August 14, 2016

Hebephilia flunks Frye test

Photo credit: NY Law Journal
In a strongly worded rejection of hebephilia, a New York judge has ruled that the controversial diagnosis cannot be used in legal proceedings because of “overwhelming opposition” to its validity among the psychiatric community.

Judge Daniel Conviser heard testimony from six experts (including this blogger) and reviewed more than 100 scholarly articles before issuing a long-awaited opinion this week in the case of “Ralph P.,” a 72-year-old man convicted in 2001 of a sex offense against a 14-year-old boy. The state of New York is seeking to civilly detain Ralph P. on the basis of alleged future dangerousness.

State psychologist Joel Lord had initially labeled Ralph P. with the unique diagnosis of sexual attraction to “sexually inexperienced young teenage males,” but later changed his diagnosis to hebephilia, a condition proposed but rejected for the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Under the Frye evidentiary standard, designed to bar novel scientific methods that are not sufficiently validated, a construct must be “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific community before it can be relied upon in legal proceedings.

Judge Conviser found that hebephilia (generally defined as sexual attraction to children in the early stages of puberty, or around the ages of 11 or 12 to 14) is being promoted by a tiny fringe of researchers and in practice is used almost exclusively as a tool to civilly commit convicted sex offenders. Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such offenders must have a mental disorder in order to qualify for prolonged detention after they have served their prison terms.

“It is not an accident, as Dr. Franklin outlined, that hebephilia became a prominent diagnosis only with the advent of SVP laws,” the judge wrote in his 75-page opinion. “It is also not a coincidence that each of the three expert witnesses who testified for the State at the instant hearing either work or formerly worked for state [Sexually Violent Predator] programs.”

Conviser’s ruling analyzed both the practical problems in reliably identifying hebephilia and the political controversies swirling around it: Without any standardized criteria, “clinicians are free to assign hebephilia diagnoses in widely disparate ways, many of which are just plainly wrong.” Using age as a proxy for pubertal stage is no guarantee of reliability because pubertal onset is highly variable. Ultimately, he concluded, whether erotic interest in pubescent minors is deemed "pathological" is more about moral values than science.

APA secrecy faulted

The judge was harshly critical of the American Psychiatric Association for its refusal to publicly explain why it rejected hebephilia from the DSM-5 in 2013. The diagnosis was aggressively promoted by a Canadian psychologist, Ray Blanchard, and fellow researchers from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who dominated the DSM-5 subcommittee on paraphilias.

Blanchard rewrote the DSM section on paraphilias (sexual deviances) in a broad way such that virtually all sexual interests other than a narrowly defined “normophilic” pattern became pathological. However, the APA rejected Blanchard’s proposal to expand pedophilia to pathologize adult sexual attractions to pubescent-aged (rather than just prepubescent) minors.

“The proposal was apparently rejected because it was greeted with a firestorm of criticism by the sex offender psychiatric community, which was communicated to the APA board…. As best as this Court can surmise, the APA rejected the pedohebephilia proposal because it was opposed by most of the psychiatrists and psychologists who worked in the field.”

“[S]trikingly,” wrote Judge Conviser, “the process through which proposed new diagnoses are approved or rejected is shrouded in a degree of secrecy which would be the envy of many totalitarian regimes…. With respect to hebephilia, the APA board’s actions will have a direct impact on both public safety and the fundamental liberty interests of hundreds or thousands of people.”

The APA forces those involved in the DSM revision process to sign nondisclosure contracts. That policy came in the wake of a series of published exposes – including Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis, and Ethan Watters’s Crazy Like Us (to name just a few of my favorites) -- that embarrassed the world’s largest psychiatric organization by shining a light inside the often subjective and political process of diagnosis creation and expansion.

“Overwhelming” opposition

Blanchard and his CAMH colleagues’ 2009 proposal to expand pedophilia into a new “pedohebephilia” diagnosis in the DSM-5 spawned a massive outcry, which mushroomed into at least five dozen published critiques.

In preparation for my testimony at this and similar Frye hearings in New York, I expanded on my 2010 article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law tracing hebephilia’s rise from obscurity, to produce an updated chart containing all 116 articles addressing the construct. If one tallies only those articles that take a position (pro or con) on hebephilia and are not written by members of the CAMH team, fully 83% are critical as compared to only 17% that are favorable. This, Judge Conviser noted, is strong evidence against the government’s position that hebephilia is “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific communities.

“The thrust of the evidence at the hearing was … clear: there was overwhelming opposition to the pedohebephilia proposal in the sex offender psychiatric community,” he wrote. “There is overwhelming opposition to the hebephilia diagnosis today.”

Courts scrutinizing nouveau diagnoses

With the APA’s rejection of hebephilia as well as two other proposed sexual disorders (one for preferential rape and another for hypersexuality), government evaluators continue to shoehorn novel, case-specific diagnostic labels into the catchall DSM-5 category of “other specified paraphilic disorder” (OSPD) as a basis for civil commitment.

