Years ago I went to a talk at the Harvard Ed School given by Dr. Mel Levine, the noted pediatrician and advocate for children with learning differences. I remember him as a dynamic speaker, convincing and provocative in his description of the way smart, hard-working kids with minor brain-wiring differences could suffer in school. Some kids need to fidget, he said: fidgeting is what allows them to concentrate. Writing, he said, was one of the most difficult tasks we could ask a kid to undertake. To pull together at one time the big picture and the small picture needed for organization, the auditory and visual systems needed for spelling, the fine motor skills and the timing needed for pushing the pencil - that was a huge task.
A few years later, when one of our sons struggled to produce anything in writing, I thought back to that lecture and was grateful to Dr. Levine. He helped me see that our son, who looked as if he was doing nothing, was really making a heroic effort. Dr. Levine has probably helped a lot of children, I thought.
Last week, Dr. Mel Levine, now 71, committed suicide by shotgun to the head. He had been a Rhodes scholar, lauded author, and at one time chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston. But in recent years complaints had surfaced that when the door to the examining room closed, he improperly examined and fondled the genitals of young boys. In 2008, a case involving seven boys was settled in Massachusetts. In 2009, Levine voluntarily gave up his medical license in North Carolina. Then last week came the news that another lawsuit had been filed in Massachusetts accusing Dr. Levine of sexually abusing thousands of patients.
Thousands. It's a stunning accusation. When I heard earlier reports, I had hoped they weren't true. After all, doctors examine kids. They check for testicular masses. Some child might feel uncomfortable and misinterpret that.
But nobody needs to re-examine for testicular masses at every follow-up visit for a learning problem. And although these accusations never got their chance to air in court, they certainly carry the air of authenticity - the pain, shame, and rage. How could such abuse have gone on so long?
Like a priest, a pediatrician for troubled kids holds a position of trust, power, and influence. For a doctor, though, boundaries of nudity and touch lie in a far different place than they do with a priest; it may be hard for a child to be certain what is within bounds and what is not. Should the child complain? Even parents may have difficulty knowing whether what their kids describe is really not okay. I don't know what parents said over the years to Children's Hospital, but a lot of information on this topic may come out in the lawsuit, which is slated to proceed.
Still, the mystery that disturbs me more is the mystery of Dr. Levine's own mind and dark heart. How did he justify what he was doing to the very kids he was advocating for, kids he probably did care about and identify with in some way? I'm always frustrated that even when a crime is proved, there is a great, impenetrable silence at the core of it. How often does a criminal try to explain what he did and why, how he came to this place? I can imagine the shame and fear that led to Mel Levine's suicide. If only he had found the courage to unburden his heart. Few would have forgiven him, but if only we could start to understand how such deviance happens, we might get better at preventing the terrible harm it does.