Benjamin A. Boyce interviews Abigail Shrier, who discusses her recent book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.
This text, transcribed by Donovan Cleckley, comes from Boyce’s YouTube video “What’s the Matter with Girls Today?: Teen Mental Health and the Transgender Trend,” first published on July 4, 2020. Cleckley has edited the transcript for clarity.
“For those with gender dysphoria, this unpleasantness must be excruciating, and we should expect mental health professionals to be respectful of it, sympathetic to those who bear it, and understanding of their pain—even perhaps by supporting medical transition. I have spoken to several transgender adults who are living good, productive lives, in stable relationships and flourishing in their careers. I believe there are instances in which gender dysphoric people have been helped by gender transition. But the new ‘affirmative-care’ standard of mental health professionals is a different matter entirely. It surpasses sympathy and leaps straight to demanding that mental health professionals adopt their patients’ beliefs of being in the ‘wrong body.’ Affirmative therapy compels therapists to endorse a falsehood: not that a teenage girl feels more comfortable presenting as a boy—but that she actually is a boy.”– Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage (2020)
BOYCE: Hello and welcome to The Boyce of Reason podcast. Today’s guest is the long-anticipated, at least on my account, author Abigail Shrier, whose book, Irreversible Damage, has just been launched and can be found wherever books are not being burned, that is, being sold. Irreversible Damage is a nonfiction book about the ways in which young women are being affected by the “transgender” ideology that is being promulgated from various different platforms, not least of all the medical establishment, the psychological establishment, and various bowers of social media.
This book is hard-hitting, very fact-based, and incredibly written, and I was surprised to find that this was her first book. And I am looking forward to the subsequent books that she is going to be publishing—if the “cancellers” don’t get her first; I am joking. This is a wonderful interview, and let’s dive right in. Here is Abigail Shrier.
BOYCE: How did you frame your perspective? Were you trying to not have bias? Or would you allow yourself to have a decision?
SHRIER: That’s interesting. So, of course, I always have some opinion, but it also changes. I had sort of a framework for understanding this. When I started on the article, I had no idea. When I listened to the first parents, I had no idea if this was real, this phenomenon of peer contagion to explain the sudden and startling explosion of “transgender” identification among teen girls. I had no idea if it really was social contagion and to what extent and what was the social contagion. So, that was all new to me.
I’m in Gen X. I still believe in objectivity; I believe that’s a real thing that you can strive for as a journalist. That’s sort of the ideal. I think that, to a large extent, I’ve tried to be very open to different people. And was my mind changed on many things? Yes. Because I talked to everybody.
For instance, you hear a lot about how X and Y are “child abuse” by the parents. People like to say that about people who transition their younger children. Well, when you actually talk to parents who have young children, who seem to be suffering from genuine gender dysphoria, you realize that they’re not necessarily being told all the risks of the hormonal treatment. They’re relying on experts who are really mischaracterizing the incredibly experimental nature of things like puberty blockers. So, I certainly would never characterize what goes on there as “child abuse.”
In lots of ways, my opinion did change on things. I have to say: There were actors who seemed better to me at the end, and worse, so it went in both directions.
BOYCE: What are your thoughts on the ways in which the so-called “experts” aren’t being completely forthright, at least with the experimental nature of these drugs?
SHRIER: Because they sort of have, I think, something of a messiah complex. They seem more like religious leaders than they seem like doctors, unfortunately. And this isn’t all of them, but lots of them. So, you hear them say things that sound so astonishingly unscientific.
I quote Lisa Littman in the book; I interviewed her many times, and one of the things she said was that she was really startled when she went to a WPATH [World Professional Association for Transgender Health] conference, and she realized transgender medicine was not being treated like every other kind of medicine. And every honest doctor I’ve talked to has told me the same: That it’s the only area of medicine where people don’t openly discuss the risks. Whereas, if you’re at a conference to talk about any other kind of medicine, everybody talks about the risks. But there’s really an effort by activists to suppress that discussion and, unfortunately, they’re very effective. So, transgender people are not receiving the best care they could.
BOYCE: They’ve made it too risky to talk about risks?
SHRIER: I think so. Certainly, doctors I’ve talked to, who have been to these conferences, WPATH and transgender medicine conferences, say that there is no open exploration of the risks; people only want to be cheerleaders for this “transgender identity,” rather than serious scientists approaching the study of gender dysphoria.
