The events that led to Lorraine being incarcerated on a secure forensic unit at age 22 are mind-boggling. It began when she reported to police that a colleague had been sending her death threats in the post. Then about a year later she reported to police that her best friend Abby had developed a lesbian infatuation with her and was stalking her. Two weeks later, her friend Abby appeared to have abducted Lorraine at knifepoint and was subsequently charged and imprisoned. Fast forward another year and Lorraine now reported receiving death threats from her fiancé’s ex wife, and soon after that she blamed her fiancé’s three-year-old son for the starting of two fires in relatives’ homes.
The thing is, there were no death threats, Lorraine had made it all up. She had persuaded her best friend Abby that by appearing to abduct her, she would actually be doing Lorraine some kind of favour. And she set the fires that she accused the three-year-old of starting.
According to Cheryl Birch and colleagues, Lorraine has pseudologia fantastica – a disorder that is characterised not only by the quantity of lies, but also by their fantastical quality. The lies are typically harmful to the liar and are not part of a manipulative plan with a clear objective in mind. Instead they are motivated by internal psychological desires – to boost self-esteem or characterise oneself as a hero or victim. The person with pseudologia fantastica often struggles to distinguish between fiction and reality, but does not experience true delusions and does not have an organic memory impairment. Consistent with this, Lorraine did eventually confess to everything she’d done.
The authors concluded that through better understanding and more awareness of cases like this “…some of the exceedingly costly medical, legal, and social consequences often associated with it can be avoided. [In Lorraine’s case] improved awareness of pseudologia fantastica may have hastened the administration of justice and helped avert some of the attendant social tragedy”.
Birch, C.D., Kelln, B.R.C. & Aquino, E.P.B. (2006). A review and case report of pseudologia fantastica. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, 17, 299-320.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.