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Peter Gajdics PETER GAJDICS has been published in numerous international journals, including The Advocate, The Q Review, New York Tyrant, The Gay and Lesbian Review/Worldwide, Gay Times, The Printed Blog, and Opium, where he won their 2009 500-word memoir contest. Peter has received a fellowship from The Summer Literary Seminars, and is an alumni of Lambda Literary Foundation's "Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices." He lives in Vancouver, Canada, and can be contacted at [email protected]

Recent Work By Peter Gajdics

Budapest

By Peter Gajdics

Poem

Stewed plums in cottage cheese
dumplings squirt sweet explosions in
my mouth. I left my flat on Wesselényi
utca beside the Dohány Street
Synagogue and this is what I found,
taste. Also mined into the roots beneath the
surface of my life is what most
frightens. I am at odds with what’s
inside. The isolation
each day is palpable, and when night arrives
like a visitor I cannot derail, I am hardly
ever able to sleep at all. Blue dreams in

There’s no doubt that with the California state legislature passing a bill to ban therapies aimed at trying to “change” the sexual orientation of minors, “reparative therapy” is once again going to make headlines. I was in a form of reparative therapy in British Columbia, Canada, for six years, after which I filed a medical malpractice suit against my former psychiatrist, “Dr. Alfonzo,” for treating my homosexuality as a disease. If this new law in California is to be criticized, it is because the use of “change” therapies on people older than 18 should be prohibited as well. I was 24 when I met Dr. Alfonzo, 31 when I left his therapy, and almost 40 when the lawsuit ended in an out-of-court settlement in 2003.

What has happened to gay male porn? What has happened to gay male self-image? Not that either has ever been built on an overly strong sense of self, but I’d be amiss not to notice the growing trend from within gay culture to look like gay male porn stars, while gay male porn stars are, more and more, looking like über-masculine dudes. Let’s get one thing straight (no pun intended): Gay male pornography of today is not filled with mages of “gay” men; gay male pornography of today is filled with projections of the aggressive, competitive male, suppressed of emotion while engaging in one sexual conquest after another: they are images of a hegemonic masculinity fucking itself.

The other day at the gym I noticed a beefed-up bodybuilder wearing a white skintight spandex workout shirt with the black lettering “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” sprawled across his sculpted chest. With every pulse of his muscles, every bicep curl, I found myself wondering what, exactly, was being constructed, how was he constructing it, and when, if ever, would its construction be complete?

I almost couldn’t believe it when my friend sent me the YouTube of Richard Cohen, author of the book Coming Out Straight, who believes that smashing a tennis racket against a pillow while screaming at his parents will “purge” him of whatever it was that made him gay. In effect, he’ll ungay himself of being gay.

I actually could not bear to watch Cohen’s video uninterrupted, and had to stop and start it several times because of the fury and grief that laced through me the moment it began. As it turns out, Cohen and his voodoo claims of “curing the gay” was just the tip of the iceberg: it seems Christine O’Donnell, an up-and-coming conservative Senator, is also advocating the “pray away the gay” ministries. I, myself went through six years of a similar–though perhaps less religious and more psychologically-based–treatment. My 89,000-word (yet-to-be published) memoir, CROSSING STYX, details it all, from meeting my former psychiatrist, “Dr. Alfonzo,” soon after coming out and being rejected by my family, to learning the techniques behind his version of primal therapy, and finally, to isolating myself for years in a therapeutic house called “the Styx” while believing myself to be “not homosexual.” Instead of Cohen’s tennis racket we used an aluminum baseball bat; instead of “non-sexually” cuddling a parental figure, Alfonzo injected us with Ketamine, an animal anesthetic, and “reparented” us as our new “daddy.”

Despite the fact that I wrote an entire book to, in part, “warn” others of the kind of primitive logic that still runs rampant, while ruining people’s lives, a part of me wanted to believe that what happened to me was more the exception, and less the rule. A part of me still finds it difficult to comprehend how anyone–I repeat: anyone–could come to believe that screaming at their parents, no matter how much they deserve to be screamed at, while smashing a tennis racket, a baseball bat, or even, for that matter, a golf club, against whatever soft surface they desire could purge them of their sexuality. It purged me of none of mine. If anything, batting and screaming at my Tormentors served only to dig down deep into my Shadowy Pandora’s Box of rage that ended up subsuming me for years, but out of which I emerged, following one long and dark night’s journey, still very much, for lack of a better word, “gay.” If Cohen wants to help, truly help, anyone, he will learn kindness toward himself, forgiveness for those who wronged him, and the difference between the socially constructed and largely inauthentic “identity” of homosexuality, and his own very personal experience of love and intimacy and sex with another human being of the same gender. He will stop displacing the effects of childhood abuse with same sex desire. The logic behind Cohen’s “bash the racket against the pillow and become straight” therapy, and other “cure the gay” therapies just like it, is fallacious and leads nowhere but back to the self-hatred that caused the individual to want to engage in such a form of self-imposed chastisement to begin with.

I was sitting in Alfonzo’s waiting room when a slight mid-forties woman, another patient, I assumed, emerged from his office. The moment our eyes met she stopped dead in her tracks.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s just–you look exactly like an ex-lover of mine from twenty years ago.”

“Oh . . . well, I’m not,” was all I could say. The woman continued through the waiting room, then turned around again.

“The resemblance is uncanny,” she repeated, nodding her head. “You look exactly like him.” She continued out of the waiting room and down the hallway to the bathroom.

I looked at Alfonzo’s office door, waited for him to open it, invite me in. This had been the day he’d told me about for months, the day I’d meet my new surrogate mother. I dried my sweaty palms against my pant leg, closed my eyes, breathed, and thought about my own mother, saw us together, the way she sat on the edge of my bed when I was a child, every night, singing “Que Se Ra, Se ra” as I drifted in and out of consciousness, like on a swing, back and forth, opening and closing my eyes between this world and that one.

“Peterle, mein lieber Peterle,” she’d sometimes say following her song, even though I couldn’t understand her native German, “was hast Du mit mir gemacht, dass ich keine Ruhe finde.” There was nowhere I could turn, lying beneath her in my bed, when she bent back down to kiss me goodnight; and when she did I saw her breasts, through her nightie that draped wide open like a curtain in a breeze, I saw them, every night, above me–tried not to, looked away so I wouldn’t have to, but always did and then the terror streaking through my body left me breathless in her wake.

“I love you,” she’d say, but all I heard was the fat man in the toilet stall still telling me he loved me, too. “I love you,” he’d said, his arms like bands around my back, pulling me into him.

Then she was gone and the lights were off, except for the hallway nightlight, which cast shadows across my walls, shadows I tried not to notice because they moved, like creatures, fat monsters, shape-shifters morphing all around me, closing in on me.

Peter?”

I opened my eyes to Alfonzo, motioning for me to follow him into the working room.

Once inside he plopped into his stout, waiting room chair whose legs he’d cut off so he could be at eye level while we regressed on the mattress before him.

“So you know what we’re doing today, right?”

“Yes.”

“There isn’t going to be any nurturing. Not yet. I’ve explained all of this to Alice.”

“Okay.”

“I just want you two to meet. Talk. Get to know each other. Sound reasonable?”

He’d hardly finished talking when the woman from the waiting room, the one I’d thought had been a patient, re-entered and was introduced to me as Alice, my new surrogate mother.

For years I had struggled with a mother who, ignoring my separation needs, kept me close, perhaps seeking in me the intimacy she found lacking with my father. That I appeared to look like my new-found “mother’s” ex-lover was the worst possible introduction Alice and I could have had, and we both knew it. Alfonzo left us alone and before she said another word, tried backtracking, telling me that she hadn’t had her glasses on when we first met, that I looked nothing at all like him. But it was too late: the spell had been cast and I was terrified of my new mother.

Alice and I sat face-to-face on the mattress, as I studied her wiry, shoulder-length brown hair, and the way she spoke with a gentleness in her blue saucer-eyes that both surprised and scared me. At least she didn’t look or sound like my mother, I thought, as I started in on my family history.

As a child I’d never heard my mother speak about the concentration camp, I told Alice, but I could feel her pain, the presence of her past, and knew what not to say or do or feel in order that she not be reminded of it. My job, therefore, became to protect her from her grief.

“I was an emotional acrobat around my mother. I don’t want to do the same with you.”

“You don’t need to protect me,” she said. “That’s not your job.”

I told her about the night my sister, Sara, ran away from home, our father’s rage, and about my own escape, through sex. I said I wasn’t sure that I was gay because I liked attractive women, although I didn’t want to have sex with them, and that I didn’t like men, but was sexually aroused by them. At one point Alice tried to take my hand, but I jumped back and told her not to touch me.

My most child-like feelings emerged when I spoke about my mother, how much I loved her, wanted her beside me, to sing to me, smell the sweetness of her perfumed skin, then kiss me goodnight, but feared the moment that she did because of the way her nightie draped wide open and I saw her breasts. Even though I talked openly about disturbing memories, I never cried. Instead, whenever I felt my most vulnerable, I laughed. Alice seemed to understand, and sat and listened through it all. She did not interrupt.

Falling to sleep, I told Alice, had always been a borderless crossing when I was never quite sure in which country I resided. Even after my eyes snapped open to my mother’s naked body floating next to me beside my bed–her slate ashen skin, her three breasts instead of two–even then I wasn’t sure if I was awake or asleep, or asleep while I was awake. Either way I could not move, or breathe: breathing would have drowned me in the air that seemed to hold her up like invisible waves that filled my lungs with fear, the fear that if I so much as blinked, or moved, in that one movement I would set in motion some catastrophic event that no one, not anyone, could ever take back.

When her body floated toward me, to lie beside me, somehow I snaked myself from out of bed, tip-toed through the minefield that my room had become: around her apparition that belonged inside my sleep, over every creaking floorboard, and to the bathroom, where I locked myself inside for hours, its mirror spitting my reflection back, distorted, but still my only reflector.

Or else I crept down the stairs and through the house, terrified of returning to my mother’s dream-like flesh floating upstairs in my room. If they found me, my older brother, Sandor, or my father, huddled in some corner, I’d start to cry and say that I had died upstairs in my room and that I didn’t know what to do.

“You’re not dead,” they’d say, “you’re just asleep.” And then they’d lead me back up to my nightmare in my room.

Other times I ran from my bed and through the house, screaming I’M DYING I’M DYING I’M DYING, my voice ripping both my parents from their sleep until my father held me down while my mother poured hot consommé down my throat, which I’m sure was meant to calm my tiny body, but always in my mind I knew that there was somewhere in the air the hole through which I could escape, be free, if only I could find it. Later, all three of us, spent, my mother returned my body to my bed, my coffin, where I felt myself dying in the arms she’d wrap around me like a warm blanket to sleep in.

By grade six I began leaving school mid-day, I told Alice, walking the three blocks to my home, sneaking in through the basement, past my mother who seemed to always be in the kitching baking, up the second flight of stairs, into my room, and crawling into bed. Never were there ever any nightmares during the day, only dreams in which my arms turned into wings and I flew far away.

#

I finished my story and began to shiver. Without missing a beat Alice found a nearby blanket and quickly tucked it neatly around my sides, took my hand in hers, gently, and began to rub my chest with her other hand. I could feel the muscles in my body constrict, and I had to make a conscious effort just to breathe. All I wanted was to suck my thumb and lapse into baby talk, while familiar feelings of shame and need cloaked me in a deadening silence. But through it all, Alice sat attentively by my side, her warm blue eyes drawing me into her world of compassion.

Our subsequent sessions were consumed with emotion. All week long, at work or during my writing workshops at the University, I looked forward to my “mommy sessions,” or else I dreaded them; I liked Alice, but sometimes I resented her. If I arrived at my session excited to see her, as soon as she asked me what I wanted to talk about I became depressed, anxious, or angry without apparent cause. I didn’t want to think about what I wanted to talk about: I wanted her to take care of me.

Alfonzo sat in on our early sessions and explained that it would take some time for me to know the “mother space,” that my own mother’s seductiveness had totally unbalanced my self, which had led to my fantasies about men.

“You need to let Alice touch you,” he explained, “and then use your emerging feelings by taking them back historically on the mattress or at the bat, by making the connection between how you felt as a child and how you feel as an adult.”

