A scant 25 ago, therapists with (mostly) the best of intentions managed to ruin many people’s lives. Through the use of 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, cast a life-long pall of suspicion on parents, and sent innocent people to jail for decades.
In the late 1990’s 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 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 ’80 and ‘90s, the current trend is harming people who will have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. Below, I outline the similarities – and differences.
1.) Victims of false memory syndrome and many transgender kids are orienting their identity and relationships to a false belief. 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 a 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 becomes a central point of the person’s identity and determines his or her interpersonal relationships.
The false memory may be bizarre and become obsessional. The McMartin pre-school trial was the longest and most expensive trial in American history. Those that testified claimed they saw witches flying in the air, traveled in hot air balloons, and were taken into an elaborate system of tunnels underneath the daycare.
In an account of the FMSF website, one patient recounts the bizarre things that she eventually came to believe:
“I recalled various fragments of movies, books, talk shows, and nightly news, and soon I had plenty of child abuse memories. But, it didn’t stop there. Eventually, I said I had taken part in Satanic Rituals, been buried alive, drank blood, and helped to kill a baby. With every new memory, my therapist was intrigued and building a case to prove he was right about me all along.”
And these bizarre beliefs can become one’s central point of reference, eclipsing critical thought, leading the person to surrender his or her rational faculties in service of the belief. This is described by a victim of false memory syndrome on the website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
“Twice a week, I would go to therapy and be told the only way to feel better was to relive these memories. He would sit next to me on his couch covering me with a blanket while I, in a regressed, hypnotic state would start to have these “body memories.” This therapy continued and I had to be hospitalized six or seven weeks at a time. I’m now convinced that my depression and suicidality were mainly caused by the incredible conflict between wanting to be with my parents and pleasing my therapist.”
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.
As a victim of FMS describes on the FMSF website:
“I’ve lost six and a half years of my life, a chance to have an intimate relationship with my mother, time with my three young children, and my marriage of 21 years.”
Transgender children fall prey to the bizarre belief that they are born in the wrong body. There is no scientific validity to the idea that someone can be born a “man in a woman’s body” or the other way around. In fact, there is a great deal of research that indicates that there is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain. Taken away from the clamor and din of politics, the assertion that one is chromosomally and biologically one sex, but of a different “gender” in some mysterious way makes absolutely 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, and an appeal to notions that seem much more metaphysical or subjective rather than empirical.
Please note that I am not denying the existence of gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is real and often causes significant distress. It ought not to be stigmatized, discounted, or minimized. Those who suffer from gender dysphoria deserve to have their pain taken seriously and to be offered appropriate help and support by both their families and society at large. In some cases, transitioning may be the treatment required to alleviate the gender dysphoria, though like all invasive medical procedures, it ought not to be the first line of treatment if a less drastic intervention can do the trick. It does not follow, however, that we must accept the groundless and bizarre explanation that someone is born in the wrong body. The feelings of gender dysphoria are undeniable. How we explain those feelings matters a great deal if one of those explanations leads to a young person undergoing serious medical intervention with lifelong consequences that may or may not adequately address the presenting problem. In some of the FMS cases, patients presented to a therapist with distress over a marriage, for example. The therapist wrongly attributed their pain to repressed incidences of horrific abuse, which made the patient worse, not better. Attributing a young person’s pain to being born in the wrong body is no less strange, and is just as likely to lead to an inappropriate intervention.
And as with the false beliefs present in many cases of FMS, the belief of gender noncomforming youth that they are actually the opposite gender 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 gender, 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, refusing even to allow them to have any information going forward.
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 become increasingly isolated and distressed after coming out. They withdraw from friends who aren’t trans. They cease their involvement in extracurricular activities. Their academics suffer. They stop talking to parents. They become obsessed with their appearance and with “passing.” They suffer outsized distress over the indignity of being “misgendered.” Their ambit of concern shrinks to encompass only the paranoid echo chamber of illusory oppression.
As is the case with FMS, 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.
Following is a comment posted by a reader of this article. Note that the commentator reports on fairly common childhood experiences of gender nonconforming behavior that now take on momentous significance as evidence of being trans.
“I didn’t know since I was two. I knew I was different but I didn’t know how. Like I always envied the boys but never understood why. I wanted the boy toys, and never thought about why. I wanted to be in boy clothes cause I never felt comfortable in girly stuff, and never thought about why that was either. But I knew something was different.”
