'The Syndrome': Film Review

The Syndrome -Still H 2016
Courtesy of Reset Films
Scary food for thought.

Meryl Goldsmith's documentary argues that shaken baby syndrome is a false diagnosis.

When did it become necessary to have an advanced medical degree in order to go to the movies? The question comes to mind while watching Meryl Goldsmith's documentary about shaken baby syndrome, or more accurately, the myth of shaken baby syndrome. Much like the currently controversial Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, The Syndrome puts forth complex medical and legal arguments that the average layperson has no way of fully assessing. The film is thought-provoking, to be sure, but in the same way as are those unsettling television commercials for medications featuring an endless list of potentially harmful side effects.

The debuting filmmaker has based the documentary on the research of her cousin, journalist Susan Goldsmith, who began investigating the issue in 2008. We learn that the concept of SBS was originated some 40 years ago by Dr. John Caffey, a pediatric radiologist who ascribed to it such symptoms as retinal and intercranial bleeding. Eventually doctors became legally required to report the suspected abuse of infants based on these and other symptoms, with severe penalties if they didn't.

And thus, according to the doc, nearly 1,000 people have been imprisoned for a crime which may or may not actually exist (there have been 333 DNA-based exonerations as of the filming). Several couples testify about their legal travails as a result of their children's death, and we see footage of a harsh police interrogation of a weeping mother. There's extensive footage from the well-publicized trial of 19-year-old British nanny Louise Woodward, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after the death of an 8-month-old baby left in her charge (her lawyer was Barry Scheck, no relation).

Doctors and other medical experts make impassioned arguments that the science behind the condition is tenuous, especially since crucial experiments can't be performed because, duh, you can't shake a real baby. They argue that what passes for SBS results from myriad underlying medical conditions, such as a Vitamin D deficiency or a simple fall, pointing to the accidental deaths of celebrities Natasha Richardson and Gary Coleman.

The Goldsmiths even have villains to blame — namely doctors Robert Reece, Carole Jenny and David Chadwick — who have specialized in promoting the science of SBS. All three, not exactly to their credit, were also responsible for advancing the theory of satanic ritual abuse in the late '80s and early '90s, which, we now know, was much ado about nothing.

There's plenty of appalling material on display, such as the footage from a conference held by the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome — yes, there is such a thing — in which a prosecutor gleefully sings a song relating to the subject to the tune of "If I Only Had a Brain." Then there's the publicity-minded renaming of the condition, after it had come under scrutiny, to "abusive head trauma."

By the time The Syndrome reaches its conclusion, average viewers won't know what to think. It's safe to say, however, that they will be left somewhat shaken.

Distributor: Freestyle Digital Media
Production: Reset Films
-editor: Meryl Goldsmith
Screenwriters/producers: Meryl Goldsmith, Susan Goldsmith
Director of photography: Matthias Grunsky

Not rated, 86 minutes