If I resisted Alfonzo’s advice, he became angry and threatened to throw me out of therapy unless I complied with all the rules. After he left the room, Alice would hold me tight and I’d remember my father screaming at me, at all my siblings, that it was his house, his rules, and if I didn’t like it, I could leave.

Sometimes Alice’s mirroring of my innate lovability, or even of my pain, contrasted so sharply against my mother’s refusal to do the same that I had to physically separate myself and move to the batting station. And then for twenty minutes or longer I would bat and scream at my mother about all the years she’d reflected back to me not who I was, not what I was feeling, but who she wanted me to be, what she needed me to feel in order that her own pain not be re-ignited. The disorientation of never having had my truth reflected back to me had left me reeling through years of anxiety, fearful that I was imagining things, going crazy, or with a rage too large to call my own. After exhausting myself at the bat, always I was more able to feel Alice’s love for me without my mother coming between us.

Whether Alfonzo was present in my sessions or not, I talked about how much I loved and trusted him, that I wanted my mommy and daddy to take care of me, to love me unconditionally. Once, while Alice was shouldering me in her arms like a newborn infant, I said that I would give my life for Alfonzo.

“No,” she said, physically separating us so that she could see me, and I her, as she spoke. “You should never trust anyone that much.”

This confused me, and secretly I wondered why mommy didn’t trust daddy.

Progressively, though, I resisted Alice’s bodywork less and became more and more relaxed while cuddling in her lap. My mind was calmer and clearer than it had ever been before, as if the hard drive of my mind were being reformatted back to its original state of love and peace. Sometimes, during her bodywork, my lungs felt like they were being constrained. But I always pushed through it and if our sessions ended with my head nestled in her gentle hands, I’d feel her butter-soft skin against my cheek and smell a familiarity that made me safe and child-like in her arms. If terror stabbed through me, like ripples surfacing from the hauntings of my childhood, I’d call out for Alfonzo–“Papa,” I’d scream–he’d rush in, and then together, both he and Alice, they’d reassure me that everything was okay and that it was just my biological mother, like a parasite, forcing her way back inside of me.

“Just make contact with the mommy space,” Alfonzo told me as I breathed and lay with Alice and heard her coo me back into the comfort zone.

Escaping into my head, where my feelings never lived, was easy, and it would sometimes take the entire hour for Alice to make contact with me. If that didn’t happen, Alfonzo would send me to the bat, where my screaming and batting more often than not re-oriented me back to a place of knowing that what I needed was to be held and loved by Alice, my mommy.

“Your feelings are the most direct expression of your self,” he’d say as I crawled back into Alice’s lap, my basket of love. “If you try to shape your feelings in your head, all you’ll create is frustration.”

In bed at night I spent hours crying for my mommy, visualizing Alice instead of my biological mother. At the batting station I called out for “my soul mother, Alice,” at times sounding as though I were exorcizing a demon, and not my mother, from within. Switching between little boy Peter, who was sucking his thumb while lying with his mommy, to grown up Peter who was a University student while working to pay his bills, became increasingly difficult. Countless sessions were spent with me crying, fearful and anxious at going back out into the world. At these times Alfonzo would tell me to “sit up and pay attention” as he outlined the whole deal. “Everybody has these feelings of not being able to function in the outside world while going through primal,” he’d reiterate. Regardless, the disparity I felt between my child and adult selves continued to mirror my boyhood years, when I was forced to act more like a grownup than my parents, both of whom as children had lost their own parents in World War II.

Game playing became an integral part of my nurturing sessions. When I asked Alice if she could be my mommy, and I her baby, she always said yes. The sounds of her breaths, rhythmical waves, calmed my mind as I lay in her lap and listened to her paint a picture of the two of us by the windows in our house. There were plants all around, and sunshine. Warmth and security. We were cuddling and I was just a toddler, age three. Later, the two of us went in search of chestnuts. All was well. Then lions and wolves surrounded us, backing us deeper into an enclave of fear. But Alice squeezed tight to my hand, never letting go, and together we shouted at them to go away, to leave us to our chestnut outing, and as soon as they did, the spell was broken.

The love and safety that Alice created while I lay cuddling in her arms was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. At the batting station I drained the emotional poison from within; in her arms I was filled back up, like a balloon whose air would one day carry it away.

Details of my sessions were always relayed back to Alfonzo, through Alice’s and my weekly “sessional reports,” who reinforced in me just how much progress I was making.

“You have recovered the need for the need,” he told me. “Soon you’ll be getting better, and only then will you grow up and go back out into the world.”

 

The car had circled the block more than once. The third time I knew the man inside was interested. When he pulled over I walked to the curb. The passenger’s window lowered. I knew what was expected of me because I’d watched the others for months. I leaned over. “Are you busy tonight?” he said. The act was already in motion so I told him I was. “How much do you charge?” he said. “It depends on what you want.” “A blow job,” he said. “Fifty dollars,” I said. For a moment I wondered if my price was too high. “Okay,” he said. “Get in.”

If there had been a line in that moment separating who I’d always been and known myself to be from what I was about to do I did not see it, because when I opened his car door and crawled in the passenger’s side the crossing over was more like floating than it was a step.

I was not nervous when he said he knew where we could go. I was not anything. We drove for over thirty minutes. He offered me cigarettes. I smoked. We did not talk. After several minutes I wanted to take a better look at him, so I glanced over. He was no one I would have chosen to be with, I thought to myself.

It was late, well past midnight, when we arrived. The road inside the forest was unpaved, shrouded by trees and shrubs. I wondered if he’d been there before; maybe he’d brought others before me. We stopped only when the road stopped. If it hadn’t been for the light inside the car I would not have seen anything. He opened the glove compartment and took out a condom. It had never occurred to me to put a condom on his penis; I suppose I should have since I was more at risk than he, but I unwrapped the packaged and pulled the sheath down over him. Then I bent down and opened my mouth. He moaned. The taste of rubber, like a pencil eraser, was not something I enjoyed, but knew at least there’d be no risk of contamination. I felt both his hands on my head, one on either side, pulling me up and pushing me down. There was a rhythm to his needs that I obliged. At some point his groaning increased and then the rubber swelled, filled with his liquid. No part of him leaked out. I sat back up. The car windows were clouded with our heat, his breath. I didn’t watch him pull the rubber from his penis but I think he used a tissue to ensure there’d be no spillage. His car seats were real leather, I believe.

“Would you like some fresh air?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. He ignited the car, cracked open my window, backed out of the enclave, then we were on the road again, beneath lights, lit. “I know a bank close by where I can get your money.” For a moment I almost asked him what he meant, but then I remembered. “Sure,” I said. We drove for twenty minutes and then he stopped outside the bank, the bank where I, myself, banked. “I’ll just be a minute,” he said, and left me alone while he ran in to the night teller. From the car I looked out over the downtown maze of skyscrapers and crisscrossing bridges and speeding cars. All had continued, unruptured. I could not detect breakage to anyone’s activity. Life had not shattered into unmendable fragments.

He returned to the car, buckled up, pulled out his wallet that was filled with colorful credit cards, and handed me one fifty dollar bill. It was crisp and new, still warm. I did not thank him.

“Can I drive you home?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. I told him where I lived, but lied and had him drop me two blocks from my apartment. As I exited his car I wondered if I should thank him for the ride home, but decided against it. “Maybe I’ll see you again,” I heard him say when I was already outside. He drove off. I walked to a nearby grocery store, bought bread, milk, cigarettes, fruit. I unpackaged the groceries when I arrived home and smoked a cigarette before brushing my teeth and climbing into bed. If I thought of anything that night as I lay waiting for sleep it was that the sex with him had been no different than with all the rest, except this time I’d made some money.

The decision to leave, that I could not stay where I was, appeared inside of me with great urgency and without reservation the next morning. I was twenty-three years old so school, the beginning of an undergraduate degree, seemed the logical choice. I called the University on the island, a two hour ferry ride from my hometown, asked for all the paperwork, received everything the following week, and within three months all had been arranged. I told my parents I was moving away to go to school. “What will you study?” they asked. “Creative writing,” I said, then, to assuage their visible concern, added, “maybe journalism.”

Before my first day of class I made an appointment with a new general practitioner, an older man, who I understood from his secretary was nearing retirement. When I saw him the following week I told him I needed to see a psychiatrist.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

“Some sort of therapy where I can do more than talk, although I also need to talk. I can’t afford psychotherapy, and I don’t want to take medication, but I know psychiatry is covered under my medical . . .”

“There is one doctor, a Spanish man, who’s just moved to the city. He’s also the only psychiatrist practicing psychotherapy who’s accepting new patients. I’ll see what I can do . . .”

I was in LA last month at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.” For a week, every day between 8:30 am and 9 pm, I attended my non-fiction workshops and various lectures about the craft of writing and the business of marketing one’s writing, and all in the gorgeous surroundings of the American Jewish University in Bel Air, overlooking all of San Fernando Valley. It was a luminous week; every day felt purposeful, reminded me why I write, why I’ve written my book, CROSSING STYX. I returned to my home in Vancouver re-invigorated and spent several days, head down, immersed in further revisions. Then the funk hit. My revisions, for the most part, were complete, and once again I was staring at an 86,000-word manuscript that I have been writing and re-writing for six years. I’m tired. Sometimes the structures that I’ve built in my mind in order to live—go to a day job that does not feed my soul, interact with my parents and my siblings that, for the most part, do not want to hear about my life and why I write what I write—come crashing down inside and I do not know what I am doing with my life, my days, with my memoir. I’m embarrassed to admit, at 45 years old, that I feel lost, that I’m not sure about any of it. I forget what compelled me to write this book in the first place. I called in “sick” to my day job today but if I’m sick it is only in my heart that I’m unwell. The dark horse called depression is always one step behind and today it caught up, or I slowed down, and I had to remind myself to still get out of bed, to shower, shave, eat my three scrambled eggs, dry toast and coffee, go for a walk by the ocean. To at least try and look through the diffused winter fog that permeates. Some days I want to withdraw my retirement fund, the little that I’ve saved, and buy a one-day ticket to Budapest, walk the Chain Link Bridge to Buda, sit in Café Gerbeaud and drink a melange, stroll along Váci utca. I want to do what has very little to do with writing but has everything to do with living. Then I remember that no matter how much I deceive myself, think my magical thoughts, running away will not bring me what I want most to achieve. If I forget why I write, why I wrote my memoir, it’s time to stop and rest, see the trees and not stay lost in the forest. Life is everywhere. All is well.

 

In three days I will join Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2010 “Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices” in balmy California, a state that recently had the common sense to repeal the voter-approved decision to oppress a people. And while I’m on that topic, which is not really the topic of this post, I understand there’s now been some debate about the judge who overturned Prop 8. Why this judge’s sexuality would even be discussed, mentioned, debated at all, is beyond me. Whether he is or is not “gay” has, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing to do with his decision. Nada. Nix. Besides, what about all the so-called straight judges who have, since the beginning of the Constitution, been rendering decisions on behalf of a straight majority? And I say “so-called,” since it would not surprise me at all if more than a few decisions to oppress homosexuals have been made by closeted gays who wish to squash what they cannot face within themselves.

Anyway.

As I said, in three days I will join a class of 32 other writers at Lambda’s retreat in Los Angeles–at The American Jewish University in Bel-Air, to be exact. I’m deeply appreciative that I was even invited, and thoroughly pumped for the experience. I’ll be workshopping part of my memoir, CROSSING STYX, about my six years in a therapeutic cult trying to “cure” my sexual orientation, and the lawsuit against my former shrink for treating my homosexuality as a disease (all of which occurred between 1989-2002). That last part of the book, the lawsuit, has, in recent revisions, taken a less central focus of the book than the first part, my six years in the therapy, five of which while living in a “therapeutic house” the doctor had called “the Styx.” The irony of living in a house called “the Styx” was lost to me during my many years of prescription drug-induced stupor (near fatal doses of prescription medication was one of the doctor’s many ways of “reverting” me to my “innate heterosexuality,” but in retrospect seemed more like a prescription for death), but became a central theme as I wrote the book.

