Friday, February 3, 2012


  Sometimes an arbitrary news item catches me. It happened back in 1978 when I read in the paper about a kid cleaning up an alley in SF. It was a nowhere, nothing fluff piece on a kid in the Tenderloin. When the media attention died down I got to know that kid and documented the process in my piece MISSIONARY (the extended family as sculpture). This piece, more than any other, set the tone for my life's work. Last night I had a similar experience. I was watching the evening news when a story came on reporting a mysterious illness that had hit the upstate town of Le Roy, NY. It seems that 14 teenage girls, one boy and a 35 year woman have developed symptoms that mirror Tourettes Syndrome. In varying degrees of severity, all exhibit tics, both verbal and physical. This has been going on since October, but only recently has it gained the attention of the International media. NYS Health Dept. has supposedly tested all possible environmental causes and sided with doctors from The Dent Institute who have diagnosed this as a case of mass hysteria brought on by the stress of being a teenager. Are you shitting me? There should be millions of them.
   Enter Erin Brockovich, the crusading lawyer played by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie of the same name. Contacted by the sister of one of the afflicted girls, Ms. Brockovich has come on scene to independently test soil, air and hopefully everything else that can be tested, in order to get to the bottom of this mystery. If nothing else there's another movie in it.
   Since seeing this story last night, little else has been on my mind. (OK it's winter and I'm unemployed.)  But, my God, to explain away a cluster of people with debilitating tics as some sort of psychosomatic herd mentality seems as outlandish an explanation as I've ever heard.  Yet, these doctors cite historical evidence to the contrary- a school in Virginia, one in Boston, etc. According to accounts, this has happened before, usually involving female teenagers. What century are we living in?

The obvious holes in this theory are #1. There is now a boy and a grown woman exhibiting these symptoms. #2. Brockovich and her team have uncovered evidence of a chemical spill in 1970, not that far from the school. #3. The school had drainage issues from day one, having to close on occasion to deal with flooding. #4. Poisoning by various substances, like mercury, can cause similar symptoms. Now, I'm no scientist, but if I was a parent the first thing I would do would be get my kid as far away from Le Roy, NY as possible and see if she or he got better. For now the mystery only deepens. My niece is an ace speech pathologist who lives in Syracuse, not far from Le Roy. I think a road trip may be in order.


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