Under a 2012 New York appellate court ruling in the case of State v. Shannon S., upon a defense request, a Frye evidentiary hearing must be held on any such attempt to introduce an OSPD diagnosis into a Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) case. That has triggered a spate of Frye hearings in the Empire State, affording greater scrutiny and judicial gatekeeping of scientifically questionable diagnoses.

Ironically, although the Shannon S. court upheld hebephilia by a narrow 4-3 margin, Shannon S. would not have met diagnostic criteria under the narrower definitions presented by the government experts at Ralph P.’s Frye hearing four years later, because his victims were older than 14.

“Assuming hebephilia is a legitimate diagnosis, Shannon S., like many SVP respondents, was apparently diagnosed with the condition not based on evidence he was preferentially attracted to underdeveloped pubescent body types but because he offended against underage victims,” Judge Conviser observed in his detailed summary of prior New York cases.

The three dissenting judges in Shannon S. were adamant that hebephilia was “absurd,” and an example of “junk science,” deployed with the pretextual goal of “locking up dangerous criminals” who had committed statutory rapes.

The opening of the Frye floodgates has led to a flurry of sometimes-competing opinions.

In 2015, in State v. Mercado, Judge Dineen Riviezzo ruled against “OSPD--sexually attracted to teenage females” as a legitimate diagnosis. However, she declined to rule on the general acceptance of hebephilia because it was not specifically diagnosed in that case.

A year later, relying on similar evidence, a judge in upstate New York ruled in State v. Paul V. that hebephilia was generally accepted, in large part because it was backed by the APA’s paraphilias sub-workgroup. Judge Conviser found that reasoning unpersuasive, pointing out that the subworkgroup was dominated by the very same CAMH researchers who were hebephilia’s primary advocates; it was therefore “not a valid proxy" for the scientific community.

In July, another court rejected both hebephilia and “OSPD--underage males” as valid diagnoses, in the cases of Hugh H. and Martello A. The court noted that hebephilia is inconsistently defined, was rejected for the DSM-5, and is primarily advanced by one research group; further, attraction to pubescent minors is not intrinsically abnormal.

Cynthia Calkins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, echoed those points in her testimony at Ralph P.'s hearing. She noted that in the United States, the main psychologists advocating for hebephilia are government-retained evaluators in SVP cases, who make up only perhaps one-fourth of one percent of psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S. and so cannot be a proxy for “general acceptance” in the scientific community.

The government’s choice of experts illustrated Calkins’ point: Testifying for the government were Christopher Kunkle, director of New York’s civil management program for sex offenders, David Thornton of Wisconsin’s civil commitment center, and Robin Wilson, formerly of Florida’s civil commitment center and a protégé of Ray Blanchard’s.

The third expert called by Ralph P.’s attorneys was Charles Ewing, a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo Law School who is both an attorney and a forensic psychologist and has authored several books on forensic psychology.

Defense attorneys Maura Klugman and Jessica Botticelli of Mental Hygiene Legal Service represented Ralph P. Assistant New York Attorney General Elaine Yacyshyn represented the state.

Ultimately, New York State’s highest court may have to weigh in to resolve once and for all the question of whether novel psychiatric diagnoses like hebephilia are admissible for civil commitment purposes. But that could be years down the road.


The ruling in State v. Ralph P. is HERE.

A New York Law Journal report on the case, "judge Rejects Diagnosis for Civil Confinement," is HERE.

A search of this blog site using the term hebephilia will produce my reports on this construct dating all the way back to my original post from 2007, "Invasion of the Hebephile Hunters."

July 5, 2016

The Trauma Myth, Revisited

The Trauma Myth may be one of the most misunderstood books of the past decade. Based on its regrettable title, pedophiles erroneously believe it minimizes the harm of child sexual abuse; in the opposite corner, some misguided anti-abuse crusaders have demonized the Harvard-trained author as a pedophile apologist. As guest blogger Jon Brandt explains in this review -- first published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Forum, the newsletter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) -- both fans and detractors of Susan Clancy have gotten the courageous researcher all wrong.

The Trauma Myth

by Susan Clancy

Book review by Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW*

As a former child protection social worker, and now working with both victims and offenders, I was drawn to The Trauma Myth because of both the title, and subtitle: “The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and its aftermath.” When I first read Susan Clancy’s book, in 2010, nearly every page confirmed my professional experience with victims. I’m offering this review some six years after the book's publication because I believe most experienced professionals will agree that Clancy’s thesis is not just well-researched, but articulate and luminously persuasive.