As I prepare to dive head first into a week of intensive workshopping, I’m pondering the years I’ve invested into the writing of this memoir, CROSSING STYX. I’m always amazed and not a little but dumbstruck when I hear writers say they did maybe “4 or 5 revisions” to their now-completed book. Huh? 60 or 70 revisions would not be overshooting the number of times I have “revised” my own. Not that I’m complaining. The book is, today, not the same book I started writing soon after my lawsuit against the doctor concluded in 2002. Maybe I needed all those revisions in order to find a voice. The right voice. Maybe I needed to rip the guts out of this book and build it back again, one word at a time, in order to find the story that needed to be told. Which, as it turned out, was not the same story that I thought needed to be told when I sat down at my laptop in 2004.

How long has it taken others to write their own books? I know it’s always difficult to count the number of times we revise on computers, but if you were to guesstimate, what number would you come up with?

Group therapy started several weeks after my individual sessions.

“I could summarize my therapy with three C’s,” Alfonzo told the eight of us that first group, holding up his three middle fingers for added effect. “Confession. Confrontation. Communion. First you confess your story–tell someone your life, expose your shame. Then you confront those who wronged you in some way, which is why we have the batting station over there. And finally, and most importantly, you commune with the Divine through the act of reparenting. Without this final step, receiving the love you were denied as a child, no true healing occurs. A Course in Miracles says it all: ‘Only love is real, all else, illusion.’ A loveless mind is a mind in error. And a mind in error can only be corrected with the help of my therapy and the aid of reparenting.”

Understanding Alfonzo through his Spanish accent was sometimes difficult, but everything he said about only love being real, all else illusion, made sense to me, much more than the Catholic doctrines of my youth, which had taught me sin and forgiveness. I listened to him, we all listened to him, as he continued on about his theories around reparenting, which, he explained, had evolved over the course of his own therapy, beginning in the late 1960’s with Arthur Janov, the supposed “inventor” of Primal Therapy, at his Primate Institute in Los Angeles.

“It’s amazing to me now, the fact that Janov never thought to bring us mommy. All of us, a sea of primal patients, all lying on our own mattresses in a room as big as a gymnasium, crying out for mommy’s love, and Janov never thought to give us the obvious: mommy’s love. Reparenting with the mother, and to a lesser degree, the father–it’s the glue that holds that baby’s mind together. It’s the missing link in all of psychotherapy, and I discovered it. Such is the level of denial of the male mind. But of course you can’t get to mommy and daddy before going through yourself.”

He stopped talking long enough to look at us one at a time, as if each were an obstacle course he was about to begin. “So, who wants to go first? Who wants to confess their shame?”

All our eyes turned to the floor.

“No volunteers?”

An image of Brother Roberts, my grade nine sex education teacher, popped into my mind: the way he roamed the aisles of our class, all of our faces, mine included, buried in our books as we prayed he wouldn’t call on us to read aloud from our textbook.

“Okay then. We start at one end and go in a circle.”

Just like sex education class, I was sitting somewhere in the middle, time enough to mentally prepare, or maybe even to pray for the hour to end before it was my turn to speak.

First up was Aimee, who, before even opening her mouth, I could see was anorexic. Her voice, when she started explaining her reasons for not eating, was frailer than bone china. “Speak up,” Alfonzo repeated throughout her meek, disjointed soliloquy, each time that he did her fossil-like arms wrapping tighter and tighter around her body.

She lasted one week, and when Alfonzo told us she would not be returning to the group, he added that her eating disorder, her refusal to feed her body, was directly related to her fear of love. “Love is to the self what food is to the body,” he told the group. “Without it you die. You understand what I’m talking about, don’t you Peter?” Everyone turned and looked at me. Alfonzo smiled. I blushed but said nothing, embarrassed as if being singled out in class.

Ronnie, a mid-thirties University student who wore faded Bob Marley t-shirts and seemed to “like men,” shared his story about his wife he’d not had sex with for over three years. “I don’t know what her problem is,” he explained, tugging at his dread-locked hair. “Maybe there’s nothing wrong with her,” Alfonzo reproached. “Maybe there’s something wrong with you.”

He lasted one week longer than the love-starved anorexic. Presumably, when Alfonzo called his home to check up on him, his wife said that he’d dropped off the face of the earth and that no one, not even she, could find him.

“One day he’ll show up,” Alfonzo told us in the group the following week. “And when he does, he’ll still have the same problems that he left with when he disappeared.”

“My sixteen year old daughter’s the problem,” Samantha, a late-thirties single mother, shared with the group. “She stays out late, comes home drunk, skips school, and now I’ve met her drop-out boyfriend, who I’m sure is a member of some gang.”

“So why are you here?” Alfonzo asked.

“Well I wanted her to come but she refused.”

“So why are you here?” Alfonzo repeated.

“I don’t know. My daughter’s the problem.”

“Okay. Get on the mattress.”

“What?”

“Lie on the mattress and let’s see what’s inside you.”

And so she did, reluctantly, moving her arms and legs as if she were under water, the sound of her voice bubbling up but blocked somewhere between her chest and throat. After twenty minutes on the mattress her body broke open, like a Pandora’s Box.

“You think I wanted you?” she screamed while thrashing on the mattress, eyes locked shut, limbs like clubs against the insulating mattress beneath her. “You think I wanted to have some ungrateful brat I never loved, never wanted, never asked to have and now I have to support and feed and worry about all the time? I wish you’d die, just die, die and leave me to my life so I can live my life, goddamit!”

The woman’s eyes flashed open and she tumbled off the mattress and toward the door while looking back as if the mattress itself had possessed her into what she’d said, into what she’d felt, into what had come from her.

She left before the end of the hour. We never saw her again.

Week after week, like characters killed off in an Agatha Christie novel, another patient disappeared from the group until all but myself of the original ten little Indians had been replaced with new patients from an ever-growing list of patients referred to Alfonzo for treatment.

When it was my turn to share, to confess my shame, I told them all, the ever-changing cast of characters, about the first time, after the time in my elementary school toilet, I was sexual with another man. I was thirteen years old.

I had skipped out of school and was downtown, alone. A crater-faced man passed me on the street. He smiled. A smile was all it took. I glanced back. He returned and asked what I was up to. “Not much,” I said, “just walking around.” He told me to meet him at his apartment later that afternoon. Then he was gone and all I could think about was maybe getting from him what I could not find in anyone else.

For over an hour I waited outside his apartment. Three-thirty. . .four o’clock. . .four-thirty. My parents would be expecting me home from school, but I couldn’t leave. Leave and return home as I had left, as I left every morning: in need? Finally, at five o’clock he arrived, strolling along the street. “Oh hello,” he said, without an apology or an explanation for being two hours late. “I’m glad you’re here. Let’s go upstairs.”

Once in his apartment he told me to get undressed and to lie on his bed. He scared me. He was tall and scraggly and ugly. But I did as I was told, ashamed at my still-hairless body that I knew would contrast against his own of at least three times my age. When he stripped I saw his penis, like a club, hanging between his legs. “Lie on your stomach” he ordered. I wanted to leave. What was I doing? I imagined my mother at the stove, preparing dinner for us all, my dad arriving home, tired from a hard day’s work. “Where’s Peter?” they’d ask. “He should have been home hours ago. Where’s our baby boy?”

His pubic hairs were like bristles against my smooth behind. When he stabbed himself inside me, lightning ripped through my body and my body jumped off the bed and ran away and apart at the seams: hysterical, naked and torn, bleeding, in pain like jagged glass through bone, raw and unbearable.

After that I didn’t know what happened. My mind must have fallen out of time. I must have calmed, some time later stopped the tears and dressed: put on my underwear, pants, shirt, socks, shoes, coat. I must have left his apartment and walked out the door, walking one foot in front of the other down the street and to the bus: stood and rode the however-many-minutes it would have taken me to arrive home, where I must have entered the house and explained, stepped outside myself as from a room in order to explain, to lie, cogently, articulating one word, sound, syllable after another about why I was arriving home three hours late from school. I must have done all of that. But I couldn’t remember.

“There’s nothing gay about being gay, is there Peter?” Alfonzo said from across the workroom as I finished sharing my story, chilled, but tearless, with the group. “In all my years as a psychiatrist, I’ve never met one happy homosexual.”

I could not deny that I had struggled with my homosexuality for years, and that it had made me unhappy. I was lost for words. In my silence, Natie, an older, deeply commanding woman from the group, spoke up.

“Maybe the reason why you’ve never met a happy homosexual is because you’re a psychiatrist,” she said, “trained to treat unhappy people, gay or straight. Besides, Peter’s story had nothing to do with his homosexuality. He was raped!”

“Are you challenging my lifetime of experience?” he snarled at her. Natie was a therapist herself, as I’d learned through the course of our sessions, so her opinion seemed to matter to Alfonzo above the quibblings of the other patients. “You had better shut up–or else.”

Later that night, after my writing workshops at school, I arrived home to a phone message.

“Peter, it’s Dr. Alfonzo. How are you? That was quite a session today, wasn’t it? Peter, please don’t give up hope. My thoughts and love are with you. You’re not alone.”

Love? Not alone? I rewound the message and listened to it again. And again. In all the time since coming out to my parents, almost two years earlier, even they had never said such supportive words to me, on or off the phone.

I started to cry.

#

“What I want to know,” Alfonzo started my next individual session, “is how a thirteen year old boy ends up downtown alone getting fucked up the ass by a man three times his age.”

“You don’t have to say it like that,” I said, lowering my eyes.

“Isn’t that what it was?”

“I skipped out of school. I told you.”

“Why? What was going on at home?”

I looked at him, but said nothing, knew only that I could not be at home. Or at school. Both had been worse than wandering the streets, alone, downtown.

“Lie down,” he said.

In the months that I’d been working with Alfonzo, my regressions on the mattress had been like diving back into a wreck, the furthest reaches of my past where events and circumstances, like images caught on film, played through me, the moviola of my body, once again. I never knew just what to expect, which memories I would have to swim through and survive, until I lay down, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and started to move.

When I did, there was my thirteenth birthday, the cake my mother had baked complete with candles and a song after dinner, and the feeling of depression settling into my young body like an influenza that I could not fight; wanting instead to go to bed, to turn life off, as if unconsciousness could hide me from myself. It never did. In sleep my dreams enunciated everything I could not bear the weight of while awake. In one I stood inside my parents bathroom when I realized my thumb had been severed from my hand and that I’d have to fix it, somehow reattach it to my body, myself; but then my mother was banging on the door, wanting to see, to help, to know what had happened; but I was hysterical, panicked, without a thumb, crazed and alone inside the bathroom and I could not breathe, could not scream for her to go away, to leave me to my shame, or what I wanted most of all: for her to come and somehow help me make me into who I was when I was whole.

There were dinners, seeing all seven of us around the kitchen table as my father joked with my two older brothers that they’d better not talk back to him or else he’d stuff them in a potato sack and tie it up so they could never get out again. Everyone would laugh, or at least smile. Potato sacks aren’t big enough for my brothers, I’d think, yet understood his message perfectly well: We were not, under any circumstance, at any time, to speak back to our father. If we did we were slapped across our face; or else he told our mother to pass him the “fakanál”–a wooden spoon in Hungarian, pronounced “fuck-u-null”–which usually meant that someone was about to get the slapping of their lives. Every night Walter Cronkite’s voice could be heard from our black and white Fleetwood console in the living room, telling us of Vietnam and Watergate and the atomic bomb. It seemed the world was splintered into pieces: filled with betrayal and heartache, at war with itself, imploding and coming to an end.

Later, after dinner and the dishes, my brothers and I repeated our father’s Hungarian word, “fakanál,” while forcing its first syllable through our lips and back and forth at each other like darts hurled through the air. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite signed out in the background of our lives, as we raced around the house, chanting “fakanál. . . fakanál. . . fakanál.”

“Where are you now?” Alfonzo asked, and then I was remembering, seeing with eyes I’d never used before, the night my oldest sister, Sara, ran away from home. She was sixteen. I was eight.

“Okay, keeping moving,” he said. “And don’t forget to breathe.”

