From the Opinion section of the New York Times:
By Ethan Watters
Mr. Watters is a journalist and author whose work focuses on psychiatry and social psychology. Ethan Watters is a co-author of “Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria” and the author of “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.”
The latter book is about how American mental health fads influence the rest of the world (usually for the worse). For example, nobody in Hong Kong suffered anorexia until the Hong Kong media, watching American media, started warning of the coming anorexia menace. And, sure enough, moody Hong Kong girls shortly started to develop anorexia.
Obviously, Watters’ perspective is instructive in understanding the current wave of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria among moody American teenage girls demanding “top surgery.” But transgenderism is sacred, so he writes a long allegory about America’s 1980-90s mania about recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse and bravely squeezes in one mention of “gender dysphoria” along the way.
Sept. 27, 2022
Most students in psychology and psychiatry programs today are too young to have any firsthand memory of the moral panic engendered by the recovered memory movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. 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.
The belief that such memories could be repressed and then recovered through special techniques was widespread among mental health professionals for well over a decade. In books and on television, therapists portrayed themselves as the first generation of healers to understand both these mechanisms of repression and how to unlock them without contaminating the story that emerged. The results were dramatic: Patients often recovered abuse memories that began in infancy and lasted for decades. Some came to believe not only that they had repressed memories but also that their minds had fractured into many personalities to manage the pain and betrayal.
With a few decades’ perspective, it’s clear this level of confidence led to disastrous results. In 2005 a Harvard psychology professor, Richard McNally, called the recovered memory movement “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”
At the height of the controversy in 1994, I co-wrote a book, “Making Monsters,” on the topic with the sociologist Richard Ofshe. In writing it, we hoped to help stop the practice that was harming so many. We also wanted to create a historical record that might help prevent the profession from going down another rabbit hole.
Just what happened to lead so many well-intentioned people down such a road is not a simple story. Understanding the power of recovered memory therapy requires an examination not just of the memory retrieval techniques used by individual therapists but also of how the movement created a tide of popular belief that bordered on mass hysteria. Recovered memory stories were, for a time, pervasive and inescapable. These stories influenced both patients and therapists as they hunted for hidden histories of abuse.
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. 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.
It sounds like the recovered memory whoop-tee-doo started out among feminist intellectuals talking back to Freud, who first decided from talking to his women patients that there must have been an epidemic of childhood sex abuse in Victorian Vienna, then changed his mind and decided that women be crazy and they just wanted to sleep with their fathers. Later it went downscale and was taken up by fundamentalists convinced that P&G was a satanist organization. (And now it pops up again in QAnon theories.)
The seeds of recovered memory therapy were planted in the 1970s, as the women’s rights movement brought attention to the subject of sexual abuse. As women began to fill academic and clinical positions, the topics of incest and child sexual exploitation began appearing in scholarly and popular books. The public reckoning revealed that child sexual abuse was far from uncommon and that these horrors had been largely dismissed or ignored for centuries.
It’s probably fairly common among the mom’s-latest-alcoholic-boyfriend class, but less so among women who can afford Freudian psychiatrists.
Some writers at the time argued that public attention on the topic had unlocked the ability of individuals to recover their abuse memories. “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness,” wrote Dr. Judith Herman in her book “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.” She argued that the human mind could hold trauma memories in its consciousness only with the support of “political movements that give voice to the disempowered.” If the personal is political, as the popular slogan had it, it made a kind of sense that individuals might have repressed their memories, in the same way society had long repressed collective awareness.
In step with these new ideas, therapists of the time reanimated an early Freudian theory that repressed early experiences of sexual abuse were the root cause of all hysterical symptoms. Freud had subsequently pivoted to argue that symptoms came not from repressed memories but from repressed sexual fantasies — but Dr. Herman and others argued that Freud was right the first time.
What happened during recovered memory therapy sessions is no mystery. Therapists candidly revealed their techniques in books, conference speeches and academic papers and on daytime television talk shows. The process of hunting for abuse memories and overcoming the patient’s “denial” was not a subtle one.
Therapists used relaxation exercises, age regression, dream interpretation, psychodrama, sodium amytal and hypnosis to help clients visualize abuse. All of these techniques, we know now, are much more likely to distort memory than to enhance recall. Still, it is hard to believe that these tactics alone could have persuaded so many people to rewrite the histories of their childhoods so dramatically; what is often underappreciated is that much of the belief-building power of recovered memory therapy came from outside the consultation room.
