The word ‘tragedy’ should not be used lightly. But the case of Anna Stubblefield and the young black man called ‘DJ’ calls out for such an appellation: many lives and two families lie ruined at its core. Stated baldly the facts of the case run as follows: a professor of philosophy, aided by, and reliant on a technique called ‘facilitated communication,’ developed over a period of time an increasingly inappropriate relationship with a severely physically and mentally disabled black man (a brother of one of her students.) When ‘DJ”s guardians realized the relationship had become sexual, they blocked Stubblefield’s access to ‘DJ.’ When Stubblefield persisted in making contact, they reported Stubblefield to the police. Her arrest and trial followed. She was convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
There is, as might be surmised, nothing redeeming in this sad tale. Violations of trust lie scattered all over its particulars: an older white professor raped a young black man in her charge; a mother and wife betrayed her husband and children (Stubblefield’s husband has written with some passion and eloquence about the trauma visited on the couple’s children and the ruination of their marriage); and lastly, a bizarre method of communication, utterly discredited by any systematic empirical investigation ever directed at it, was used to impute all kinds of competencies to ‘DJ.’
At the heart of this story–besides the many visible betrayals of trust–lies the pseudoscientific ‘facilitated communication.’ Despite ample evidence showing this method–sometimes referred to as ‘facilitated typing’–is a front for the facilitator to impute thoughts and words to the disabled person, Stubblefield relied on it as a foundation for a series of extravagant claims about DJ’s mental capabilities–going so far as to state that he had ‘authored’ an academic paper–none of which were backed up by any form of clinical or scientific evidence. The most comprehensive debunking of ‘facilitated communication’ can be found in David Auerbach’s article for Slate, an act of investigative journalism for which he is now being rewarded by unhinged abuse by facilitated communications’ proponents on the Internet. As Auerbach makes clear, facilitated communication is not going away any time soon; indeed, its boosters would like to see it being used in public schools. It is unclear what would take to drive a stake through its heart.
There is little need to circle the wagons around either Stubblefield or the method of communication she used. The disabled need help and understanding and support; they do not need to be turned into laboratory cases for experimentation. Rape is rape, no matter who the victim or the rapist, for meaningful consent retains its central role in sexual relationships. Perhaps the happiest outcome–if that term is even appropriate at this juncture–for this series of events will be that ‘DJ’ and Stubblefield’s family will find a way to move on, that Stubblefield will be ‘reformed’, and lastly, that ‘facilitated communication’ will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.