Furor over Treating Autism in France ; Filmmaker Faces Attacks and Lawsuits for Showing Split on Psychoanalysis

By David Jolly; Stephanie Novak | International Herald Tribune, January 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Furor over Treating Autism in France ; Filmmaker Faces Attacks and Lawsuits for Showing Split on Psychoanalysis


David Jolly; Stephanie Novak, International Herald Tribune


Sophie Robert and her film "Le Mur" have been the targets of criticism from both the analysts who appear in the film and from within the country's psychoanalytic establishment.

"Le Mur," or "The Wall," a small documentary film about autism released online last year, might normally not have attracted much attention.

But an effort by French psychoanalysts to keep it from public eyes has helped to make it into a minor cause and shone a spotlight on the way children in France are treated for mental health problems.

The documentary, the first film by Sophie Robert, follows two autistic boys: Guillaume, who has been treated with the behavioral, or "American," approach; and Julien, who has been kept in an asylum for six years and treated with psychoanalysis. Guillaume, though challenged, is functioning at a high level in school. Julien is essentially silent, locked out of society.

Since Sept. 8, when the film first became available on the Web, it and Ms. Robert, 44, have been the targets of criticism from both the analysts who appear in the film and from within the country's psychoanalytic establishment. Three of the psychoanalysts whom Ms. Robert interviewed for the film have sued her, claiming she misrepresented them in the 52-minute documentary, which has not yet been screened in cinemas or on television.

On Jan. 26, a court in the northern city of Lille will decide whether Ms. Robert must remove their interviews from the documentary if she wishes to keep screening it. The plaintiffs are also seeking damages of EUR 300,000, or $384,000. The lawsuit might be futile, since the film is widely available on the Web (with English subtitles), having been viewed on YouTube more than 16,000 times. (Ms. Robert argues that the plaintiffs, all of whom appear in the film, signed detailed releases.)

Ms. Robert is planning to screen the film in Philadelphia at an autism conference on Jan. 26, the same day the court is to rule. If she wins, a local channel in the north of France, Weo, has agreed to screen it, as has Television Suisse Romande, a Swiss channel.

The film makes no pretense of objectivity, juxtaposing interviews with psychoanalysts with scathing criticism of the field's precepts. Ms. Robert, 44, describes herself as an anthropologist and said she once wanted to be a psychoanalyst herself.

"I would have never imagined what I discovered," she said of her first few interviews for the film. "Then I thought, wow, what I hear is just crazy."

Christian Charriere-Bournazel, the lawyer for the three plaintiffs -- Esthela Solano Suarez, Eric Laurent et Alexandre Stevens -- did not respond to requests for comment.

But in court filings, Mr. Charriere-Bournazel said the film had been edited to make his clients look absurd. Ms. Robert, he said, presented the project to the analysts as a documentary, though "it was in reality a polemical enterprise meant to ridicule psychoanalysis in favor of the behavioral treatments that are so fashionable in the United States."

"The film is unfair," Elisabeth Roudinesco, a French historian of psychoanalysis at the University of Paris VII, said. "It is fanatically anti-psychoanalysis. But I don't think she's manipulated the film to make them look ridiculous; rather, I think she chose to talk with very dogmatic psychoanalysts who come across as ridiculous."

Professor Roudinesco said the French psychoanalysis community was actually quite divided by the question of autism, with some "fanatics who believe that autism is caused by a frigid, cold mother. But you don't attack an entire discipline of medicine because of a scandal involving a few practitioners."

"Even if it is proved someday that autism is a genetic malady," she asked, "why abandon the idea that the talking cure could help the patient?"

The idea that children with autism spectrum disorder should be treated with the "talking cure" employed in psychoanalysis may sound outdated to some viewers, since many medical scientists believe that underlying physiological problems are at least partly responsible for the disorder. …

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