Just look at the culture. Look at the terms that they refer to now: They use terms like “transgender medicine” or “gender-affirming surgery.” Surgical clinics will say “gender-affirming surgery”; well, doctors were never supposed to be in the business of “affirming.” Doctors and surgeons were in the business of healing, but not “affirming.” So, they’ve adopted this language that sort of takes them out of the scientific realm.
BOYCE: And that’s one thing that might happen as an elective surgery for adults. But your book focuses specifically on children, or minors, and specifically on female minors. Is there more careful research when it regards children, that is, minors?
SHRIER: No. Look how everyone gets shut down. My book is simply an exploration of both the scientific—the medical and the mental health—and the cultural conditions that allowed for a sudden explosion of young teenage girls who do not seem to have genuine gender dysphoria to suddenly claim they have “gender dysphoria” and “identify” as “transgender.” And yet my publisher is not allowed to advertise my book on Amazon. That’s absurd.
The activists have stopped it. Activists right now are trying to get my publisher to drop me. Again, it’s absurd. Why should activists, many of them biological men, grown men, why should they have anything to say about the mental and physical healthcare offered to young girls? This is truly an issue.
People like to say, about abortion: “Well, that’s about a woman and her body; she’s the only one who can have any say over her body.” And people feel different ways about that; some people point out that, look, it’s not just her body, there’s another life at stake. Other people disagree; they say that it is fundamentally about her body. But, in this example, it is entirely about a young girl’s body. So, the question is: Why are so many activists able to shut down discussions about young girls’ bodies?
BOYCE: And they’re shutting that discussion down within the medical field, the psychiatric field, and just the cultural field. If we look at what’s happened to J.K. Rowling and, very recently, r/GenderCritical on Reddit, which was a subreddit devoted to women’s issues, from a women’s perspective, they’ve been shut down, too.
SHRIER: That’s exactly right. I’ve been talking to some of the women about that, and it’s horrifying. That subreddit was a space for women to question and talk about the gender ideology that is harming young girls. And it was an open forum for them. Why should activists be able to shut that down? It’s none of their business.
Detransitioners have told me that when they stumbled across radical feminism, or gender critical discussion, about the meaning of biological sex and “gender identity,” it was the first time that they realized: Wait a second; a lot of the stuff I’ve been taught doesn’t make any sense. I’m still a girl, even if I don’t like pink things. Stumbling on sites, like that subreddit, was the first time that they saw pushback to that ideology.
BOYCE: Well, that explains why it’s gone then. So, what’s the matter with girls today?
SHRIER: Girls are in profound mental distress; there is no question about it. In some sense, this whole “trans-identification” spike in adolescent girls has nothing to do with “transgender” people and everything to do with the mental health crisis that we are in the midst of. In terms of cutting, suicide, depression, every kind of self-harm, we are seeing spikes specifically among adolescent girls that we have never seen before. We even see it with “tweens,” so, before they even hit their teenage years, 11-year-old girls; we’ve never had a problem with suicidal ideation among populations so young, and now we have it. And Jonathan Haidt talks a lot about that.
These girls are in crisis. Of course, when girls are in pain, they look to the culture for explanations for their pain. In the past, they have looked to: “Gosh, I’m so fat; if only I had less fat, I would be happy. I just know it.” We’ve seen this with “demonic possession”; we’ve seen this with all kinds of social contagions. And, today, they’re saying: “It’s my dysphoria; it’s that I’m supposed to be a boy.”
“Like other social contagions, such as cutting and bulimia, ROGD overwhelmingly afflicts girls. But unlike other conditions, this one—though not necessarily its sufferers—gets full support from the medical community. The standard for dealing with teens who assert they are transgender is ‘affirmative care’—immediately granting the patient’s stated identity. There are, to be sure, a few dissenters. ‘This idea that what we’re supposed to do as therapists is to ‘affirm’? That’s not my job,’ said psychotherapist Lisa Marchiano. ‘If I work with someone who’s really suicidal because his wife left him, I don’t call his wife up and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come back.’ … We don’t treat suicide by giving people exactly what they want.’ But giving in to patients’ demands is exactly what most medical professionals do when faced with ROGD. Like fashionable and tragic misdiagnoses of the past, this one comes with irreversible physical trauma. ‘Top surgery,’ a euphemism for double mastectomies. Infertility. Permanent rounding of facial features or squaring of the jawline. Bodily and facial hair that never goes away.”– Abigail Shrier, “When Your Daughter Defies Biology,” The Wall Street Journal (2019)
BOYCE: That pattern of behavior, and I’ve explored that with Lisa Littman, Lisa Marchiano, and Sasha Ayad, all of whom feature in your book. That pattern of behavior is something that women tend to go through, or have been documented to go through. Could you explain a little more about social contagion? And why is it that females are susceptible to that, it seems?
