Did a White Professor Sexually Abuse Her Disabled Black Patient—Or Was it Love?

Sky UK
Sky UK

John Johnson was a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University in 2009 when, while taking a class led by Anna Stubblefield—the director of the philosophy department, who was teaching in the American Studies Doctoral Program—he saw a movie about facilitated communication. Designed to help non-verbal mentally disabled men and women converse and express themselves, the technique involves having impaired people use keyboards or target boards to articulate what they can’t, all with the assistance of instructors who hold their arms or hands to compensate for their physical shakiness. The idea is that, with this revolutionary support, the mentally disabled can say what they really think, unhindered by their bodily limitations.

This struck John as a potential course of action for his brother Derrick, who was born with severe cerebral palsy that rendered him unable to speak or walk without assistance, and he asked Anna about it. Since the nearest treatment facility was 250 miles away in Syracuse, New York, Anna—who had experience working with the disabled but was no expert in this practice—agreed to do some initial testing with Derrick on her own. “She was going to move mountains, and I accepted her at her word,” says Derrick’s mother, Daisy, in Tell Them You Love Me.

Instead, what her family got was a nightmare that ended in a courtroom.

Tell Them You Love Me (June 14, on Netflix) is the riveting true story of Anna and Derrick, whose relationship began with noble intentions and ended in shocking scandal. A tale about consent, delusion, and race, it inspires debate to this day, and Nick August-Perna’s documentary benefits from the participation of all involved parties, including Anna, who continues to not only profess her innocence regarding the sexual-abuse charges for which she was convicted, but to affirm that she and Derrick were in love with each other. Those statements were at the heart of her defense and take center stage here too. And given the context in which they’re delivered, they’re destined—depending on one’s perspective on this matter—to inspire either heartfelt sympathy or blood-boiling outrage.

In an archival video from Rutgers, Anna, a white woman, announces that, “race, class, gender and sexual orientation and disability are inextricably intertwined, such that none of these concepts would exist as it does without the others.” In light of her faith in intersectionality, she was immediately drawn to Derrick, a Black man with severe mental and physical disadvantages. Anna was raised by a mother, Sandi McClennen, who had spent her career working with impaired individuals, and who had first learned about facilitated communication at a December 1990 conference where Rosemary Crossley reported her successful efforts to help a young cerebral palsy-inflicted girl select items on a target board by supporting her beneath her upper arm. With such aid, this child could spell and read books—supposedly proving that, inside her uncooperative body, she had a vibrant and intelligent mind.

Daisy, Derrick, and John Johnson stand on a porch in ‘Tell Them You Love Me’
Sky UK

Anna used facilitated communication with Derrick, and before long, he was making great strides, to the point that a college student was assisting him with writing book reports (of novels that the student had allegedly not read). Initially, this confirmed John’s suspicion that his brother was sharper than he appeared. Using a portable keyboard known as the Neo, Derrick began corresponding with his loved ones in a newfound fashion, and to Daisy it was “like the porch lights went on.” Naturally, she and John were encouraged and excited by these developments, which were more than enough to quell whatever minor doubts they had about Anna, who from time to time came across as a woman trying to change who Derrick was—epitomized by the nickname, Dman, that Derrick said he wanted to be called.

Tell Them You Love Me fleshes out its saga with graphical recreations of Derrick and Anna’s Neo prose as well as archival photos, voicemail recordings, and police videos. Along with Daisy, John, and Anna’s commentary, that material provides a rather comprehensive picture of these unique circumstances. Things came to a head in 2011 when Anna realized that she was in love with Derrick, and according to her, he loved her in return. This resulted in a sexual relationship that Anna and Derrick soon confessed to Daisy and John, who were so stunned and enraged that John remembers having to leave the conversation lest he completely explode. After multiple subsequent back-and-forths, Daisy convinced Anna to provide details of these trysts on a police-recorded phone call, and a trial ensued, with Anna prosecuted for sexual assault. Once the jury got a look at Derrick in person and understood the depths of his disability, a guilty verdict—predicated on the idea that he couldn’t have given consent for such relations—was all but guaranteed.

Derrick Johnson is seen through camera men in a still from ‘Tell Them You Love Me’
Sky UK

Director August-Perna’s film affords Anna, Daisy, and John the chance to make their respective arguments, and though the former comes across as sincere, that’s not the same thing as innocent; considering everything, she seems to have deluded herself into believing a fiction because it let her feel good about liberating Derrick from his shortcomings. Regardless of motivation, however, there’s little possibility of viewing her actions as defensible unless one accepts that Derrick was, and is, far smarter and more capable than the copious evidence suggests.

Following two years behind bars, Anna won an appeal due to the fact that the trial judge hadn’t allowed her to bring up anything related to facilitated communication. Nonetheless, as expert Howard Shane persuasively contends, that treatment remains questionable at best, and deceptive at worst. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally trying to create a false message,” he says. “They believe that this is coming from the person who’s being facilitated.” In other words, it’s a method in which the caregiver’s subconscious projections lead to misinterpretations and manipulations. That’s perhaps the nicest way of saying that Tell Them You Love Me thinks facilitated communication reveals more about the facilitator than the patient.

John, meanwhile, has a more succinct assessment of the therapy: “Bogus.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.