Dr. Clancy is a Harvard-trained experimental psychologist. Her expertise is not in the field of sexual abuse; it is in the field of memory. This information is important in understanding how Clancy endeavored to interview adults who had been victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) – in part, to further understand the role of memory in how adults recalled traumatic experiences. Clancy acknowledges that her career had a rocky start – not only investigating adult memories of childhood sexual abuse, but to understand why some people seemed to believe in alien abductions. Clancy writes about the challenge of having to reconcile her research with two deep concerns: first, she had to abandon some of what she had been taught about the ‘trauma’ of sexual abuse, and second, she had to try to save her reputation and career.

After Clancy interviewed more than 200 Boston-area adult victims of CSA, she came to recognize that most victims’ memories were consistent with previous research – the vast majority of victims knew, liked, and/or trusted their abusers. And she confirmed another finding – that most CSA was tricked and manipulated, not the product of threats, force, pain, or injury. Even young children intuitively understand that when an older person inflicts pain, injury, or fear (elements of trauma), something is very wrong. But when sexual violations occur in the absence of violence and in the presence of trust, most victims reported being confused by the encounter, rather than traumatized. Less than one in ten adults that Clancy interviewed described being sexually abused as “traumatic.” Clancy considered that perhaps CSA is so traumatic that adults had repressed their memories, but that hypothesis ran counter to research that: (1) discredits repressed memories and (2) indicates that the more powerful life experiences are to an individual, the more the events are both strongly embedded and vividly recalled. Clancy goes on to articulately detail how children are indeed harmed by sexual abuse – in the aftermath.

Dr. Clancy has expressed some regret about the title of her book, but does not back-peddle from her findings – that CSA is not universally traumatic. She asserts that many professionals don’t really understand how, why, and when CSA is harmful, and imputing trauma when it’s not present might actually introduce secondary harm. Clancy expresses that children clearly do not have the developmental capabilities to understand interpersonal sex, that acceding to sexual touching is not the same as sexual consent, and that naïve cooperation is not complicity. In the absence of veritable trauma, the harm of CSA comes not from sexual touching, per se, but from relationship violations – a sense of betrayal, shame, and misplaced blame. Clancy explains that as a CSA victim begins to sexually and socially mature, and comes to understand what motivated their abuser, they feel duped and exploited. As victims try to reconcile how and why someone of trust would use them for sexual purposes, the ‘harm’ evolves. Clancy’s message is clear: if we don’t talk to kids about sex, we leave them vulnerable; if we don’t listen to kids who have been sexually abused, we re-victimize them; when we truly listen to child victims, we empower them to guide their own recovery – that helps to turn victims into survivors.

Dr. Clancy uses the controversies around her book to illustrate how difficult it is for professionals to navigate the nuances of CSA, and that it is incumbent on adults to protect children until they are mature enough to navigate the world of interpersonal sex. Clancy acknowledges that she was perhaps naïve in believing that rigorous science would protect the integrity of her research. What she was not prepared for was that CSA is virtually unspeakable – so abhorrent that, even among the educated, it was difficult to separate legitimate research from prevailing public opinion, or simply the politics of sex.

In 1998, psychologist, Bruce Rind and colleagues published an article on CSA in the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Bulletin. It was peer-reviewed, sound research, but so contrary to conventional beliefs of CSA that it resulted in an Act of Congress condemning his work. In 1981, Professor Alfred Kadushin (one of my graduate school advisors at the University of Wisconsin) published a book titled Child Abuse, an Interactional Event. He spent the rest of his career explaining that he was not blaming children for being abused.

The truth is, there has never been any time in history that sex could be separated from politics, or that science hasn’t waged an uphill battle against public opinion. The Socratic Method, or the applications of logic and scrutiny to understanding complex problems, is a predecessor of the Scientific Method, and one of the most important legacies of Socrates. It is ironic that Socrates could not survive the politics of his own time – he was condemned to death as a heretic. Nearly two millennia later, perhaps Galileo had taken note of the fate of Socrates. When Galileo found himself charged with heresy, to avoid being executed, he recanted his theory of the heliocentric solar system, and lived out his life under house arrest. It took another 350 years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge that Galileo had been right all along.

Susan Clancy wasn’t charged with heresy, at least not formally, but by her own admission, after a firestorm of controversy over The Trauma Myth, she fled the US to work in Nicaragua for several years. If Clancy was flattered by a favorable book review in the NY Times, she must have been horrified by a book review by NAMBLA [the North American Man/Boy Love Association]. Clancy’s book, and her story, are a testimony to professional courage in the face of deeply held, widespread, long-standing beliefs about the sexual abuse of children. Apparently, Clancy no longer writes or teaches about sexual abuse, based on a Google search, but she is still professionally active in research and education about the functions of memory.

