You might not remember the town of Le Roy, New York, by name, but you very well might remember what's happened there. TLC is exploring the troubling true story of a mysterious illness that swept the small northeastern New York community in its upcoming one-hour documentary "The Town That Caught Tourette's?" Is this documentary a sign that TLC is taking a break from guilty-pleasure reality TV offerings like "Toddlers & Tiaras" and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo"? It was The Learning Channel, after all.
In 2011, a few Le Roy teen girls started developing tics, twitches, and verbal outbreaks reminiscent of Tourette's syndrome. Within months, 18 girls (all of whom went to the same high school) and one woman had developed the baffling ailment. Desperate for answers, Le Roy families took their stories to national news outlets, kick-starting a global media firestorm that drew widespread attention to the bizarre outbreak. A wave of speculation followed.
In this sneak peek at the documentary, the girls affected by the strange affliction speak out about their symptoms ("The electrical shock feeling that I get in my spine never goes away," says one girl between convulsions), and their families reveal their anger and confusion. "I don't understand it. Something is not right," says one mother. "Please just tell us what this is, where it came from, and how we can get rid of it," says another mom. One mom suggests that it might be drug-related: "It's either completely unrelated, or they've all gotten into something."
Not long after the story broke, doctors handed down a diagnosis of mass hysteria (formally known as mass psychogenic illness): the rapid spread of symptoms among vulnerable individuals in close proximity. The families were unwilling to accept this unsettling diagnosis. "Seriously, why would we fake this?" asks one girl. One mother angrily says, "Stop lying to me and just tell me you don't know what the hell's going on." A man suggests, "There might be some sort of cover-up."
"CBS This Morning" reports on the medical mystery:
Despite the media frenzy that sparked the interest of millions and the fact that some of the girls are still afflicted to this day, there has been no diagnosis reached other than "mass hysteria." "The Town That Caught Tourette's?" explores the lives of those who suffered and are still suffering -- as well as some of the possible causes (infections, environmental influences, conversion disorder, and even Lyme disease).
Some of those who acquired the illness took their concerns to Facebook and YouTube to solicit help, prompting some doctors to suggest that Le Roy teens who view the videos might be trying to mimic the symptoms. Professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo David Lichter has treated several of the patients. He told MSNBC, "It's remarkable to see how one individual posts something, and then when the next person posts something not only are the movements bizarre and not consistent with known movement disorders, but it's the same kind of movements. This mimicry goes on with Facebook or YouTube exposure. This is the modern way that symptomology could be spread."
Tackling this serious topic is a step in the right direction, but the cable channel still has a long way to go to balance its programming between lighter series and more educational fare. In fact, TLC has several shows slated for 2013 that fall into the sensationalized reality TV category, such as "My Teen Is Pregnant And So Am I" and the controversial "Best Funeral Ever." Here's hoping TLC execs see the value in docu-style offerings and continue to add more "learning" to its lineup.
"The Town That Caught Tourette's?" premieres Wednesday, 5/22 at 10 PM on TLC.
- The Learning Channel