… Lists of the symptoms that supposedly indicated repressed abuse often went on for pages in these texts. E. Sue Blume’s book “Secret Survivors” listed over 70 symptoms indicative of repressed abuse. The psychologist Renee Fredrickson’s book “Repressed Memories” describes over 60. 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? If you have some of these warning signals, “you probably do have repressed memories,” wrote Dr. Fredrickson.
Or, these days, that you were assigned the wrong gender at birth and you are really a boy.
… It was partly because of its novelty that stories about recovered memory therapy were, for a time, everywhere in popular culture. Recovered memory therapists became go-to guests on daytime television talk shows. Well-known celebrities came out to tell their stories of recovering memories of abuse. Promoters of recovered memory therapy held regional and national conferences; states changed their statute of limitation laws to allow for criminal prosecutions based on repressed memories. The movement rode a tide of public belief that therapists helped create.
That popular culture influenced what happened in therapy is clear. Recovered memory therapists themselves recognized that abuse beliefs were, to a degree, contagious. One therapist recommended that patients struggling to uncover memories should continually expose themselves to stories of incest and abuse by reading articles and popular books, attending lectures and seeing movies on the topic.
… Stories of satanic cults have arisen in different times and places for over a millennium, but “Michelle Remembers” gets credit for kicking off the particular hysteria that struck the 1980s. The book describes the treatment of Michelle Smith, who recovered memories of being held captive in cages filled with snakes and witnessing the butchering of kittens and stillborn babies.
The popularity of “Michelle Remembers” was a precursor to hundreds of stories that began popping up across the country about day cares and preschools suspected of harboring Satan-worshiping child abusers. In a parallel development, patients in recovered memory therapy began to “recover” stories of satanic abuse from their childhoods. These types of memories were far from uncommon: One survey of clinicians taken in 1994 revealed that 13 percent reported seeing at least one case of a patient remembering ritualistic abuse. Thousands of patients described truly incredible scenes of ritual murders, cannibalization, gang rapes and forced pregnancies.
For quite a long time, there was a broad consensus in popular opinion that memories recovered in therapy — including the outlandish satanic cult tales — were true. Nearly a decade after the publication of “Michelle Remembers,” Ms. Smith appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show. Her stories of torture and human sacrifice were portrayed by the host as if they were indisputable facts. …
Whatever the actual number of patients who came to believe they had unearthed repressed memories, it would drastically understate the number of people affected. Parents, relatives and other accused parties were expected to confess or be shunned. Criminal and civil litigation based on recovered memories tore apart families and sometimes whole communities.
How could the mental health profession have had such a catastrophic misadventure?
Across history, patients have shown themselves willing to adopt their healers’ beliefs and manifest expected symptoms accordingly.
… With historical distance, it’s easier to see how this process works. In the 1880s, Jean-Martin Charcot, the leading neurologist of his day, became world famous for the regular performances he held with his hysterical patients. For audiences of other doctors, he had his patients demonstrate the dramatic symptoms of the disorder, including fainting, muscle spasms and semierotic convulsions.
With his prominence in the profession and his gift of showmanship, he deeply impressed other learned men — including the young Sigmund Freud, who idolized Charcot. As more and more healers spread their certainties about hysteria through culture, more and more patients showed up in treatment consciously or unconsciously predisposed to express their distress through those well-known symptoms. Hysteria reigned for several decades as the quintessential mental health malady across Europe and America; a generation later, hysteria in its 19th-century configuration had essentially vanished from the symptom pool.
… In her 2021 book “The Sleeping Beauties,” the neurologist Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan wrote compellingly of immigrant children falling into comalike states and groups of young women experiencing seizures without organic cause. Her insights into the connection between culture and these unique symptoms of psychopathology are trenchant. “We embody narratives,” she explained. “Some are told to us by powerful people — doctors, politicians, activists, public figures, celebrities.” She continued, “If a model for illness is vivid enough and the basis for the illness is sufficiently salient, it is easily internalized by the individual and then passed from person to person.”
… But the impact of cultural beliefs on the rise of recovered memory therapy is simply impossible to ignore. The process that recovered memory therapists describe in their books was the looping effect on steroids. Patients began with vague symptoms of distress and ended up with a compelling story of why they were unhappy — a story that was embraced and promoted in both the mental health profession and popular culture. In the end, the patients had new memories, a new designation as a survivor and altered relationships with everyone in their lives. The transformation into a new identity — a new way of being — could hardly have been more dramatic.