There is so much right about The Trauma Myth that I am hesitant to be critical, but I think Clancy missed the mark on a few points. In my experience, some victims of CSA have the internal constitution to avoid both the trauma and the harm of sexual abuse. Other victims seem to have the resiliency and tenacity, with or without professional help, to truly earn the moniker of ‘survivor.’ Clancy views CSA as dichotomous – if there is a victim, there is an offender, who must be punished. If Clancy understood offending with the same verve, complexity, and nuances with which she understands victims, I think she would forgo the black and white, victim-offender paradigm in favor of the complex dynamics of offending, and the range of uniquely tailored interventions that serve victims, offenders, and their families. With a focus on the etiology and aftermath of CSA, it might not be obvious that Clancy was also advocating for both more prevention and better public policies.

The Trauma Myth is well researched, with endnotes in APA format. With just over 200 pages, and still professionally sound, it is easy reading. Most individuals are likely to approach the book with the same skepticism with which Clancy pursued her research. In the end, I think most professionals are likely to agree with many conclusions that Dr. Clancy found unassailable: that the popular, one-dimensional understanding of ‘trauma’ caused by child sexual abuse is largely a myth – a vestige of the 20th century.

*Jon Brandt is a clinical social worker who specializes in the evaluation, treatment and supervision to sexual offenders. His previous guest posts have reported on the link between pornography and contact sex offending and on an ongoing legal challenge to Minnesota's civil commitment of sex offenders. Many thanks to the editors of The Forum for granting me permission to post Mr. Brandt's review. The original review can be found HERE.

June 1, 2016

Non-testifying consultants: Does attorney-client privilege apply?

Is the work product of an expert who is retained only as a consultant -- not as a testifying witness -- confidential under the doctrine of attorney-client privilege?

With courts around the United States divided, that was the question before the Georgia Supreme Court in the case of Henry Neuman of Georgia, which I reported on back in 2012.

During Neuman’s high-profile murder trial, the trial judge had allowed prosecutors to introduce the notes of two confidential defense consultants, whom they had identified by snooping through jail visiting logs. The notes contradicted the testimony of the defense’s testifying experts, and Neuman was convicted.

In a 6-1 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court came down solidly on the side of protecting confidentiality. The trial judge's error was harmful enough for the state high court to reverse Neuman’s conviction, paving the way for a retrial.

Non-testifying experts serve as “agent[s] of the defense team,” the court held, so all communication between them and attorneys falls under the privacy umbrella of attorney-client privilege. Even when an insanity defense is raised, “the cloak of privilege” only falls away at the point that defense counsel elects to call an expert as a witness, ruled the court.

Such protection is essential so that attorneys can vigorously defend the accused, by obtaining expert advice on evidentiary strategy or by consulting with multiple experts who may hold conflicting views, without worrying that they are creating adverse witnesses against their client, the court explained:

“The attorney-client privilege is vital in cases such as this one where the defendant’s sanity is at issue because the privilege allows the attorneys to consult with the non-testifying expert in order to familiarize themselves with central medical concepts, assess the soundness and advantages of an insanity defense, evaluate potential specialists, and probe adverse testimony…. [W]ithout the protection of privilege, the defendant’s attorneys run the risk that the psychiatric expert they have hired to evaluate the defendant will render an opinion inconsistent with the defense’s insanity theory and the expert will then be made an involuntary witness for the State.”

This is precisely what happened at Neuman’s trial. Psychologist Peter Thomas and forensic psychiatrist Rand Dorney had conducted initial screenings to assist Neuman’s attorneys in assessing the viability of a criminal responsibility defense. After the trial judge permitted prosecutors to subpoena their records, the defense was forced to call the two as witnesses in order to keep the prosecution from calling them as rebuttal witnesses.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruling is HERE. My prior blog post on the case is HERE. A Fordham Law Review article on this topic is HERE.

Hat tip: Denis Zavodny  

April 17, 2016

The Psychology of Arson

Each year, about 60,000 bushfires rage across Australia, wreaking environmental devastation and costing lives and economic losses. An estimated half or more are deliberately set.

Considering arson's devastating toll, surprisingly little is known about who sets fires, and why. Intensive efforts to catch and prosecute firesetters have also done little to douse the flames.

It is no surprise that Australia is the epicenter of efforts to fill that gap, with several ongoing research and intervention programs. Now, two forensic psychologists and a mental health nurse have published a book that brings together cutting-edge theory and practical advice grounded in empirical research.

The Psychology of Arson represents the collected knowledge of 30 experts from around the world. Chapter by chapter, it explores the psychosocial factors underlying arson by children and adolescents (who make up a large share of firesetters), by suicidal and homicidal people, by women, by the mentally disordered and cognitively impaired, and by men who set fires for purposes of sexual gratification.

Forensic practitioners will find especially useful the sections on risk assessment, treatment, and management of firesetters, while researchers will benefit from the concluding chapter identifying research gaps and needs in this understudied area. The organization facilitates digestion: Each chapter starts with a clearly written summary of key points, followed by logically organized subheadings and text.

