Film Review: The Syndrome

This thought-provoking documentary presents a compelling case that "shaken baby syndrome" doesn't exist, and that this diagnosis fuels a self-perpetuating myth.
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Longtime journalist Susan Goldsmith of The Oregonian, who has reported frequently on child abuse cases, joins forces with her cousin, first-time director Meryl Goldsmith, to examine the history and impact of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a child abuse diagnosis specific to toddlers and infants with brain injuries.

Their thesis is controversial, though not—as they demonstrate at some length—because the hard medical evidence is conspicuously ambiguous. Rather, it conflicts with an emotional narrative rooted in hard-wired human empathy for the weak and helpless. The filmmakers, doctors, lawyers, academic researchers and law enforcement personnel featured in The Syndrome never question the brutal reality of child abuse or suggest that striking or aggressively shaking infants or toddlers is OK. Their concern is that SBS has become a default diagnosis that reinforces a social construct rather than a research-validated reality.

The film marshals a wide range of material—including published medical studies, interviews with doctors schooled in trauma medicine and interviews with parents—that strongly suggests that SBS resembles the ritual devil worship/abuse panic of the 1980s, which was eventually definitively debunked. The film's ace in the hole is that the same three physicians who drove the Satanic panic—Drs. David Chadwick, Robert Reece and Carole Jenny—are also the public faces of the SBS phenomenon.

The Goldsmiths are careful not to overtly accuse them of exploiting the emotionally resonant specter of child abuse for personal gain, though they note the substantial sums of money, public and private, that flow into a wide range of organizations dedicated to the cause. But given the facts and figures cited, it's hard not to conclude that there's more to the SBS debate than a difference of scientific opinion.

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