Sara Widerker

The Real Irreversible Damage

Credit: Ted Eytan/CC BY-SA 2.0
Credit: Ted Eytan/CC BY-SA 2.0

This upcoming Sunday, the publishing company Sella Meir is supposed to host a release event for the Hebrew edition of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage, featuring the author Shrier and the lead editor of Sella Meir, Leora Levian. Shortly after it was announced, Rotem Sella, publisher at Sella Meir and the organizer of the event, stated on Twitter that “[t]he Social Space has told us that, due to the content of the event, they will not host it. Tel Aviv is a liberal city. A few bullies will not deter us, and we will act to hold the event at an alternative venue.”

A similarly defiant tone came from Shrier herself, whose tweet reads, “I’ll speak in Tel Aviv on Sunday.  We’ll make this book launch bigger than the activists ever expected.” They succeeded, then failed again as the new venue canceled on them as well. Three different venues so far have refused any association with Shrier once finding out about her views, and this does not include those who knew in advance and refused, a number that will likely stay between her and her publisher. The publisher will likely find a new place to hold the event, as others have before. They are no strangers to this back and forth of cancellation, and they often cherish it as part of their narrative.

The story they tell is one we’ve heard many times the last few years: It’s one of liberal censorship, of people hypothetically committed to the idea of freedom but who deny it from others, of how the overly progressive far left has gone mad. If you pay attention to these stories of people being silenced, they are often told in the same way: By a person with an audience, telling that audience what little voice that person has. The diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post made sure to write an article with this very narrative, in spite of it being about an Israeli book release and not related to diplomatic issues.

I have explained what happened using what little knowledge is publicly available right now. I’d like to describe why. Why Abigail Shrier needs to find an alternate venue in the first place, and what makes her such a toxic figure that she is protested against, and why when I heard her book was translated, I felt disappointed in the Hebrew language itself, as if it had failed me by including her words.

The book Irreversible Damage has a simple premise. It explains how young women are persuaded that the very real difficulties in being a woman are resolvable by being a man. It posits that many trans men are not, in fact, men, but are women who were persuaded to hate themselves by a misogynistic society and see transitioning into a man as an escape. It spreads this concept through roughly 270 pages, through interviews, anecdotes, and the author’s own attempt at analysis. There are deep dives into the flaws in the book, including one amazon review. A very long article by transgender feminist theorist Julia Serano collects empirical evidence against Shrier’s claims. I am not a scientist – I am a literature major, which is, at best, qualification to write very long thinkpieces with the word “therefore” in them – so I will not do the argument by argument refutation myself, especially when it has been done before. None of the actual science is on Shrier’s side, which is why every professional association disagrees with her. Shrier points to disgraced scientists as proof that these associations are trying to hide the truth, but knowledge of the issues suggests that it is more like how flat earthers do not get invited to astronomy conventions.

I will focus on the aspect that worries me, and why, in spite of being a supporter of free speech, I hope they will fail in their search for a venue. In the description of her panel in TransCon 2022 (a convention meant to provide tools and support to the trans community), Noa Cohen wrote about the most extreme situations she encounters in the trans world, between people whose lives have been devastated and those who are thriving, stating that “the difference between the two worlds is family, love, and support.” Simply put, the lives of transgender people are wildly different whether or not they have support from their families or not. Our mental health, our financial well-being, and our physical health all rely on these factors.

This is not just anecdotal. A study of young transgender people in Ontario found a strong correlation “between the support that trans youth experience from their parents and numerous health outcomes”. This is, to be frank, so obvious it’s painful, but there are more and more studies out there that confirm it in case logic isn’t enough. People with loving families are happier than those who lose their support systems. Transgender people with supportive families have someone to rely on.

Many people discuss trans people, and they talk about how miserable we are. What a difficult experience it is. And, to be fair, it can be. My life now is definitely more challenging than it was a few years ago. I face discrimination in employment, and many other things are at least marginally more difficult, from renting an apartment to buying groceries. It is an incomplete view of things, to say the least. I would not have transitioned, I would not be transitioning, if it wasn’t something that made my life better in innumerable ways. I am capable of more joy, laughter, and love, than I ever was before. I am more open, to myself and others, than I was a few years ago.

Shrier sells parents a hope. A hope that they could somehow turn their “confused” child “normal”, and spare them the misery they imagine lies there. Many parents who read her book and find hope in it, and a path forward, are not necessarily transphobic to begin with. Her book is well reviewed, especially among those who do not know better. They want to prevent their children from facing difficulties that I, and many others, face.

The problem with this is the false premise. The theory she relies on for her work, Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (the idea that the existence and presence of trans people in high numbers is a modern social contagion), has been thoroughly debunked. The idea that transness can be cured is as false as the idea that homosexuality can be cured, which is as false as the theory that left handedness can be cured. The end result, however, is that rather than embracing their children, and helping those children find joy in their lives, Shrier advocates for a method that results in broken relationships and hurt people. Parents who try to stop their children from finding paths to joy only succeed in harming them and in destroying the relationship they used to have with them.

In a democracy, free speech has its limits. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is an example of it. It is speech that serves no purpose but is likely to harm others, due to the stampede that would result. I would argue that Irreversible Damage is the equivalent of that. It is speech that has no positive value – its science is flawed at best, its conclusions are mistaken, and if I’m honest I’ve seen JK Rowling make the same incorrect points with better prose. Worse than doing nothing, however, what it does is cause harm. It is a book that hurts families. It destroys relationships between parents and their children. There are countless examples, like this one, of people who were hurt by this book. It is not merely a case of the illiberal right spreading lies. It is a book that destroys families. It is harmful. And protesting it is not suppressing free speech, but a worthy use of free speech – it’s telling Shrier, and the people she might harm, that the theater is not on fire.

About the Author
Sara is an MA student at Ben Gurion University, and writes about LGBTQ+ issues and politics.
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