Particularly innovative is the authors’ attempt to go beyond the simplistic theorizing of early research to offer up an evidence-based theoretical model that can inform clinical interventions and even prevention efforts. Their nuanced multi-trajectory theory classifies arson based on four key factors: fire-related scripts, offense-supportive thoughts, emotional regulation issues, and communication problems.

Forensic psychologists Rebekah Doley
 and Theresa Gannon
The editors and lead authors are highly qualified for this project. Rebekah Doley of Bond University in Australia is an internationally recognized authority on firesetting who co-directs the Centre for Forensic and International Risk Management; Theresa Gannon of Kent University in the UK, Director of the Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology, is similarly renowned, with numerous scholarly publications on firesetting. Rounding out the team is a widely published mental health nursing professor, Geoffrey Dickens of Abertay University in Dundee.

January 31, 2016

What’s Wrong With “Making A Murderer”?

Making A Murderer is generating huge buzz on social media; dual petitions calling for Steven Avery’s exoneration have garnered more than 600,000 signatures to date. But after slogging through the 10-hour Netflix “documentary,” I was left feeling disturbed by the drama’s narrative and premises. Here's why:

1. The narrative is grossly misleading.

The hook to this story is protagonist Steven Avery’s prior exoneration: He served 18 years in prison for a rape of which he was ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence; just three years after his release, he was arrested for the unrelated murder and mutilation of another young woman in rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

It’s an intriguing hook. But others – including the superb podcasters at Radiolab in 2013 – had already mined it. So filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi went for a different twist: Avery was innocent, framed by corrupt police whose reputations were tarnished by the wrongful conviction scandal.

Viewers are treated to interminable audio clips of the convicted killer proclaiming his innocence and whining about the injustice of it all. With its sympathetic focus on Avery and his socially marginal family, the documentary excludes much of the hard evidence pointing to Avery.

Perhaps the most blatant example of misinformation is the portrayal of Avery and his victim as strangers. In fact, the evidence presented at trial suggested that Avery not only knew Teresa Halbach, a photographer for Auto Trader magazine, but was targeting her. After a photo assignment at his family's auto salvage yard in which he greeted her wearing only a towel, she complained to her bosses that she was “creeped out” by him. Yet he continued to call and ask for her to be sent back out. Phone records revealed that on the day of her murder, he repeatedly called her cell phone, using *67 to block his ID. Not only was her cremated body found in his burn pit just a few steps from his trailer, but two separate witnesses testified they had seen Avery putting items into a barrel of his from which police later recovered her incinerated cell phone and camera. Avery's nephew also told police he had helped Avery hide the victim's vehicle in the salvage yard, and DNA evidence of Avery's sweat under the hood corroborated his account.

This brief list is not exhaustive; there's lots more inculpatory evidence that the series omits or glosses over.

2. It lionizes a sexual predator.

There are plenty of sympathetic characters in prison. A great many of them are unquestionably guilty. Steven Avery – innocent or guilty – is not one of them. He comes across as shallow, callous and self-absorbed, fitting the part of a cold and calculating predator.

Prisoners who served time with him during his first bid confirmed that he was not a nice guy. They told investigators that he showed them diagrams of a torture chamber he planned to build when he was released, so that he could "torture and rape and murder young women.”

There is further evidence of tremendous rage toward women. While in prison, he threatened to mutilate and kill his former wife. And despite his exoneration in the original rape for which he was convicted, prosecutors presented evidence in a pretrial affidavit of two other rapes of girls and women for which he was never prosecuted. There are also allegations that he sexually molested child relatives, including his codefendant and nephew, Brendan Dassey.

Perhaps most ominously, just three weeks before Halbach’s murder, he bought a set of leg irons and handcuffs, suggesting that the crime was premeditated and elaborately planned.

It is only if we know this background information -- excluded from the Netflix series -- that we can make proper sense of the trial judge’s admonition to Avery at his sentencing hearing:

“You are probably the most dangerous individual ever to set foot in this courtroom.”

3. Journalistic bias of this magnitude is unethical.

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos
In several drawn-out scenes, the filmmakers depict the TV news crews covering the trial as bottom-feeding hyenas, lacking any compassion or mercy as they circle and nip at the heels of the beleaguered Avery clan.

This is a clever cinematic device. It imparts the illusion that the documentarians are above the fray, more neutral and trustworthy than the media rabble. 

In reality, they are no less superficial. We get no greater clarity, and certainly no deeper analysis. The difference is merely one of perspective. Lengthy scenes in the Avery kitchen, watching Steven's mother Dolores prepare and eat her lunch, emphasize the one-sidedness of the series: Demos and Ricciardi are essentially mouthpieces for Steven Avery.

It’s not that police do not lie, or plant evidence. They do it all the time. So it's certainly possible that police planted the victim's car key in Avery’s bedroom, as the Averys claim. But framing Avery would have required much more. Police would have had to know the location of Halbach's body in order to move it to Avery's burn pit. They would have had to plant Avery's sweat under the hood of Halbach's car, where his nephew's account predicted it would be. All told, this convoluted conspiracy theory stretches credulity.