This commentator reaches the rather spurious conclusion that not being comfortable in “girly” stuff as child can now with hindsight be seen as early evidence and “proof” that she was trans. Of course girly stuff is rarely comfortable for little girls. And many little girls prefer “boy” toys, just as many boys prefer “girl” toys. Our refusal to accept narrow sex role stereotypes should not be evidence that we ought to reject our bodies. It ought to be evidence that we should reject sex role stereotypes.
2.) False 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 ‘80’s and ‘90’s 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 societal transformation.
Now, the popular imagination has been caught 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?
3.) In both FMS and the transgender child trend, the media played a key role.
Both of these trends have been presented in an uncritical way in 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.”
20/20 and HBO both did special stories on the subject. HBO’s special was entitled “Search for Deadly Memories.” This documentary shows techniques for recovering “repressed” memories, and featured many doctors and other “experts,” lending credibility to the claims. Eventually, 20/20, 60 Minutes, and HBO would all produce shows that were skeptical of the panic.
I need hardly offer evidence for the media contribution to the current transgender child trend. It is difficult to go through a day without hearing reference to a transgender child on some mainstream media outlet. Nearly all of the coverage is uncritical if not celebratory.
4.) 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 SRA 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 a tremendous commercial success, and Padzer and Smith earned an estimated $350,000 from its publication.
Jazz Jennings is a 16 year old transgender girl 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.
5.) 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 SRA and FMS, anyone who expressed doubt over the veracity of the claims was subject to intense vitriol and claims 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 SRA.
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 “killing” transgender children. The fact that there are very high rates of suicide attempts among those who are transgender is repeatedly cited as a reason why transgender children must be immediately affirmed and transitioned. (This is an uncritical use of the statistic. A study found that 41% 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. It would appear that those who suffer from gender dysphoria do indeed have a high rate of suicidality. However, there is no robust evidence that transition reduces suicidality.)
6.) 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 to be sure 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. Such 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.” To my knowledge, 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 at this point in time. The gender therapist noted above, for example, has recently released a book about discovering one’s gender identity.
7.) Governmental and professional organizations have bought into the movement’s narrative.
No less an organization than the US Congress held hearings on daycare abuse. Recent policies put forward by the International Olympic Committee, the National Education Association, and the Obama administration show that many of our most important institutions have bought into the gender identity narrative.
8.) The concept has penetrated deeply into popular culture, including children’s picture books
A 1990 children’s book entitled Don’t Make Me Go Back Mommy (Hurts of Childhood Series). The description of the book 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 a number of 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.”
9.) Because the false belief relies on self-diagnosis, it is impervious to contradictory evidence.
In the FMS and in the 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. The premise that the oppressed are infallible gets one way into the weeds fairly quickly. Something becomes true and unable to be questioned simply because a member of a certain special class says it is so.
10.) Both movements were spread by social contagion which relies on the very human trait of suggestibility.
The FMS episode gave rise to a great deal of research about how suggestible we all can be, how easy it is for well-meaning therapists to suggest things that didn’t really happen and in this way, create “memories.” A good overview of this research can be found here.
Many teens coming out suddenly 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 that they use to describe their experience is quite consistent, likely an indication that they picked up the ideas from similar sources on the internet. For example, many parents report that their child said “Would you rather have a dead daughter or a live son?” or something similar. Many teens also talk about the “button” thought experiment – if you had a button that could make you into the opposite sex like that, would you push it?
In both cases, the indicators used to diagnose are vague. Neither SRA nor transgenderism are well-defined phenomenon. The definitions shift and alter as convenient. For example, some transgender advocates do not believe that someone should need a diagnosis of dysphoria in order to transition. Simply saying one is trans ought to be enough without any dysphoria.
In both cases, conclusions with far reaching implications are arrived at using suggestive techniques. Transcripts of therapy sessions in which highly suggestive techniques were used can be found here. The contagion was also spread in both cases by peer groups. Many teens coming out as transgender are doing so in the context of peer groups who are also coming out. I am aware of one school where nine natal girls all announced that they were trans within a short space of time. In regards to FMS, there were documented cases where some people “found” repressed memories after spending time in a peer group for survivors. (See “Therapist Not Needed to Recover Memories.”)
11.) Interestingly, in both cases feminists were the some of the first and most outspoken skeptics
The panic over SRA 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 Elizabeth Hungerford, the blogger 4thWaveNow, Germaine Greer, and Rebecca Reilly Cooper 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 have 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 covered some of the ways in which I see the transgender child trend is similar to the phenomenon of false memory syndrome and satanic ritual abuse. How are they different?
Information and ideas travel faster and further now, making it easier to spread social contagion.
In the case of FMS, 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?
If we do not wish to repeat the mistakes of history, we are well advised to study and learn from them.