The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Syndrome

Fair warning: this review is going to take an abrupt detour in an unexpected direction.

The documentary The Syndrome has an explosive premise, which is that Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) is largely a myth. It acknowledges the controversial nature of this statement from the start, then proceeds to build a forceful case. Award-winning journalist Susan Goldsmith's reporting is the basis for the film, which goes so far as to suggest that innocent people are being sentenced to lengthy jail sentences for acts of child abuse they likely did not commit. To say one will have opinions on this hot-button movie would be an understatement.

The primary figure here is Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist who was one of the first people to question the scientific validity of SBS. Plunkett notes that doctors have been trained to look for “telltale” symptoms suggesting that a baby has been violently shaken. They include retinal injuries and intracranial hemorrhages. Plunkett believes that other things explain these symptoms far more logically. Bio-mechanics, he says, do not support Shaken Baby Syndrome, because those symptoms could not be caused without whiplash trauma to the neck – a qualification many cases fail to make. Plunkett's research led him to conclude that short-distance falls (from a chair or a changing table, for instance) would better account for them. He now travels the country testifying for people who have been charged with infant injury or mortality. The film shows us some of those he's helped exonerate.

The Syndrome names three primary villains in the propagation of Shaken Baby Syndrome: Drs. David Chadwick, Robert Reece, and Carole Jenny, all leading specialists in SBS. These same three doctors also helped push forward the theory of Satanic ritual abuse, a fear that gripped the nation during the 1990s and was eventually determined to be not really a thing. In the documentary's view, Shaken Baby Syndrome is the new version of that, creating paranoia over something that is not scientifically sound and is not nearly as prevalent as the public has been led to believe. Why would top people in the medical field perpetrate such a myth? The assertion made by The Syndrome is that the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome – an organization to which these three doctors are intimately connected – makes millions of dollars in profit every year selling pamphlets, videos, training materials, and so on. Further, it goes on to claim that Plunkett's success in debunking SBS has led to it being renamed Abusive Head Trauma in an attempt to keep the mass perception going.

Watching The Syndrome, I was spellbound. The information provided is so shocking that it generates a sense of outrage. Director Meryl Goldsmith (cousin of Susan) keeps you hooked with one revelation after another, as well as emotionally compelling stories of people who were acquitted of serious child abuse charges following Plunkett's testimony.

Despite this, I recognized that the subject matter was too important to take at face value. Even though I only write about movies, the journalistic side of my mind kicked in. I decided to do some research on The Syndrome's claims. This included making contact with a pediatrician at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA who has more than twenty years of experience treating children with abusive head trauma. He was gracious enough to explain some of the science to me, and to show how the patterns of injury – which also include lacerations and abrasions, fractures, and unexplained bruises in addition to the other telltale signs – are unlikely to have any other cause outside of severe physical abuse. One or two of them could potentially indicate something else, but all of them together really only point in one direction.

Combined with this and other information I gathered, it became clear that The Syndrome vastly oversimplifies a very complex issue. Much of the data used to debunk SBS, for instance, comes from test models made in the '80s and '90s, which were insufficient to accurately replicate the bio-mechanics of an infant's head and neck. In other words, incomplete data is fueling the testimony of Plunkett and other SBS deniers. As a forensic pathologist, Plunkett also would appear to lack clinical experience working with or treating living children. Much of his current work is based on a study of playground equipment he did a number of years ago (which is briefly detailed in the documentary) that concluded children could sustain irreversible brain injury from a short-distance fall of as little as six inches. That study has been widely criticized within the medical community and is seen by many as significantly flawed. Despite any good he may have done in his career, these are things that make it impossible to fully buy into his theories.

This is the part of the review where I typically assign a star rating. I'm not going to do that here. The Syndrome may have some facts in it. There may be people who have been wrongly convicted of harming infants. That said, it's pretty clear that the film's arguments against Shaken Baby Syndrome are highly questionable. Once you start peeling back the layers, they begin to unravel. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend The Syndrome. The controversial stance may attract some viewers anyway. Hopefully, they will use it as a springboard to dig much, much further into the science of SBS, rather than just accepting this documentary as rock-solid fact.

The Syndrome is unrated, but contains mature content. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.

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