Ironically, while the filmmakers castigate police for going after Avery’s nephew (instead, they cast unsupported aspersions on the victim's male friends and relatives), Avery and his defense team had no such compunctions. Their alternate suspect list included the boy, along with other male members of the Avery clan.

Some observers, such as journalist and private investigator Ann Brocklehurst, imply that business interests may have contributed to this over-solicitude toward the Averys:
“Ma and Pa Avery are portrayed lovingly as salt-of-the-earth types. They’re never asked how they managed to raise three sons with such a long and documented history of violence.... [I]f the filmmakers had decided one of the brothers, nephews or brother-in-law likely did it, Ma and Pa might have pulled right out of the multi-year film project and left the directors empty-handed. A Shakespearian or Faulkneresque tale of a dysfunctional and dangerous family is of no use to anyone if you don’t have the legal rights to tell it.”
Journalists’ code of ethics warns reporters not to distort either facts or context, and to take special care to avoid misrepresentation or oversimplification.Intentionally or not, Demos and Ricciardi clearly violated this standard.

4. “Innocence porn” exceptionalizes criminal justice problems.

The trope of the wrongfully convicted is a time-honored sub-genre of true crime. New Yorker writer Kathryn Shultz traces it back to the late 1880s, with a popular magazine column called “The Court of Last Resort” by criminal defense lawyer turned author Erle Stanley Gardner, better known for his Perry Mason detective series. As Shultz notes, recent films and TV series in this genre have been quite successful in getting criminal cases reopened and convictions overturned: 

“Although it subsequently faded from memory, 'The Court of Last Resort' stands as the progenitor of one of today’s most popular true-crime subgenres, in which reporters, dissatisfied with the outcome of a criminal case, conduct their own extrajudicial investigations. Until recently, the standout representatives of this form were 'The Thin Blue Line,' a 1988 Errol Morris documentary about Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for the 1976 murder of a police officer; 'Paradise Lost,' a series of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about three teen-agers found guilty of murdering three second-grade boys in West Memphis in 1993; and 'The Staircase,' a television miniseries by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade about the novelist Michael Peterson, found guilty of murdering his wife in 2001. Peterson has been granted a new trial. Randall Dale Adams was exonerated a year after 'The Thin Blue Line' was released. Shortly before the final 'Paradise Lost' documentary was completed, in 2011, all three of its subjects were freed from prison on the basis of DNA evidence.”

Last year’s NPR  podcast series, Serial, probing the case of a young man named Adnan Syed who had been convicted of killing his former high school girlfriend, became an overnight sensation. (And, guess what: A judge has just granted a motion for a new post-conviction review of the evidence in that case.) What with the popular success of Making A Murderer, more such cultural events can be anticipated.

But while documentaries like Serial or Making A Murderer may seem progressive in shining a spotlight on the legal system and exposing flaws therein, they may actually further a narrative of exceptionalism. In other words, miscarriages of justice are rare events caused not by systemic problems, but by ___ (fill in the blank: corrupt police, shyster attorneys, bungled evidence handling or analysis, etc.).

And only the innocents -- the exceptions to the rule -- are worthy of attention. 

5. The nephew got second billing.

Instead of hanging their tale on the threadbare hook of Avery’s prior exoneration, the filmmakers could have delved more deeply into the routine misfiring of the legal system by centralizing Avery’s nephew and codefendant, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey.

Brendan Dassey, the 16-year-old nephew
Like his uncle, Dassey may very well be guilty. But in his case, neither innocence nor deliberate corruption is essential to the narrative. Guilty or innocent, framed or not, the manner of his prosecution was rotten to the core, illustrating more common and systemic flaws in the criminal justice system.

“Innocent people don’t confess,” prosecutor Ken Kratz told the jury.

That false gospel went unchallenged because – for reasons never explained in the series – the juvenile’s defense team chose not to call a confession expert, who could have dissected Massey’s statements and explained to the jury how the detectives’ skillful manipulations produced a potentially unreliable confession.

This was a boy with a low IQ and limited education, who was interviewed by detectives on multiple occasions, for hours and hours on end, without either his mother or his attorney present. He was easily confused and misled into believing that if he confessed, all would be forgiven and he would go home. His statements were contaminated when police fed him facts, which he then regurgitated. 

Private investigator Michael O'Kelly
Dassey also had the misfortune to be initially represented by an unethical attorney who decided early on that Dassey was guilty, ignoring the boy’s protestations to the contrary. The attorney, Len Kachinsky, in turn hired a private investigator with highly confused loyalties. Indeed, the PI wrote a eugenics-laced email to the defense attorney revealing his unabashed antipathy toward his client's family:

“This [family] is truly where the devil resides in comfort. I can find no good in any member. These people are pure evil.... We need to end the gene pool here.”

