Written January 30, 2012     

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© 2016 Bob Lonsberry


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They should be ashamed of themselves.

All of them.

The people on the “Today” show, the folks on the evening news, the sideshow barkers on cable, the self-promoting activists.

They are cheap sensationalists capitalizing on the suffering of children and the ignorance of adults.

I’m talking about the Leroy twitch. The mystery cluster of tics and stutters that befell a dozen small-town high-school girls in the latter half of last year.

At first, it was a matter of local concern and fear. The symptoms, oddities of speech and mannerism, came on suddenly and seemed to spread through the school. It was, for families and friends, terrifying.

Clusters of illness are always disquieting. They speak of contaminations or infections, of unseen chemicals or marauding pathogens. They are caused by bogeymen, unseen and dangerous.

But there was a diagnosis.

In time, as possible causes were eliminated on by one, there was a diagnosis. Something called conversion disorder. In earlier times it was known as hysteria, and when its symptoms replicate across a group of people, it is known as mass hysteria.

It is a psychiatric illness.

It is not faking, it is not a sign of weakness, it is a function of some aspect of the human psyche, arising from a multitude of factors. Its symptoms are uncontrollable, its pain is real, it is a genuine illness.

And parents were told.

Some accepted the diagnosis, some did not. Individual perspectives and personalities mixed with the dynamic of a small community in the age of advocacy. Upset was palpable, and it spread.

The state sent an expert to the school, to speak to the community, and he said there was nothing to fear. Though federal health-care confidentiality rules prevented him from revealing the diagnosis, he did say that escalating media attention could lead to another outbreak.

A week later, as it was reported that neurologists working on the case had diagnosed conversion disorder, the disbelief of some in Leroy became the focus of local media. Reports focused not on medical knowledge or expertise, but on baseless and ignorant speculations. Speculations that are natural to make, but hurtful of the public interest.

Then it went national.

On the “Today” show, a couple of girls afflicted with the Leroy twitch appeared. The emphasis of the report was that the cause of the cluster was unknown, and that some sinister cause – be it mold or chemicals or vaccines – was lurking in the air, water or walls of a small upstate New York town.

Some said it was fill used in the construction of the school. Others whispered about Gardasil or other inoculations. People wondered about ground water and upwind polluters. Speculation ran wild.

And the television producers worked overtime. Any number of cable shows played and replayed video, and it became a national story.

Erin Brockovich got involved, and the Sierra Club, and a couple of New York activist groups, each seemingly concerned with nothing more than advancing its own interests.

Brockovich, for example, theorized that a 1970 train derailment was to blame. And the Sierra Club, up to its eyes in a campaign against hydrofracking, blamed it on hydrofracking. These and others seemed intent on glomming onto this issue in hopes of stealing some publicity for themselves and to advance their own particular pet cause.

Each threw more gasoline on the fire of sensationalism. All abandoned logic and objectivity. The simple, plain answer, obtainable from any doctor they put a microphone in front of, was ignored and largely unreported.

They pretended there was a mystery here when, in fact, there was none.

Television reports were comprised of the completely baseless speculations of individuals pulling theories off the Internet and out of their backsides. No balance, no experts, nothing but breathless stand ups with more information promised at 6 and 11.

Common sense and medical advice said to leave it be, and let these girls and their hometown heal in private. But various out-of-town adults did just the opposite. They focused the hot lights of attention right where it was destined to do the most harm.

They weren’t helping, they were exploiting.

Some for a story, to juice up a newscast. Others to advance their own agenda. Many just for the publicity. It became a freak show of opportunists. Not the girls, not their parents, but the fawning vultures who came to prey upon them and their story.

And it came at a price.

Community fear and anxiety, as well as discord and distrust. A shaking of confidence in community institutions and the medical profession. Like a scene out of “The Crucible,” there arose not just the affliction of some young women, but a second mass hysteria, a wave of fear, unnecessary and damaging.

And more kids got sick.

By the end of the “Today” week, three or four more had suddenly developed symptoms. Just as the man from the state had said would happen.

Those teens are victims of the misconduct of TV people and activists and others who made a sideshow out of this. Their pain is real, their symptoms are genuine, and you can blame the 6 o’clock news.

The activists can swoop through, steal some publicity for themselves, and then disappear, while innocent teen-agers are left to suffer through the road to recovery.

Proper response to this matter would have limited both symptoms and new victims. But we did not respond properly, we responded recklessly and irresponsibly, and we have extended the suffering of the afflicted and created new victims to similarly suffer.

Because we embraced superstition and self-interest. We turned from the truth of diagnosis to the fiction of fantasy. For all our education and advantage, we are not sophisticated, and that has tripped us up.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012

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