Doomed to Repeat: Gender Ideology and the Repressed Memory Movement
How bad science and good intentions can ruin people's lives.
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A scant 30 years ago, therapists with (mostly) the best of intentions managed to ruin many people’s lives. Using recovered memory therapy, clinicians unwittingly participated in creating false memories of horrific abuse that in some cases permanently sundered relationships between parents and adult children and sent innocent people to jail for decades. Most importantly, this treatment also harmed the patients it was meant to help.
In the late 1990s there were numerous lawsuits in which therapists or psychiatrists were successfully sued or settled on charges of having propagated false memories of childhood sexual abuse, incest, and satanic ritual abuse. Fran and Dan Keller served 21 years in prison after young children who attended their daycare began making wild allegations after having been coaxed by a therapist. According to one child witness, the Kellers “had everyone take off their clothes and had a parrot that pecked them in the pee-pee,” and “came to her house with a chainsaw and cut her dog Buffy in the vagina until it bled.” The therapist construed these childish imaginings as literally true, and concluded her small patient was a victim of ritual abuse. The Kellers were finally freed in November of 2014 after the only witness who provided any physical evidence of abuse—a doctor—recanted.
The false memory and ritual abuse scares of the ‘80s and ‘90s now seem bizarre almost beyond imagining. Therapists, psychiatrists, government agencies, congressional committees, and the media bought into the belief that worldwide satanic cults had infiltrated society and were ritually abusing children on a significant scale.
Tragically, history is in the process of repeating itself. Something strikingly similar is now happening. The current trend to diagnose children as transgender bears an eerie similarity to this previous social panic. This matters because, as with the previous panic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the current trend is harming those it is supposed to help, and forcing them to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Below, I outline the similarities—and differences.
1. Vulnerable people are being offered a new way of understanding themselves that in many cases is not adaptive.
During the recovered memory scandal, many people went into therapy with relatively normal concerns but had a therapist suggest that the true cause of their problem was childhood abuse that they had no memory of. “Laura” was one of the first retractors to successfully sue her former therapist. She was a single mom of a young child who was struggling with bulimia.
I went into counseling because I had an eating disorder. I’d been bulimic since I was ten….I was desperate and I’d read about Steve in a book, how this girl supposedly got healed by him in a four month period.…At my first counseling session, in 1985, Steve asked if I had ever been sexually abused.…He told me I needed to find buried stuff with deeper roots. He told me that since I had an eating disorder, it automatically meant I had been seriously abused. So we went to work trying to find buried memories….
(Victims of Memory, by Mark Pendergrast, 1996)
Four years later, her symptoms were worse than ever. She had gained almost a hundred pounds, was about to lose her house, and had a terribly strained relationship with her parents, who were her main source of support as she raised her daughter. The story Steve offered to Laura about her eating disorder gave her a new way to understand her problems, but it made things worse, not better.
A parallel and related trend in the ‘80s and ‘90s saw many patients being coached by therapists to believe that they had multiple personality disorder, or MPD. Therapists, the media, and peer and social influence spread this “illness,” and vulnerable patients manifested the symptoms in a kind of unconscious negotiation between sufferer and therapist, or sufferer and culture. Again, this new clinical lens was harmful, not curative. Those diagnosed as MPD were more likely to commit suicide than those who manifested similar symptoms but were not given that diagnosis.
Today, medical or mental health professionals may be responsible for suggesting to a vulnerable young patient that he or she is trans, just as some therapists suggested to their patients that they had buried memories of abuse. The authority of the doctor or therapist can be quite influential in offering a patient a new way of understanding herself, whether as the victim of satanic abuse or having been born in the wrong body.
Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy is the Medical Director at The Center for Transyouth Health and Development. At a 2017 conference sponsored by the US Professional Association for Transgender Health, Olson-Kennedy told the following story of how she offered a young girl an understanding of herself as trans using a Pop-Tart analogy. (You can listen to a recording of this excerpt here.)
So at one point, I said to the kid, “so do you think that you’re a girl or a boy? And this kid was like…I could just see, there was, like, this confusion on the kid’s face. Like, “actually I never really thought about that.” And so this kid said, “well, I’m a girl, ’cause I have this body.”
Right? This is how this kid had learned to talk about their gender…that it’s based on their body.
And I said, “oh, so …and I completely made this up on the spot, by the way, but …I said, “Do you ever eat pop tarts?” And the kid was like, oh, of course. And I said, “well you know how they come in that foil packet?” Yes. “Well, what if there was a strawberry pop tart in a foil packet, in a box that said ‘Cinnamon Pop Tarts.’? Is it a strawberry pop tart, or a cinnamon pop tart?”