Together, the loyalty-challenged attorney and investigator brow-beat a detailed confession from their client, which they promptly turned over to police. Although both the attorney and his investigator were removed from the case before trial, neither suffered any official sanction for their betrayal of their duties, or the damage caused to Dassey's case.

6. The entertainment spectacle has produced a destructive backlash.

In perhaps the most poignant moment in the series, defense attorney Dean Strang -- the show’s moral compass -- critiques the “unwarranted certitude” rampant within the criminal justice system, with everyone from police and prosecutors to defense lawyers, judges and jurors far too convinced that they are privy to The Truth.

Across the board, he mourned, the system suffers from “a tragic lack of humility.”

Steven Avery with rape victim Penny Beerntsen
Unfortunately, the filmmakers fell into that very same trap. It was apparent to many that they had naively embarked on their 10-year project wearing blinders. Penny Beerntsen, the original rape victim (whose misidentification sent Avery to prison), was one such observer. A remarkable woman who is active in the innocence movement, Beernsten told the New Yorker that the filmmakers’ certitude troubled her:

“It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent,” she told me. “I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.”

It is no surprise that Avery and his family have staunchly denied his guilt: He was framed once, so why not twice? After all, they point out, the $36 million judgment he was seeking for his false imprisonment could have bankrupted Manitowoc County. But for the filmmakers to fall so under the Averys’ spell that they would radically distort the facts is disconcerting. Their bias was transparent, and the excluded evidence easily available. It seems arrogant to regard the public as too gullible to do any basic fact-checking.

Predictably, a furious backlash has ensued, with social media pundits and entertainment outlets competing to debunk the series. Rather than systemic flaws in the system, the discourse has devolved into a pointless, dichotomous debate over guilt or innocence.

Worst of all from the interests of the innocence movement, some are asking the question: If Steven Avery had never been exonerated, would Teresa Halbach be alive today?

The innocence movement can counter with the fact that Avery is an extreme outlier: Of all the many hundreds of people who have been exonerated and freed from prison, only a tiny handful have reoffended with a serious offense.

But Avery is an outlier for another reason as well: He may not have raped Penny Beerntsen, but he was far from innocent even back then. Police in his rural community already had him on their radar screen, as a dangerous young man, someone who thought nothing of assaulting a female relative with a gun or dousing a cat with oil and throwing it on a bonfire to watch it burn.

The filmmakers insist that it was never their intent to manipulate their audience, nor to propel such a mass rush to judgment – in either direction. In hindsight, however, perhaps the grisly murder of Teresa Halbach was not the best choice for a documentary about innocence?

POSTSCRIPT: On Aug. 12, 2016, a U.S. District court judge granted Brendan Dassey's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, based on the false promises that were made to him (in conjunction with other relevant factos, including his age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult), and ordered that he either be released or granted a new trial. The 91-page ruling is HERE.

January 1, 2016

“Help! I am being held hostage in a reality show!”

The Suspicion System: How the social world shapes delusions

Not so long ago, any decent-sized psychiatric hospital had at least two or three Jesus Christs in residence, and plenty of other patients serving as conduits for the CIA or the KGB.

Nowadays, Jesus Christ is harder to find. You are far more likely to encounter reality TV stars: patients whose every move is choreographed by hidden directors, videotaped by hidden camera crews, and broadcast without consent to an audience of millions. “We see many, many young people who have had the sensation of being filmed,” a psychiatrist at a public clinic in London told the New Yorker. His estimate: One or two out of every 10 patients he sees. 

This so-called Truman Show Delusion is not so irrational in our modern surveillance state, where we (and our cars) are photographed and videotaped whenever we venture into the public space, microphones capable of recording our conversations and instantly beaming them to authorities are hidden in street lighting, and – as exposed by Edward Snowden – the NSA is intercepting vast swaths of our communications and storing them in a massive, top-secret vault in the Utah desert. Soon, our homes will afford no privacy; the CIA is cheering the advent of the “smart home” as a bonanza for clandestine eavesdropping. If you scoff at the notion that They are watching you, revisit the chilling scene in the Bourne Ultimatum (2007) in which Matt Damon tries to avoid the cameras in London’s Waterloo Station.   

The solipsist premise of Peter Weir’s 1998 Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey as an insurance adjuster who realizes that his entire life is actually a TV show, was not original. The psychiatric patient in Robert Heinlein’s 1941 short story, “They—,” was convinced that he was an actor on a stage; the troubled protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel, Time Out of Joint, also starred in his own self-constructed reality. But in an innocent era before the entrenchment of the panoptical gaze or reality TV – in which any random person, it seems, can wake up to find him- or herself an instant social media celebrity – these stories were fantastical, and thus incapable of producing mass contagion. 

