Believe in Magic: a sad, complicated but rewarding tale of deception

Podcast review: Jamie Bartlett and Ruth Mayer eventually find some discomfiting truths

Once when I was nine years old or so, I told a classmate that my best friend was dying of cancer. This was profoundly untrue, but in that moment her reaction – wide-eyed, sympathetic – fed something in me. Afterward, for what it’s worth, I was deeply ashamed, the guilt of the lie burdening me for years. I never repeated my stunt. I remembered this story when listening to Believe in Magic, the new six-episode podcast from the BBC hosted by journalist Jamie Bartlett and produced by Ruth Mayer. But the attention that illness – grave, terminal illness – can grant you, even when it’s illness by proxy – well, it’s seductive, and that seduction is at this story’s heart.

Believe In Magic is about Jean O’Brien and her daughter Megan Bhari, who had idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), a condition involving high pressure around the brain. Megan and Jean joined an online group for IIH sufferers, taking to posting online about Megan’s experiences. Then Megan developed a brain tumour. It was as a direct result of her experiences – 24 operations, interactions in hospitals with countless “poorly children” – that she decided, at age 17, to set up a charity with her mother to help dreams come true for other “poorly children”. They called it Believe in Magic.

Megan’s own dream was to connect with One Direction, the boy band sensation of the 2010s. And through her charity and her own personal story of suffering, she did just that: to such an extent that One Direction began tweeting their support of Believe In Magic, attending the charity’s galas, and wearing Believe in Magic wristbands on stage. Prime minister David Cameron gave her an award for her work.

Then, you may be unsurprised to hear, Megan’s condition took a turn for the worse: her mother Jean set up a GoFundMe page to finance a trip to the US for life-saving treatment. But the GoFundMe, vague about where Megan would be treated, raised alarm bells in the community of parents of sick children that had grown up around the charity. Some of those who were sceptical – “the sleuths” as Bartlett terms them – couldn’t let it go and they began to investigate. Once they discovered what they believed to be the truth, they tried to let their community know. Many refused to believe them, and vilified them for maligning someone they saw as a hero.


Megan’s sudden death at 23 years old complicated the story further. The podcast investigates this sad and sordid tale with compassion and tenacity, peeling back layers of deception in search of an elusive truth. Throughout, the makers question the motivations of everyone involved, and some of those questions remain. Was this a case of what used to be called Munchhausen by Proxy but is now known as “fabricated or induced illness by carers”, or simply medical child abuse?

This is where I would like to tell you the real story of Jean and Megan and how Megan died. But I can’t really do that, not only because of my reluctance to give the whole carefully unspooled tale away in this review, but also because this story is complex enough to defy simple summation. About all that can be said for certain is that Megan died of liver disease, that a postmortem revealed no brain tumour, and that the charity was investigated for mismanagement and some dodgy accounting, and dissolved.

Though one of their subjects is dead and the other refuses to engage, Bartlett and Mayer find their way to some kind of truth, and then grapple with whether to put it out there. And though listening is grim, discomfiting and maybe, if we’re being honest, even implicating, I’m glad they did.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast