By a rough estimate, the current lawsuits and criminal proceedings in the federal case against attorney Eric C. Conn have cost around 2,000 Eastern Kentuckians their Social Security benefits.
On a micro level, this means that 2,000 families have lost their ability to support themselves. As devastating as this loss sounds, I submit that the real impact of Conn’s presence in our community will not fully be realized for years to come.
To really understand Conn’s lasting impact, you should first look at the psychology of what he’s accomplished.
Over 40 years ago, psychiatrist William Glasser began his writings on the effects of our behavior on how we think and feel. Glasser stated that our thoughts and emotions are primarily guided by how we act. In other words, if we act depressingly, we feel depressed. If we act anxiously, we feel anxious.
This has been studied for years — it’s called the Nocebo Effect. You may have already heard of the Placebo Effect. A “sugar pill” is the classic example. If I gave you a sugar pill and told you it was Tylenol, you would likely begin to feel some relief from your headache, not because the pill was actually working but because you believed it was working.
What if I gave you a sugar pill and told you about all the side effects it might have? Would you not begin to think you had some of these side effects? As with Conn, what if I told you that your body or mind was not working the way it should? Would you not then begin to act as if this was true? If I falsely convinced you that you could not possibly work due to your “illness,” how long would it be before you accepted this as the truth?
To me, this was Conn’s greatest evil and one that will not likely dissipate for decades. He killed people’s potential. He created a lie that became the truth and will continue for generations. He robbed people of lives and livelihoods under the false claim of help.
I steadfastly believe that most of Conn’s clients could have recovered to some degree with help from actual professionals. However, his network of “Conn artists” have seen to it that those people have mostly been convinced that they are beyond salvage.
We will never know how many people could have recovered and led meaningful and sustainable lives. Further, I believe that many of Conn’s former clients have thought and behaved like they are disabled for so long that their bodies and minds are now truly disabled. It’s impossible to underestimate the damage such lies have created.
In the 1500s, people behaved like the world was flat because everyone told them it was flat. They avoided the water for fear of falling off the Earth. They didn’t take long trips or explore unknown potentials over concern of where the land might stop.
And here, in Eastern Kentucky, with Conn, the effect is identical. Many people are now convinced of their own, often false, limitations. They don’t go out for fear of health concerns. They don’t act “enabled” like they used to before they were “disabled.” Their pain has increased from years of stress and worry over a condition they may never have had.
There’s an evil in this story that should not be celebrated with clever memes or jokes.
This man and his associates have taken away people’s very identities, their will to meaning and at times their will to live. To see such a man as a celebrity is naïve and thoughtless. He is a harbinger of sorrow on par with locusts from Biblical times.
His effect on our area, and the public’s perception of our area, will likely never be overcome.
For that, and for all the people he has affected, I hope we, as a community, learn to never allow this to happen again.
Aaron Frye is a licensed and certified counselor and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor in the area of Salyersville.