What The Recovered Memory Movement Can Tell Us About The Gender Affirmation Movement

The recovered memory movement bears uncanny similarities to the modern-day gender affirmation movement.

During the 1980s and 1990s, mental health professionals and psychiatrists began a widespread trend of uncovering “repressed memories” in their patients. It was later discovered that this practice amounted to instilling false beliefs in people that caused immeasurable harm to individuals, families, and even placed innocent people in prison.

“The recovered memory narrative, along with multiple personality disorder, became, for a time, one of those compelling and socially contagious models for illness,” said Ethan Watters, a journalist who reported on the recovered memory movement during its peak hysteria, and wrote a guest essay in The New York Times last year about its “forgotten lessons.”

Recovered memory therapy was a pseudoscientific practice deployed widely by therapists that purported to uncover memories of horrific abuse that were locked away in the unconscious and remained inaccessible for decades until “recovered” in therapy. However, this “therapy” usually involved using hypnosis or other suggestive techniques that were more likely to distort one’s memory

“This was a time when therapists proudly advertised their ability to help clients unearth supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; the accusations that followed shattered families and communities across the country,” said Watters.

A 2017 poll of adults in the United States found that 20% of people who went to therapy sometime in the past five decades reported that a therapist had suggested the possibility they had repressed memories of abuse. One estimate found “several million” cases of recovered memory by the mid-1990s. Watters’ essay warned that another social contagion with the ability to destroy lives could happen again, especially in the age of the internet.

Considering the speed at which ideas spread on the internet and social media, a deep understanding of how cultural trends and psychology interact is more important than ever,” said Watters.

After spending an afternoon on TikTok, Watters noticed a trend among young people sharing information on various self-diagnosed maladies, including the resurgence of the extremely rare multiple personality disorder, now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), in which a person claims to harbor multiple distinct personalities. Notably, gender dysphoria was among the mental health disorders Watters listed.

The internet as we know it didn’t exist during the rise of recovered memory therapy, but it is a powerful cultural force now and may be ground zero for the creation of new symptom pools, new looping effects and new ways of being,” he added.

When people experience psychosomatic illness, they begin to manifest ailments that they subconsciously pull from a collection of symptoms of a given disorder called “symptom pools.” These “symptom pools” and the language to describe the disorders themselves are subject to change over time due to the emergence of new cultural narratives. Looping effects are a kind of feedback mechanism that describes how human influence can alter our collective understanding of a mental disorder.

“The troubled human mind appears uniquely attuned to clues from social settings, mirroring behaviors, feelings and beliefs with little or no conscious awareness,” said Watters.

It has happened throughout history when a novel diagnosis emerges in the public periphery, there’s a surge of self-reported cases, and clinics begin to propagate to meet the new patient demand. In the case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), there had been fewer than 200 cases documented over many centuries, until the popular 1976 TV movie “Sybil” featured a woman who suffered from the affliction. By the late ’80s, one estimate found that over 40,000 patients, most of them women, had come out of therapy believing they had DID. This resulted in a concomitant boom in DID clinics.

A decade ago, gender clinics were few and far between. But in recent years, as gender dysphoria diagnoses have become de rigueur for mentally distressed children and adolescents, over 400 gender clinics have sprung up in North America.

Cultural influence was relevant to the dynamic of the recovered memory movement but has also been recognized as integral to the gender affirmation movement. The meanings of “gender dysphoria” and “transgender” continue to morph as activists demand more broad and “inclusive” definitions that cease to classify it as a mental disorder to “reduce stigma.” 

Pop culture also seemed to drive two of the more incredible outgrowths of the movement: the precipitous rise of multiple personality disorder and the widespread belief that satanic cults were abusing children on an industrial scale,” said Watters.

The influence of celebrities, daytime talk show hosts, and journalists who uncritically accepted the wild stories of horrific abuse at the hands of “satanic cults” catapulted these narratives into the public sphere, similar to how in the 2020s they have popularized the belief that hundreds of thousands of children are harboring transgender identities waiting to be affirmed.

“Healers, politicians, activists and celebrities were all involved in making the story salient and legitimate,” said Watters. “The cultural currents they collectively created were strong.”

The recovered memory movement was not a fringe campaign by maverick therapists by any stretch, it was validated by professional organizations like the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Prominent members of the APA held conferences, formed committees to formalize the dissociative diagnoses, and even founded an academic journal called Dissociation, all of which had enormous influence in legitimizing the diagnosis in the public’s eye.