SHRIER: It has to do with their modes of friendship. I talk about this a bit in the book. Girls try to meet their friends where they are, and they are even willing to suspend reality in order to meet their friends where they are. So, if a girl’s friend is in pain, she not only wants to empathize, but she sort of wants to share in the pain; she likes to share on an emotional level with what her friends are going through. And that’s why female friendships are so, so close. But it also can be bad, and, when one of them is in a mental health crisis, teenage girls are much more likely to take that on themselves, to share in their friend’s anorexia or their friend’s depression.
BOYCE: That’s a really interesting concept: To suspend reality. In your own experience as a woman, if I may “gender” you in this conversation, did you go through something similar being completely swept up in somebody else’s story? And how did you gain your own legs in your connection to reality?
SHRIER: Sure. We all did. The first time any of my friends was dumped by a guy: “We hate that guy. He’s the worst guy on earth. He’s evil; he’s mean. There’s nothing good about him.” Right? And, of course, you grow out of that. You get to a point where you say: “Okay. The relationship didn’t work out. It doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily evil. It might just mean that you two weren’t a great fit.” Maybe he didn’t handle it right, but, then again, he’s only 16. You get to a place where you can say those things. But, in adolescence, it’s not. He’s bad; he’s awful. That guy’s the biggest jerk ever; that’s what you do for your friends.
BOYCE: How is that behavior, or that process of development, exacerbated by the new tools of social media that we have at hand?
SHRIER: Well, it all gets more extreme, and it’s 24/7. We know that girls compare themselves to each other: How does my body stack up to other girls? How many friends do I have? Am I being included? Girls care about that. And we’ve never had such a cruel mechanism for trapping girls in this cycle as on social media—and tracking them. You never have to wonder how much prettier so-and-so is; you just read the number of likes. That’s astonishing. It seems to perform the math for you, to literally calculate how much more popular someone else is. If you suspect that your friends may have excluded you, and gone to the movie without you, in my generation, you didn’t have to see the photos of the party you weren’t invited to. Now, you have to see the photos. It’s so cruel. Not to mention all the comments about each other’s bodies and everything else. It’s so belittling. And it makes life so hard for a teenage girl.
BOYCE: And how do you think that the process of maturing out of that is going to happen? Have you seen people break through that social media fixation and get to the other side of it?
SHRIER: I think so. As young women emerge into adulthood, they stop taking it as seriously, but do I know how a generation that’s been raised on social media will regard it? I can’t say that I do. What matures us, of course, is spending time with each other in person. I think part of the extremism that we’re seeing today is just not enough time with each other that this younger generation has: the extreme politics and the extreme anger. It was so obvious to me growing up that I didn’t agree with all of my neighbors; I didn’t even like all of my neighbors, but there was always something good about them and worthwhile. We didn’t throw them away; it wasn’t like they were worthless people just because maybe they didn’t agree with our politics or they were unfriendly or whatever it was. But, today, the impulse to cancel, to throw someone completely out if you found one flaw, is just so Manichean. I think Andrew Sullivan calls it that, but that’s exactly right: It’s either “all good” or “all bad.”
BOYCE: And how do you think that “gender dysphoria” became the “fix-all” problem? It’s weird; it’s a “solution” that’s actually a problem, but it fixes every other problem.
SHRIER: Right. So, it’s complicated. A bunch of reasons. I think girls notice they have fallen in esteem and status in the broader culture. There’s no question they’ve fallen. Young boys are allowed to outcompete them. Mediocre boy athletes are now outcompeting them, taking their trophies. They find biological men when they go to change. This has happened. They notice that the culture has turned against them. Being a “white girl” today is not the greatest thing to be on campus; they’re just another “Karen” or whatever you call them. And so, they really were primed to look for a victim shield from the withering contempt from their peers, and the only thing that they can choose—they can’t choose to have a different race—but they can choose to be “trans.”