The kid’s like, “Duh! A strawberry pop tart.” And I was like, “so…”
And the kid turned to the mom and said, “I think I’m a boy and the girl’s covering me up.”
This young patient had never conceptualized herself as trans before the doctor suggested this as a new way to understand herself. We don’t know if this new story made things better or worse for this child, but we do know it is possible that she was put on a pathway that led to medicalization that could have plausibly been avoided.
With regard to both transgenderism and repressed memory, the indicators used to self-diagnose are similarly vague and unfalsifiable. In the 1988 book The Courage to Heal, readers are presented with a checklist of symptoms that could indicate they were the victims of abuse that they don’t remember. Do you ever feel bad, dirty, or ashamed? Do you ever feel helpless, like a victim? Do you have trouble feeling motivated? Virtually anyone could see themselves in this list. Likewise, Planned Parenthood’s website suggests that, to learn whether you might be trans, you should imagine what it might feel like to wear different clothes or use different pronouns. “Do parts of your body, words, or ways people treat you feel good or bad?”
These non-specific, subjective explorations invite one to adopt a radical new way of thinking about oneself.
2. Victims of recovered memory syndrome and many trans-identifying kids orient their identity and relationships around a new way of understanding themselves.
Wikipedia defines false memory syndrome as “a condition in which a person’s identity and relationships are affected by memories that are factually incorrect but that they strongly believe.” Research has confirmed the suggestibility of the memory making process, making it clear that false memories can be created through cultural transmission, peer influence, and the techniques described as recovered memory therapy.
The Wikipedia article goes on to state that false memories per se are not the problem. “Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have inaccurate memories. Rather, the syndrome is diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle—disrupting other adaptive behavior.” (Emphasis mine.) The false memory therefore only graduates into a mental diagnosis when it becomes a central point of the person’s identity and adversely influences his or her interpersonal relationships.
The false memory may be bizarre and become an obsessive preoccupation. The McMartin pre-school trial was the longest and most expensive trial in American history. Those who testified claimed they saw witches flying in the air. They recollected traveling in hot air balloons, and being taken into an elaborate system of tunnels underneath the daycare.
The creation of these fantastical “memories” didn’t only occur in young children. Adults who went into therapy for ordinary concerns sometimes found themselves in an intense relationship with the therapist, where suggestion and influence played a central role in constructing an alternative past.
One patient recounts the bizarre things that she eventually came to believe:
I had these horrible flashbacks of being given cold enemas and various objects being inserted into my vagina. Another time, I remembered my brother and his friends hung me by my feet. It was only recently that I realized where those particular images came from. The enemas and insertion came from the book Sybil, and the upside down hanging came from a movie called Deranged, which I saw when I was 17. And I had incorporated some of a story I once wrote about identifying a prostitute’s body in the morgue. So different pieces of my life that had nothing to do with me being abused became part of the flashbacks. It’s amazing to me that my subconscious mind had served them up without my knowing where they came from.
(Victims of Memory, by Mark Pendergrast, 1996)
These bizarre beliefs can become a person’s central point of reference, eclipsing critical thought, leading them to surrender his or her rational faculties in their service.
I eventually came up with scenes of group sexual abuse and being raped by animals. After I had a vision of a dead man hanging from a rope, my grandfather, the murderer, got added to the abuser list. But it was mainly my mother who was the target of my anger. Steve [the therapist] convinced me that she had been trying to kill me for years. I interpreted everything she did that way, so when she brought me cookies, it was to encourage my binges. Everybody in the group was encouraged to divorce their families and make the group their new family. If anybody expressed any doubts, Steve… would goad them. “You’re in denial.”
(Victims of Memory, by Mark Pendergrast, 1996)
Through buying into the false belief, the person’s historical biography is re-written. Old events are re-imagined in light of the new “information,” radically altering the person’s sense of identity and sundering connections to family and friends.
I sat down at my computer and typed out a four-page confrontation/accusation letter to my parents in which I told them my pain was “beyond horrendous.” I wrote, “You thought you got away with it. The ‘good’ daughter had repressed forever. Not a chance, Dad.” I accused my father of repeated rapes, but I also blamed my mother, who must have known what was going on. “Why didn’t you save me? I am your child. Was your fear of dad so great it came before my safety?”…
I entered therapy in 1988 because of a job-related harassment issue, and I left in 1993 a suicidal wreck. It stole five years of my life. I became completely irresponsible and self-involved, but I blame Karen Meynert [the therapist] for what happened.”