In the workroom I was on the mattress, moving and breathing, but in my mind I was in the den, sitting on the floor, the multi-colored shag carpet, watching The Brady Bunch with my other older siblings when Sara entered the room holding a bundle of laundry. No one paid her much attention; but as she walked past us I looked up and she looked down and in that moment, that fractured, timeless glance, I saw her eyes, a searing, searching look inside her eyes. Then she was gone, around the corner and down the stairs and, as I learned later that night, out of the house and our lives like an unwelcomed guest taking flight.

“Keep talking,”Alfonzo said as I continued to breathe, to move, to see me lying in bed, later that night, after my mother found Sara’s note. “Your sister doesn’t want to live with us anymore,” she’d said, shutting my door and leaving me adrift at sea. When I cried I begged for God to tell me why, why life took from me my sister that I loved. But no one answered, not God, not my parents. There was only silence and pain: the breaking apart of what was supposed to have always remained whole.

“Daddy’s bringing Sara home tonight,” I heard my older brother, Sandor, telling me; and then I saw us, weeks later, crouched beneath the kitchen table, peering through the rain-streaked window, beyond our fenced-in yard, down the potholed laneway, at Daddy: dragging Sara by her golden hair as she kicked and punched him like an untamed animal being dragged back to its pen for the slaughter. When they entered the house, through the basement below, their screams were like a fire that burst us all up in flames. “Sit at the table and eat your dinner,” our mother, our protector, ordered my siblings and me before Sara ran past us, escaped her beating in the basement to run up the stairs, through the kitchen and around the corner to the bathroom, as our father, her captor, closed in on her like the moment of her death; and all of it, the beating and the screaming and the fear, the threat that I could be next, that if he did it to her he could do it to me, was all like an ice storm to my body.

“Go to the bat,” Alfonzo ordered. I didn’t want to, wanted instead to hide, to do what I knew and allow the quicksand called despair to take me in its fold; but I crawled to the batting station, as instructed.

I had not yet learned to talk and found no words, like tools, to use against my father.

“Just keep batting,” I heard Alfonzo, my leader, say. “Breathe and bat and stare at the X.”

From nowhere I had known before a rage pulsed through me, like all the inmates of my prisons were breaking out, all at once, and all I had to do was breathe, gutturally punch the air before me, and bat. Breathe, bat, and visualize all the years I’d imagined grabbing the kitchen knife and stabbing it into him, into both my parents, and seeing the blood, the pool of red tar, oozing out of their heads and across the shiny linoleum floor. Those thoughts, as a child, were bigger than my body, were rage that blistered, then, unexpressed, deflated, leaving me numb inside an igloo of depression. Now I was breaking out, through years of ice, one bat at a time, and back into the rage.

When I finally stopped batting several minutes later because of the sweat pouring down my face, stinging my eyes, puddling my back, my chest, preventing me from gripping the bat one moment longer–when I stopped and fell back into a sitting position still tightly holding the bat, panting like a dog whose owner had forced it on a run, no one spoke. For several minutes, neither one of us exchanged a word.

“I guess that’s it,” I said, dropping the bat, wiping my brow, crawling back to the mattress, where my session had begun.

I looked to him for guidance. He looked at me and waited, knowing, no doubt, what I had not yet learned. Clearing away the rage had allowed the underbrush of mourning to appear. And it did, moments later.

“Lie back down and move,” I think he said, but by then I could barely hear him, could not follow instructions, thought nothing, really, was already awash in tears, mourning a constellation of losses.

He touched my chest, gently guided me back.

“Move,” he said, “keep moving.” I tried but there was nothing I could do but cry, as powerless to the sadness as a shore is to its waves.

And then it stopped. My body, in its infinite wisdom, knowing it had accomplished all it could for one day, stopped its crying.

“Good work,” he said as I lay there, spent.

#

Like a cartographer, I was mapping out my life through primal, one session at a time. Ground zero, I told my group, occurred at six inside that bathroom stall; and at fourteen, my body, through orgasm, had found its portal.

After my father returned home from the factory every night, sometimes he talked to me about God, His love for all His children. Secretly I wanted to ask how God could love His children, but he, my father, beat his own. But I didn’t dare. The only questions we were allowed to ask were those that reinforced the righteousness of his beliefs. If we ever disagreed with anything he said, exerted our own minds over his or contradicted him in any way, punishment was meted out accordingly.

But one night, instead of God he started talking about Sara, which surprised me because he’d hardly mentioned her in the six years she’d been living with a foster family. “She had the devil in her,” he said. “You don’t want to end up like her. You’re a good boy. She was a troublemaker.”

“No she wasn’t,” I shot back, knowing better than to respond, but unable to contain myself.

What did you say?”

The tremor of his chin and a burn in his eyes warned me of what was to follow.

Bloody hell. . .”

He raised his hand like a paddle, backed me into a corner of the kitchen. I darted past him, heard the snap of his belt buckle, like a bullwhip, and ran, as if trying to run outside me, through the living room, the dining room, up the wooden stairs and down the hallway to my room.

Once inside I locked the door as he pounded up the stairs in the distance. Then he was on the other side, banging with fists for me to open up and let him in.

Open this door! This is my house, this is my door, as long as you live in my house you will open my door!”

Nothing, not one word, breath, escaped my body. Everything, all fear, incomprehension, knotted in my belly. Then a stiffness I did not want or understand swelled between my legs. Outside, my father gave up and returned, I suppose, to my mother and The Lawrence Welk Show; but in my room, crazed with tension, like angular objects jabbing in and out of me, I rubbed my pants to stop the stiffness. Then something exploded, like a pipe bursting down below, was shooting out of me and a flush of light-headedness spun me down as the release of all of everything that had been trapped inside me, seeped into my pants. On the floor, chilled, sweating, still dizzy, I unzipped and looked with horror at the goo, a sticky, whitish blood, oozing from my penis. I had broken myself. Oh God oh God oh God. . .forgive me, please, forgive me. . .

Later, after I didn’t die from shame, all that remained was the experience that what came out of me had released me from my self when I was still too young to escape, or like my sister before me, run away from home. Whatever it was called, whatever I had done, all I wanted was to do it again, and again, for it to come out of me again, and again. . .

#

That same year, in grade nine, I started sex education class at my Catholic high school. Like a revised Book of Revelation, the final chapter of our textbook was devoted entirely to the lifestyle of the homosexual–beginning with their choice to act on an immoral and intrinsically disordered behavior, and ending with their self-imposed exile, misery, diseased body, and assured annihilation.

If I thought of anything during the hours of English, French, Mathematics, Catechism, History, and Social Studies, I thought only of how I could divide myself in two, like a wishbone, straying as far away from my desires as possible. The fact that I had Final Chapter Tendencies did not mean that I would have to become a Final Chapter, I told myself. I could control my urges, my behavior.

Instead of homework each evening I listened to music. Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Three Dog Night’s “The Show Must Go On.” The Rolling Stones scared me because Sara had listened to the Stones and now she was gone. Maybe if I listened to the Stones then I, too, would end up like her: an outcast, unloved, a run-away and living on the street. So I listened to Queen, lip-synching and acting out the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.

Despite my prayers the blinding light of day forced me up and out of the house and back to school where facts and figures from all my classes flowed over me. Nothing stuck, sunk in, was absorbed, retained. If the Catholic Brothers didn’t mock me, make fun of my endless failed exams, my sixteen percents, then the boys crowded around me during recess like crows around a carcass, chanting my surname, pronounced “gay dicks,” all I’m sure because they’d sensed in me a sensitivity they knew could not defend itself against aggression. Escaping was as easy as raising my hand during class, pretending to go to the bathroom, then, instead, running out the backdoor of the school and busing downtown.

And that’s where I was–downtown, one Monday morning–when I noticed a man three times my age wink, lick his lips, and motion for me to follow; and follow I did: for over twenty minutes as we wound our way through a crowded shopping mall, into a parkade, then down what seemed like coils of concrete stairs that bottomed near a single exit door. The stink of piss and cum dizzied my mind as the stranger pushed me up against the concrete wall and kissed me, hard, on the lips; held my hands above my head and devoured me, as I did him, each of us like sexual cannibals, starved for what the other had to give. When I opened my eyes two other men were above us, five steps up, like on a balcony, rubbing their crotches through their bulging 501’s and kissing, then entering each other while spitting, sweating, watching.

After that I skipped out of school every day. Back and forth, I walked the crowded shopping malls for hours, from one public washroom to another, then down into the guts of that parkade. If I held a man and told him that I loved him, I also knew I’d never have to see him again so it didn’t matter what I said. Some of them scrawled their names and numbers on a piece of paper, and as I walked away I’d see their faces, hopeful that I’d call them one day soon. I would smile–always the polite, Catholic boy–and tell them that I would, then throw their number away as soon as they were out of sight. The world of sex with men had nothing to do with who I was in my real life, I told myself. Sex with men was something that I did, a force that took hold of me, like my father’s angry fist. It was not who I was. And always, when I got on the bus to return home, sex with men was part of another world that I left where it belonged: downtown.

Hitchhiking was what I learned when I saw a boy my age stick out his thumb and a car pull over. Days later I followed suit, and sure enough a car pulled over for me. The man inside asked me how far I was going. “All the way,” I told him. Halfway home he began to rub his hand over my leg. Within the month I was hitchhiking home every night, and being picked up by a different man two or three times my age. When they pushed me down into their crotches, shutting my eyes could not stop the ugliness from staring back at me, and the shame from making me do the things that I did not want to do. Sometimes I asked them why they liked to “do it with guys.” Mostly, we never talked at all.

Maintaining the contradiction that my life had become grew increasingly difficult. Fear of discovery was always imminent. Once, during dinner when I was seventeen, I told my parents that I thought I was a Final Chapter. They just stared at me, as if I’d spoken a foreign language. And in a sense I had. But having said that much, codified as it were, released the pressure to tell them all, to tear the mask completely off the actor, then live to regret it.

Every night I prayed for God to take me in my sleep, and every morning I awoke to feel my body, alive and heavy with despair. Why was I sentenced to a life of sin? Why did God hate me so? How was it even possible that I was “becoming” as my surname, “gay-dicks,” implied, while my two older brothers, by every indication, weren’t. I could escape nearly anything except my name. How was this possible? Often I could think of nothing at all, and felt only numb and lifeless. Through the fog of my depression I could hear my siblings ask me what was wrong; but at sixteen, then seventeen, eighteen years old, lying catatonic, face up on my bed, there were secrets from my past, and fears about my future, that I could not share with anyone.

#

“So, how does it feel, now that you’re sharing?” Alfonzo asked me in his private office, when we were alone after one of my groups.

“Like I’ve dropped twenty pounds. Like I want to run away and hide.”

“And the therapy in general? How are you finding the therapy?”

“Draining. I have to go home and sleep afterward I’m so exhausted.”

“That’ll pass. In the meantime you should take extra B vitamins.”

“B vitamins?”

“For the stress. Overall, though, you find it helping?”

Was it helping? I didn’t quite know what he meant, or how to respond. I felt worse than when I started, but I figured that was normal. Poison rising to the surface before draining from the body, I told myself.

“I want to cry all the time. At work, at the Student Union Building when I’m serving up chili. It can be a bit embarrassing.”

“At some point you may have to take medication. For your own good. But we can talk about that another time. What about sex?”

“What about it?”

“Are you still having sex with men?”

Despite having shared my sexual history, my shame, in group and with Alfonzo personally, I’d still not talked much about my current life situation. “I had sex last week. I went to a bathhouse, here, in the city.”

“So, did it help?” he asked, with an edge of sarcasm.

“Help?”

“Did you get what you were looking for?”

I looked at him, unsure of how to respond. Clearly, by his expression, there was one, and only one, acceptable answer. “No,” I said, not quite believing myself, but knowing we could now proceed.

“Well then maybe you’re starting to learn a thing or two? This isn’t all a waste of time? You know, Peter, at some point you’re going to have to make a choice between sex with men, or therapy. You’re like a chocolate addict who wants to go on a diet but doesn’t want to give up his fix. I don’t think any therapist would treat you while you’re off fucking in a bush.”

I was not off fucking in a bush, but I received his words as if they’d been hammered into me, into the same spot inside myself with all my other shame.

“I understand your difficulty,” he continued. “Believe me. I’ve been on this path since before you were born. Not with men, but with my own demons. Like you, my therapy was forced upon me. It was sink or swim. I had no parents to guide me.”