Proponents of “gender-affirming” care frequently point to the U.S.-based medical organizations that currently endorse its practice to dismiss any and all criticism of it. But many of the most prominent organizations in favor of “gender-affirming” care lack evidence to back up their position and depart from a growing international consensus. Countries that are arguably more progressive like Sweden, Finland, and England have conducted the necessary evidence reviews, as has Florida’s Boards of Medicine, each concluding that the risks of pediatric medical transition far outweigh any purported benefits.

“We tend not to want to believe that we or our healers are susceptible to social contagions — which is why the recovered memory movement remains a cautionary tale with much to teach us,” said Watters.

Social contagion is a well-established phenomenon in psychology, frequently pointed to by medical and mental health professionals to describe how peer influence and other psychosocial factors may contribute to youth trans-identification. Rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) describes a cohort of teenage girls with no prior history of gender-related distress, which has grown exponentially in recent years, that may be induced by social influence. 

The origins of both the recovered memory movement and the gender affirmation movement have roots in university Humanities departments, where subjective “lived experience” is valued over empirical evidence. There was no scientific evidence to support that memories could be repressed, and there is no evidence to support the biological basis of “gender identity,” despite widespread claims to the contrary.  

“The assumption of the core biological underpinning for ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender dysphoria’ remains an unproven theory: while biology likely plays a role in gender nonconformity, currently, there is no brain, blood, or other objective test that distinguishes a trans-identified from a non-trans identified person once confounding factors such as sexual orientation are controlled for,” said the Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine (emphasis original).

The techniques deployed by recovered memory therapists that turned benign symptoms into warning signs of hidden abuse are similar to how “gender-affirming” therapists seek to pathologize common traits based on stereotypical male and female preferences and behaviors.

Watters references several therapists’ lists of symptoms that were used to lead readers into believing they may have repressed memories in need of uncovering. E. Sue Blume’s book “Secret Survivors,” which listed over 70 symptoms “indicative of repressed abuse” that include fear of the dark, trust issues, avoiding mirrors, and all manner of common ailments.

Renee Fredrickson’s book “Repressed Memories,” describes over 60 warning signals that indicate “you probably do have repressed memories.” Answering in the affirmative to the questions, “Do you have trouble trusting your intuition? Do you neglect your teeth? Have joint pain? Do certain foods nauseate you? Do you sometimes space out or daydream?” were all counted as evidence for the existence of repressed memories.

Similarly, “gender-affirming” therapists seek hidden signs in a child that may indicate they are “born in the wrong body.” If a young boy likes to dress up and play with dolls, he may really be a girl. If an adolescent tomboy is depressed, it may be because she’s harboring a male “gender identity” needing to be affirmed. Nevermind that current evidence finds that roughly 60–90% of children who identify as transgender but do not socially or medically transition will no longer identify as transgender in adulthood, and many will grow up to be gay adults.

If the aftermath of the recovered memory movement is any predictor of what happens to the gender-affirming fad, the therapists will likely never admit culpability. 

“Some changed their focus from memory recovery, and others conveniently forgot how fervently they had embraced and promoted the trend,” said Watters. “The idea that they had harmed those they had sought to help created too much cognitive dissonance for them to accept responsibility.”

It should come as no surprise that at least one of the same charlatans who promoted recovered memory has now pivoted to peddling pediatric gender transition. Diane Ehrensaft, who runs the pediatric gender clinic at UCSF that sees children as young as 3 years-old, was once a proponent of recovered memory and authored a supportive academic paper on the topic.

Feminists were the first outspoken critics of both the recovered memory movement and the gender-affirmation movement, and they were all initially dismissed and slandered.

“They all faced angry accusations that they were revictimizing abused women,” said Watters.

Both movements have led to considerable harm. Some of the false memories planted by therapists led to false accusations and convictions for various crimes, especially sexual abuse. Some defendants who have been convicted of crimes based on false memories have had their convictions overturned, while others remain behind bars. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 to help victims of false accusations of child sexual abuse.

We are only beginning to see the harm caused to people whose transgender identities were affirmed with sterilizing drugs and body-altering surgeries when they were adolescents and young adults. Parents have even lost custody of their children for failing to affirm their transgender identities, and people have lost their jobs and reputations for their reluctance to submit to “gender identity” pseudoscience.

The repressed memory movement was finally brought to an end through litigation, as many suspect the gender affirmation movement will be with medical malpractice suits.

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