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Sandusky’s ‘histrionic’ defense raises eyebrows

By Colby Itkowitz, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) –

Common in the middle of the last century but rarely used anymore, histrionic personality disorder was diagnosed for people, mostly women, who were overly dramatic, extremely sensitive and often provocative.

Think Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.”

Now Jerry Sandusky’s defense team intends to apply it to the former Penn State football coach to explain his behavior, namely “love letters” he sent to his alleged sex-abuse victims.

Judge John M. Cleland on Friday granted a request by Sandusky’s defense attorneys to present testimony from a psychologist that Sandusky exhibits the disorder to rebut the state’s evidence that Sandusky “groomed” his alleged victims.

While a small victory for Sandusky, the order comes with a caveat. Sandusky must make himself available to prosecutors so that they can prepare a response. Sandusky’s attorneys have agreed to make their client available, according to Cleland’s order, but it is unclear whether the examination will delay the trial’s resumption next week in Centre County Court.

Several psychology experts — none of whom has counseled Sandusky — say a married family man beloved in his community does not fit the profile of someone with histrionic personality disorder.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a practicing psychologist before representing a western Pennsylvania district in Congress, said the dramatic, self-involved personality attributed to someone with histrionics does not “turn on and off at a moment’s notice.” Such individuals are fake, shallow and have difficulty maintaining lasting relationships, he said.

“I don’t want anyone out there thinking that those with those characteristics are child abusers. … It is neither an explanation or an excuse for serial child abuse,” Murphy said. “I think it’s going to be a difficult stretch to use it as a defense.”

Carol Bernstein, a psychiatry professor at New York University, said when she teaches about histrionic personality disorder, she uses Scarlett O’Hara, the headstrong, passionate protagonist in “Gone with the Wind,” as the prime cultural example. Those diagnosed with the disorder act out their lives theatrically, she said. Their antics are often played out in public for attention.

Sandusky’s lawyers filed a motion to allow a psychologist to testify who “will explain that the words, tones, requests and statements made in the letters are consistent with a person who suffers from a histrionic personality disorder.” In other words, his actions weren’t predatory, but rather an overly dramatic outpouring of love for the kids.

In 12 years of practicing law, exclusively representing victims of sexual abuse, Adam Horowitz, a south Florida attorney, said he’s never heard histrionics used as a defense. Personality disorders can be used as an explanation for behavior, he said, but are not a legal defense like insanity.

“I’ve never seen it used to excuse a perpetrator’s behavior,” Horowitz said. He speculated Sandusky’s defense lawyers “are backed up against the wall and they are resorting to whatever they have.”

The diagnosis is made infrequently now, and it may be removed entirely from the official manual that lists and defines all mental health disorders, said David Allen, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee. Allen, who has been practicing for 35 years, described it as a “cultural artifact.”

Those with histrionics are overly sexual and provocative, he said, but if someone makes advances they become indignant. “If anything, they might appear seductive but they wouldn’t act on it,” he said.

Kenneth Levy, a psychiatry professor at Penn State, echoed that, noting “there is almost this naivete about their sexual behavior that when people react to their provocations, they act surprised, ‘How could you think that?’ ”

“It’s not been my experience that pedophiles, or people who abuse children, or predators are histrionic,” he said. “It’s more likely antisocial, narcissistic.”

In his years in the field, Allen said he’s never heard of histrionics being used as a defense — at least not successfully.

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