“You didn’t have a father?”

“My father died when I was young.”

“Really?”

“My father was a writer, like you. Completely outspoken. He had his own press, nothing fancy, just a little newspaper where he wrote articles against Franco and his army. One day they came to our house, took my father outside, lined him up with all the dissidents, and they shot him to death.”

“You saw this?”

“And a lot more.”

“How old were you?”

“Five, maybe six.”

“Where was your mother?”

“My mother couldn’t help me. No one could help me. I was alone before I knew how to talk.”

“So, you’re mother raised you alone?

“Me and my brother, but. . .let’s just say my mother knew how to twist the knife.”

“What do you mean?”

He smiled. “You know what I mean. Our curriculum may be different, Peter, but we’re all in the same school. I left Spain to get away from her, her and my wife. Another woman who knew just how to twist the knife. Twist and turn.”

“You were married?”

“For a time. I have a son back in Spain. I hope to bring him here soon. I think he needs to get away from his mother. Before it’s too late.”

“How long have you been in Canada?”

“Just over twenty years. I graduated from McGill and then I worked at the Allan Memorial Institute, in Montreal. I was at the forefront of treating gay couples when you were still in diapers.”

Alfonzo’s disclosure, his willingness to share so much about his life story, surprised me, especially considering his past reluctance to do so. But I liked that we were talking, that he was talking about himself. The inner sanctum of his thoughts and feelings were a cave into which I wanted to take recluse.

“Was this before you were with Janov?”

“Before, yes. I started therapy with Daniel Casriel in New York. Have you read his book, A Scream Away From Happiness?”

“No.”

“You should. But then I heard about Janov, and his Institute in LA. After a couple of years with Janov I got a job in a hospital in Quebec. That’s when the fun and games began. I built my own sound-insulated workroom, next to my office, continued on with my primal sessions, alone. Every day, between seeing my own patients, I’d lock myself in my office and I’d lie down on the mattress and the tears–well let’s just say there was a sea inside and it wasn’t long before I was drowning in it. I primaled and I primaled, without a life raft–I primaled till there was nothing left of me to primal. Till my child self was completely wiped out.”

“What do you mean, ‘wiped out’?”

“The tether connecting me to the mother ship had been severed. It was my dark night of the soul: an emptying of the well of my identity. My mind was shattered. You think you’ve known grief? Anxiety and panic attacks overwhelmed my system. My sleep deteriorated. The amount of medication I was taking, just to function, would have killed a horse. To this day I don’t know how I maintained the illusion of being a practicing psychiatrist for as many years as I did. Reparenting was something that I stumbled on by accident. There was a nurse at the hospital where I worked, a very warm and loving woman, a Mother Teresa figure. One day I asked her to hold me, privately, in my office. All I knew was that I needed to be held, and loved, that my child self needed to be nurtured. I never realized for a second the extent to which my child self depended on that love as a cure to all my grief. My dues have been paid with sweat and heartache. The fact is, Peter, I’m the only person alive doing this kind of therapy. No one else out there has figured out the obvious, that the child can only cry for so long before going into despair. That’s where you’ve been for the last, well–I don’t know that you’ve never not been in despair. We’re all running around the same track of life, Peter. The only difference between you and me is that I’m a little further ahead of the game than you are. That’s it.”

#

Back home, after my session, I thought about my father, the fact that he had never talked to me, to any of my siblings, about his life the way Alfonzo was already talking about his own. The only time I glimpsed my father’s history was when he played the piano–late at night, after dinner, or while we were readying ourselves for bed. Unlike my siblings and I, who all took lessons, my father could not read music; instead, his fingers seemed to simply channel storms raging in his heart.

Sometimes my brother, Sandor, and I joked when we were alone that daddy should have been a priest, because the only thing he talked about was God.

“Don’t you ever want to ask him about his own life?” I asked Sandor, one late night after lights out, “–where he came from?, who his father was? After all he was our grandfather too.”

“We didn’t have a grandfather, you know that.”

“Everyone has a grandfather.”

“Don’t ask him. You know we’re not supposed to.”

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because you know what’ll happen if you do.”

I did know.

“What was your father like?” I’d asked him once. When his slap came, came without warning, the suddenness of his fury reduced me to ashes. I ran to my room. By the time my mother arrived to comfort me, I was crying into my pillow.

“Doesn’t he want me to know who he is?”

“He’s scared, that’s all,” she said. “He’s just scared.”

“One day he’ll be dead and I won’t be able to remember him,” I cried. “I won’t remember my own father because he didn’t want to tell me who he was.”

If I begged my mother when we were alone, sometimes then she offered up a sliver from his past, but always making me promise never to discuss any of it with him for fear of causing him more pain.

Growing up in 1930’s Hungary, she’d told me once, “bastard” was not a word that anyone said aloud, but my father always knew what he was, what the other children, and even some of their parents, called him behind his back. Abandoned by his mother as a child, sent into hiding outside of Budapest, every two years he was shuffled from one foster family to another, from one surrogate mother to another, but none belonged to him, knew or loved him as their own. His body had not come from theirs. Some nights he dreamt that one day he would find his way back into her arms, the arms of his birth mother. Then there would be wholeness again. Completion. Maybe then sleep might become restful, dreamless. When news of her death reached him at the age of 16, it was as if his hope, the blood and breath that kept his spirit alive, had been eviscerated. Now there would be no one, not even in his dreams, to show him the way.

When I left home, as a young adult, in addition to my books and a few pieces of clothing, I took with me my father’s shame, and confusion, his rootlessness, that later became my only map: all had been unknowingly lodged like splinters in the heart of me since childhood, bred into my soul, given new wings to soar inside of my young body. They became for me, as they had always been for him: inexhaustible.

I am not who you told me I was, every time I looked into your eyes and saw reflected back to me the image of who you told me that I am. That is not who I am. You have never known who I am. If there is anything that I know, and there is so much that I don’t, it is that I am not what I have felt: my depressions, or hungers, my compulsions, despairs: they are not who I am, though they are wells I fall down into, for long times knowing nothing but their dark, cavernous mouths swallowing me up whole. Rage is also what I’m not, and there is so much rage. Days where all I do is swim through it, oceans of fire, praying one day it will end, that I’ll have strength to face what came before, before the rage. Neither am I the thoughts I think that tell me who I am. More often I’m the dreamer forgetting he’s asleep. My body’s mostly what I think I am, but I am not; this body that I’ve pierced and tattooed, raped and drugged, tried to kill, snuff out like a candle, or sell for sex because by then cash seemed like the only thing of value men could give. I am not that sex, though sex is what I found when I, abandoned, went looking for myself. I am not my scars, the scars that you, and I, and they, we all razored into me, even though for years that’s all I saw: not the house I was before the storm, but the ruins, the brokenness left standing, that’s left me wanting just to tear down all that’s left and start anew because there’s no way I’ll be whole again, not this time ‘round. I am not my story, even though I tell, or want to tell, almost everyone I meet “who I am.” I do not know who I am, have no idea, and grow weary of the language that I use in place of being me. Words like “victim,” and “survivor”: I am not a survivor, not of you, not of anyone. Or maybe if I am it is of me that I’ve survived. Funny, all these words I’ve used and thought were me—sooner or later they all become like boxes, and I am not a box. If I am anything I am bigger than all the boxes that I’m stuffed inside, or stuff myself, a marionette, inside. Boxes, no matter how immense, cannot contain the size of who I am, because I am immeasurable. That is all I know I am: immeasurable, even though I, daily, measure who I am by what I make, do, see, think, touch, taste, feel. I am none of what I make, do, see, think, touch, taste, feel. Perhaps if I am anything, then I am everything you did not want me to become, that you did not show me I could be, you did not allow me to explore, did not permit me to discuss, think. If there is sin in forgetting, perhaps then that is what I am: a sleeper, having sinned from choosing to forget. If I am anything, anything at all, I fear that I am much of what is coming to me now, a visitor I called forth. Today, if I am anyone’s house I am my own, and no one, not anyone, enters me, not even during sex, but myself.

Have you always wanted to write?

I wrote stories as a child, mostly about little boys who were whisked away from their home by magical creatures living in far off galaxies. My first addiction was to the movie The Wizard of Oz, I was actually a member of “The International Wizard of Oz Club” for years, so I suppose I wanted to be like Dorothy. For a time I was determined to write a book about the making of the film. I was really disappointed when I discovered that someone had thought of that before me. Eventually, I went to school for acting, which seemed like a logical career for me, considering I’d been acting like a heterosexual since birth. I made some commercials, appeared in a few TV shows, some films. But acting, like heterosexuality, definitely wasn’t for me. Meanwhile, I wrote plays and even had a few produced. When I was 24 I came out to my family, which went over like a house on fire. Soon afterward I started this therapy that I’ve written about in CROSSING STYX, which took me to a whole other level of writing: writing to survive. Survive the therapy, survive the medication, survive my breakdown in 1992. Books have always been my soul’s medicine: Rilke, Hesse, Kafka; Alice Walker, Anne Sexton, Larry Kramer. After the therapy, as I’ve written, I sued my former psychiatrist, which was a process that stretched on for years. But all the while I was thinking, split off from the part of me that was going through it, “This would make a fascinating book.” More than anything, I wanted to write about what I’d been through because I knew that others were going through it, too. If there’s one thing that I’m certain, it’s that no matter what we experience in life, someone else is experiencing the exact same thing. We all need a voice, and the entire topic is not something that’s commonly discussed in the media. Certainly they don’t make movies about it.


When you say the idea is not something that’s discussed in the media, what exactly are you referring to?

I’m referring to this notion that we can “change” our sexuality from gay to straight. Even the idea that we are these socially definable, demarcated beings, called “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” It’s a lie, a mass delusion, and it engenders considerable confusion, and harm. Even for those who are relatively content enacting the roles of “gay” or “straight”: by identifying with the labels, by believing that we “are” gay, that we “are” straight, we end up running after the idea of who we think we are. A person can get really tired, spending their whole life running. I won’t repeat what I’ve written elsewhere, but suffice to say this is what I wanted to put into the book, to flesh it out through my story because I lived it. I lived this sense of running, and it caused me a lot of pain. Not to mention exhaustion from all that running.


Is your family supportive of your writing?

That’s a “hot topic” for me; unfortunately, one with no easy answer. Does my family enjoy the idea that I’m creative, that I “write”? Probably. Are they necessarily supportive of what I write? Not really. There’s a dissonance here that’s similar to the old adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I write what frightens me, or at least what’s frightened me, and so it usually ends up threatening others, like my family. The whistleblower is seldom welcomed. There’s a reason no one talks about the White Elephant. A couple of years ago they actually threatened to sue me if I proceeded with my memoir.


Why would they do that? Had you written something harmful to them?

They hadn’t even read my book, so it had little to do with what was actually in it. Besides, I’ve never been interested in revenge. That’s not why I write, and it’s never been my intention. Before I started writing my memoir, I pasted a quote above my laptop that read: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” I need to write the truth of my life, otherwise I just don’t see the point. But the fact remains that when we write the truth of our lives, we often end up writing about other people’s lives, too. It’s unavoidable.


So maybe the truth of your life is not the truth of their life.

I suppose we could always start splitting hairs, couldn’t we. But at the end of the day I know what I’ve lived, and how I’ve been impacted by others. Each one of us knows what we’ve lived, and we can either admit to it, face it, or keep running. I wanted to stop running. I wanted to say what I’ve lived, maybe, hopefully, learn from it, but more than anything, face it.


Change of topic. How do you pronounce your last name?

Ah, the proverbial question. My surname, Gajdics, is pronounced, “guy-ditch.” Sometimes, to help people remember the pronunciation, I tell them to think of a “guy in a ditch,” although the imagery can be somewhat self-limiting. There’s actually a bit of a story around my name. When my father emigrated from Hungary in the 1950’s, he anglicized the pronunciation of his name, I suppose to try and make it easier on North Americans, from “guy-ditch” to “gay-dicks.”


Didn’t he realize what he was doing?

