Magazine article The New Yorker

Hysterical

Magazine article The New Yorker

Hysterical

Article excerpt

About the most cheerful person in Le Roy, New York, the other day was Lynne Belluscio, the curator of the local Jell-O museum, which commemorates the town's history as the "birthplace of Jell-O." "We've had visitors from Canada, from Sri Lanka," she said, reciting highlights from a recent uptick in traffic. Belluscio, who has close-cropped gray hair and a thoughtful gaze, was wearing moss-green corduroys and an orange sweatshirt on which the word "Jell-O" was printed, each letter a color corresponding to one of Jell-O's five traditional flavors. She stood at the entrance to the museum's main gallery and cast a satisfied glance at the guestbook, open to a page filled with ink, which was displayed under a jaunty archway--a structure featuring the word "JELL-O" in red wood suspended between two enormous white spoons. (The archway is a souvenir from the 2002 Winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City; Jell-O is Utah's official state snack.)

The museum is an unintended beneficiary of a community crisis. Early last fall, a seventeen-year-old cheerleader at the local high school woke from a nap unable to speak without stuttering. Since then, residents of Le Roy, a hard-pressed farming town in the state's western snowbelt, have experienced odd and debilitating symptoms: facial tics, body twitches, vocal outbursts, seizures. By last week, more than twenty people were affected--nearly all of them girls who attend the high school. Tests of the school's air and water came back clean. Doctors ruled out infections, contamination by heavy metals, Gardasil side effects, Tourette's. Eventually, they diagnosed an outbreak of conversion disorder (popular term: mass hysteria), a relatively rare phenomenon that, for reasons that are poorly understood, typically strikes groups of adolescent girls. The symptoms are real, but their cause isn't genes or germs; it's stress.

As the cases have multiplied, so, too, have the number of reporters in Le Roy. "We had three separate Japanese television crews come over," Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, the Buffalo neurologist who has treated fifteen of the girls for conversion disorder, said last week. Mechtler's diagnosis has been endorsed by specialists from the National Institutes of Health, Harvard, and U.C.L.A., but not by everyone in Le Roy. "Obviously, all of us are not accepting that this is just a stress thing," one father said on the "Today" show in January. Two teens appeared on the show, to politely demand, between bouts of arm flailing and verbal hiccups, what one called a "straight answer. …

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