Jerry Sandusky’s Fraudulent Psychiatric Excuse: “Histrionic Personality Disorder”

–Richard E. Vatz

     In Jerry Sandusky’s trial on child sexual abuse in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, the court ruled that he is permitted to put on (and I pun on the phrase “put-on” intentionally) an “expert” to testify that the accused suffers from “histrionic personality disorder.”  Sandusky, as reported in The Washington Post, “faces 52 charges he abused 10 boys over 15 years.”  The reporting on the trial has been gripping, including vivid descriptions of sexual assaults on children accompanied by chilling threats against the minors, including one who testified that “He told me that if I ever told anyone that I’d never see my family again.”

     The legal strategy in the use of such expert testimony is to imply that the perpetrator of a crime – in this case, Sandusky – really did not commit a crime, since he could not control himself.  The claim that Sandusky suffers from “histrionic personality disorder” could also be used to mitigate any sentence, diminishing the accused’s criminal intent.

     The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) claims that those who suffer from this disorder have “excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behavior” and are uncomfortable or feel unappreciated when they are not the center of attention.”  There are other non-specific signs: overly flamboyant behavior; the expressing of “strong opinions…with dramatic flair…but without facts and details.”  All of the diagnostic criteria for this “mental disorder” are non-specific.

     Poor Jerry.  And you thought that these sexual attacks on children were his choice.

     A neurologist I know e-mailed me this sardonic response:  “Did you hear today that the Sandusky defense is going to have a psychiatrist testify that he [Sandusky] has ‘histrionic personality disorder?’ They may sentence him to a year of outpatient therapy. Maybe a year and a half if it’s severe. On the Penn State campus, of course.”
     It is over 50 years since psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote his landmark The Myth of Mental Illness. Are there disinterested people who still fall for transparently fraudulent claims of exculpation forwarded in order to escape criminal responsibility?  Is there a serious individual who believes that this psychiatric “disorder” is anything but a general description of a minority of people in our society?

     There is a legitimate role for psychiatric testimony in a courtroom, and it is to lend expertise to the effect on victims of a crime:  Therapist Alycia A. Chambers, according to The New York Times, told NBS News: “I was horrified to know that there were so many other innocent boys who had their hearts and minds confused, their bodies violated…it’s unspeakable.”

     Indeed, and forensic psychiatrists who testify that threatening, sexual predators of children were suffering from a mental disease who made them do what they did should be ashamed of themselves.  They won’t be, so the public needs to learn to ignore and demystify their fanciful motivational speculations.

Professor Vatz has written on psychiatric rhetoric for decades.  He is the author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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