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The Mind of the News

Sandusky trial: Histrionic personality disorder is no excuse

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Lawyers for Jerry Sandusky, the assistant Penn State football coach on trial for sexual assault on minors, have suggested Sandusky suffers from histrionic personality disorder, and that the disorder explains his apparent “love letters” to a number of his alleged victims.

In one of these letters, Sandusky writes, “I write because of the churning in my stomach when you don’t care.  I still hope there will be meaning to the time we have known each other.”

Histrionic personality disorder is, in rough terms, being overly emotional and dramatic, in a way that encourages others to pay attention to you and interact with you, but may have little deep or real meaning.  

It’s not only thinking of the world as your stage, but overacting your part, to boot—in order to coerce people into feeling like they are connected to you far more than they are.  

People with histrionic personality disorder are given to public displays of emotion—like becoming visibly angry and even shaking when only a minor disagreement unfolds, or saying they feel like they’ve lost a best friend, and life will never be the same, when an acquaintance moves out of town.

They can be very manipulative, in order to forge artificially close bonds with people and feel warmth or protection or a sense of family from those bonds.

They can also be extremely seductive and quickly want to become sexually active with people, in order to “act out”—and artificially feel—the experience of being in a tortuous, whirlwind, tragically flawed romance.  It’s an add-water-and-stir kind of hyperbolic existence—a Lifetime movie, on steroids.

Prosecutors are making a big deal of the fact that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is removing histrionic personality disorder from the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)—the official list of recognized psychiatric disorders.  But pay that no mind; the APA is constantly creating new disorders and making others disappear, with the flick of a pen, in every new edition of the DSM.  

Imagine having Type II Diabetes and being told it doesn’t exist, anymore.  You’d know you had it when you collapsed from high blood sugar, no matter what any professional guild had to say about it.

So Jerry Sandusky, whom I have not evaluated, could certainly suffer with histrionic personality disorder, given the effusive letters he wrote to his alleged victims.  The disorder could, in fact, explain the over-the-top drama in the letters.  It may even be that this disorder, if he has it, led him to feel drawn to acting on his sexual impulses at a lightning pace, and to want to think he was in love with those he was sexually attracted to.  

But here’s the problem for Sandusky’s defense team:  Histrionic personality disorder would not explain breaking the law in order to satisfy one’s over-the-top, irrational, whirlwind view of the world.  Histrionic personality disorder would not explain being attracted to underage boys.  Histrionic personality disorder would not explain using the trappings of one’s position to satisfy one’s own needs for lust and conquest.

In other words, folks with histrionic personality disorder might weep over you not lending them a hundred bucks, grieving the irrational notion that you must hate them to not lend them the money, but they wouldn’t pick your pocket to get it.  They wouldn’t break into your house to get it.  And they wouldn’t rape you to steal a kiss, either.

If all that Jerry Sandusky’s attorneys want to explain—or explain away—are his over-the-top writings to his alleged victims, or even his sense of feeling overly attached to them, then presenting a diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder may be relevant.  But if they think that that could explain—or explain away—sexually assaulting them, they’ve got it all wrong.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.