As Alan Dershowitz LAW ’62 prepared to defend Donald Trump from impeachment, he also defended himself — resulting in an online feud and a request from him that Yale investigate one of its psychiatrists who suggested Trump supporters may suffer from “shared psychosis.”
In a tweet in January, assistant clinical psychiatry professor Bandy Lee said Dershowitz and other close associates of Trump may be suffering from “shared psychosis.” Shared psychosis is a “contagion of symptoms, usually delusions of persecution,” Lee later explained in an email to the News.
In response, Dershowitz — a current member of Trump’s legal team and professor emeritus at Harvard — refuted Lee’s claims via a Jan. 11 Op-Ed posted on the website of the Gatestone Institute, an international policy council and think tank. The day the article went up, Dershowitz sent an email to University spokesperson Karen Peart and University President Peter Salovey’s Chief of Staff Joy McGrath requesting an investigation of Lee. He copied Lee and Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken on the email.
“Dr. Bandy Lee of the Yale Medical School has publicly ‘diagnosed’ me as ‘psychotic,’ based on my legal and political views, and without ever examining or even meeting me,” Dershowitz wrote. “This constitutes a serious violation of the ethics rules of the American Psychiatric Association. I am formally asking that association to discipline Dr. Lee. By this email, I also formally ask Yale University, Yale Law School and its medical school to determine whether Dr. Lee violated any of its rules.”
In an interview with the News, Dershowitz stressed that he “did not file a complaint with Yale” but rather “wrote a letter to the relevant authorities.”
Responding on Twitter to Dershowitz’s request to her superiors, Lee wrote on Jan. 11 that she will not “cower” or “compromise.” And in an interview with the News earlier this month, Lee said that while she does not want to place the University in the midst of the conflict nor jeopardize her job, she will not stop voicing her concerns.
“I have been involved in this because it is so urgent,” said Lee, who authored the 2017 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” “It is urgent beyond anything I have experienced in my career. And I have never, in 20 years of my career, I have never been involved in anything political … And here I am at the forefront, because the dangers rose to a level where I felt compelled to speak out, and it is not being addressed. If it were addressed, there would no longer be a need for me to be involved.”
The feud between the two professors dates back to July 19, when Dershowitz — who then faced accusations of sexual assault following revelations about his ties to the late financier Jeffrey Epstein — claimed on Fox News that he had a “perfect, perfect sex life.”
On Jan. 2, University of Minnesota Law Professor Richard Painter — who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush — tweeted that Dershowitz’s phrasing echoed Trump’s recount of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he described the interaction as “perfect.” Lee quickly reacted to Painter’s tweet, describing Dershowitz’s use of this specific word as odd. While Lee wrote that Dershowitz’s use of “perfect” might be dismissed as ordinary, she added that the “severity and spread of shared psychosis” among “just about all of” Trump’s followers, points to “a different scenario.”
“Which scenario? That he has wholly taken on Trump’s symptoms by contagion,” Lee wrote on Jan. 2. “There is even proof: his bravado toward his opponent with a question about his own sex life — in a way that is irrelevant to the actual lawsuit — shows the same grandiosity and delusional-level impunity [as Trump].”
While Lee wrote in an email to the News that there can be many explanations for such behavior, shared psychosis “must be considered.”
Dean of the Yale School of Medicine Robert Alpern declined to comment. In an email to the News, Peart declined to give details about Dershowitz’s complaints or the University’s reaction to them.
“When Yale receives complaints about the professional conduct of members of our faculty, it takes those complaints seriously — and treats them as confidentially as possible while it reviews and considers the relevant facts,” Peart wrote.
Lee — a forensic psychiatrist and expert on violence — tweets several times a day regarding Trump and his politics. Lee told the News that she has been a “completely non-political person” for much of her career and has generally only weighed in on the health effects of government policies when requested.
According to Lee, a major characteristic of shared psychosis is its infectious symptoms. If an influential person has a mental disorder, Lee said, people who have a lot of exposure to that person will, over time, take on that person’s symptoms as if they had the same illness. She added that shared psychosis does not always mean the person suffers from psychosis explicitly but rather exhibits traits common to another person.
“So if you have someone who is severely ill and goes untreated, and lives in a household full of family members, it’s not the healthy family members who make the sick person well,” Lee said. “It’s actually the sick person who spreads the symptoms … in the absence of treatment.”
But shared psychosis can also affect individuals who interact from afar — including a leader and their constituents.
According to University of Notre Dame clinical psychologist and professor Lee Anna Clark, the concept of “shared psychosis,” relates to the French term “folie à deux,” which translates to shared madness. In an interview with the News, Clark said while “shared psychosis” is rarely used in the field, Lee’s application of the term to Trump and his followers may have been “inappropriate” as it “[used] a psychiatric term … to paint with such a broad brush.”
“Psychosis is a pretty severe mental state,” Clark said. “I think there’s plenty of evidence that there are some things that Trump and his followers do and think that are not typical. I personally would not go so far as to say that they fall in the realm of psychosis.”
In addition to calling on Yale to investigate Lee, Dershowitz told the News that he is also in the process of filing a formal inquiry with the APA regarding her conduct. Dershowitz’s article on the Gatestone Institute website criticized Lee’s tweets, claiming that it is unethical for Lee to “render a professional opinion” about a public figure, per guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association. He said that regardless of her status in the APA, Lee — who is, in fact, not a member of the APA — still “speaks for psychiatrists.”
According to the APA, the Goldwater rule is an ethics principle that precludes its members from opining on an individual’s mental health condition in the media before examining them.
According to the APA website, someone who suspects an APA member may have violated ethical principles may file a complaint with the member’s APA district branch. In an email, Lee told the News that she resigned from the APA in 2007.
Still, beyond his allegations that Lee breached APA protocol, Dershowitz also said he finds her conduct generally improper.
“And, you know, forget about the Goldwater rule,” Dershowitz said. “It’s just wrong for a psychiatrist to diagnose somebody on political grounds. It cuts off debate. It shifts the inquiry from the merits to diagnosis. That’s why I want to debate with her. I’m happy to dialogue with her, but I don’t want to be diagnosed by her.”
Lee told the News that she did not “diagnose” Dershowitz and Trump’s followers. She added that a diagnosis would require more personal information such as medical history and a list of medications. But, she added that it is possible, even at a distance, to “tell apart what is abnormal from what is healthy.”
In response, Dershowitz told the News that Lee’s tweets “certainly seemed like a diagnosis,” because they used medical terms. He added that he is participating in the impeachment in order to defend the Constitution.
“I’m not a supporter of President Trump,” Dershowitz said. “I’m not a friend of President Trump. The idea that I would catch some kind of psychosis from him is preposterous.”
Dershowitz concluded his Jan. 11 Op-Ed by questioning Lee’s alleged preference for “diagnosis” over dialogue. In a Jan. 15 piece on Medium, Lee responded to Dershowitz by inviting him to a discussion at Yale, which he apparently refused on the basis of health issues. Dershowitz told the News that since Lee is younger than him — Dershowitz is 81 years old — it would be more appropriate for her to travel to him.
Dershowitz added that he suggested a debate at the University of Miami or a nearby school, as he lives in the South Florida city during the winter. He received no direct response.
“Let me be very clear,” Dershowitz said. “I am happy to debate her on professional ethics.”
Lee has taught at the Yale Law School since 2003.
Valerie Pavilonis | email@example.com
Clarification, Jan. 28: This article has been updated to better explain the symptoms of shared psychosis.