Ron DeSantis and Recovered Memory Madness
I started graduate school at UCLA in the fall quarter, 1989. That was the quarter the Berlin Wall came down. It was the term of the great Loma Prieta earthquake, of the delayed Bay Bridge World Series, of country radio discovering the glories of young Garth Brooks.
It was also the quarter when a UCLA psychiatrist, in thrall to the latest cultural trend, declared that my depressive symptoms matched that of someone with a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse. This was the great madness of the late 1980s, as bad as parachute pants: the madness declared that most of us had locked away early childhood sexual trauma, and it was the job of specialized professionals to unlock those memories. It dovetailed and overlapped with the “Satanic Panic” that led to innocent lives being ruined. Google the McMartin case – a sorry tale of gullible parents becoming convinced that the local preschools were holding occult rituals involving sexual abuse and animal sacrifice, somewhere between nap and snack times.
Dr. Strouse, who was on staff at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Hospital, was sure that my sexual acting-out, my addiction, my penchant for self-harm, and my anorexia were all indisputable proof that some trusted figure had molested me in my early boyhood. The fact that I had no memory of such abuse merely confirmed his hunch that I had repressed the frightful recollections. He sent me to a hypnotherapist. I recalled nothing in session with either the hypnotherapist or Dr. Strouse, but all the blanks I drew were no match for my psychiatrist’s certainty.
When he discovered that I had had a teenage au pair to care for me the summer I turned four, Dr. Strouse had found his culprit. It is a great blessing that I had the good sense not to believe him, and to ignore his plea to press my parents for recollections of what 16-year-old Sue Peterson or Phillips or Petrocelli might have plausibly done to little Hugo in the summer of 1971.
Sue and I at the ranch, summer 1971. The horse was named Colonel.
I did manage to come up with something on my own that delighted Dr. Strouse. I remembered that once, Sue had used the toilet in front of me while I was in the bathtub. “Excellent progress,” he said; “This means there is more to come. If she did that, she surely did more.”
I felt protective enough of old Sue – and certain enough that the root of my problem was not a teen girl peeing in front of me – that I stopped seeing Dr. Strouse altogether. Soon enough, the recovered memory craze was exposed for the destructive manic fraudulence it was, and by the mid-1990s, most sensible therapists pretended that they had never believed that nonsense.
I thought of the recovered memory craze when I read Pranks, Parties, and Politics, Saturday’s absurd and offensive New York Times “exposé” of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ single year as a high school history teacher. Some 20 years ago, fresh out of Yale and on his way to bigger things, DeSantis taught at Darlington, a well-regarded boarding school in northwest Georgia. He was, the Times relates, popular: “a young, cool teacher whom girls liked and boys envied.”
Fortunately, our friends at the Times are intrepid, so they pushed DeSantis’ former students to see if they could recall something untoward. The reporters discover that some of his erstwhile charges thought the young historian was cocky: “Mr. DeSantis was kind of a smug guy,” one former student admits when pressed. Given that excessive self-regard is a required trait in those who aspire to high office, it’s not clear that this revelation of youthful arrogance is groundbreaking, but hey - the Times has a job to do, and I leave it to my more politically inclined readers to decide what that is.
Fear not, the paper of record saves its most damning evidence for last:
Last year, Hill Reporter, a blog put out by a Democratic super PAC, published a photograph of Mr. DeSantis taken with several female students from Darlington in 2002, one of whom was holding what appeared to be a bottle of beer.
Two former students, both women, remembered him attending at least two parties where alcohol was served, but they said that the parties took place after graduation and that they were not bothered by his presence at the time, although they question it now. “It was his first job out of Yale, he was cute. We didn’t really think too much about it,” one of the former students said.
(Bold emphasis added.)
“Although they question it now.” Well, yes, when the New York Times pushes and pushes for something untoward, you might well give the journalists what they’re eager for: a reassessment. Just as Dr. Strouse was sure that a pretty 16-year-old au pair from Santa Barbara had wanted to do perverse things to my four-year-old body, the Times is certain that Ron DeSantis was sexually interested in his high school students.
(One imagines the dialogue between reporter and former student: “Don’t you think it’s odd, Mrs. Johnson, that a man in his early 20s who loved teaching would want to hang out with his only slightly younger students outside of class?”
“I didn’t think so at the time, and he was never discourteous to me, but now that you mention it, and considering who he has become - someone of whom I cannot say I approve - and considering all we have learned from #metoo, I do suppose it was very suspicious of him.”)
As much as one would like to, one cannot object to “leading the witness” here. A Times hit piece is not a courtroom. It doesn’t need to be. The Times doesn’t need evidence, because in 2022, absence of evidence is no barrier to accusation of a sexualized abuse of power – just as my inability to recall Sue Petuniablossom’s ministrations upon my wee frame was not evidence that she hadn’t done something dreadful. She peed in front of a child – and just as I was pressured in retrospect to make the perfectly innocuous into something damning, so too the Florida governor’s former students are pressed to admit that now, in their late 30s, they have reappraised his conduct and found it suspicious.
I spent 20 years teaching at Pasadena City College. I also spent seven years (from 2000-2007) leading a high school youth group at the local Episcopal Church. I was a boisterous, loving, and yes, probably arrogant youth leader. I was also kind, and I was a hugger to the kids who wanted hugs. I did not foist physical affection, but I sure did embrace the kids who made it clear they needed embracing, and I did it in public in front of parents and fellow staff.
I left the church six years before my fall from grace. After my very public cancellation, the church contacted a few of my former youth group kids – who by then were in college or already graduated. They pressed them to remember if I had ever crossed a line, and if my hugs had ever turned sexual. The church was desperately afraid of a lawsuit –apparently terrified that my confession of multiple affairs with adult female students was proof that I had also crossed the line with 15-year-olds. My former youth group kids were disappointed in me, but also angry at the church for what one described as “trying to take a happy memory and make it gross.”
I am not a particular fan of Ron DeSantis. I do not write to defend or endorse him. For all I know, he really may have crossed the line with underage students – though no one has offered a scintilla of evidence to support such an accusation. I write as an historian of panics who knows a Reign of Terror when I see one. I write as a man whose failings in one arena of his life led to a frantic and fruitless search for evidence of misconduct in other venues – a search that hurt many and helped none.
I write because one of the cruelest things we can do to someone is to say, you thought that the people who loved you cared about you. You have happy memories of them. I’m here to tell you that they were not what you recall, and I am asking you – for the public good and for your own health – to remember things differently now. I’m asking you to see depravity where you only saw innocence; I am asking you to see dysfunction where you saw normalcy; I am asking you to see calculated predation where you imagined a genuine interest in you as a human being.
It is true that we now have much stricter boundaries between teachers and students than we did when I was a youth leader at All Saints Episcopal and Ron DeSantis a visiting history teacher at Darlington. Perhaps those rigid limitations on how we interact serve everyone’s best interest; perhaps they stifle care, connection, and fun. I’m not a teacher or a youth leader anymore, and I never will be again, so it’s a moot point to me.
What I do know is that in the modern world, we like to go to war with people’s memories. We like to imagine that if we can force them to reassess what was, they will be more amenable to signing on to our vision of what can yet be. That is dangerous, if not downright evil, and we ought to call it out when we see it.
I am sorry, Sue, wherever you are, for having believed for one moment you were anything other than kind and loving to the little boy who adored you. May we all repent of our instinct to cast vile aspersions on the ordinary, the tender, and the human.