(Victims of Memory, by Mark Pendergrast, 1996)
Transgender children fall prey to the bizarre belief that they are the opposite sex or neither sex. Taken away from the clamor and din of politics, the assertion that one is biologically one sex but of a different “gender” in some mysterious way makes no sense and is every bit as strange as asserting that daycare workers sacrificed babies and fed them to children. Those who define their inner sense of being misaligned with their anatomy often cannot describe this experience without reference to sex role stereotypes, or by appealing to notions that seem much more metaphysical or subjective rather than empirical.
As is the case with recovered memories, the “discovery” on the part of a young person that they are trans brings about a reevaluation of their prior life that validates their diagnosis, altering their sense of identity and personal biography.
The following is an excerpt from this article. Note that the female author reports on fairly common childhood experiences of gender nonconforming behavior that now take on momentous significance as evidence of being a boy.
After that haircut—and that fateful Google Search—a lot of things suddenly made sense to me: Why I was equally enthusiastic about mud pies and the color pink in preschool. Why I didn’t want any of the fake makeup, costume jewelry, and dress-up clothes people gave me on my sixth birthday. Why I spent years rejecting anything feminine, embracing the “tomboy” label, wishing at times I would get breast cancer so I could have a flat chest again, then taking back that wish, then wanting to be a Boy Scout, before ultimately just wanting to be a boy.
The author has rewritten her childhood to bring it into consonance with her new understanding of herself as a boy. Not being comfortable in “girly” stuff as a child can now, with hindsight, be seen as early evidence and “proof” that she is trans. Of course, gender nonconforming girls and tomboys rarely gravitate to “girly” things in childhood and may prefer “boy” toys, just as some boys prefer “girl” toys. Our refusal to accept narrow sex role stereotypes should not be taken as evidence that we ought to reject our bodies—it ought to be evidence that we should reject sex role stereotypes.
And as with the false beliefs present in many cases of false memory therapy, the belief of gender nonconforming youth that they are actually the opposite sex disrupts other adaptive behavior, severs important relationships, and can become obsessional. Consider this story about a 16-year-old natal female who came out as transgender at age 14 or 15. The child, referred to only as PD, was adopted at age 6. The parents understandably had a hard time coming to terms with their child’s assertion of being a different sex, and they refused to call their child by the new name. This caused the child “very great annoyance and distress,” according to the courts. As a result of feeling misunderstood because the parents refused to use the new name, PD cut off all contact with them.
While the transgender teen story is usually portrayed in the media in celebratory terms, my contact with parents living through this indicates that, at least some of the time, the tale is a darker one. Even supportive parents report that their teens sometimes become increasingly isolated and distressed after coming out. They withdraw from friends who aren’t trans. They might cease their involvement in extracurricular activities. Their academics can suffer. Sometimes, they stop talking to their parents. They become obsessed with their appearance and with “passing.” They might suffer outsized distress over the indignity of being “misgendered.” Their ambit of concern can shrink to encompass only the paranoid echo chamber of illusory oppression.
3. Recovered memory syndrome and the transgender child trend involve highly sensational subjects that involve children and sexuality.
Children and sex are perennially two of the chief lightning rods around which mass hysterias often take form. The false memory and satanic ritual abuse panics of the ‘80s and ‘90s occurred in conjunction with a significant cultural shift, as women left home to go to work in huge numbers, leaving their children in daycare. The allegations of ritual abuse that swirled around daycares in the panic may have served as an expression of anxiety and ambivalence about this rapid societal transformation.
Now, the popular imagination has been captured by transgender children. We celebrate the “courage” of these children and their families and rush to endorse hormonal treatment to forestall the “trauma” of puberty. What cultural current might this be in reaction to?
4. In both recovered memory and the transgender child trend, the media played a key role.
Both trends have been presented uncritically by the media. In the case of false memory syndrome, high profile media attention presented without critical dialogue fanned the flames of hysteria.
