Posted Wednesday, August 11th 2010, at 11:10am
Ashley Kirilow: Impostor

You may have heard recently of the unfortunate case of Ashley Kirilow, the 23 year-old woman who shaved hear head and starved herself in order to appear sickened from the effects of chemotherapy. That's right: she pretended to be stricken with a terminal case of cancer, allegedly claiming she had only weeks left to live. At best this would have been a sign of an egregiously poor sense of humour; at worst, psychologically harmful to those grief-stricken loved ones who expected to lose their dear Ashley. Not to say psychological harm is a small offense, but this is all it would have amounted to. That is, if it hadn't been for the thousands of dollars in stolen cash.

Ashley started up a Facebook group called "Change for a Cure," sold t-shirts, ran fundraisers, and even scored a trip to Disney Land - all under the guise of her false pretense. She claimed all money raised went to cancer research. According to the CBC, she faces charges of three counts of fraud under 5,000 dollars. Some sources estimate the amount she stole could have been much more.

Many people (myself being one) had the inclination or curiosity to descend on the "Change for a Cure" Facebook group. Perhaps we could learn more about Ashley - at the very least, we might be able to share our thoughts on the matter in the group's forum.

I came across a discussion heading, which now appears to have been removed, that read: "Ashley has a disease, it's called Munchausen Syndrome." The original poster in this discussion stated that while he felt what Ashley did was wrong, he believes that "she is actually insane and that [this] should be taken into consideration [during prosecution]." Most on the forum responded by expressing contempt or outrage that Ashley should be "given an excuse." This in turn was followed by a nasty flame war, with the original poster on one side and a throng of indignant opponents on the other.

Scouring this and the other discussions on the Facebook group, it looks as though the majority of users have declared Ashley guilty. At the time of writing, some have posted that they hope she gets cancer (for real), or AIDS. Some say "give her no mercy," others say "life in prison."

There are a few sensible people on this discussion board who call for calm and rational thinking. But the quickness with which some individuals arrive at a verdict, to which many more invariably rush to support - apparently without thought or consideration - never fails to greatly disturb me.

I'm familiar with the practice - or should I say, the "spectacle" - of people abandoning normal civility and coming unglued in on-line forums. But I have witnessed in person - with my eyes and ears - the same reactions described above. To give one example I can think of from the top of my head: in October of 2008, while I was still a pupil at McMaster, someone had managed to burn down a portion of Brandon Hall (a student residence). Hundreds of lives were put in serious danger and several individuals were sent to hospital, one in critical condition. After Emerson Pardoe - a fellow student - was raised as a suspect, vicious incantations followed - praying for his prolonged and varied torments. The problem was, he had not yet gone to trial.

I'm sure you might be able to think of some events where you've seen similar behaviour. It takes very little cognitive effort to be reductionist, especially when the opinion of a mob is so readily available. Herd mentality is powerfully contagious. It is for this very reason why those charged with crimes are declared "innocent until proven guilty." This maxim is a vertebra in the spine of our civilization. To forget it once is once too often. The compulsion to side strongly in one direction and "dig in" without first giving your position some critical thought should make us all feel more than a little uneasy.

In an interview with The Star's Brendan Kennedy, Ashley admits her deception. She said, “What I did was wrong, I was trying to be noticed. I was trying to get my family back together. I didn’t want to feel like I’m nothing anymore." According to Kennedy, Ashley's history is a rather dramatic one: her parents say their marriage was dysfunctional, and ended in divorce soon after Ashley was born. And Kennedy reports that "the police were often called to enforce [child] visitations." I, for one, having experienced my own share of family dysfunction in my formative years know that calls to the authorities are not isolated incidents - they are accompanied by historied, ever-present chaos.

Could not the fallout from her broken family life have even the slightest effect on Ashley? Could it not, perhaps, have exacerbated some kind of preexisting mental disposition? If you were in Ashley's position, and this information could stand to make your trial that much fairer, would you not want it considered, rightfully, in due course?

It seems unlikely that Ashley does have Munchausen. My lexicon of psychiatric dysfunction being the rather patchy affair that it is, I can't say for certain what her problem may be. Looking to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it states that a mental disorder is "any illness with a psychological origin, manifested either in symptoms of emotional distress or in abnormal behaviour." Under these terms I don't think faking cancer qualifies for a platinum membership, but I'd have to recommend it for silver. Maybe even gold.

Should Ashley have an identifiable mental disorder, the extent of it - whatever it may be - is to be evaluated by trained individuals in direct contact with Ashley during and/or after her trial. The conclusions of these professionals will be taken into consideration by court officials and barring any miscarriage of justice, she will be handed an appropriate verdict. Until such time, let's remember that truly vital precept of our society: the one so many wished had not been forgotten during the dark ages, during lynchings, witch-hunts, and crusades. Like every other human ideal, justice is simply an idea, and it is up to us and our continued vigilance to keep it alive.