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Edinburgh Blog: How my play about illness became something bigger

Writer Max Dickins on Love Them To Death

Artwork for Love Them To Death
© Rebecca Pitt

Love Them To Death is a play about Fabricated and Induced Illness (FII), previously known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

It's a form of child abuse where care givers (mothers in 98% of cases) exaggerate, feign, or – in the most extreme cases – induce illness in their children. Or, is it…? That's up to you, the audience, because at every step you are asked to consider who is telling the truth. Is it Kelly, an Attendance Officer at St Meads school? Or is it Gemma, whose young son Daniel has just joined? As your sympathies continue to oscillate from one character to the other, you might begin to wonder what the truth even means, in this context.

Away from the literal subject, the play is really about lines: where we draw them and who gets to decide. The line between fact and fiction. The line between illness and health. The line between love and violence.

Why do this show now? Well, sadly, FII is becoming more common. Experts blame ‘Dr Google', but arguably it is the apotheosis of other broader changes in society. Parenting has become more and more intensive. The boundaries of mental and physical ill health have been extended further and further. Our distrust of those in authority – doctors, scientists, schools and so on – grows with each passing scandal.

Then there's Covid. We don't mention the C-word in the show – asking for trouble in a theatre! – but this story is being told in the shortening shadow of the greatest health crisis in a generation. We have all spent two years obsessing over illness. Many of us have had the disease, and perhaps have had loved ones taken to death's door – and in some cases through to the other side.

Covid – especially as we emerge back into something like normal life – asks us where we mark the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable risk in life. It asks us who we trust to give us ‘the facts'. It asks us whether, despite its obvious downsides, being ill doesn't also have its rewards (hand on heart, wasn't it quite nice to be able to opt out of the relentless pace of modern life in lockdowns?). It asks us whether we are not all tempted, sometimes, to use illness to get something we want: time off work, a reason not to go to a terrible party, the cheap status of victimhood on social media – whatever it may be.

When I first began writing and researching this play, I thought it would be a thriller about a little understood form of child abuse. But the more I learned, the more I explored the characters, I realised that it was really about all of us. And if anything, it is this that is most unsettling.

Love Them To Death is at Underbelly Cowgate from 4 to 28 August