Pray for Her: The 19th-Century Roots of 'Real Housewives' Munchausen Storylines

In last week's episode, Real Housewife Lisa Rinna accused her co-star Yolanda Foster of faking her Lyme disease for attention and sympathy. This plot is reality TV gold—and it dates back to 19th-century sentimental novels like "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

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Dec 28 2015, 4:20pm

Screengrab via YouTube

In this late, high-style period of The Real Housewives franchise, sickbeds have become the new dinner parties. Instead of arguing about divorce rumors over uneaten plates of privately catered food, the show's stars are fighting over matters of life and death in between doctors' appointments. Though real and fake medical matters have been featured throughout Real Housewives history—from Kim Zolciak's sort-of cancer scare in the season one Atlanta reunion to original Orange County housewife Kimberly Bryant's skin cancer relapse—they've recently become driving storylines.

Earlier this year, during the tenth season of Orange County, Vicki Gunvalson's co-stars accused her of helping her then-boyfriend, Brooks Ayers, lie about having Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Now, following the early episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' sixth season, it looks like Yolanda Foster, who's shared her struggles with Lyme disease for the past two seasons, is about to face similar accusations: In last week's episode, Lisa Rinna told the other women she'd heard people questioning Foster's condition around town. Reading aloud from her iPhone, Rinna went through the Wikipedia description for Munchausen syndrome—the deliberate fabrication or exaggeration of symptoms to get sympathy and attention from others.

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It makes sense why a Real Housewife might inflate—or even flat-out feign—suffering to gain some favor with viewers. Possible discomfort, pain, and death aside, illness is, in theory, one of the best things that can happen to a reality TV star. That's because sympathy is gold to a reality TV career: Long-term success depends on audience identification and attachment. Being a villainess is a good way to keep the paycheck coming, but it's tough to withstand the hate of millions just to stay relevant. Actual sympathy—even compassion: Isn't that a better prospect?

An even better prospect—for us—is the kind of riveting entertainment that's come out of these strange, engrossing Munchausen storylines. One Vulture writer argued that these elaborate medical plots show the Housewives' nod and debt to daytime soap operas, suggesting that these tumultuous, is-she-or-isn't-she arcs are a revival of a 1980s melodramatic sensibility. But there's a much wider, weirder context for understanding audiences' fascination with women faking illness: the 19th-century sentimental novel.

Mostly written by women—and featuring women—sentimental novels depended on intensely emotional appeals to their readers: some form of suffering, weeping, or dying on every other page. These hugely popular fictions celebrated virtuous Christian women who helped themselves and others through the redemptive force of sympathy.

Which is why the villainess of Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental blockbuster, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling novel of the century, is a hypochondriac housewife. Marie St. Clare is the embodiment of pure evil, not only because she embraces and condones slavery but also because she constantly fakes sickness to get the attention and sympathy of those around her. Yet far from generating well-wishes, St. Clare's performed suffering signified a particular kind of grotesque femininity to 19th-century Americans. By selfishly manipulating the same force of sympathy associated with womanly virtue, St. Clare had done something unthinkable.

Stowe's description of St. Clare is a Bravo casting director's dream come true:

Marie never had possessed much capability of affection, or much sensibility, and the little that she had, had been merged into the most intense and unconscious selfishness... From her infancy, she had been surrounded with servants, who lived only to study her caprices; the idea that they had either feelings or rights had never dawned upon her, even in distant perspective...There was no end of her various complaints; but her principal forte appeared to lie in sick-headache, which sometimes would confine her to her room three days out of six.

St. Clare is not so much disturbed by her non-existent ailments as she is by what she perceives to be the lack of concern she gets for having them; she breaks down at even the thought of attention given to anyone else. She is totally incapable of giving the sympathy she wants so desperately for herself to others—even to her own daughter, who has an actually fatal illness that eventually takes her life.

Over 160 years later in Beverly Hills, Foster has out-sickened St. Clare. Going far beyond confining herself to her bedroom, in the wake of her marital separation she's relocated from her hilltop mansion to a Malibu condo she's turned into a naturopathic cocoon, where a woman she calls her "health advocate" follows her around daily to various holistic medicine rituals and consults with her about which tinctures and supplements to take. Yolanda tells us that her days are filled with nothing but healthcare: She starts every morning with either a vitamin C injection or a colonic, visits her regular line-up of healers, and continues her indefinite bed rest. When she has enough energy to travel, she flies to various locations around the world—including South Korea, Mexico, and Germany—for experimental and alternative treatments. She is, essentially, a full-time patient, fighting an illness already fraught with doubt and misunderstanding. Because Lyme disease covers a very broad spectrum of symptoms and illnesses, many people—including some doctors—say it doesn't exist at all.

While the other Housewives haven't yet fully turned against Yo Yo, whispers had begun to circulate before Rinna's dramatic reading of the Munchausen Wikipedia entry. Just as the accusations against Orange County's Vicki Gunvalson started with strategically dropped hints of vague uncertainty about her boyfriend's cancer from an outsider in the group—Housewife Tamra Judge's psychic—the first allegations against Foster came from beyond the inner circle. Former Housewife Taylor Armstrong showed up at a birthday party to gossip about Foster flaunting her illness with glamorous sickbed selfies on Instagram. She has a point: The show's recent close-up of Foster's pantry-sized medicine cabinet—filled with easily over 150 herbal remedies, vitamins, and medications—felt not unlike the typical tour of a Real Housewife's bedroom-sized walk-in closet, filled with too many shoes to count. Who needs diamonds, handbags, and couture dresses when you've got an illness to show off? (In a recent tweet, Judge suggested her psychic could help this iteration of Housewives determine the truth about Foster as well.)

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Unlike Marie St. Clare, however, Foster isn't harming anyone else. St. Clare wreaks havoc on those who are truly suffering: She's so selfish that she refuses to free her husband's slaves after his death, despite his dying wish that they be liberated. And where St. Clare fails to acknowledge the pain endured by her genuinely sick daughter, Foster is generous with her sympathy: She's recently claimed that two of her three children also suffer from chronic Lyme disease.

When what's at a stake is just a great, bizarre, season-long arc of reality TV, in this 21st-century sentimental fiction Foster emerges less as a heartless villainess than a heroine. Regardless of whether she's faking it, she's taking the conventions of sentimentality—womanly tears, heartache, headaches, and vulnerabilitywhich are often used to exploit or portray femininity as a form of victimhood, and putting them to work for herself. It's a bold act for a female reality TV star to try out. Foster is like a benevolent Marie St. Clare, a captivating patient destructive only to herself. Although the Housewives have turned prayer into a form of throwing shade that conveys ironic concern for their enemies, Foster has inspired within me a revival of Protestant sentimental righteousness: I'm praying for her.