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The Psychology of Female Violence

Sarah Tabi's picture

The Psychology of Female Violence: Crimes Against the Body by Anna Motz tackles the psychological implications behind female violence such as maternal physical and sexual abuse, female homicide, and self-induced bodily harm.  The area of her book that I will focus on is her discussion and analysis of maternal fabricated or induced illness, otherwise known as Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy (MSBP).  This is when the illness of a child is inflicted or fabricated by his caregiver (i.e. mother, nanny, or nurse), and then subsequently makes frequent and unnecessary trips to the doctor.  The material in this book is linked with our discussions this semester in Bio 202 because the psychological analysis behind this illness is intricately connected to the concepts of the I-function and the cognitive unconscious.

Motz highlights the controversy surrounding the diagnostic criteria of MSBP.  Some of these criteria include the illness clearing up when the child is separated from the caregiver; the caregiver initially denying the root or cause of the child’s illness; the illness fabricated by the parent; and the child is brought to the doctor persistently.  It has been argued that these criteria leave room for wrongful accusations because they are too general.  It is considered normal for anxious parents to exaggerate their child’s symptoms because of their concern for their child’s health or because of their ignorance of medical issues.  This lack of specificity is also associated with the indicators utilized to identify fabrication.  These involve checking for inconsistent reports of the parent with the appearance of the child; ineffective treatments, and symptoms that only start in the presence of one caregiver.  It is argued that these indicators don’t provide conclusive enough evidence partly because the medical history of the patient is subjective, depending on the doctor who is taking the history and asking the questions.  On the other hand, couldn’t it be argued that it would be disadvantageous if the diagnostic criteria and indicators for MSBP are too specific?  This would set up a social norm as to what MSBP consists of, so there would be less flexibility in spotting the warning signs of a parent that may have it and could deviate from the “common” MSBP traits.   

The author then analyzes the psychological background behind MSBP.  What’s interesting is that Motz feels that the mothers have trouble knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, so they are not fabricating illnesses for their children for conscious, logical reasons.  It has been hypothesized that mothers use their children to be recipients of the care and attention that they desire for themselves.  The child’s identity is fused with the mother’s, and therefore “her own somatization is extended to include her child, viewed as part of herself.”  So basically it’s as if the child is included into the mother’s I-function.  In that sense the child would have no true individuality apart from the mother if she has made him apart of her identity.  I wonder if that would affect the child psychologically in some way.  If the kid is accustomed to being included into his mother’s I-function, I would imagine he would either rebel from that and strive to be independent; or he would feel insecure in acknowledging his own I-function that is separate from his mother’s. 

Apparently, the history of a majority of these women includes parental abuse or neglect, and self-harm.  The author believes that their sense of identity is dependent on their bodies since they were treated like objects to be punished by adults in their earlier experiences, so the value and use of their own bodies is distorted.  So their I-function or sense of self is centered on their bodies rather than on the social and mental construct that tends to influence people’s identity of self.  By harming themselves, it seems like they are making an effort to control what their I-function is conscious of.  If their I-function is only being aware of physical pain, then their emotional pain would be pushed to the subconscious and temporarily not be in the realm of their I-function.  This is what they project on to their children, especially if they fuse their children’s identity with their own. 

 How much of a role does the cognitive unconscious play in the mind of the mother that is subject to MSBP?  It seems that the objective of the mother fabricating and inducing their child’s illness isn’t to hurt their child, but it seems they crave the outcome of what occurs as a result of their sick child (i.e. medical attention, concerned doctors and nurses.  As Motz mentioned, the mother isn’t consciously aware of the reasons why she gives her child a laxative or puts blood in his urine, but in some way it makes sense to her.  This semester in Neurobio we discussed the storyteller and a confabulator.  Our brains tend to tell stories in order to account for changes in the cognitive unconscious in our memory.  People also confabulate in order to make sense of information, enabling them to process it better.  In this context, it seems that these women’s brains are telling their own stories in which their actions are completely logical through their own perspective. 

 Yet, it is difficult to tell how much of their cognitive conscious is in agreement with their cognitive unconscious.  Surprisingly, the author mentions that a number of parents subject to MSBP feel a great amount of relief when they are caught by the child’s doctor of their deception.  This indicates that somewhere in their cognitive unconscious, there are feelings of guilt and a sense that their actions are wrong.  These negative feelings would not be a prominent part of their cognitive unconscious to the point it crosses over to the conscious because they are inconsistent with the story the mother has created

This book did a good job in analyzing MSBP through its multiple facets with some historical background, but it does raise a few questions to mind… What sort of psychological effect does MSBP have on the children?  Will they be led to inflict harm on themselves in the future because they learned an abnormal social order from their moms? 


Motz, Anna (2008). The Psychology of Female Violence: Crimes against the body. NY, NY: Routledge.



Paul Grobstein's picture

Munchausen and the I-function/story teller

Very intriguing application of the cognitive unconscious/story teller architecture in relation to what may indeed be a relevant mental health phenomenon needing clarification.  Yes, indeed, it is possible that "these women’s brains are telling their own stories in which their actions are completely logical through their own perspective" and that "somewhere in their cognitive unconscious, there are feelings of guilt and a sense that their actions are wrong".