We may think we’ve outgrown the superstitions of the past but every once in a while you read something that tells you it’s all there, waiting to be rediscovered again — the Medieval myth of Prester John, the Christian emperor waiting for us on the other side of Islam (try the Iraqi Shi’ia), the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Jewish or Masonic cabal that secretly controls the world (try Obama’s “1 percent”), or the witch manias of the 17th century — try what has happened over the past few months in the small town of Le Roy, New York.
In a marvelously restrained and insightful article in the New York Times Magazine, Susan Dominus has gently dissected the mania of “twitching girls” that struck this depressed little upstate town outside of Rochester and ended up on national television. Last year, Katie Krautwurst, a high school cheerleader whose mother was about to undergo a brain operation, suddenly came down with an uncontrollable condition. Within a few weeks, Thera Sanchez, her best friend and also a cheerleader, developed the same tics. Soon the mysterious condition had spread across the high school, first among cheerleaders and then to less popular girls — but all of them girls, no boys, no adults.
From the beginning, doctors who examined the girls said the phenomenon was psychological. A specialist from Buffalo offered a diagnosis of “conversion disorder,” a condition in which people subconsciously convert stress into physical symptoms. But of course we live in the age of television and newspaper gossip and so this humbling evaluation was quickly dismissed in favor of a much more fashionable culprit — the environment!
Le Roy has had industry in its history. It was the original hometown of Jell-O. The factory closed in the 1960s but it was industry, after all, and therefore probably doing something harmful. Remember now, this is upstate New York 2012, where industry is basically forgotten. The vast outback, stretching all the way from Newburgh to Buffalo, has the misfortune of being politically dominated by New York City and Albany. There Democrats rule and industry is something to be exploited, if not shunned. The whole state is currently in an uproar over fracking the Marcellus Shale and it looks as if New York will become the only eastern state not to tap the bonanza that is filling the coffers in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Were it separated from Metropolitan New York City, upstate would be the second poorest state in the country, right behind Mississippi. In this post-industrial era, created by high taxes and hostile policies, industry — like any stranger — is easy to blame.
So it wasn’t long before Erin Brockovich was in town trying out for her next movie role and assuring everyone that environmental contamination was the likely culprit. Why environmental contamination would only affect teenage girls, particularly cheerleaders, was something left for the newspaper and TV reporters to figure out. And of course they didn’t. So it wasn’t long before the cameras and notebooks were following Brockovich all around, barging onto the school grounds at one point to collect samples proving her theory that a railroad accident that had spilled an organic solvent forty years before must be the perpetrator. When school officials turned them away, there was another TV moment in which Brockovich told CNN, “Usually when I’m confronted by officials barring access to something, they usually have something to hide.” The whole town was in general agreement and soon public officials were hooted down and accused of cover-ups.
From there it was on to the “Today” show where the girls twitched on camera and told their story. By this time they had achieved such notoriety that dozens of other girls at school were twitching too — so much that the early victims were openly accusing the latecomers of faking it. That’s the way things stood a month ago, although recent reports say that the epidemic seems to be dying down.
Dominus, in the gentlest of manners, pushes the hysteria aside and gets to the heart of the matter. Such epidemics are not uncommon, she notes, particularly among teenage girls. “Cheerleaders frequently come up in case histories of mass psychogenic illness at schools, partly because psychogenic outbreaks often start with someone of high social status,” she recounts. “In 2002, 10 students, 5 of them cheerleaders, in a rural town in North Carolina suffered from non-epileptic seizures and fainting spells.” In another instance, a Louisiana cheerleading squad that had embarrassed itself by running on the field at the wrong time suffered an epidemic of fainting that ended up summoning five ambulances.
Dominus quotes Simon Wessely, a London epidemiologist who has studied hundreds of such psychological outbreaks and writes, “Things only go wrong when the nature of an outbreak is not recognized, and a fruitless and expensive search for toxins, fumes and gases begins. Anxiety, far from being reduced, increases. It is only then that long-term psychological problems may develop.” And indeed, some of the girls in Le Roy are now so convinced that they have been permanently damaged by the environment that their condition has become much worse.
But there’s an even sadder side to this whole episode. Somehow the twitching epidemic in Le Roy seems to embody all the pathologies that Charles Murray, in his recent book, Coming Apart, says are rapidly overtaking blue-collar America. As Dominus perceptively notes, the twitching epidemic was wholly confined to girls who are on the outs with their biological fathers. One of the more pathetic victims recounts her most recent memory — a fistfight she had with her father when she was 14. And of course another one of the cheerleaders is well on her way toward a second generation of broken families with her own fatherless child.
Dominus lets them all down easy. A couple of the girls, she notes, have been able to go back to cheerleading. The teenage mother has “put back together” something resembling a family by moving in with the parents of her current boyfriend — who is not the father of her child. But it isn’t going to be that easy. From the looks of things, there’s a whole lot more at stake. On the wall of the bedroom where Katie Krautwurst and Thera Sanchez sit posing for the cover of the magazine is a decal I’ve never seen before. It says, “I (heart) Black People.” On Krautwurst’s night table sits a huge handsome portrait of President Obama, smiling with that implied message: “If your family falls apart, the government is waiting to take you in.”
When teenage girls in Le Roy, New York — who have probably never met more than a handful of African Americans — have abandoned aspirations for their own careers or stable family life and started idealizing the culture of reckless illegitimacy that black people — along with the help of the welfare system — have so successfully popularized, then you can almost feel that tidal wave of dependency starting to gather strength