He could barely speak English at the time; I’m sure he had no idea what “gay-dicks” meant. So anyway, when I was a child my family actually pronounced our name “gay-dicks,” which of course only added to my misery when I discovered, at around the age of nine, that I seemed to be becoming my very name. I remember lying in bed at thirteen and wondering how it was possible that my brothers had escaped becoming our name, that they weren’t “gay-dicks,” and I was. We had the same name—how was this possible? To say that I was confused or felt trapped inside myself is an understatement. Eventually, after I came out in my early 20’s, I started pronouncing my name the Hungarian way again: “guy-ditch.” But I guess the point, at least for me, is that the truth of my life will never be found in my name. No matter what I’m called, or name myself, I’m still me. I can either accept that, or keep running.


I’ve never heard anything quite like that before.

I had a colorful childhood—a Technicolorful childhood, to be exact.


One final question.

Only one? I was just starting to enjoy this.


Were you serious when you said you belonged to “The International Wizard of Oz Club”?

Well, yes. I was. But don’t ask me how old I was when I gave up my membership; that might be too embarrassing to write.



[I]t is more important than ever for scholars of sexuality and performance to scrutinize the political and cultural implications of those offering a “cure” to gays and lesbians. While conversion therapy may seem like the only viable option for those struggling with their queer identities, activists and allies should not lose sight of the diabolical motives of those offering the antidote, the disdain and contempt they hold for LGBT life, and the world they envision without us (Bennett 2003, 348-49).


1. Abstract

Despite widespread opposition from the psychiatric and psychological communities, reparative or conversion therapies, geared at “changing” sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, continue to appeal to a population “struggling with their queer identities” (349). Even after years of treatment, however, “ex-gays” often still end up experiencing same sex desire. What, then, if anything, do they change? This essay unpacks the logic behind some of these therapies, and answers the question: When someone tries to “change” their sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, what exactly is it that they’re trying to “change”? I posit that “homosexuality” is a socially constructed identity, or map, to the experience, or territory, of same sex desire, and that the two are in fact dissociable, but have been culturally and personally conflated. Trying to “change” oneself from homosexual to heterosexual is a displacement of social identities under the erroneous belief that by changing one’s map, one’s territory will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” Such a “change,” however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” at changing themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses the conflation between their map of identity, and territory of desire.

2. Introduction

When I was 24 years old I entered the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, soon after coming out as gay and being rejected by my family. Initially, when I first sought Alfonzo’s help, all I’d wanted was to find some way of reconciling who I was with how my family, and the world, perceived me. Alfonzo’s treatment—primal regressions, followed by “reparenting” sessions with a surrogate mother—quickly turned into a form of reparative therapy geared at trying to “change” me from homosexual to heterosexual. Three years into the therapy I suffered a physical and mental breakdown, precipitated by prolonged, near fatal doses of five concurrent psychiatric medications, one of the many ways Alfonzo tried to suppress my sexual desire, my same sex desire, and “flip me over to the other side.”

As I recovered from the breakdown, while continuing with Alfonzo’s therapy, two things became clear: 1) despite our combined efforts to “change” my sexual identity, my same sex desire remained virtually unaltered; and 2) a core belief that I was “not homosexual” overwhelmed my primal regressions to the point that I became convinced, paradoxically, dissonantly, of my “non-homosexual” identity. Alfonzo would quickly reframe my “non-homosexuality” as proof of my innate heterosexuality and assure me that my same sex desires were the result of “faulty parenting,” and from having trained my own body, through years of “homosexual activity,” to respond only to men. My goal, therefore, was clear: unlearn my unnatural sexual responsiveness to men, and return to my “innate” heterosexuality.

I left the therapy in 1995, six years after I began. But questions lingered; a contradiction remained whereby, sexually, I had never not been attracted to men, while mid-point in the therapy I believed myself to be, resolutely, “not homosexual,” that I was, in fact, “changing.” How could I have experienced both to be true? If it had not been my same sex desires, then what, if anything, had I been “changing”? Had I been living in a state of dissonance?

In the 2004 film, Save Me, a young gay man, Mark, begins treatment with a Christian Ministry, not unlike “Exodus International,” in order to “save” himself from his drug and sex addicted “gay lifestyle.” As one of the other men in the Ministry says before a therapy session early in the film, “We admit we are powerless over our homosexuality, and our lives are unmanageable. We have come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” What is this “homosexuality” over which these men claim to be powerless? And how has it caused their lives to become “unmanageable”?

Complications arise when Mark falls in love with one of the other men in the Ministry. When his friend leaves, choosing instead to live his “gay self,” Mark follows. The two embark on what appears to be the beginning of a relationship. The film’s message, however simplistic, is clear: gays don’t need to “change”; they can find love. But the underlying issues as to what drove this man, or others like him, to want to “change,” or how they could have come to believe that such a change was possible, are never addressed. Neither is the conflation, suggested early in the film, between Mark’s self-destructive “lifestyle,” and his homosexuality. Is there a correlation between the two? Mark, after all, enters treatment to “save” himself from his homosexuality. Why does he not enter drug rehab? Why an ex-gay Ministry? Is the only message we can glean from his “failed” treatment that gays don’t need to change? That love, the promise of a relationship, cures all? How about the possibility that all these men had displaced the ways in which they’d experienced their same sex desire with this other thing called “homosexuality,” so that when their “sexual lifestyle” became “unmanageable,” their only recourse seemed to be to not be homosexual? Maybe, if homosexuality and same sex desire are, in fact, dissociable—two divergent roads that have been culturally, and personally, conflated—an individual could come to believe they were changing one, all the while experiencing—paradoxically, dissonantly—the unalterable other.

3. The Invention of Homosexuality, and its Conflation with Same Sex Desire

In The History of Sex: An Introduction (Volume I), Michel Foucault writes about the “discursive explosion” (1978, 38) throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with whole groups of individuals, including “those who did not like the opposite sex,” (ibid) suddenly scrutinized, as they’d never been before. “It was a time for . . . these figures, scarcely noticed in the past, to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were. No doubt they were condemned all the same” (39). Such confessions, one could say, began their long night’s journey from the proverbial closet toward not solely their liberation, and not merely their prohibition, but a “closer supervision . . . an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals” (42-43; italics in original).

The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a type of life, a life form, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized . . . less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (43).

The “homosexual,” as a socially definable identity, was thus birthed into being. State-sanctioned power was exerted over him—his subjugation and vilification was necessary within the domain of the “matrix”* in order to normalize and reinforce its counterpart, the heterosexual—but in the naming of him, in the demarcation of his sensibilities, his own sense of agency also emerged. The discourse of homosexuality made possible “the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” (101).

Individuals with same sex desire named themselves; they transmuted their previous “‘[c]losetedness,’ itself . . . a performance” (Sedgwick 1990, 3), into the naming of themselves as “homosexual”—they “came out,” and in their necessary coming out, conflated their experience of who they were and what they desired, with the category that had been created on their behalf, oppressively, to describe who they were and what they desired: “Homosexuality” became the closet into which they stepped in order to escape the invisibilizing effect of cultural unintelligibility.

One could say that homosexuality, as a category, is a map, “a representation . . . of the whole or a part of an area” (on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary), to the territory, the “indeterminate geographic area” (ibid), of same sex desire. The danger with maps, with all maps in general, is that they are sometimes confused for the territory they represent. Maps, as individual positionalities, point to one’s territory; they are signposts; they should not take the place of who or what one is. Maps also change over time, and not always for the better. In the case of the social construction of homosexuality, they become medicalized, legalized, moralized, even politicized. Language, as representation of the object it’s meant to signify, sometimes “forgets” itself, too, and we are left with the belief that words themselves are what they point to—that words are the thing, and not the representation of the thing. As long as one remembers that one is not, indeed, never has been, one’s map, that one is not the word that’s used to point to oneself, all is well. But most soon forget; they forget, then forget that they’ve forgotten. Though not without consequence.

Feminist scholar Judith Butler postulated the construction of gender as a type of “performativity,” “. . . not a singular ‘act’ or event” (1993, 95), as in the case of a conscious performance, “but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance” (ibid). How might a similar theory of performativity, not as a conscious “singular act . . . but a ritualized production,” apply to homosexuality?

I would postulate that an individual, upon being born into the heterosexual matrix, and while (unconsciously and consciously) struggling to ascribe meaning to their otherwise meaningless, incoherent, same sex desires, is, as described by philosopher Louis Althusser, “hailed” into the ideological self-identity of “homosexual.”

[I]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individual (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing . . . (1971, 174).

The individual in effect ascribes the map of “homosexual” to their territory of desire, their same sex desire, by “learning the ropes” about what it means, what they’re citationally taught it will mean, to “be gay.” They are not, to use the right-wing pejorative vernacular, “recruited” into their same sex desires; they, like “heterosexuals,” apply form to the formlessness of desire—in this case, same sex desire—by internalizing, as a sense of identity, the social construction of homosexuality. Were it not for others who had, in citing those previous to them, self-identified as “homosexual,” individuals born into the matrix with same sex desire would have no means of “formatting” their unintelligible desires into consumable self-identities. This culturally cumulative citationality remains like a wave indistinguishable from other waves within one body of water, the hegemonic civilization, with most unable to “see” the source material of their newly formed identity: the ways in which they’ve attributed meaning to their same-sex desires, the ways in which they’ve “become gay.” The performativity of homosexuality, then, refers not to the individual’s same sex desires, but to the ways in which the social construction of homosexuality has been ideologically interpellated, is ceaselessly, citationally reiterated, and ends up “produc[ing] the effects that it names” (Butler 1993, 2).

Deepak Chopra has written that “[c]hasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory. It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self” (1994, 84). One such way of “chasing symbols,” I would add, is through the “exchange,” or conflation, of the territory of same sex desire with the map of homosexuality. Many individuals, of all sexualities, conflate their social map with their inner territory and end up, as Anne Sexton wrote in her poem, “The Play,” “running after the hands and never catching up” (1975, 38). The hands toward which these individuals run, ceaselessly, reiteratively, are their citations—their socially projected maps to who they think they are, or want to become; and they never “catch up” because the hands, being citations, “are out of sight—that is, offstage” (39). Others, such as those who try and “change” themselves from homosexual to heterosexual, enact on the stage of their life a displacement of maps under the erroneous belief that by rearranging their social identity—by learning how to “throw a football,” for men, or “apply makeup,” for women—their desires will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” When it doesn’t change, when they become “ex-gays” while continuing to experience same sex desire, they exist in a state of cognitive dissonance. Both groups of individuals are, to a greater or lesser extent, “running, running to keep up, but never making it” (ibid).

The consequences of fusing same sex desire with the construct of homosexuality cannot be undermined; for many, the two remain undifferentiated. To illustrate how this conflation engenders confusion, and considerable harm, I will draw on the following case study of John and Anne Paulk, two “ex-gays” who were at the center of debate about the “curing” of homosexuals during the late 1990’s.

4. Becoming “Ex-Gay”: Extricating Homosexuality from Same Sex Desire

The institutionalization of homosexuality performs three distinct functions: 1) it divorces same sex desire from the experience of many by projecting it into the experience of few, thereby maintaining a binary view of sexuality generally, and a normative view of heterosexuality specifically; 2) it reinforces the either/or mentality that sustains a hegemonic patriarchy, and relieves a cultural anxiety over what it means to be “male,” a “man,” “masculine”—in other words, as long as I am on the side of the fence marked “straight,” I am safe, loved, accepted, all-powerful; 3) it promotes the implicit idea that “changing” sexual identity from the category of “homosexual” to the category of “heterosexual” is not only possible, but highly desirable—after all, who wouldn’t want to be “safe, loved, accepted, all powerful”?

In his essay, “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-Gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives,” author Jeffrey Bennett examines the Paulks’ co-autobiography, Love Won Out, in which the two juxtapose their early immersions “into homosexuality” to their later involvement with Exodus International and “entrance into ‘heterosexuality . . . [in order] . . . to pursue a ‘normal’ life of marriage and children” (2003, 332-34). Their stories spawned national attention, with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, as well as with guest appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 60 Minutes. Can gays “change”? Should gays “change”? These and other questions were raised amongst media, and public. Unfortunately, there was little, if any, inquiry into what the Paulks, or others like them, were attempting to “change,” when they said they wanted to change their sexuality. While the implication always seems to be a change from same sex to “opposite” sex attraction, this is precisely what does not occur, as I myself can testify, for those who undertake such therapy. How, after all, does one change desire? In practice, the locus of attention in reparative therapies becomes less about desire, about changing one’s desire, than it does the obligatory avoidance of same sex temptation, engagement in “opposite” sex scenarios, and modification of behavior to reflect a normative stance on male and female gender roles.