By the time they hit middle school and high school, for sure they’re aware. We talk about “LGBTQ” and who is an “ally” and who is, by definition, an “enemy,” all the time. That’s a huge part of what goes on in school today, so they are more than aware that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of that, so certainly by high school.
BOYCE: Have you focused on the 11-12-year-old set? I guess the psychology and then the mechanisms of why “gender dysphoria” is something that’s being latched onto probably changes depending on the age range for what’s going on.
SHRIER: Gender dysphoria always typically began in early childhood, so some number of the kids who are gender-dysphoric, whose begins in early childhood, may actually have gender dysphoria. There’s a definition; it’s a hundred-year diagnostic history. We have a lot of knowledge about gender dysphoria, so I really looked at the girls who were not at all the demographic and, in fact, didn’t seem to have typical gender dysphoria at all. Among whom you could see the prevalence rate, especially among friend groups, indicating something else, peer contagion, as Lisa Littman pointed out.
The earlier kids, the ones who start on puberty blockers, that’s a more complicated story, because, of course, it involves the parents. It must always involve the parents, by necessity, whenever the story has to be told about these young kids. By the time they hit middle school, their lives from their parents are starting to come apart. They go to their own social media that their parents have nothing to do with; they go to their own middle school and high school. They tend to care more about what their peers think than they do about their parents, for the first time. It really is a different set of girls.
BOYCE: Could you expand a little bit more on why girls are having such a hard time now? You spoke about mental health, but is there some structure that’s missing? And we talked about social media as something that’s amplifying distress. But is there something missing that you’ve found that they don’t have to latch onto? One quote from your book is that they don’t have a “moral language” anymore; they have a “clinical language.”
SHRIER: That’s true. My generation of parents who’s raising this generation, one thing that distinguishes us from our parents is therapy, that we were very open to therapy. We were much, much quicker, it turns out, to introduce our kids to therapy, even at a very young age. And this generation is so psychologically aware that they will tell you not only what their struggles are, but they will give you the diagnosis: “Oh, that’s my social anxiety. Oh, I was just having a panic attack.” They very often explain what they’re going through in psychiatric terms. So, when I was growing up, it was just: “She’s shy” or “She’s awkward” or “She’s not cool.” But it wasn’t “She has social anxiety.” And, because of that, they start out thinking that there’s something wrong with them, even when we might be talking about a very low and manageable degree of these things. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t treat a child who’s got a panic attack, or anything like that, but these girls are hyper aware of the psychiatric diagnosis that may lurk behind any discomfort or feeling.
BOYCE: In the book, you speak about how, when you expressed shyness, your parents saw you were being anxious and gave you more responsibility in life, like you have to talk to the cashier, you have to confront whatever’s making you anxious. And it seems that moral language is more geared toward a solution, toward confronting the problem—acting it out, more dramatic, in a way. Whereas the clinical language—does it not tend toward “Well, I need a pill” or “I need some sort of therapy” that’s removed from day-to-day life?
SHRIER: Right. It removes your agency. So, my parents’ attitude was very much like: “I don’t care what you’re feeling; you still have to say ‘Thank You.’” When you call your friends, you still have to talk to the mother, say “Hello,” ask her how she is, and then ask if you can please speak to her daughter. There were things that I had to do; there was a rigamarole. No one cared whether it stressed me out; it was just politeness. That’s what they called it.
Now, I’m not saying that if your child has a profound psychological problem that you should necessarily force them through everything that someone who is not suffering needs to be pushed through. But, today, we take away the agency of these girls and what they can do so quickly, and we medicate them so quickly, so that they do start thinking of themselves as kids who can’t handle life.
BOYCE: And you mention the word “comorbidity.” Or, there’s a number of different problems that are stacking up, and I’ve seen this in my research, which just involves talking to people, where it seems that “gender dysphoria,” or “changing my gender,” or going along a “gender journey,” that it is what will resolve everything, that it is very attractive.
SHRIER: These girls don’t know that it’s normal; we don’t even have normal anymore. What these girls don’t know is that it’s so normal to feel uncomfortable in your body. It’s normal not to even want to be a girl at some point. Those are just things that young women go through. It’s normal to hate your body; it’s normal to feel ugly; it’s normal to not enjoy puberty. All these things are just part of girlhood. And, basically, in my generation, we were sort of told to suck it up; it was stuff you complained about with your girlfriends. But, today, those girlfriend relationships aren’t happening in the same way; you don’t hang out after school with your friends at the mall anymore. And, if you do spend time with your friends, you’re on your phone, so you’re not comforting each other in the same way. If anything, you’re bringing all your problems to mom, and mom is much more likely to seek out a medical solution and to seek out a diagnosis than the girlfriends my generation would have been.
