CU researchers find outmoded psychology, dubious brain science and ‘the banality of toxicity’ at heart of ‘mass hysteria’ case
In the autumn of 2011, 12 girls attending Le Roy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York began to exhibit strange neurological symptoms, including tics, verbal outbursts, seizure-like activity and difficulty speaking.
Almost immediately, the case became a sort of Rorschach test, as factions proposed various causes, from environmental toxins to vaccines to mass hysteria.
Some five months later, neurologist Laszlo Mechtler, who had been treating most of the teens, publicly proclaimed that they were suffering from a “conversion disorder” — in which stress induces neurological symptoms — and “mass psychogenic illness,” a sort of domino-effect delusion.
His diagnosis was a throwback to Freudian ideas considered outmoded by most modern psychologists, but was celebrated by some professionals, including the neurologists and brain scientists who became involved in the case.
In a paper published in the November 2015 issue of American Ethnologist, two University of Colorado Boulder researchers argue that some experts and the media may have latched onto that explanation because it was easier than delving deeply into other potential causes and it could be effortlessly melded with discredited psychological notions that still have currency in the popular imagination.
In addition, some neurologists claimed they would be able to locate hysteria in the brain, appealing to popular — but not always warranted — confidence in brain science.
“Teenage girls are subject to a lot of abuse in some ways. They are seen as unruly high-tech users and subject to hysteria,” says Donna Goldstein, professor of anthropology, who co-authored the paper with Kira Hall, professor of linguistics and anthropology.
“They were clearly suffering from terrible neurological symptoms, but (some experts) were able to map them onto a dusty old Freudian theory about women.”
The paper explores how Le Roy was swiftly reduced to repackaged Freudian diagnoses of “hysteria” and “mass hysteria,” which are almost always applied to females (“hysteria” comes from the Latin root for “womb”), as well as class and cultural bias.
“The diagnosis engaged with powerful societal ideas about bodies that are ‘stressed’ by being simultaneously working class, rural, fatherless and female,” Goldstein and Hall write. The researchers requested permission to interview the girls, but were denied.
“We wondered if this case had been a group of boys, would they have been able to make this diagnosis, and we don’t think so,” Goldstein says. “It was seen as ‘fitting’ for girls in their teenage years.”
The authors make no attempt to identify the true source of the episode, “but we did question how quickly this diagnosis was accepted and everything else ruled out,” says Goldstein.
They were clearly suffering from terrible neurological symptoms, but (some experts) were able to map them onto a dusty old Freudian theory about women.”
“Everything else” includes the possibility of “layered toxicity” from multiple chemical contaminations in the surrounding environment, such as water contaminated with an illegal gasoline additive and a nearby Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site tainted with trichloroethylene and cyanide.
“Environmental inquiry is kind of endless and difficult to do, and unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere,” she says. “So the least problematic, easiest solution is ushered in to take over.”
Giving short shrift to investigating such explanations is a symptom of what the authors call “the banality of toxicity.”
“We are no longer doing the basic science around chemicals we are using,” Goldstein says. Not only is it expensive, but society also has been conditioned to accept glib industry pronouncements about safety without sufficient analysis, and the Internet and social media have trained many to latch on to quick, easy answers.
“We don’t necessarily want to know what the truth is,” Goldstein says. “Rather, we want to find the easiest solution. … This is the new normal, it seems.”
As examples of citizens’ indifference to the truth, she cites three recent examples of environmental contamination that were not studied thoroughly from the outset — lead in the water supply in Flint, Mich., methane contamination in Los Angeles and a chemical spill in West Virginia — as well as ongoing minimization of the long-term effects of Russia’s 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
The EPA and New York State Department of Health concluded there was no reason to suspect environmental contamination had caused the symptoms, even before the girls had been diagnosed. Renowned environmental investigator Erin Brockovich concluded, “There is no link specifically that I can draw to environmental exposure,” but that was “because there are so many environmental exposures that occurred at the high school.”
But Goldstein and Hall found that explanation and investigation lacking and disturbing.
“(C)ommunity leaders embraced one of the more implausible explanations, mass psychogenic illness,” which “won the public’s approval and outscienced its competitors, in part because neurology appears to have deep cultural and scientific capital and in part because Le Roy village residents lack wealth and could be readily depicted as parochial and uneducated in medical matters,” they conclude.
Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist.