“‘Shaken-baby syndrome’ is in the realm of mythology,” says neurosurgeon Ayub Ommaya in archival footage featured in the documentary The Syndrome. Yet it was Ommaya’s research on monkeys in the 1960s upon which law enforcement and a few medical experts built the shaken-baby-syndrome hysteria-industrial complex — a fact he tried to undo before his death.
In recent decades, prosecutors have arrested and convicted the parents and caregivers of babies and small children who have suffered from the poorly named condition. The filmmakers, cousins Meryl and Susan Goldsmith, meticulously examine the problems with what is increasingly accepted as a problematic medical diagnosis and a flimsy basis for accusations of child abuse. They expose the issue with depth and breadth; this well-researched investigation is loaded with credible facts and has a workaday, broadcast-newsmagazine feel.
But in describing alternative explanations for why some of these children were injured and even died, the Goldsmiths rely on flashes of information about vitamin-D deficiency that aren’t well explained and could add to the confusion. Doctors and law enforcement seem to be coming to terms with the end of “shaken baby” as a legit diagnosis, but the film makes clear that the problem is by no means over. That’s especially galling when Americans so often struggle to separate ideology from observable fact concerning vaccinations and climate science.
Compounding the tragedy: In these cases, the gullible followers are police officers and prosecutors with the power to deprive people of their freedom. The Goldsmiths offer suggestions for why some physicians are sticking to their guns: ego? Power? Grant money? In any case, those scientists don’t hesitate to employ circular arguments in rejecting hard evidence from peer-reviewed research. Worse, they’ve gone Orwellian, renaming the syndrome “abusive head trauma” and creating a definition designed to further cloud things for the accused and the convicted — mothers who have never harmed their children.
Directed by Meryl Goldsmith
Opens April 8, Cinema Village
Available on demand