BOYCE: What have you discovered about the parenting around gender dysphoria piquing up and, even, going away? What are some of the patterns that you’ve seen in the styles of parenting?
SHRIER: The parents I have spoken to have been incredible. They are the most attentive parents; they are the most conscientious. They would do anything for their daughters. I mean, really, they were a remarkable group of people that I met, and it was humbling, as a parent, to hear how much they were willing to do for their kids.
One of the things that’s very hard is that these parents were, by and large, politically progressive. And they were so open-minded to their daughters’ announcements of a new gender identity, or, in some cases, just a sexual orientation, when the girls were very young, that sometimes they didn’t realize that what the girl was really asking for was individuation, not really declaring a sexual orientation or a gender identity. The reason I say that is this generation has had less sexual experience than any prior generation, by a lot; they are less likely to have ever kissed anyone. So, I’m not saying that, if your kids say that they’re gay, then tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t say that. But what I’m saying is that you discover things like your sexuality by being with people, not on the internet. And these parents were very conscientious, and they took their kids sometimes so seriously when they would make declarations about things they couldn’t possibly really know about themselves, because they actually didn’t know themselves that well, certainly not vis-à-vis things like sexuality when they had had such limited experience.
BOYCE: It seems like you don’t want to learn how to fix a car by learning by going to an online classroom; you want to go to a trade school, and dating is the trade school for romance and physical intimacy, and they’re being robbed of that. But they have all the ideas in their heads about this, that, and the other, and they have all the images on tap that you could possibly imagine.
SHRIER: There’s something else, too. My generation really grew up thinking how we didn’t want to be the “lame” parents our parents were. We were going to do away with spanking; we were going to be more psychologically aware. And there’s been a real effort, I think, to really listen to our kids and meet them where they are, which is part of why parenting has become so exhausting, to be honest.
When kids try to rebel today, their parents are much more likely to join in their rebellion. So, when a girl wants to get her ears pierced, the mom will say: “I’ll go with you! I’ll get mine pierced, too!” Or a girl wants to go to a rock concert and the mom will say: “Great!” My parents never wanted to listen to my music; they told me that my music was terrible. And I didn’t think it at the time, but, looking back, it’s very clear to me that it allowed me to have a space where I had successfully individuated, because they hated my music. So, I wasn’t just an extension of my parents. Sometimes, when some of the parents try to join their kids in all the things where they’re actually trying to define who they want to be as an adult, if their parents co-opt that rebellion, it sometimes causes the girl to escalate her rebellion. She says: “You know what, Mom? Forget it. I’m not a lesbian; I’m not like you at all. I’m actually a boy.” For a lot of parents, that’s when they finally say: “Wait a second.”
BOYCE: There’s a profound quote in your book where you say that, when children come out as gay, they’re asking their parents to accept who they are, but, when they come out as trans, they’re asking their parents to accept what they’re not. It gets into the cognitive dissonance. How would you describe that, with parents having to suddenly shift reality around the child?
SHRIER: Right. So, people like to compare this to announcements of being gay. I don’t think it’s like that at all; I really don’t. The reason is because, very often, the teenager who’s suddenly found this ideology and latched onto it—you know, “Call me ‘Jim’; I’ve always been a boy,” this stuff—is they’re asking their parents to buy into something that they don’t at all believe, that the parents don’t think is true. It’s very hard. And, if the parents don’t toe the line and do exactly what the teen asks, sometimes the child gets to a certain age and cuts them off. It’s a lot to ask of parents to deny everything they believe to be reality and pretend their child was somehow always a boy.
One parent who called me told me an interesting story: She said she had a good friend who had completely embraced their daughter’s transition to being a boy, hormonal and then surgical transition. And the parents were really into it; they introduced everybody to their daughter as a boy and called her their son. Anyway, the girl, who had a lot of mental health problems, this young person went through transition, at around 16 or 17, and, then, by 19 had completed transition, but eventually died by suicide. The woman who called me said: “I attended the funeral, and what was so disturbing about the funeral was they had to pretend, because this young person had been fully transitioned for only two years, they had to essentially pretend that the young woman only had a two-year history of life.” So, they had a video montage, but it was only two years. It’s that kind of rewriting of history that’s involved.
