Hysteria on Main Street

By Hass, Nancy | Newsweek, February 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Hysteria on Main Street


Hass, Nancy, Newsweek


Byline: Nancy Hass

Some 20 high-school girls are now uncontrollably twitching in rural upstate New York. And the media circus is making it worse.

The doctors have tried to tell her every way they know how over the past three months: delicately, constantly, even urgently. But as Heather Parker sips coffee in her weathered clapboard house, she still isn't buying that the Tourette's-like twitches that have consumed her 17-year-old daughter, Lydia, since she woke up from an October nap are a product of a psychological disorder, not a physical one.

"I just can't make sense of it, it's just so obvious that something is really wrong in her body," says Parker, a single mother with a ponytail and glasses who's lived all her life around Le Roy, a town of 7,500 near Rochester, where, before a slew of teenage girls started reporting such tics, the only attraction of note was the Jell-O museum. Beside her sits Lydia, an unhappy-looking girl with coal-black dyed hair whose right arm swings like an orchestra conductor's every five seconds or so. Lydia, a senior, hasn't been in school since the tics started. She's supposed to be going to her tutor, but often she can't get herself out of bed, so now she may have to drop out and get a GED. "She was going to be the first person in the family to finish high school, but because of what's happened to her health, that doesn't look good now," says her mother.

When the girls--there are more than 20 of them now, with four new cases last week alone--started reporting similar symptoms, it didn't take long for the TV cameras to descend. Since January, there have been dozens of crews crowding the counter at places like Java's on Main, the local coffee shop, clutching tripods and cappuccinos, hoping for footage of the girls and their parents. In the past few weeks, producers from Good Morning America, The Today Show, Dr. Drew, and Anderson Cooper 360A[degrees] have swooped in, offering anxious moms a chance to go on air with their daughters, to beg for answers.

Could it be toxins from hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in the natural-gas wells that ring the girls' school? Seepage from a 1970 cyanide spill miles away, suddenly reappearing after all these years and somehow affecting only young women? Or maybe all those folks on the Internet are right with their rants against vaccinations like Gardasil. And what about PANDAS, the elusive pediatric auto-immune infection? Surely if Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader who has made a career out of litigating spills, sent a trusted aide to the scene to dig up soil samples from the school grounds, there was reason to suspect a cover-up. For months, the marquee on the front of the Living Waters Church on Main Street bespoke the community's fears: "We are praying for our h.s. girls."

But amid the soundbites from contentious public meetings and the bustle of production assistants ushering red-eyed mothers to the makeup chair lies a very inconvenient truth: the cluster in Le Roy is, by all reasonable judgment, a mass hallucination. Aided by media of all sorts, what the girls are suffering from is perhaps the ultimate disease of our era.

Over the past months, even as health officials have methodically ruled out organic causes, the cases have stubbornly spread through this working-class community. "It's a very hard thing for parents, for people in general, to accept," says Laszlo Mechtler, a leading neurologist in the area, who has had 18 of the girls in his office. Leaning forward in a leather chair at the end of a long day, he says that he and a female colleague recognized as soon as the girls started streaming into their office that they had "conversion disorder," named because the mind unconsciously "converts" emotional disturbances into physical symptoms. In addition to the girls, one woman in her 30s and a teenage boy have also developed symptoms.

"This is nothing that people want to hear," he says. …

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