The New York Times is carrying an unusually in-depth story “What Happened to the Girls in Leroy? on an epidemic of twitching, stuttering, and tics among the high-school girls of a small town in upstate New York.
The reporter didn’t go there, but I couldn’t help noticing strong parallels to what we know about the run-up to the Salem witch trials. The symptoms reported from LeRoy are very like the “sickness of astonishment” which, in the belief context of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1690s, led to accusations of witchcraft and the torture and hanging of twenty people.
Today’s verdict on the epidemic in LeRoy matches what historians generally believe about the causes of the Salem witch trials. Mass hysteria – or, in more modern clinical language, an epidemic of “conversion disorder” in which psychological stressors turn into physical symptoms through unconscious neurological mechanisms that are not yet well understood.
What is yet more interesting, but not as closely examined by the reporter as it should have been, is the secondary illness the girls induced in the community around them. Parents reaching for explanations in Salem in 1692, living within a strongly religious world-view, seized on Satan and hostile witchcraft to explain the twitching, stuttering, and tics. The parents of Leroy, in a more secular world, instantly invented an equally unfalsifiable explanation – one which tells us a great deal about the native insanities of our own time.
Yes, it’s 2012, and trace chemical pollutants have become the new witchcraft.
They’re perfect for the role. Because they’re believed to be able to cause harm in sub-microgram amounts, absence of evidence can never be evidence of absence. They’re just like Puritan sinfulness – if you don’t find them, it’s because you’re not looking hard enough. Worse, your failure to find
witchcraft pollutants can and will be taken as evidence that you are in league with Satan the polluters.
By the time Erin Brockovich and a media posse come to your town (which actually happened in Leroy, yes) rationality is out the window. Nobody has the capability or the desire to confront the actual demons haunting these children – the long dying of the town’s economy and pride, fraying trust networks, disintegrating neighborhoods, absent or abusive parents – so hate and fear is displaced onto “chemicals” and unspecified but sinister corporations who might as well be standing in for the Princes of Hell.
I’ve written before that environmental panics often seem like a sort of sorcerer hunt – a frenzy for finding someone to blame, a human cause that can be punished so that we can evade the truth of our ignorance of and powerlessness over impersonal causes. The Leroy case illustrates this exceptionally well – and it shows us something else as well. When those causes might in fact be partly under human control – when our children are ill and failing because we have failed them – the frenzy can get even worse.