Remind you of anything lately?
But what motivated therapists to buy into recovered memory therapy? Certainly there was the competition for patients and the financial rewards of a treatment regimen that often lasted for years. But I think these reasons are secondary. The therapists’ writings from the period reveal their passion and zeal for the movement. This was a group of healers who believed that they not only had discovered the key to their patients’ suffering but also were exposing a hidden evil across society. The therapists, in short, were as caught up in the cultural currents as their patients.
A lot of people sincerely believe that a vast number of individuals were “assigned” the wrong identity at birth. They didn’t believe that ten years ago, but what else could explain why all the nice people now believe that must be true other that that it must be true.
… Dr. O’Sullivan found few patients, caregivers or kin willing to entertain the idea that seizures, comalike states or other debilitating symptoms could be caused by something as ephemeral as cultural beliefs and social expectations. Americans, in particular, tend to reject the notion. We believe in the egocentric mind. We are captains of our own ship and abhor the idea that our most profound sense of self might be malleable to cultural forces outside our control.
… But the evidence for the harm done in therapy continued to pile up, and more people and institutions became skeptical. Courts began to reject testimony based on recovered memories as unreliable. Some former patients successfully sued their therapists after realizing they had been badly misled. Dissociative disorder units that specialized in recovered memories and multiple personality disorders were shut down. The stories of cult abuse became too incredible to be believed, and the satanic panic broke like a fever to go dormant for another generation.
But, recovered memory true believers never really developed a political identity or political allies the way trans has, with, say, Admiral Levine in the Biden Administration. Over time, it became an increasingly downscale fervor among Christian evangelicals, where as subscribing to trans ideology is seen by huge numbers of people as proving that they have 3 digit IQs.
… Recently, I spent an afternoon watching various TikTok channels under the hashtags #recoveredmemory and #dissociativeidentitydisorder. The ideas and themes I heard, mostly from young adults, were disturbingly familiar. Belief in memory repression and the idea that the mind can split into dozens of distinct personalities are alive and well. Across social networking sites, I also found a maelstrom of information, opinion and conversation about mental health topics, including Tourette’s syndrome, gender dysphoria, attention deficit disorder, self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and suicide.
He did it! He slipped the words “gender dysphoria” into his huge essay in the New York Times. Watters is a brave man.
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.
What takes place on social media will, no doubt, influence what develops during private therapy sessions. Effectively treating this new generation will require an understanding of how culture is once again shaping the symptoms of patients and the certainties of healers. Without that knowledge, mental health professionals will risk engendering new hysterias that they can neither control nor cure.
Back in 1997, I reviewed Elaine Showalter’s book Hystories for National Review:
Hysteria, His and Hers
published in National Review, 9/1/97 — by STEVE SAILER
SOMETIMES you get what you ask for. Back in 1985 Elaine Showalter, a Princeton English professor specializing in the social history of mental health, concluded her critique of the traditional psychotherapy profession by proclaiming: “The best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement.” By 1997, the mental-health industry has become thoroughly feminized, but Professor Showalter has had second thoughts: “The therapist’s role is more and more to affirm, support, and endorse the patient’s narrative, . . . and not to challenge the truth or historical reality of the patient’s assertions.”
This credulous atmosphere, she believes, has helped unleash “hysterical epidemics,” such as the disgraceful witchhunts for satanic cults running day-care centers. Mrs. Showalter cites five other “hysterical'” outbreaks: the booms in recovered memory of incestuous abuse, multiple-personality disorders, alien abductions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Gulf War Syndrome. For an academic treatise with a first printing of only 7,500 copies, Hystories has already generated quite a backlash. In hounding the author, Chronic Fatigue sufferers have proved especially energetic…
Mrs. Showalter’s strongest chapters are on epidemics like the satanic-abuse and alien-abduction scares, whose alleged causes are wholly imaginary; and on Gulf War Syndrome, whose primary cause is real but not specific to that conflict: “war makes people sick.” While it may turn out that chemical weapons or sand fleas really did afflict some minority of the sufferers, on the whole GWS appears to be the latest version of what other eras labeled “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” America must realize that one of the costs of going to war is later paying fully for treatment and disability leaves for a substantial number of psychologically injured soldiers, although treating mental traumas as honorable wounds will no doubt let some hypochondriacs and malingerers slip through…
Unfortunately, Miss Showalter’s literary world view is too black-and-white for those epidemics where some but not all of the patients’ stories are true, e.g., incestuous abuse. The acrimony of these debates stems in part from both sides’ thinking about all patients as Platonic abstractions (“incest victims” v. “hysterics”). In reality, mental health is more like an unsettlingly random pachinko game.
