The Shaken Baby Syndrome campaign has been one of the most successful public-service pushes of the last few decades – the warning to “never shake a baby” can be recited by many adults and children on request — but what hasn’t been communicated is the lack of science behind SBS, which exists less on facts and more on theories that are regularly being debunked by neurologists and child experts. The Syndrome, a new documentary that will premiere in Denver as part of the Women + Film program at the Sie FilmCenter on Monday, June 1, will introduce you to the scientists and doctors who are standing up to the “junk science” that surrounds SBS, and is used to wrongly convict parents and child-care workers of child abuse. Over 1,000 people are in prison because of SBS-related cases, according to the filmmakers, with little proof that they — and SBS — were responsible for a child's death or injury. The film’s director, Meryl Goldsmith, will be at the Denver screening, and we spoke with her about tackling a subject of such importance and sensitivity.
Westword: How did you become interested in the subject matter behind The Syndrome?
Meryl Goldsmith: My first cousin Susan Goldsmith is a national award-winning journalist, and we’ve been looking for a project to work on together forever. She’d been investigating the problems with Shaken Baby Syndrome since the ‘90s, and been awarded a Casey Medal for protecting children with her journalism, but while she was writing for the Oregonian they refused to run the story. After she was laid off there, we decided this was the time to bring this “cover story” to life. When I started to learn about the problems with SBS, I couldn’t believe how much junk science went into convincing people that abuse had occurred when indeed it had not. There are thousands of people whose lives have been affected by something that can be adequately disproven, and I thought it was important to expose this issue and maybe prevent further tragedies from happening.
Were you afraid to jump into controversial waters for your first documentary?
Yes and no. It’s important to get the truth out there; investigative journalism is, by definition, going to make people upset. You’re telling them something they don’t want to hear and that things need to change. Susan’s been down this road a million times, so I felt comfortable letting her lead me through this story. When you have something as important to cover as SBS, you can’t back down. The truth will come out and you have to hold on tight and get through the rough waters. I’ve received my share of nasty letters – people telling me that I’m hurting people going down the path I am, folks writing letters to film festivals telling them how incorrect screening the film is. On the other hand, though, at every screening we have families coming up to us and telling their story about how SBS destroyed their world and asking for help to get their story out there.
Why do you think it is so hard for Shaken Baby Syndrome to lose credibility in the face of actual scientific evidence?
My opinion follows closely to scientific philosopher Thomas Khun, who believes that science evolves in a very violent, difficult way and most people jump aboard and just hold onto it for dear life and hold onto those beliefs — but it takes outside influences to point to that science, and in the case of SBS neurosurgeons and other important figures need to point to the cracks in the theory and tell those holding on tight to let go and see the real causes underneath. It’s a combination of that and Copernicus dealing with everyone thinking that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. Can you imagine trying to change that popular theory?
What is the most shocking thing you’ve discovered while working on this documentary?
The extent to which the SBS proponents go to prove their way, even when it’s false and their testimony is pulling normal, loving parents and family members out of homes and putting them in prison when no actual abuse has occurred. I remember just pausing the film and putting my head in my hands, just unable to understand any more how any of this can keep happening.
Filmmaker Meryl Goldsmith (left) and investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith.
What do you hope your film will do to the bigger conversation about SBS?
I hope that we can start to get creative on how to review all of these cases. There are only two states, California and Texas, where you can appeal based on junk science. We need a national review for all states to look at these SBS cases, and I hope my film can open up the conversation. The time is now to make some progress.
What’s next for you and the film?
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I’m halfway through our festival tour and then it’s onto a law school tour, journalism schools, medical conferences. There will be a release later in the year to make it more accessible to everyone. I’m working with Susan on a couple of ideas for some future docs and working on some fiction films. After all of this, I’d like to lighten things up a little bit covering issues that don’t touch such big nerves. I just helped Susan relaunch goldsmithreporting.com where she can keep these stories alive and maybe discover some new ones.
The Syndrome screens at 7:15 p.m. Monday, June 1 at Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $15 and $12 for Film Society members. A pre-reception is included in the ticket price, and director Meryl Goldsmith will be part of a Q&A session after the film. Get your tickets at denverfilm.org and find out more about the film at thesyndromefilm.com.