The Sick Baby

Darin Strauss examines Munchausen by Proxy in his latest novel.

Based on the actual lives of America’s most famous pair of conjoined twins, Darin Strauss‘ bestselling debut novel Cheng & Eng was optioned by Disney; actor Gary Oldman has bought the rights and is working on the film. In Strauss’ latest novel, More Than It Hurts You — which he’ll discuss at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland) on June 26 — a happily married TV airtime salesman gets a nasty shock when a doctor accuses his wife of having Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome and thus deliberately sickening the couple’s beloved baby son.The doctor is African American; the couple is white. It’s Strauss’ first novel that isn’t based on actual historical characters, but he says modern life is more than enough to fuel the imagination: “The Chinese have an old saying: ‘May you not live in interesting times.’ We live, unfortunately, in interesting times. So I wanted to write a book that brings together all the threads and fears of contemporary life — corporate greed, the modern mania for attention, loss of privacy, the maddening even-handedness of media coverage, a family’s threats from within and without. And, of course, race and gender. Just look at the current political landscape to see how important those last two subjects are,” Strauss notes.

And the disorder at the heart of his book is itself linked to socioeconomic hierarchies: “The crazy thing is that Munchausen’s is much more common in the US than most people know — over 100,000 cases a year. But it only happens in rich countries. … It’s a disease of luxury, of idle minds.” Also into the mix of his story went mental health, medicine, and the media: “Well, my wife’s a journalist who covered the Duke lacrosse scandal. And I learned a lot from watching her experience. On TV, ‘even-handedness’ … means the truth wins no more time or merit than any other position. The yelling is the message; the yelling and the easy digestibility of one’s story. People nowadays need to be amused even when learning — especially then. And so to compete for our attention, the news has gotten buffed into a plaything among the brighter playthings of entertainment.”

To give his fiction an authentic feel, “I talked with a number of doctors, including the most respected physician on the subject of Munchausen by Proxy in the United States. But, to be honest, I think research can be too easily used as a crutch for a fiction writer: There’s always a temptation to use it too much. One of the best advice nuggets I ever got was from E.L. Doctorow, who told me, ‘Do the least amount of research you can get away with, and no less.'” 7 p.m.


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