Friday, February 25, 2011

The Mystery of Dr. Mel Levine

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.


Penny said...

I just want to note that while the Boston Globe article linked to above says that the new lawsuit alleges "thousands" of instances of sexual abuse, a New York Times article today charges only forty.

Still a lot, but I want to be accurate.

Alz said...

"air of authenticity"
is not the same thing as truth.

Check out this book
Try to Remember: Psychiatry's Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind by Dr. Paul McHugh

In the States, the founding moral legal idea was a man is innocent until proven guilty. Mel Levine, once he hit Ophrah fame, became a big-pocket target. Imagine if he was innocent, how much Mel's blood is on the hands of his accusers!

Many people who comment about this case on the Internet, do not know the work of Dr. Mel Levine and do not understand that his work has helped millions live more productive lives than was thought possible. So to be clear: Yes Dr. Levine was a pediatrician. But he was also the eclectic brain that was able to demystify learning challenges.

What if Dr. Levine had been guilty? This case still should have been handled discreetly. Dr. Levine was no longer performing the standard Tanner genital exams in his work. No one was at risk.

And today,unlike years back, these exams are routinely done with someone besides the physician in the room.

Accusations take on a life of their own, and can create an unbearable world for those who are the object of a campaign.

Imagine the injustice for him and for children everywhere, if Dr. Levine was innocent and forced to spend his energy and time defending himself.

Victoria Balfour said...

Only forty victims have filed a class action lawsuit.

Child abuse experts state that the majority of abuse victims never come forward.

There's a very similar child molestation case going on in California right now involving Dr. William Ayres, a former President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Ayres was arrested for molesting eight boys, but many more victims who are out of statute have come forward. The police believe there are at least a thousand of Ayres' victims out there.

Additionally, like Levine, Ayres worked at Boston Children's Hospital in the 1960s. Those in law enforcement believe they knew each other and exchanged information about boys.
The Boston Globe did a front page story about Ayres last year and about how the Boston police are asking for Ayres victims to come forward.

Additionally, a few days ago the Boston Globe did a story in which the Levine victims broke their anonymity. One - using his real name - said that Levine had performed oral sex on him during an exam when he was seven at Children's Hospital.

Another victim described how his parents let him go alone with Levine on a trip to Washington DC when he was 10 and then Levine made him get into bed with him and then fondled him.

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

You might also want to check out the blog on the Dr. William Ayres case, run by one of his victims. Those of us who follow the blog have been following the Levine lawsuits since 2005.

Victoria Balfour said...


Have you not read the details of the Levine case? Levine performed oral sex on the boys and took one ten year old boy on a trip and forced him to go to bed with him.

Dr. William Ayres - who was arrested for child molestation in 2007- also tried the "Tanner" defense.Sorry oral sex is not doing a Tanner exam.

Try looking at this story in the Globe with the horrifying details of the abuse: "Pediatrician's Suicide Soothes No Wounds"

You also might want to educate yourself on the case of twin pediatricians Dr. Scott and Dr. Mark Blankenburg in Ohio. They also molested hundreds of boys. They're both now in prison serving life sentences.

hce said...

We may never know what he did or didn't do to those boys, but the true doesn't lie. I've been curious about how the prosecutors got the information about the boys' experiences. I hope the research process is disclosed in the trial.

Victims of course can't confront dead perpetrators. Nor can deceased defendants confront their accusers. For the sake of argument, if he was found innocent, yet killed himself, what kind of an example does that set; why not stick it out and defend yourself?

People with LD issues are more likely to self-harm. They may have greater trouble telling an adult they had been abused (please see my blog, on living with LD issues). They may also require learning-style sensitive methods of abuse prevention training, which is never taught well or enough.

I'm so creeped out by this story. Someone needs to write a book about the trial(s) and events leading up to them.

Anonymous said...

The harm Dr. Levine did to these vulnerable boys nullifies and voids all of his advocacy for children with learning difficulties. How ironic that he imposed the ultimate humiliation on those he claimed he wanted to protect from the humiliations of school. I worked with Levine for a number of years, and the victim reports are very credible. Mel seldom saw female patients, and when he did, he did not perform physical exams. Even after the allegations were made at CH, he continued to do physicals without a nurse or parent present in North Carolina. This story is deeply disturbing and would make an interesting book, if only to present a profile of how a such a dark soul can fool so many for so long through fame and charisma.

Anonymous said...

Based on the comments, it is no wonder he committed suicide. How can anyone defend oneself from events that occurred over thirty years ago. Because of the allegations, would it not be wise to just settle instead of allowing the allegations to decrease his revenue.

It is well documented that highly agitated children can either exaggerate or misinterpret events. The 1960's and 1970's predate the outrageous accusations of childcare providers.

Sometimes we dream or imagine events, but fail to adequately classify the mental adequately. I have seen it happen many times.

I hope that he was not doing something that was inappropriate.

Trapellar said...

Anonymous, March 8: Many of these events happened recently, a few years ago, in North Carolina. That's why he was forced to surrender his license.

You clearly have not read any details of the case. Might want to start with this Boston Globe article:

Anonymous said...

This is all so sad! Now, we will never know the truth.

All I know is that my two male children were diagnosed by Dr. Levine (himself) with learning differences. During the lengthy process, he performed a physical exam - as any pediatrician would. I was present for the exam and nothing out of the ordinary occurred; in fact, it was identical to every annual exam performed by their pediatrician at home. As their mom, I have been present for each and every of their medical examinations just as my mom was present for every one of mine starting 51 years ago!

I can't imagine 1000s (or 40) parents leaving their children at the hands of any medical professional without supervision. I can't imagine that such serious allegations couldn't be handled in a more private way - at least until a judgement was rendered. I can't imagine that Mr. Carmen Durso isn't aware what the effects of bullying can lead to. Sadly, like in so many cases recently reported...suicide.

A tragedy on every level.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you make a really good point Pendred. Yes it is a mystery why someone who obviously held genuine concern for children would - if true - do such things to them. He doesn't seem to fit the stereotypical profile of the predator who only works with children so as to get access to them. Yes it would be helpful for research to be done as to why this happens.
Thank you for this sensitive article.

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