The Andrew Wakefield documentary, The Pathological Optimist, popped up on Amazon Prime this weekend. So, I chose to watch it.
The film starts out with us watching Andy do yoga while media accounts of his fraud and the study retracted are shown. Interesting dichotomy, of a man easing his tension with yoga while the world discusses his malfeasance.
The rest of the film seems to follow him suing the British Medical Journal and Brian Deer, the journalist who wrote about his malfeasance for the Sunday Tims of London newspaper. Apparently, Andy chose to sue these British citizens and entities in the US state of Texas because he was living in Texas at the time and his reputation in Texas had been besmirched.
Some background information
Left Brain Right Brain blog explains the SLAPP suit here.
The outcome of the SLAPP suit here.
The film appears to be a melodramatic look at Andy’s feelings about the SLAPP suit and his life thus far. He is shown pondering thoughtfully quite a few times. This is juxtaposed with him being treated with adulation by fans at a book signing. News reports about the study, fraud, and Brian Deer are shown repeatedly but Andy’s opinion is this only happened in the USA and was simply about the fact that he now lives in the USA. Thus, this is the reason his SLAPP case was taken on by the law firm DiNovo Price Ellwanger & Hardy.
An interesting fact in the film is that the money for his legal fight against Deer and the BMJ came from what Andy refers to as the “autism community.” From the film, it appears the money came from Autism One conference fundraisers. Autism One is the “autism quackfest,” as ORAC calls them, and it makes sense that they would sponsor the effort to redeem Andy’s reputation.
Ironically, as soon as I type this, Andy starts reading and talking about Orac.
Throughout the film, Andy and his wife, Carmel express their opinion that Andy’s troubles are because Brian Deer lies, that the study from 1998 was not fraudulent at all, and pharmaceutical companies are out to get him. When Judge Amy Meachum, in Texas, throws out his attempt to sue the British journal and related persons for libel, Camille brings up that Meachum’s husband is a lobbyist for pharma. This conspiracy theory was even published on the autism hate blog, Age of Autism. The Poxes blog exposed this ridiculous conspiracy theory for what it is, ridiculous, but still, the filmmakers made sure to include this point in the film.
The point of the film seems to be to portray Andy Wakefield as a fallen hero deserving of redemption. It’s calculated, in how they use conversations between Andy and his mother and Andy and his wife. It’s emotionally manipulative but subtle. In many ways, the film rehashes much of what Andy wrote about in his book. Callous Disregard, although the film is better made and easier to watch than the book is to read. I did read the book, but never blogged about it. Dr Harriet Hall, however, did write about how she read it.
She writes: “In his concluding epilogue, he says
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the public, you have already lost… Why? Because the parents are right; their stories are true; their children’s brains are damaged; there is a major, major problem. In the US, increasingly coercive vaccine mandates and fear-mongering campaigns are a measure of your failure — vaccine uptake is not a reflection of public confidence, but of these coercive measures, and without public confidence, you have nothing.
How ludicrous: he is clearly the one who undermined public confidence, not the scientists and agencies that are doing their best to reduce the incidence of preventable diseases and to protect the public from alarmists like him.
In my opinion, the whole book is an embarrassing, tedious, puerile, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at damage control. Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific arena and he is reduced to seeking a second opinion from the public. Perhaps he thinks that the truth can be determined by a popularity contest. Perhaps he thinks the future will look back at him as a persecuted genius like Galileo or Semmelweis. Jenny McCarthy thinks so; I don’t.”
The film, like the book, is basically a means for Andy to voice his excuses for why he should not have been struck from the register and why the study was not fraudulent. He even gets his son, James, and his wife, Carmel, to make excuses for why it was no big deal to take blood from James and his mates during James’ 10th birthday party. They all act like it is no big deal to pay children 5 pounds to take their blood at a birthday party, without ethical approval. One wonders why any of them think that this is a valid way to collect any kind of sample for a scientific study. It’s really hard to understand. Andy spends quite a bit of time, in the film, arguing that taking these blood samples was ethical.
As I get halfway through the film, I remember that the filmmaker, Miranda Bailey, maintains that the film is not about proving Andy right or making vaccines look bad and, yet, she spends quite a bit of time painting Andy as a loving family man. He is filmed cooking for his children and spending time with the family, the whole family participates in the interviews, and he is often filmed sitting in front of a large array of family photographs.
The point of this film is obviously to make us see Andrew Wakefield as a victim.