BOYCE: It’s really disturbing how one thing leads to another with the escalation of the denial of reality. It has all these multiple fallouts. There are a lot of arguments on: What is a woman? Define a woman. Is sex real? No. Gender’s real. But when you get into enforcing this fiction; it used to be thought of as a legal fiction that you changed your gender. I spoke with Ray Blanchard, and that’s how he talked about before this current wave of transgenderism came about, the government would grant you a change of gender. But, because it’s being enforced so much, like you describe with the parents, we’re losing limbs, losing parts of our history; it’s destabilizing our society in profound ways. And one of the profound ways is the young women.
SHRIER: Right. I interviewed a lot of transgender adults in my book. And the adults came of age in a very different time and, of course, did not discover being transgender from the internet. These are people who were genuinely gender-dysphoric from a young age. They didn’t deny their history; if you talked to them, these transgender adults would say to you, very often: “I was biologically a girl, but I am most comfortable just this way” or “I was biologically a boy, but I am most comfortable presenting as a ‘woman.’” But they do not deny their entire history; they wouldn’t participate in that fiction.
BOYCE: Why do you think that it’s different now? What do you think changed about the conversation, that, now, we’re in this enforced way of seeing this entire issue?
SHRIER: I would just say that activists tend to be very extreme members of any group, by definition. The transgender activists are no exception; they are a very extreme version, I suppose. And the young people, who are coming of age, seem to be remarkably prone to extremism. You see the way they cut off family members who don’t share their politics. Look: Family celebrations were always about mixing together people who are related in your family, even though they don’t agree with you and you’re embarrassed by half of them. That was just family. And, today, it’s: “Oh, you don’t share my politics? I’ll just cut you off; I’ll never talk to you again.” This is really bizarre stuff.
BOYCE: It’s coming from two directions. You kind of describe the extremism of young people. We could probably ascribe that to social media, and the way that “blocking” functions, the way that you get to “dislike” or “like” posts or ignore people. That shapes the mind to treat human beings that way.
But why do you think that these big tech companies are so susceptible to this ideology and, too, enforcing this ideology or stamping out critical inquiry into it?
SHRIER: The big tech companies are really quite scary. Some people pointed out: “Okay. Who cares that Amazon isn’t allowing ads for your book? They’re still selling it.” To which my reaction is: For now. But they’ve eliminated every other bookstore pretty much, so, should they stop deciding to distribute it, the book effectively vanishes.
And you’re right. We are seeing all kinds of extremism and suppression of conversation on social media. And the reason for it? It’s a very “woke” group of people. Whatever the new thing is, they are very into control, and they are very “woke.”
BOYCE: That’s also in the media, in journalism, too. Is it not? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that it is.
SHRIER: Sure. Absolutely. Certainly, I think of the younger generations. The older generations of journalists tend to be quite reasonable; they don’t always agree, but it’s not like they don’t ever talk to anyone they don’t agree with. But I don’t get the sense that it’s necessarily true for Gen Z or even some young millennials.
BOYCE: Do you have any guesses as to possible solutions toward the discourse and the way that we operate around this issue?
SHRIER: We’ve got to get rid of social media, at least for young people. I do think so. Whatever the utility of social media, we know it’s making us all a little crazy. Look around, as America is falling apart; we’ve never been so angry at each other. And the screens of the social media are not helping, as our republic depends on our ability to get along. I have to tell you something: When you see somebody face-to-face, I don’t care what their politics are, they’re really hard to hate. I’m not talking about “evil” people or the most extreme “alt-right,” but ordinary people, that you disagree with, but you see face-to-face, are much harder to hate. But you unleash the same people online, and it’s amazing to see how quick they are to hate each other.
BOYCE: This is something that’s popped up when I’ve interviewed other writers. It seems that the perception of people that was given to people by the novel, which is more drawn out, you spend a lot of time with several characters. And now, we’re a very literary culture, still, but it’s all sentence-based, now, all distilled, and it doesn’t have that continuum of building a character over time. And, popularly, because we don’t have an understanding of the human being as a developmental entity, we can judge them for what they did ten years ago by our standards now. We can actually judge all of history by our standards now. It really seems that our ability not to be narrow in our thoughts and in our hearts; we’re losing that.
