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TOURETTE'S SYNDROME IN THE MEDIA
Touched by an Angel - NOT !
December 2000 The episode, "An Angel On My Tree" premiered on CBS's Touched by an Angel television series in December, 2000, as their Christmas segment. Some video clips are available on the episode guide above.
Because of some of the implications in the script, one may question who the producers of Touched by an Angel used as a consultant and how they did their research. This is not the worst of the Tourette Syndrome portrayals in the media (some of the talk shows and movies get that prize, and Ally McBeal took Tourette's syndrome to new lows by equating tics directly to murder), but this program came nowhere near the gold standard set by the 7th Heaven and The Practice episodes about Tourette's syndrome.
Here are some of the problems with the portrayal of Tourette syndrome by Touched by an Angel:
1. The way medication for Tourette syndrome was presented. It is implied that the boy could take medication on an as-needed basis, to control his tics on his worst days. Medications don't always work for tics, and there is no medication which works to control tics on an as-needed basis, or without side effects that may be worse than the condition. A teacher watching this segment could come away with the impression that her students with Tourette's syndrome could just pop a magic pill on the bad days and the tics would go away. A teacher or employer may be inclined to believe that persons with Tourette syndrome should just take something to "make it stop."
2. The script presents a scenario whereby a father is "made so crazy" by his son's tics that he commits manslaughter. The portrayal of the unfortunate manslaughter is a scenario involving a father who was frustrated that his son's tics were "making him crazy," although it is presented that he was defending his son. The perception that tics could make parents "crazy" enough to kill is a damaging notion to give to a child with Tourette Syndrome. After the father accidentally killed the teenager who was teasing his son, he started hollering at his son and shaking him, asking him in several different ways, basically, why he didn't "just stop it" because it was "driving him crazy." Parents may want to be consider this scene before allowing children to see the show.
The script is crafted in such a way that it is inferred that the father had
undiagnosed TS as a child, and that his "rage" led him to commit
manslaughter. The script appears to be crafted in a way that made "rage" central to the plot.
"Anger management problems" such as those shown in this episode (hole-in-the-wall syndrome) are often referred to as "rage."
The entire script
seems to be crafted around the underlying premise that "rage" is part of Tourette's Syndrome -- that persons with TS can be dangerous.
Since Tourette Syndrome is an inherited, genetic condition, the implications
inherent in the script about Tourette's syndrome are that:
a) the father had undiagnosed Tourette syndrome as a child.
b) the father had "rage" (the holes in the wall and "anger management problems")
c) the father committed manslaughter, not only because he was defending his own son (he asked the boy, as he was shaking him after killing the teenager, why he couldn't "stop it," as his tics were "making him crazy"), but because he had uncontrollable "rage," linked to his own undiagnosed Tourette's syndrome.
It appears that whoever crafted this script seems to have knowingly linked Tourette Syndrome to "rage," and the ability to commit manslaughter in a fit of "rage." Persons with Tourette's disorder are no more likely to be killers than anyone else, and I hope you will join me in protesting such stereotypes and dangerously inaccurate portrayals.
4. The producers have made no attempt to date to provide a source for accurate information about Tourette syndrome -- either when they showed the segment or in the Episode Guide on their website. They did not include websites, phone numbers or any other means of obtaining accurate information about Tourette's syndrome. And yet, their Episode Guide does include links to the Angel Tree Organization and to a site for purchase of the Kenny Roger's song featured in the episode. Why do the CBS producers advertise for AngelTree Foundation and Kenny Rogers, yet not provide a means for viewers of this segment to get accurate information about Tourette syndrome, particularly when they may have furthered negative stereotypes and misperceptions?
5. This episode premiered on a Sunday night at 7 pm as a Christmas special, and yet it does not seem to be a child-friendly or appropriate show. Touched by an Angel used Tourette syndrome for a sensational and violent plot turn, at the expense of any young child with Tourette's who may have innocently sat down to watch what s/he thought was appropriate Christmas family entertainment, and at the expense of any adult with Tourette's disorder seeking employment, whose employer may mistakenly believe that the person is capable of uncontrollable rage leading to manslaughter.
I hope that the
Touched by an Angel producers will right this wrong by:
1. Adding accurate information about Tourette Syndrome to their website and to the Episode Guide for this episode, including websites, a phone number for contacting Tourette Syndrome support groups, and disclaimers about:
-the offensive and inaccurate nature of their plot,
-the inaccurate information about medication for Tourette syndrome, and
-a warning that the show may not be appropriate for young children.
2. Making a commitment to do better research on any conditions they portray in future segments and work closely with national support organizations representing persons with those conditions.
Please join me in writing to the producers about this episode.
While you're at it, you might also want to write to David Kelley Productions about the Ally McBeal script linking tics directly to manslaughter. The character with Tourette syndrome - played by Anne Heche - gets a sudden leg tic that causes her to run over and kill her boyfriend. She plays a simpleton who never expresses any remorse for the killing of her boyfriend, as she not only hits him, but then accidentally backs over him as well. Added to the implication that tics can lead directly to manslaughter is the parting notion that people with Tourette's syndrome are not safe behind the wheel, as the Anne Heche character promises not to drive again.
Manhattan Beach Studios
1600 Rosecrans Ave.
Building 4A 3rd floor
Attn: Ally McBeal
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
A statement should be reserved for the Tourette Syndrome Association, as they have been too silent about these portrayals of Tourette Syndrome in the media. Even worse, many times, the Tourette Syndrome Association has appeared to corroborate with the producers of these types of media portrayals. They seem to have embraced the notion that any coverage of Tourette Syndrome is preferable to accurate coverage of the condition. After the Ally McBeal episode, which equated tics with murder, the TSA decided to honor the producer, David E. Kelley, at their annual Hollywood Gala. The following also appeared in the Palm Beach Post article, "Getting word out about Tourette syndrome," on January 23rd:
Because Ally McBeal is a funny, sometimes "flaky" show, the folks at the Tourette Syndrome Association expected a quirky storyline this time around, Levi-Pearl says. But the consensus is that so far, Heche's portrayal of a teacher with TS has been a "fair, accurate and sympathetic" representation of the neurobiological disorder.
Rather than putting out a press release stating that no one has ever killed someone with a leg tic, and it's not likely to ever happen, what we are told by Tourette Syndrome Association representatives is that a portrayal of Tourette's Syndrome (where the protagonist kills someone with a tic) is "fair, accurate, and sympathetic."
As long as *we* are silent about this treatment from the media -- and the TSA's complicity in that treatment -- we will continue to be a cheap plot twist for producers looking to increase their ratings at our expense. Please join me in urging the Tourette Syndrome Association to stop selling us short. *YOUR* silence on this matter may come home to roost in your, or your children's, future.
(Just a note: this website was
designed for newcomers to Tourette's syndrome, to be read through in page order.
Strengths and advantages associated with Tourette's syndrome
Growing up with Tourette's
Syndrome: Information for Kids
HBO Documentary on Tourette's Syndrome
Syndrome Research Article Summary
Tourette's Syndrome - Now What?
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