But it is not working for me. I am getting upset as I watch it. I am upset that he cannot admit he did anything wrong. I am upset that he continues to con people with these lies and mistruths. And I am upset that Andy continues to allow these lies and mistruths to be perpetuated, giving fuel to the antivaccination fire. Truly, if it were not for him, I believe we would not have such a large antivaccination movement and we would have a far smaller group of people who think vaccines cause autism. We likely would also have far fewer dangerous “cures” and treatments for autism. Autistic persons would not be seen as damaged and people would not be trying to remove the autism from them. Andy even says, at one point in the film, that he is very lucky that his own children are healthy and have no developmental disorders. The implication is that a developmental disorder is a horrible thing. Again, he is perpetuating the notion that autism is horrible.
The part of the movie I found the most annoying is the tale of Andy’s experience trying to confront Brian Deer in Wisconsin in October 2012. Included in this part of the film is the story of Cade, the son of Jennifer VanDerHorst-Larsen. Cade was typically developing, in her words, until he had his 15-month vaccines. Between 15 months and 19 months, Cade became autistic, according to his mother. For some reason, the filmmakers chose to show Cade’s mother fangirling over Andy, inviting him into her large, luxurious home, where Cade is shown stimming and enjoying their pool. Cade seems to have a lovely life, which includes two dogs, a huge home and pool, and his own art room. Cade is a very cute boy, perhaps about 12 in the film. By the very sad music, I gather we are supposed to feel sorry for his family but my take is Cade has a blessed life.
In the film, Brian Deer is invited to a journalism school to talk to journalism students. Andy feels it is appropriate to show up to the college uninvited to give “the other side.” Ms. Larsen truly believes, in her own world, that pharmaceutical companies are paying Deer to ruin Andy’s career because they want to bury a link between autism and MMR. So, Andy is shown yelling at a small crowd of supporters and being called a hero.
Melodramatic music plays in the background.
I gather we viewers are supposed to take these moments seriously and see Andy as the fallen hero but all I see is a charismatic liar. I also have a very hard time with the moms fangirling Andy. As someone who has read a great deal of the scientific literature and someone who has an autistic child and knows vaccines have NOTHING to do with it, I find the adulation of him disturbing. He even goes so far as to blame governments for the increase in measles incidence. He says that because they have removed the single measles vaccine from the market, they gave parents no other choices. He fails to acknowledge that parents are choosing not to vaccinate with MMR because of his opinion that MMR causes autism.
The film returns to the appeal of the SLAPP suit being dismissed. Andy’s lovely Austin home is shown. It is a large estate in Austin, Texas, with a great deal of land and more than one home on it. For all the complaints from Carmel about money, the house the Wakefield’s are shown in is a multi-million dollar plus estate, according to public tax documents. Carmel is showing walking around the estate with her daughter, discussing their lack of funds. It is a confusing scene. How could they have money for such a large estate if they have no money?
One clue comes towards the end of the film when Andy states he is $350,000 in debt and he realizes that another source of money, other than autism community, is needed. He states that another “target” is needed, “another group of people who get it.” And that target is the chiropractors. This fully explains Andy’s recent involvement with chiropractor associations and the chiropractor associations recent interest in “health freedom” advocacy. Andy reels them in by explaining to crowds of chiropractors that investigating the connection between autism and vaccines ends people’s careers, that Andy needs their financial help to fight the powers of evil. Andy is shown at a chiropractor conference in San Diego, where $50,000 is raised and everyone who donates over $500 gets to enjoy dinner with Andy. He gets a standing ovation.
At the end of the film, Andy does admit that he believes that MMR causes autism. To the filmmaker’s credit, they do cite that there are over 100 studies demonstrating no link between vaccines and autism. But it is only one line in an hour and a half of Andy explaining otherwise.
The film ends with Andy taking to the woods with his ax, in hot pink shorts and a tank top, to chop some wood. Apparently, chopping down his woods is how he relieves stress.
As far as documentaries go, this is a fairly well-made film. It was fascinating to get a behind the scenes look, albeit a contrived one, at Andy’s life at home. The point of the film is obviously to make the viewer sympathetic to Andy and I do believe the filmmakers did a good job of this, with their choices of where to film (in front of family photos) and how they portray Andy himself. This makes it very obviously a film focused on the antivaccine message, the message that Andy Wakefield is a hero and the MMR and other vaccines are evil. This is not a message based on sound science. It is emotionally manipulative, just like all the other antivax films. In that respect, I find this film very annoying and the producer, Miranda Bailey, to be highly disingenuous in her statements that she was not setting out to make an antivax film.
It should be noted that Brian Deer wrote about this film and the idea that he was asked to participate in it. It is an interesting read. As you might expect, the filmmakers were not truthful.
Remember to think for yourself!