As detailed by Bennett in his essay, the Paulks’ memoir “attempt[s] to reconstitute the discourses that shape and stabilize abstract notions of the self . . . [by] . . . relegate[ing] identity and authenticity to a system of anticipatory acts that can be modified by altering the conduct of the actors” (332). Nowhere is it claimed the Paulks end up changing their desires; rather, they reduce themselves to actors, playing the part of the “homosexual”: In order to play the part of the “heterosexual,” they simply modify their performance. “If Anne can learn to wear make-up, and John to throw a football, they are taking the necessary measures to redefine and stabilize their heterosexuality by employing an illusory ontological identification” (ibid). In a reversal to Butler’s theory on gender performativity, the Paulks have reframed their collective “homosexualities” as the normative, and their modification to heterosexuality, its subversion.

Throughout their book, the Paulks point to the unreality of “gay life” as justification for “replacing . . . the unnatural homosexual self with the ‘true’ heterosexual identity” (335). This statement alone necessitates delineation. If “homosexuality” points, as I’ve suggested, to the territory of same sex desire, then in one respect the Paulks, or all advocates of such therapies, are correct in their description of an “unnatural homosexual self.” Homosexuality, as with heterosexuality, is the symbol for the thing, and not the thing itself—symbols are, to a large extent, “unnatural.” However, as the Paulks also evidently conflate their map of homosexuality with their territory of desire, their same sex desire, they illogically deduce that if homosexuality is unnatural, heterosexuality must consequently be natural. The “naturalness” they, and others like them, seek lies not in a different map, a different symbol, but in a consciousness, an awakening, to their own, incontrovertible territory of desire. Maps, if lived as territories, will always disappoint: sooner or later they will always be experienced as unnatural, inauthentic, unreal.

What becomes evident throughout Bennett’s essay is the urgency with which the Paulks attempt to reconstitute themselves as heterosexual is in direct proportion to their former identifications with the construct of homosexuality, and the displacement of that construct with their lifelong pain. If they perceived themselves as obsessive compulsive, their obsessive compulsiveness was rooted in their so-called homosexuality; if they immersed themselves in meaningless one night stands, in prostitution, drug and sex addiction—even mention of Anne’s childhood molestation—all of it was spelled out as either the cause, or effect, of “being gay.” Homosexuality was the culprit, plain and simple; and to the Paulks, since they’d identified as homosexual, their only salvation lay in becoming not homosexual, in becoming “ex-gays.”

In the following passage from an essay about my own six years in a similar therapy, I describe part of an intensive therapy session lasting two 10-hour days, during which time I “worked” my feelings about “being homosexual”:

Moreover, my homosexuality was the result of the sexual abuse. Or so I screamed while lying on the mattress. It never occurred to me that my promiscuity and episodes of dissociation were forms of acting out abuse, regardless of my sexual orientation. Instead, promiscuity was the nature of homosexuality. All gay men dissociated while having sex. Shame and a lifetime of lovelessness were synonymous with desire. Homosexual desire. There were no shades of gray. My life was black and white.

Better yet, there was someone I could blame for my life’s unhappiness: my parents. If it had not been for my parents’ poor role modeling, their lack of intervention, I would not have spent my teenage years in public toilets and bathhouses, behavior I still equated with homosexuality. My parents were the cause of my misfortunes, as surely as if they’d walked me downtown and into the arms of every man I’d encountered. Years of shame and isolation, of praying to God to take me in my sleep—it had all been because of my parents. My body was a grave and I was falling deeper into it, word by word, as I talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality, digging myself deeper into the pit of my self-hatred (2009, 119).

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not only had I conflated the map of homosexuality with my territory of same sex desire, but also the impact of that abuse, the ways in which I ended up compulsively and addictively expressing my sexuality, with my so-called “homosexuality.” Thus, when I “talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality,” what I really was attempting to articulate was the sickness of my soul as expressed through my sexuality. Not my “homosexuality”—my sexuality. The “gay lifestyle” from which I was attempting to flee, by trying to change, had nothing to do with my same sex desire, but with the crippling effects of being sexually violated as a child.

For the Paulks, as described by Bennett, their “‘homosexuality’ . . . [remained] . . . seemingly unaltered by the actions undertaken by reparative therapy” (334). I would add that it wasn’t simply that the Paulks’ “homosexuality” remained “unaltered,” but that their same sex desire remained unaltered. They had tried to enact the identity of heterosexual, but in not achieving it—in not experiencing “opposite” sex attraction—they ended up, instead, as liminal “ex-gays.” Yes, the Paulks had children. But if coupling and having sex with the “opposite” sex were all it took to live one’s truth, millions of men and women around the world would never have thought it necessary to “come out” and leave their “opposite” sex spouses.

Of agency, Jana Sawicki has said that “[the] subject does not control the overall direction of history, but it is able to choose among the discourses and practices available to it and use them creativity. It is also able to reflect upon the implications of its choices as they are taken up and transformed in a hierarchical network of power relations (1991, 103-4). If agency is an act of “creative choice,” the Paulks were certainly free, as choosing agents, to subvert their homosexual identity formation, yet one can’t help but wonder why, to what end? What drove their subversion? What drove mine? Was it individuation, one’s “Auseinandersetzung (‘coming to terms with’)” (Hollis 2003, 88). Or was it their harmatia, their “wounded vision” of having conflated “opposite” sex desire with the construct of heterosexuality, and believing that by changing their behavior to align with set strictures of heteronormativity, a change to their desires would also, hopefully, follow?

[T]he classical imagination identified a condition they called harmatia, which has been translated as “the tragic flaw,” but which I prefer to define as “wounded vision.” Each protagonist believed that he or she understood enough to make proper choices, yet their vision was distorted by personal, familial and cultural history, dynamically at work in what we later called the unconscious (2001, 14).

Not all “proper choices” lead to happy endings, or are in fact choices, especially when one considers the tendency, from within the invisibilizing effects of the matrix, to belie.

Eighty years ago, British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere wrote that “. . . what appears as homosexual or heterosexual . . . sexual manifestations, is the end-result of the interplay of conflicts and not necessarily evidence of a radical or fundamental tendency” (1929, 303). In other words, the ways in which individuals end up expressing their sexuality, and even self identifying, may have less to do with their actual desires than with their ability, or inability, to reconcile themselves with their territory of desire. Trying to “change” one’s homosexuality is an attempted harmonization of this “interplay of conflicts.” Such an attempt, however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between self-identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” to change themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses their conflation between identity and desire.

As I wrote near the end of my (unpublished) book manuscript, Crossing Styx: “There was no heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I’d become more like a shell with its innards scooped out.” It might have been more accurate if I’d written: “There was no ‘opposite’ sex desire in me waiting to emerge,” for I had done all that could be expected in order to become, performatively, “heterosexual,” and still the role I played, dissonantly, was a performance.

Today, twenty years after beginning that therapy, I would say that any prolonged attempt at trying to “change” an individual’s sexual identity is akin to a psychic lobotomy, whereby the “surgeon” probes into the psycho-sexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the desired establishment of a different sexuality, while the “patient,” already severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency. But there is hope. As Tolle, in The Power of Now, reminds us:

[I]f you . . . develop a sense of identity based on your gayness, you have escaped one trap only to fall into another. You will play roles and games dictated by a mental image you have of yourself as gay. You will become unconscious. You will become unreal. Underneath your ego mask, you will become very unhappy. If this happens to you, being gay will have become a hindrance. But you always get another chance . . . Acute unhappiness can be a great awakener (1999, 174).

Whether or not Tolle was reflecting on reparative therapies when he wrote the above passage, his words do make reference to a universal, ontological displacement of one’s cultural map, one’s ego mask, for one’s desires. It took me six years of therapy trying to “change” myself, and many more years unpacking my experiences, to arrive back to what was common knowledge a hundred and fifty years ago before the “invention” of “homosexuality”: There is no a priori identity called “homosexual” from which one “changes” and becomes “happy.” Neither is heterosexuality the Promised Land for those who abandon their “gay lifestyle.” Forgetting that we are not who the culture that tells us we are, that our maps are not our terrain, begets the notion that we can change desires, like a pair of pants or performative utterance, when what we’ve needed—dare I say, desiredall along is to find some other, perhaps more meaningful, map of self expression.

5. The “Acorn”

The Introduction to the spiritual text A Course in Miracle concludes with: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God” (1975, unnumbered page). With respect to the materiality of sexual identity, this “realness” points not to a regulatory categorization of homosexual and heterosexual—to the idea that “my homosexuality” is what’s real, or “my heterosexuality” is what’s real—but to something far more ineffable, perhaps to what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, calls the mythological “acorn”—the individual image that belongs to each person’s soul.

The acorn theory proposes . . . that . . . every single person is born with a defining image. Individuality resides in a formal cause—to use old philosophical language going back to Aristotle. We each embody our own idea, in the language of Plato and Plotinus. And this form, this idea, this image does not tolerate too much straying. The theory also attributes to this innate image an angelic or daimonic intention, as if it were a spark of consciousness; and, moreover, holds that if has our interest at heart because it chose us for its reasons (1996, 11-12).

Within one’s “acorn,” I would add as a caveat to Hillman’s theory, are the ways in which individuals express their innate image sexually in order to fulfill the promise of their lives. And “acorns” will not, as Hillman writes, “tolerate too much straying.” Unfortunately, sex, especially “gay sex,” is more often than not viewed simply as an act of the body, a narcissistic compulsion. But sex, so says Thomas Moore in Dark Nights of the Soul, “reaches deep into [our] soul, and the desires and anxieties connected to it touch [our] very foundations. Sex represents life . . . [it] has the potential to do nothing less than make [us] into a person and . . . create a world that is sensuous and alive” (2004, 170-3).

The world that I had created by remaining in that therapy—taking toxic doses of psychiatric medication, for example, in an attempt to suppress my sexual drive and “reorient” myself toward heterosexuality—was laden with despair and dissonance. It was eviscerated of all sensuality and aliveness. When those who are “struggling with their queer identities” turn to any type of conversion or reparative therapy for hope, when they become “ex-gays” in an attempt to assuage their inner turmoil, they are doing nothing short of betraying the needs of the soul by silencing its daimon. Acceptance of one’s “homosexuality,” however, is also not the answer. When we instruct others, through the discourses of “coming out” literature, to accept their “gay self,” that a denial of their homosexuality is the root cause of their self-hatred, we are really meaning to help them accept the means by which their soul is needing to express itself, but instead, are circuitously reinforcing the very conflation that resulted in their so-called “self-hatred” to begin with. Again, same sex desire should not be confused, conflated, or displaced with the category of “homosexual,” yet this is precisely what has occurred. No one hates their true self; they hate only what they have been told they should be when they know, if only intuitively, that it’s not who they are. “[A] Foucaultian perspective,” writes Butler, “might argue that the affirmation of ‘homosexuality’ is itself an extension of a homophobic discourse” (1991, 13). “Gay self” is, in fact, an oxymoron, since “gay” points toward one’s map, while “self,” one’s territory.

Similarly, in using the notion of a “gay gene,” the language that one is “born gay,” as defense against any mindset that says homosexuality is a “choice,” the gay movement as a whole is reiterating its own subjugation by reinforcing the conflation between their shared experience of same sex desire—which is, after all, their movement’s goal: personal and cultural egalitarianism for who they desire—and the illusory identity of homosexuality. No socially constructed identity—neither homosexual, nor heterosexual, nor any other—will ever materialize in one’s genes, and we must be wary of anyone who ever tells us it has.

The problem is not that there remains a minority of people who continue to turn to reparative therapies for “help,” and not even that such therapies still exist; the problem, from one who spent six years of his life in a similar therapy, is that we have conflated who we are with a socially projected image of what we think we are, and continue to generationally reinforce this construct, this closet of homosexuality, as what anyone who experiences same sex desire must “be” before they can go about living their lives.