In 1983, Geraldo Rivera aired “Satanic Cults and Children.” In 1988, he did another episode entitled “Devil Worship: Exploring Satan’s Underground.” In 1995, Rivera apologized for his role in spreading the hysteria with the following words:
I want to announce publicly that as a firm believer of the “Believe The Children” movement of the 1980’s, that started with the McMartin trials in CA, but NOW I am convinced that I was terribly wrong… and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison as a result….AND I am equally positive [that the] “Repressed Memory Therapy Movement” is also a bunch of CRAP…
In 1989, Oprah Winfrey hosted a show on “Child Sacrifice,” and Sally Jesse Raphael did a segment called “Baby Breeders.” In 1991, Raphael covered the story again with a show called “Devil Babies.”
Both 20/20 and HBO did special stories on the subject. HBO’s special was entitled “The Search for Deadly Memories.” This documentary shows techniques for recovering “repressed” memories, and featured many doctors and other “experts,” lending the perception of credibility to the claims. Eventually, 20/20, 60 Minutes, and HBO would all produce shows skeptical of the panic.
I doubt you’ll need much convincing with respect to the media contribution to the current transgender child trend. There has been a great deal of coverage in the media about trans children. Nearly all of the coverage has been uncritical, if not celebratory.
5. Both movements created high profile “stars.”
In 1980, the book Michelle Remembers by Lawrence Padzer and Michelle Smith was published. It was the first book on ritual abuse and is largely responsible for setting the panic in motion. Though it has since been entirely discredited, it was reported on and taken as fact by journalists and talk show hosts including Oprah, who interviewed Smith on her television show. The book was a bestseller, and Padzer and Smith earned an estimated $350,000 from its publication.
Jazz Jennings is a 22-year-old transgender woman noted for being one of the youngest publicly documented people to be identified as gender dysphoric. She received national attention at the age of six when Barbara Walters interviewed her on 20/20. Other high-profile interviews followed. Jazz has her own company (Purple Rainbow Tails, founded when she was 13), her own YouTube channel, a children’s book, and her own reality TV show on TLC. In 2014, she was named one of “The Most Influential Teens” of the year by Time. She has modeled and appeared in television commercials for acne treatments.
6. Both movements have been fueled by hysteria over immediate peril of children.
In both cases, the narrative is driven by powerful fears over the welfare of children. In the case of satanic ritual abuse and false memories, anyone who expressed doubt over the veracity of a purported victim’s claims was subject to intense vitriol and accusations that they were harming children by not believing them without question. An advocacy organization was formed by the parents of the children involved in the McMartin preschool trial called “Believe the Children.” It became a clearinghouse for information on satanic ritual abuse.
Regarding the transgender child trend, those who express doubt about a child’s claim that he or she is “born in the wrong body” are often accused of harming or even “killing” transgender children. The fact that there are very high rates of suicide attempts among those who identify as transgender is repeatedly cited as a reason why trans-identifying children must be immediately affirmed and transitioned. (This is an uncritical use of the statistic. A study found that 41 percent of those who are transgender had attempted suicide. However, the study did not differentiate between whether the attempt came before or after transition. A study from Sweden indicates that suicidality among those who have medically transitioned is significantly higher than in the general population. Those who suffer from gender dysphoria do indeed have a high rate of suicidality. However, there is no robust evidence that transition reduces suicidality.)
7. Therapists played a significant role in the promulgation of both movements.
Protecting the innocent, advocating for those who are at risk and vulnerable—these are appealing roles for therapists to take on. Therapists in both movements have appeared to have the moral high ground. Many have been quick to jump on board out of a desire to be on the right side of history.
Therapists used a variety of techniques that have come to be called “recovered memory therapy” to search for “forgotten” or “repressed” memories of trauma. These practices spread quickly and were fueled by materials developed by those without clinical expertise such as the book The Courage to Heal, which was written by a poet and creative writing teacher and one of her students.
Of course, a darker side to the well-meaning impulse to help those who had been victimized is that the movement to recover repressed memories created lucrative earning opportunities for some therapists.
In recent years, there has been a growth in the number of therapists who identify as “gender therapists.” This is not a protected title in any jurisdiction; anyone can call themselves a gender therapist. At most, a gender therapist may have received training from a transgender advocacy organization. Most transgender advocacy organizations have few members with any clinical or mental health background. Online research indicates that a gender therapist is “someone who helps a transgender person with their transition.” This gender therapist, for example, has a video blog where she answers questions. To the question “how do I know if I am transgender?” she answers that “if you are asking that question, you probably are not cisgender.”
Gender therapy is a lucrative and in-demand specialty. The gender therapist noted above, for example, has recently released a book about discovering one’s gender identity.
