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Bethany Storro had a horrific story to tell.
She told police in Portland, Oregon that just after 7 p.m. on August 30 a black woman with a ponytail had walked up to her, said, “Hey, pretty girl, want something to drink?” and then threw acid in her face. A composite sketch of the assailant was drawn, and police devoted the full resources at their disposal to apprehending the assailant.
Sympathy poured in from around the world. Storro gave interviews. Facebook groups were formed to offer virtual support.
Then, not even a week later, in Mesa, Ariz., Storro’s plight seemed to spawn a copycat incident. A female stranger threw acid in the face of 41-year-old Derri Velarde. She was burned severely.
Now, it turns out, Storro seems to have made up her story. She did have acid thrown in her face, but she did it to herself. That explains why she was wearing sunglasses after 7 p.m. on the evening she says she was assaulted—to protect her eyes from the acid. That explains why there were no witnesses. And it explains why the burn pattern on her face didn’t fit with her report of how the acid had been thrown at her.
What no one has yet explained is why Storro would fabricate such a gruesome story. Even in the age of reality TV and YouTube, could it be that someone would scar herself so grotesquely for fame?
I have worked with several patients who inflicted bodily injuries upon themselves. One woman, who had the classic set of symptoms known as Munchausen’s syndrome, literally kept injecting herself with soil mixed with water, in order to cause horrific skin infections and then be cared for by doctors. One of the infections nearly cost her a leg. Another man presented to the hospital complaining he could not urinate and was later found to have used Krazy Glue to seal shut his urethra. Another swallowed razor blades, presented to the ER complaining of blood in his feces and wept about the possibility of having colon cancer.
In every case, the physical symptoms—whether of infection or obstruction or bleeding—turned out to be the surface evidence of real psychological pathology that ran far deeper. It was all a way that these patients expressed how disordered they felt on the inside, without being able to put words to it or share it any other way. One finally admitted to having hidden the fact that she had been sexually abused. Another admitted to feeling responsible for his mother’s death from heart disease when he was a little boy.
I suspect (without having evaluated her, of course) that the same is true for Bethany Storro. She is disfigured at some level deeper than the surface scars she inflicted upon herself. She was in some manner assaulted—whether emotionally or physically—when she had no ability to defend herself. Maybe it was a stranger. Maybe the mask she wore after burning herself was her way of telling all of us that she has hidden from the trauma all of her life.
I believe Bethany Storro. I think she has told us her truth, at a deeper level than she ever imagined she would.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.