SHRIER: Look at all the statues that are being torn down, not talking about the Confederate ones, but the other ones. When you look at a statue, you say: “Okay, that was a person with flaws but also great qualities.” Take Churchill, for instance, who obviously did a huge amount of good in the world. You also learn to sort of accept that in yourself; you learn to forgive. I think that part of the reason that people don’t apologize anymore is because the people who are normal and apologize get “cancelled.” So, as soon as the mob comes for you, you have to deny, deny, deny. We’re basically creating a world where the most extreme people are the ones who survive, the most hardened people. And the problem is we’re so afraid to admit that we have any flaws, because we know that’s enough to get you “cancelled.” We can’t forgive anybody anymore. We can’t say: “Okay, she did something ten years ago at a party. So, what?” For some reason, we’re not allowing that anymore.
BOYCE: What was your risk analysis being “cancelled” writing this book? What was the cost and benefit?
SHRIER: I didn’t really think about it; I have to tell you. As a writer, I once got this advice. I was doing some novel writing in a workshop, and I was talking to this other writer mentoring me in this fiction writing workshop. He said, basically, the day you stop writing for yourself, you’re done, in a certain sense. And I kind of knew what he meant. Of course, you’re always writing for a reader, you always need to have empathy for your reader, you never want to bore a reader, and you never take for granted a reader’s time. But you can’t think about the reviews when you’re writing. You can’t think about what people will say. You just sort of have to divorce yourself from all that and think about what’s true.
BOYCE: But are you prepared for the mob coming for you for this?
SHRIER: I guess we will see what happens. I don’t know. Am I prepared for violence? No. God forbid.
BOYCE: Does social media “cancellation” hold value for you?
SHRIER: It holds value for everyone. This is how I see it: I wrote a book that’s true; it describes a real phenomenon. Many, many parents across the country will tell you that. Teachers, physicians, all sorts of people will tell you they’re seeing what I reported on. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a different opinion; it just means what I wrote is a true and accurate picture. I really believe it’s true, and, therefore, I’m irrelevant to it; if I hadn’t written it, someone else would have. The truth is out there for somebody to write; I just happen to be the one who wrote this book.
BOYCE: Is there something hopeful that you can say about this current trend of young women?
SHRIER: I hope there’s an awakening, because I don’t think this is gender dysphoria with most of these girls. And I hope it sobers feminists to remember how important it is to tell girls how great it is to be a woman. Just look around you; there are so many remarkable women to admire. Look at J.K. Rowling. What? There are a thousand billionaires, and one stood up for women and girls, and she had everything to lose. People say: “Oh, big deal. J.K. Rowling is a billionaire.” Look how much she had to lose. She was adored by everyone until she spoke up. There should be schools named for her. She is the one author I can think of who certainly will be read in a hundred years. She is a remarkable woman. And there are so many others, if you just have your eyes open.
Being a woman was never considered a “victimhood identity.” That didn’t mean we didn’t complain, but it wasn’t a “victimhood status.” It’s ridiculous. Look at all the amazing things women have achieved; it’s absurd to regard it as some sort of “handicap” to be a woman.
BOYCE: I think you’ve put your hat in the ring toward being a hero; you went out there, and you published a book. And I know you’re putting yourself aside, but you did all the work, and the way that you put this thing together is wonderfully written, but there’s a lot of wisdom that you put in there, there’s a lot of heart in there. I’m sure it’s going to reach the market that it needs to reach, which would be parents and interested parties.
SHRIER: Thank you. I definitely put my heart into the book, but I had a lot of help. I really reached out to everyone I could. Look at Lisa Littman and what she did, as a public health researcher at Brown University, with no tenure, who noticed something and had the guts and the scientific integrity to pursue it. No matter what everyone around her was saying, no matter how verboten this topic, she did it to help young girls. It’s a remarkable thing she did. And I hope everyone gets a chance to learn about it.
“We are, by nature, social animals—as Aristotle once observed. We absorb ideas about ourselves from our surroundings more often than we realize and more deeply than we know. If we attend a school or live in a family in which we are made to feel stupid or told we are, some number of us will come to believe it. If a boy is placed in a school in which the other boys tease him for being gay, he may come to internalize their homophobia. He may turn his anger inward, at himself.”– Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage (2020)
Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and is completing an MA in English at Tulane University. His research focuses on sexual politics and the history of the global women’s movement. Learn more about his work at donovan-k-cleckley.com.