By Peter Gajdics
I never thought of myself as a memoirist when I sat down 20 years ago this month to write what has now become my published book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir. Initially, I wrote to survive, to resist depression, and thoughts of suicide—to defy the lies of my then recent six-year experience in a form of “conversion therapy.” Actually, I never used those words back in 1997: “conversion therapy.” Long before any laws banning conversion therapy were passed, let alone written as bills and debated in legislatures, even before the American Psychiatric Association issued their landmark 1998 issue paper denouncing efforts to change “homosexual orientation,” I had no words to describe my own years of “therapy” with a licensed psychiatrist, so I stuck to the facts of my experience. I wrote five pages of objective facts, which I then mailed to the governing body of licenced physicians in my native British Columbia. I filed an ethics complaint against the doctor on the grounds, among others, that he had treated my homosexuality as a disease—that he had tried to “change” my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
Those five pages were the foundation for the book I started to write in 2004, after my subsequent medical malpractice suit against him was also complete. By that time I needed to write more than just facts: I needed to make sense out of how I could have ended up in that doctor’s “therapy” at the age of 24, why I hadn’t walked out his front office door the moment he talked early on about our need to “correct” the “error” of my homosexuality, why I’d stayed for six long years, agreed to his demand that I move into a “therapeutic house” with other psychiatric patients, taken so many and such high dosages of psychiatric medications in an effort, as he explained, to “suppress” my “homosexual desires” so that my “dormant heterosexuality” could once again resurface, and what, if anything, I had learned. Had I “learned” anything? Healing presupposes a wound, so what had been my “wound”? Whatever childhood scars I’d concealed within seemed dwarfed now by my level of outrage and betrayal over the realization that I’d lost six years of my life to the lie of this “treatment.” What had I been doing with this doctor, and for so long? How could I have ever believed a lie about something so essential as my sexual desires—that I was “becoming heterosexual,” while my same sex attractions remained constantly undiminished?
Eventually, I also wrote not just to make sense out of my experiences—I knew the facts of my life, the reasons for ending up in the therapy, now I hoped to try and prevent it from recurring to anyone else in the future. I wrote as a political act. Phrases like “conversion” or “reparative” therapy appeared more often in the media, but every time I read about these “therapies” I also cringed. Nothing about my experiences had been “therapeutic.” Nothing about my homosexuality had been “repaired,” “converted,” or “changed.” Words gave meaning to experience, but the words most often used to describe these “treatments” were discordant, and deflective, euphemistic. My own six years were prolonged torture; they were hatred—both from the doctor, and toward myself, turned inward. Matthew Shepard was killed while I was suing the doctor, and I remember that at the time I knew that these “conversion therapies” were another form of hate crime. They sought not just to “change” sexual orientation, but to eliminate homosexuality: to end it in the bodies of people who were gay. Killing turned out to be as easy as “therapy.”
Trauma had never been a foreign concept to me growing up. Neither had silence. Both my parents had survived World War II—my mother, after escaping three years in a communist concentration camp in the former Yugoslavia, my father, after fleeing communist Hungary—and yet they’d also never wanted to talk much about their “former lives in Europe.” They’d silenced themselves because they did not have the emotional vocabulary to talk about their trauma. They also did what they needed to do in order to survive. I had never been allowed to talk about my own childhood sexual abuse. I, too, had learned to silence myself. The “therapy” silenced my sexuality, and I’d felt silenced while fighting for legal vindication. No one, however, could silence my word. Silence equaled death, and so I wrote my book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, to speak up and out, to find my voice, to not die silent. I wrote to resist invisibility, and shame, the lies of these “therapies.” Words helped me heal, because each one was the truth.
Peter Gajdics is the author of The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir (Brown Paper Press).