The classic case study of how psychological debates tend toward dogmatism has been running for a full century since Sigmund Freud analyzed 18 unhappy young women. After much bullying by Freud, they all produced stories of childhood sexual abuse. First announcing an epidemic of incest, Freud then publicly changed his mind and blamed all the women for repressing Oedipal fantasies. Millions of words have since been written about this controversy. Most feminists contend that all 18 really were incest victims. In contrast, after a decade of listening to the nonsensical narratives that present-day therapists can elicit, Professor Showalter thinks Freud was right to recant…
Few, however, seem to have remarked how unlikely it is that any single diagnosis was right for all 18. In truth, some of the troubled women probably were child-abuse victims, while some others may have been repressing guilty fantasies. Probably a large proportion were suffering from other root problems that weren’t understood back then, such as chemical imbalances in the brain that strike largely at random. Serotonin, for instance, acts rather like motor oil for your emotional engine, keeping your mental gears from grinding. It can run low — often, it appears, just from wear and tear. Since the cause of the emotional illnesses stemming from serotonin shortages is commonly not apparent, victims are susceptible to whatever tall tales (a/k/a hysterical epidemics) their therapists or the media happen to be spreading at the moment. Thankfully, we now have drugs like Prozac, and a new, more pragmatic school of psychiatrists who no longer set out on ideologically motivated searches for the root causes of your unhappiness, but instead concentrate on rebalancing your brain chemistry…
A beneficial side effect of a more realistic conception of hysterical epidemics allows this useful concept to be profitably applied to other current brouhahas where facts and feelings get hopelessly entangled, e.g., date rape and sexual harassment…
This sensible but limited book illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of what has recently become a lonely rump of feminism: “equity” or “rationalist” feminism. Appalled by the flapdoodle peddled by most feminists today, Mrs. Showalter wearily protests, “Feminism has a strong Enlightenment, rationalist tradition of debate and skepticism, whose memory I attempt to recover and reassert.” She bravely points out that the great majority of these epidemics’ self-proclaimed victims are women, even the alien abductees. (Gulf War Syndrome, of course, is the exception, but the number of soldiers’ wives who have also come down with GWS is striking.)…
Unfortunately, rationalist feminism is itself founded on a death-defying leap of faith: the assumption that there are no biological bases for differences in behavior between the sexes. Thus, equity feminism was much to blame for the imprisoning of so many young women day-care workers on absurd charges of raping children and eating babies. If we know anything about sex abuse, we know it’s a solitary male crime, not something women do, especially not in groups. But equity feminism has made such stereotypes unacceptable, so all those young women, whose only crime was that they loved little kids so much they’d work with them for $5 an hour, had to go to jail…
Further, rationalist feminism’s fundamental dogma of sexual uniformity prevents Miss Showalter from grasping why feminist movements are so vulnerable to the irrationalism she despises. It’s not because women aren’t as smart as men. Although the sexes do differ on average in mathematical skills, women may well be superior in verbal logic. (Try eavesdropping on two teenage girls analyzing the endless possibilities of what some boy really meant when he said, “Maybe, like, I’ll see you around sometime, you know?”)
So why, in practice, are the terms “feminist theory” and “scientific theory” mutually exclusive? … The particular form of rationality that originated in the Enlightenment requires more than just the ability to construct castles of logical conjecture in the air. Galileo wasn’t any more ingenious at conceiving interlocking celestial spheres than his ancient rival Ptolemy. What distinguished Galileo, and the Enlightenment in general, was that masculine competitive delight in risking the destruction of your own hypotheses in order to smash the other guy’s beautiful celestial spheres of theory. The Enlightenment turned reason into a contact sport. Feminist movements careen into gullibility because women, especially when talking mostly to other women, find it more emotionally difficult than men to treat intellectual debate as a game. Women tend to take it much more personally, closing their minds to opponents and pulling their punches with friends.