Munchausen syndrome by proxy is in the air. Four films and television series about the condition have been released recently. In addition, 13 books about MSBP can be found on Amazon. (Several are about Dee Dee Blanchard, who could be called the poster mom for MSBP, and her daughter Gypsy Rose.) In March, you can add Stephanie Wrobel’s Darling Rose Gold to that list.
Wrobel’s debut novel starts where most MSBP sagas end. Patty Watts, the mother from hell, is being released from prison after serving five years for aggravated child abuse. She’d kept Rose Gold Watts in a wheelchair, shaved her head, and fed her PediaSure through a tube for 18 years when there was nothing wrong with the poor girl. Patty fooled countless doctors and her entire community, convincing them all Rose Gold had sleep apnea, cancer, pyloric stenosis, and a chromosomal defect.
Despite this, Patty’s seemingly forgiving daughter picks her up when she’s released from jail and welcomes her into her new home. The town of Deadwick is astonished. The reader is too. But Rose Gold is no dummy, and she’s learned mendacity from a pro. Narrated in alternating chapters, the mother-daughter dynamic takes a wicked turn.
Wrobel became fascinated by the topic when a friend, a school psychologist, told her she suspected some students had MSBP. “The mother-child bond is supposed to be sacred,” the author says from the Minneapolis airport, where she was in the midst of a prepublicity tour for the novel. “It’s almost inconceivable that mothers would do this to their children. It’s sad but also very intriguing. The perpetrators are usually mothers motivated by a desire for attention from the medical community.”
In the novel, Patty has no idea what motivates her. “One of the things that convinced me to write the book was the question of whether they know what they’re doing or whether they think they’re doing what’s best for their kid,” Wrobel says.
Was it intentional that the real-life Gypsy Rose and the fictional Rose Gold have similar names? “No. I don’t know whether it was in my subconscious, but that character name came to me quite early.”
Wrobel grew up in Chicago and currently lives in London. She got her MFA from Emerson College in 2018. Darling Rose Gold was her thesis. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joe Heller, and Fay Weldon, she started out in advertising. She spent eight years as a copywriter. It shows. Her prose is drum tight.
“Advertising helped me as a writer tremendously,” Wrobel says. “You really learn the art of concision when you have to write a billboard that has no more than six words.”
She also understands marketing. After completing Darling Rose Gold, Wrobel, who is 32, searched Publishers Marketplace and Duotrope to find agents interested in the genre that she refers to as domestic suspense. “I made a list of about 25 agents and sent out queries,” she says. “Almost everybody answered, and I got a few offers of representation. It took about a month from start to finish. I talked to each person, but I particularly clicked with Madeleine Milburn. Maddy and I had the same vision for my career, and her track record is incredible.”
Milburn created an eight-way auction from her eponymous literary, film, and TV agency in London. Maxine Hitchcock, publishing director at Penguin Random House UK, acquired U.K. and Commonwealth rights, for publication under the Michael Joseph imprint.
“I just was fascinated by Munchausen by proxy and how the novel wasn’t exploring the abuse itself but the aftermath of it,” Milburn says. “The abuse had already happened at the start of the story, and now the reader gets to see what the daughter felt about it and the dynamic between the mother and daughter. I took Stephanie around to the publishers. She’s so professional and smart and charming. She’s a brilliant author who will be able to be built into a brand.”
Within 24 hours of receiving Darling Rose Gold, Amanda Bergeron, executive editor at Berkley, snapped it up in the U.S. She offered a preempt two-book deal for what Milburn calls “a significant six figures.”
“I loved it right away,” Bergeron says. “I’d been looking for quite some time for a unique female-driven suspense novel that had a voice that kind of just launched itself in your head. And from the opening pages I knew that I had found it.”
Foreign rights have been sold in 15 countries so far (including the U.S.).
So why now? Why all the current interest in MSBP? “It could be a stand-in for many types of parenting in that we reap what we sow,” Bergeron speculates. That brings to mind the recent college admission scandals. And, I think, the idea that someone you trust, someone in a position of enormous power and authority, could go off the deep end and do great harm.
Darling Rose Gold cleaves neatly to the Dee Dee Blanchard narrative except for a nonfatal twist at the end—and what a twist it is.
Patricia Volk is a novelist and short story writer and the author of two memoirs, Stuffed and Shocked (both from Knopf).