But the cultural environment influences more than just the superficial content of persecutory or grandiose delusions. Far more profoundly, it impacts who will catch psychosis, and why. This blog’s readers may know that early use of cannabis significantly increases the risk of psychosis, as does experiencing childhood adversity such as severe abuse or parental loss. You may also be aware that merely growing up in a city puts one at heightened risk of mental breakdown; there is a near-linear correlation between population density and psychosis. But consider these further research findings:

  • The greater a nation’s income inequality, the higher its per capita rate of psychosis. 
  • Immigration is a major risk factor for psychosis – and not just for the immigrants themselves, but for their first-generation offspring. Nor is this risk equally distributed: It is highest for darker-skinned people relocating to whiter countries, especially if they settle outside of ethnic enclaves.

The burden of social defeat

In Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness, psychiatrist Joel Gold and his philosopher brother Ian identify social fragmentation as the construct tying these seemingly disparate strands together. More precisely, the experience of social defeat, in which a person who is persistently demeaned, humiliated, or subordinated ultimately comes to see himself as a second-class citizen.

I have long found delusional beliefs fascinating. In particular, I enjoy talking with delusional people, and trying to understand the meaning of their beliefs. In this, I’ve gained a lot from the theories of luminaries in the field such as Brendan Maher, Richard Bentall and John Read. But Suspicious Minds is brilliant in pulling together all of the extant research to create a single unified theory, one that foregrounds and humanizes the delusional person’s experience.

The theory developed out of Joel Gold’s experiences as attending psychiatrist at New York City’s notorious Bellevue Hospital. After treating several patients with Truman Show delusions, he – in partnership with his brother Ian, a philosophy professor at McGill University in Canada – published a 2012 article on the phenomenon in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry. That, in turn, generated a deluge of emails from people all around the world who were relieved to realize they were not the only one who thought their lives were being secretly filmed and broadcast to the masses.

The Gold brothers’ theory of delusions as a social phenomenon goes against the grain in this era of pharmaceutical industry domination and biological reductionism, especially here in the United States, where the social context of mental illness has been systematically suppressed in favor of simplistic theories of genetic or chemical imbalances.

But things have a way of circling back around. Almost 50 years ago, against the backdrop of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing inner-city rebellions, African American psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs dissected the psychic burden of prejudice. To survive, they wrote in their influential 1968 book Black Rage, oppressed people must maintain a delicate balancing act of being ever-vigilant and suspicious, yet without succumbing to frank paranoia:
“[S]urvival in America depends in large measure on the development of a ‘healthy’ cultural paranoia. [The black man] must maintain a high degree of suspicion toward the motives of every white man and at the same time never allow this suspicion to impair his grasp of reality. It is a demanding requirement and not everyone can manage it with grace…. Of all the varieties of functional psychosis, those that include paranoid symptoms are by far the most prevalent among black people.”
The panoptical gaze in The Bourne Ultimatum
Suspicion, then, is necessary and adaptive, especially for those most vulnerable to exploitation. But when chronic stressors overwhelm the brain’s capacity to cope, delusions are kindled. This is the essence of the Golds’ theory of delusions as the product of an overtaxed “Suspicion System.”

Drawing on recent research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychiatry, the Golds locate the Suspicion System in the amygdala – evolved to anticipate threat by interpreting ambiguous signs of potential social danger – and connected brain regions. Delusions take hold, they posit, with a breakdown in communication between this early-warning Suspicion System and the more rational, slower-thinking (“System 2” in Daniel Kahneman’s formulation) cognitive network that should be dampening the amygdala’s over-enthusiasm.

A solid theory should not only be logical, elegant, and empirically supportable, but should also explain diverse manifestations of a phenomenon. The Golds’ theory explains not just persecutory delusions, but each of the other 11 major delusional themes (e.g., grandiose, religious, erotomanic) as well. For example, grandiosity  – which we see in the Truman Delusion  – can be interpreted as a way of deflecting threat, much like a puffer fish blows itself up or a cat arches it back when faced with danger:

“Flexing your social muscles makes you less vulnerable to exploitation by others, and putting your high status front and center in a potential exploiter’s mind might make them think twice about victimizing you…. Grandiosity is thus a symptom of a Suspicion System on overdrive, a caricature of the normal adaptive strategies we employ every day…. Paranoia and grandiosity … are functionally connected: paranoia is a broken form of threat detection, and grandiosity is a broken threat response.”
With ever-growing income disparity and economic stress, social network disintegration, loss of privacy,  and social media's increasingly panoptical reach, we may expect more and more alienated people with trouble psyches to succumb to Truman Show delusions. Let us hope that, in treating them, we do not lose sight of their humanity, for they really are  not so different from us. As the Golds put it, “mental illness is just a frayed, weakened version of mental health.”

Indeed, if we listen, these frantic souls may even have something to teach.