8. Governmental and professional organizations have bought into the movement’s narrative.
No less an organization than the US Congress held hearings on daycare abuse. Former US Attorney General Janet Reno served as prosecutor in one of the cases. Policies put forward by the local and Federal governments, as well as guidelines issued by professional organizations, show that many of our most important institutions have bought into the gender identity narrative.
9. The concept has penetrated deeply into popular culture, including children’s picture books.
The description of a 1990 children’s book entitled Don’t Make Me Go Back Mommy (Hurts of Childhood Series) on Amazon reads as if it is a humor piece.
Five-year-old Allison’s behavior indicates to her concerned parents that something is wrong at her day care center. In unseen action, they discover that the center practices sexual, physical, and psychological abuse in the guise of religious ritual. Through dialogue, Allison and her parents reveal their feelings and the beginnings of the healing process to counselors and legal personnel. Some details of abuse are familiar from the lengthy McMartin trial, such as the “movie star room” in which naked children are photographed. The appendix lists 10 guidelines for parents on how to handle their own feelings during this family crisis.
There are now many books for children about being transgender. I Am Jazz is just one example. It is recommended for children ages four to eight.
Following is its Amazon description:
From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way.
10. Because both movements rely on self-diagnosis, they are impervious to contradictory evidence.
In both the recovered memory and transgender child trend, someone’s subjective experience of him or herself trumps other claims, even without evidence. According to this paradigm, anyone who is not in the special class (abuse victim or transgender person) cannot speak about that phenomenon with any authority, leaving the narrative incapable of ever being questioned much less falsified.
11. Both movements spread by social and peer influence which relies on the very human trait of suggestibility.
The recovered memory episode gave rise to a great deal of research about human suggestability and how easy it is for well-meaning therapists to suggest things that didn’t really happen and create false “memories.”
Many teens suddenly coming out as transgender without a history of prior gender dysphoria or even gender nonconforming behavior say they “knew” they were transgender after they read something online. The language they use to describe their experience is quite consistent, likely an indication that they picked up the ideas from similar sources online. For example, many parents report that their child said some version of, “Would you rather have a dead daughter or a live son?” Many teens also talk about the “button” thought experiment—if you had a button that would make you into the opposite sex, would you push it?
Peer influence also played a role in promulgating both hysterias. Many teens coming out as transgender are doing so in the context of peer groups who are also trans identified, as discussed in Lisa Littman’s 2018 paper. During the recovered memory era, there were documented cases where some people “found” repressed memories after spending time in a peer group for survivors.
12. In both movements feminists were the some of the first and most outspoken skeptics.
The panic over recovered memories was problematic not just because it ripped families apart, but also because it diverted attention and resources from real child abuse issues. Some feminists voiced concerns about this. Today, feminists such as Kathleen Stock are drawing attention to the inconsistencies in the transgender narrative and expressing concern about how this trend is distracting attention from issues of sexism and gay and lesbian issues. Of particular concern to feminists is the fact that many young lesbians are identifying as trans and going on to take hormones and undergo surgery. In this sense, transition acts like medical gay conversion therapy, changing lesbian girls into straight boys. Some suggest that many young lesbians are identifying as trans due to internalized misogyny and homophobia.
I have just covered some of the ways in which I see the transgender child trend is like the made-up phenomenon of recovered memory and satanic ritual abuse. But how are they different?
1. The internet.
Information and ideas travel faster and further now, making it easier to spread narratives.
2. In the case of recovered memories, most of the victims were adults. Now the victims are children.
If there is even a small chance that significant numbers of young people are permanently altering their bodies on the basis of beliefs about themselves that may change, shouldn’t we all be trying to slow this train down?
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung noted that narratives can be healing or harming. “Whether the fiction forms itself in me spontaneously or reaches me outside via human speech, it can make me ill or cure me.” Because stories are powerful, we must pay attention to whether the stories we offer patients are harmful or curative. Too often in the history of mental health, the former has been the case.
If we do not wish to repeat the mistakes of history, we are well advised to study and learn from them.
A NYT worthy article. Well written and in need of mass publication. My son began a medical transition after a month with a 28 year old, newly licensed, ‘gender therapist’. Previously he had been working with mature, well trained therapists who were helping him understand his self hate in other ways and he seemed to be doing better. How do we get this information to the APA and other therapy training organizations? Desperate mom of an adult child, grieving. 😢
Excellent article. One day we will look back on these times and shake our heads at what was a dangerous fad. But by then, there will probably be some other nonsense for us to debunk. We have become like a panicky herd of sheep, running from one imagined fear after another.