

Stillwaggon is not the only recent local instance of someone perpetuating a massive lie. Lori Stilley, a 41-year-old Delran resident, told friends and family in February of 2011 that she had stage-3 bladder cancer. “Team Lori Rocks” raised thousands of dollars for the “terminal” cancer patient, and even threw her a wedding with less than two weeks of planning. Months later, she was turned in by her own sister for making it up, and in May, Stilley pled guilty to third-degree theft—an admission that she never had cancer.

Henry Gosik, president of Sensational Host Caterers, has been in the business for 33 years and never saw anything like what happened after getting involved in trying to help Stilley plan her wedding.

“I was told they were trying to put a wedding together pretty quickly. We were trying to help. Here was a woman who was very ill and on a very tight budget ... that’s how it was presented,” Gosik says. “Within six weeks, the wedding had taken place and we did the event pretty much for cost.”

It wasn’t until a news report on Stilley’s actions that Gosik learned that he had been added to the list of victims. “We don’t feel duped, just disappointed. You lose that trust in mankind,” says Gosik.

In the wake of both women’s actions, considerable questions remain. Why lie about cancer? Why concoct a deception so hurtful that friends and family may never fully trust them again? Did these women suffer from a psychological disorder, or were they simply searching for attention and money?

Stillwaggon, Stilley and their families aren’t talking, so the South Jersey community can only guess. Despite numerous attempts for this story, both parties declined to comment. But digging into the psyche of fakers with medical experts reveals a broad range of motivations that run the medical and social gamut.

At the heart of the faker’s mindset lies a simple question: Do they know they’re faking symptoms and a disease? “That’s the key to this whole thing,” says Dr. Douglas Leonard, assistant professor at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Those who don’t may suffer from a somatoform disorder, where they believe their illnesses or ailments are real even when there is no medical evidence that they exist. Hypochondriacs are a well-known example of this, but the disorder goes much further. “Their whole life is taken over by [the belief], ‘I’m sick, I can’t do anything, take care of me,’” says Dr. Ronald S. Gruen, a licensed psychologist based in Cherry Hill. “They wind up living a very limited and sheltered life.”

If the person is aware he or she is faking, it’s a different story. They could be suffering from a factitious disorder, most widely known as Munchausen syndrome. Sufferers go to great lengths to learn about illnesses and simulate symptoms so they can be seen and treated. While the benefits can be tangible (such as attention or care), these disorders are fueled by latent anxieties that come to dominate a person’s life. “The most likely possibility is that this is something driven by fairly deep reasons that is not in the person’s conscious awareness,” says Dr. Frank Schwoeri, a clinical psychologist at the Temenos Center in Moorestown. “It’s not necessarily a conscious manipulation, but more an unconscious and desperate attempt to get something else other than, say, money directly.”

An offshoot of this is Munchausen by proxy, where a parent transfers those symptoms to a child. They may even inflict harm on a child—overdosing their meds, making them sick—to get them medical attention. (Munchausen by proxy sufferers are predominantly women.) Gruen consulted on one case where a mother punctured her child’s eardrum. “These are mothers who are very insecure and have very poor self-identity,” says Gruen, who has been in private practice for 40 years. “Their reason for being in this world is tied up with their children. They don’t have a healthy separation between themselves and their children.”

But when there’s a specific benefit to be had—such as avoiding work or trying to score drugs—the action is known as malingering. “When people malinger,” says Miriam Stern, the founder and executive director of Meridian Counseling Services in Cherry Hill, “there’s always lying and deceiving about some kind of illness or problem, but there is also the intention of some kind of gain—like financial gain, for instance.”

Armchair psychologists may quickly put someone like Lori Stilley in this last column—someone who remorselessly deceived people to receive money, attention and sympathy. But malingering isn’t always so elaborate. “I wouldn’t say it’s common,” says Dr. Jay Schmulowitz of the Life Counseling Center in Stratford, “but I would say with those [looking to get on] disability, it has been increasing due to the economic climate.”

That could be what’s playing a large role in other cases of people perpetuating lies to dupe others out of large sums of money, such as Lois Vansciver, of Riverside, who late last month was arrested and charged with impersonating an elderly Riverton woman in her care to drain her bank account of more than $100,000 over the past few years.

While malingerers knowingly break the law, if you peel back the layers, you’ll see they are not so different from other fakers. For all of them, emotional trauma fuels their hurtful actions. There may have been instances of family illness in their past. They could have experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment as a child. Perhaps they are driven by jealously of the attention others received. The reasons are wide and varied.

And in truth, faking is hardwired from birth. Newborns, for example, cry so they can be comforted by their parents. “The kid [who fakes] a stomach ache, that’s pretty darn common,” says Leonard, who also consults at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. “Every kid in third or fourth grade is going to take a day off because they don’t want to take an exam.” From those common beginnings, the medical community still does not have a complete understanding of how these disorders emerge in people. The leap is a rare one; one study of chronic pain patients identified four Munchausen patients in nearly 3,000, for a total of .14 percent.

Family members and friends may be inclined at first to accept a faker at his or her word, but clinicians always have to be alert. “That’s the first thing you want to do, make sure something medically is not going on,” says Dr. Randall Gurak of Cherry Hill. “And usually they come to light when things aren’t adding up correctly—either diagnostic tests or the symptoms they’re reporting really don’t fit with what you’re seeing.” Of course, even when all the medical evidence points to a faker, there are always twists and turns suitable for an episode of House. “There might be an obscure medical condition which can explain the patient’s symptoms,” says Dr. Victor J. Nitti, a clinical psychologist from Moorestown. “For example, I once saw a patient who presented as having a hysterical disorder but indeed had an undiagnosed brain tumor, which fortunately was removed.” The point: Nothing can be discounted.

One thing medical experts can agree on: Treatment is extremely difficult. Those with disorders are often unable to even admit they have an issue. Fakers of all types have most likely displayed a pattern of deception and antisocial behavior, growing by degrees over time. Stern says their actions are an addiction, and like any addiction, it will eventually get them in trouble. “Their motivation to change is really about not getting in trouble,” she says.

Since the Stilley incident, Gosik has been forced to change the way his business operates somewhat. “Now, as a company, our procedures have changed. We are not as trusting with all the causes that come across. That’s the hard part, you just want to do good for the community,” he says.

“It’s rough, but it has more to do with what she did to her family than to our company.”

Without change, there is often devastation left. Lives stalled, children who bear emotional scars, family members and friends who are hurt and embarrassed. The sickness may be fake, but for too many others, the pain is long-lasting and real. In her role on the police force, Duffy handles all the special assaults from child abuse to domestic violence, but the Stillwaggon case was unprecedented.

“I’ve never seen a case where a parent tells their kid they were suffering from a fatal illness. Throughout our conversation, she told me she’d never hurt her kids. She knows she did wrong in the fundraising efforts, but she doesn’t think she did wrong by her son and to me that’s the most criminal act.

“How does this kid move forward?”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August, 2013).
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