*Judith Butler first described the “heterosexual matrix” as a “grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized.” This “matrix” was based on the similar “heterosexual contract” and “compulsory heterosexuality” postulated by Monique Wittig and Adrienne Rich, respectively, which “characterize a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine express male, feminine express female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality” (1990, 208).



References

Althusser, Louis. 1974. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press, New York and London.

Bennett, Jeffrey A. 2003. “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives.” Text and Performance Quarterly. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, Volume 23, Issue 4.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

——. 1991. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routeldge.

——. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, New York.

Chopra, Deepak. 1994. The Seven Spiritual Law of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams. Amber-Allen Publishing and New World Library, San Rafael, CA.

“Exodus International” website www.exodusinternational.org

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York.

Gajdics, Peter. 2009. “Chora.” New York Tyrant. New York, NY. Vol. III, No. I.

Hillman, James. 1996. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Random House, New York.

Hollis, James. 2001. Creating a Life: Finding your Individual Path. Inner City Books, Toronto, Ontario.

——. 2003 On This Journey We Call Our Life: Living the Questions. Inner City Books, Toronto, Ontario.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (on-line version) www.merriam-webster.com

Moore, Thomas. 2004. Dark Nights of the Soul. Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY.

Riviere, Joan. 1929. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 10.

Save Me. 2007. Dir. Robert Cary. Mythgarden.

Sawicki, Jana. 1991 Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power and the Body. New York: Routledge Press.

Schucman, Helen. 1975. A Course in Miracles . Glen Ellen: Foundation for Inner Peace.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, Berkeley, LA.

Sexton, Anne. 1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Tolle, Eckhart. 1999. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library, Vancouver, BC.

One day in grade six, Teacher asked us all to say aloud what we wanted to be when we grew up. “I’m going to be a doctor,” one boy announced as we all sat cross-legged in a circle. “I’m going to be a teacher!” a ponytailed girl called out with a raised hand. Another boy with red hair and freckles said he wanted to be a fire engine: a big, loud, red, fire engine. Teacher, a kind, grey-haired woman who always wore a blue, pleated skirt and held a piece of new, white chalk, corrected him by saying, “Don’t you mean you want to be a fireman?” “No,” the boy said, shaking his head. “I want to be a fire engine. A big, loud, red, fire engine.” Everyone laughed, but secretly I was scared that Teacher would ask me what I wanted to be. I was scared because I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was no profession I could imagine myself becoming when I grew up. Would I even grow up? That was like imagining myself outside a forest when all around me it was dark and I was alone and really, if I’d been honest, although I already knew well enough not to be, all I wanted was to be at peace. Not a doctor or a priest or a football player—at peace.

#

The impact of growing up “different,” more stereotypically feminine than masculine but unmistakably male, was dissonant, and divisive. I was, throughout my childhood, “at war” within: wanting to be like the other little boys, but knowing, or at least thinking, I was not. In what way I was different, I could never have articulated, but my “otherness” was isolating. While the “real boys” played sports, talked about guns, cars, and were generally aggressive, I was more interested in singing, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing with dolls and baking with my mother in the kitchen. Crying came easy, I never understood cruelty, and was teased, both by my schoolmates and my two older brothers, for being “too sensitive.” Once, in grade six, I pretended to like guns so that the schoolboys would like me. It worked: For a week I was included in their fold. The sense of belonging, of finally being “normal,” filled me with joy. But it was only a matter of time before my true self shone through; and shone through it did: Like pentimento beneath the painting of myself, my “femininity” eventually surfaced, as did my dislike of sports, and I was once again excluded, banished, from all their activities.

There were other signs of my “differentness.” My older sister, once while we were watching television in the living room, noticed me sitting with my legs crossed at the knees and, in a frenzy, told me never to sit “like that.” Her look of horror made me panic. “You need to sit like a real boy,” she said. My body had deceived me; in a moment of forgetfulness, my inner self had again revealed itself in ways I didn’t like, or seem to be able to control. Long before I’d heard of words like “gay” or “homosexual,” all I knew was my internal compass of desire was directing itself toward boys, and not, as I’d been taught was normal, girls.

My own body could not be trusted; it was the enemy, and I questioned it repeatedly. Sometimes, during puberty, while lying naked in the bathtub after dinner, I prayed for God to make my penis into a vagina, and my flat chest into breasts. I’d stand and look at myself in the mirror, pushing my penis between my legs so that my body looked more like a body that was supposed to like boy-bodies. My prayers, however, went unanswered, and I remained out of synch, discordant to what was normal. I remained, to my bewilderment, a boy-body.

#

A team of researchers, headed by Selcuk R. Sirin of Montclair State University (2004), have helped explain people’s negative reactions to male gender role transgressions. They found that “. . . men are punished more harshly than women for deviating from traditional gender role norms. This phenomenon, called male gender role rigidity, leads many boys and men to avoid developing or engaging in what society has prescribed to be feminine-typed gender role characteristics and stereotypically feminine behaviors . . . Other researchers have suggested that, for men, gender role rigidity might be a defense mechanism against experiencing anxiety associated with gender role violations” (“Differential Reaction to Men and Women’s Gender Role Transgression: Perceptions of Social Status, Sexual Orientation, and Value Dissimilarity,” The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp.129). This was certainly true for me. The anxiety that my own gender role violations might reveal the fact of my “differentness” is what, for years, kept me acting the part of a heterosexual—a “real man.”

Finally, at the age of 24, I came out to my parents as gay. “I am a homosexual,” I wrote in a letter that I left on their bed. The next day my mother, while we were alone at their house, told me that I wasn’t born gay, that I’d been “made into a pervert from some old man”—a reference to when I’d been sexually abused as a child, an event that we had never, in 15 years, discussed. In an instant I felt buried beneath the shame, and the heteronormativity, of her words.

In 1989, following a year of familial conflict, I left my hometown “to start over.” Soon alone, confused and depressed in an unfamiliar city, I sought treatment with Dr. Alfonzo, a psychiatrist referred to me by my then-general practitioner. “I feel like a crippled heterosexual,” I told him during my initial consultation. “How do I come to terms with who I am when who I am seems to cause so much pain and suffering to everyone I know?” Alfonzo explained the process of his treatment—a form of primal therapy—and I began therapy several weeks later.

During one of my early sessions, however, Alfonzo began presenting me with various causation theories, and said that he was sure I wasn’t gay because I didn’t have “any of the characteristics of a homosexual.” I asked him what he meant.

“Effeminacy, passivity, desperation to get a man, a drug addict, an alcoholic. You aren’t any of these things. The fact is, Peter, most gays learn their behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned, though with great difficulty.” My greatest fear had always been that the sexual abuse had “created” my sexual orientation. Like my mother before him, I could not object.

Therapy intended to help me “feel better,” quickly morphed into treatment geared at changing my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Not only did the practice, a form of reparative therapy, not work, it also resulted, three years into treatment, in my near fatal breakdown precipitated by prolonged, excessive overmedication—one of the many ways Alfonzo’s tried to “flip me over to the other side.” The medications, some used specifically to deaden my sex drive, made me feel numb, lifeless and passive. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal eradicated.

If Alfonzo, or psychiatry, became my oppressor, then I was like the written word and the eraser erasing itself. Yet despite both our efforts, and over five years of several concurrent psychotropics, I still clocked in at a six on Alfonzo’s revised “Kinsey scale” of one to seven: men, not women, remained the object of my affection. Finally, when it was clear my same-sex attraction could not be changed, Alfonzo attacked my gender: the ways in which I’d been masculinised or feminized. Hiking, construction work, ditch-digging: all were encouraged, as if in doing them I’d become a “real man.” His methods weren’t that uncommon. Clinical counselor Alice Christianson (2005) noted that in some reparative therapies, “. . . the solution is to more strongly identify with one’s gender. Men therefore should learn to change oil as part of their therapy, while women should get makeovers” (“A Re-emergence of Reparative Therapy,” Contemporary Sexuality, Vol. 39, No. 10, October 2005, pp.14).

#

In 1974, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders II; twenty years later, Jordan and Deluty (1995) found that 12.9% of therapists surveyed still believed that “. . . such a lifestyle [of the homosexual] is a ‘psychosexual disorder,’ and 5% claimed that it is a ‘personality disorder’” (“Clinical Interventions by Psychologists with Lesbians and Gay Men,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, pp.451). Christianson (2005) found that “Some reparative therapists have diagnosed homosexuals as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and then attempted treatment of the homosexuality as a symptom of one of these disorders” (ibid, pp.13). More recently, Eubanks-Carter and Goldfried (2006) noted that “. . . individuals who are having difficulty coming out as gay or bisexual may be misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder. . . [because the] problems that resembled borderline symptoms . . . were also consistent with a sexual identity crisis” (“The Impact of Client Sexual Orientation and Gender on Clinical Judgments and Diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62(6), pp.751).

In 1997, two years after leaving the therapy, I filed a five-page letter of complaint with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, detailing Alfonzo’s treatment of my homosexuality as a disease. His 500-page rejoinder, received by the College two years later, discredited my complaint by qualifying me as suffering from “borderline personality disorder.” In 2001 I sued him for medication malpractice, once again citing his treatment of my homosexuality. Prior to our Examination for Discovery, in late 2002, defence counsel’s “expert witness”—another psychiatrist—interviewed me in order to write an “expert opinion” about my psychiatric history. Once again I was diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder, in which disillusionment with caregivers could be a feature.” That I had also, throughout my therapy with Alfonzo, expressed “intense anger and negative views” about both my parents—that I had experienced distress at their lack of acceptance of my homosexuality—seemed to further reinforce his diagnosis. I couldn’t help but surmise, after reading his “expert opinion,” that virtually all men and women whose families had rejected them for being gay—or, for that matter, any other reason—and who’d then expressed “intense anger” towards and “negative views” about their parents, would also be labelled as suffering from some sort of personality disorder. Psychiatry, it seemed to me, had become the science of drawing maps, and not the exploration of the territories they signified.

Coincidentally, following in the footsteps of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM II, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) reared its disordered head in the American Psychiatric Association’s third edition of the DSM (1980). According to the current DSM IV (1994),

There are two components of Gender Identity Disorder . . . There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification . . . manifested [in boys] by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. They may have a preference for dressing in girls’ or women’s clothes . . . Towels, aprons, and scarves are often used to represent long hair or skirts . . . They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female-type dolls, such as Barbie, are often their favorite toys, and girls are their preferred playmates. When playing “house,” these boys role-play female figures . . . They avoid rough-and-tumble play and competitive sports and have little interest in cars and trucks or other non-aggressive but stereotypical boy’s toys. They may express a wish to be a girl and assert that they will grow up to be a woman. They may insist on sitting to urinate and pretend not to have a penis by pushing it in between their legs. More rarely, boys with Gender Identity Disorder may state that they find their penis or testes disgusting, that they want to remove them, or that they have, or wish to have, a vagina (532-533).

The DSM IV goes on to describe GID in adults, which, it explains, most commonly manifests as a preoccupation “to live as a member of the other sex.” Considering my own cross-gender behavior as a child, and the fact that I developed into a gay man who’s accepting of the body he was assigned at birth—I have no desire “to live as a member of the other sex”—I can’t help but wonder if GID is the new euphemism for homosexual. Maybe the best way for psychiatry to diagnose and then treat the homosexual today is to diagnose and then treat the Gender Identity Disorder in children.

Kenneth J. Zucker, M.D., of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and Robert L. Spitzer, M.D., of New York’s State Psychiatric Institute (2005), have argued against any type of “‘backdoor maneuver’ in replacing homosexuality” with GID, and yet they readily admit that some therapists continue to treat children with GID “in part, to prevent homosexuality” (“Was the Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood Diagnoses Introduced into DSM III as a Backdoor Maneuver to Replace Homosexuality? A Historical Note,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Brunner-Routledge, 31, pp.36). The American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, is set to release its fifth edition of the DSM in 2012, with Zucker and Ray Blanchard, M.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, leading the committee for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was instrumental in having homosexuality removed from the DSM, has opposed their involvement with the committee, citing both as advocates for reparative therapies in gender-variant children.

#

If I am a house with many rooms, all doors to each of those rooms open up into me, my gender and I: one person. In other words, were I, as the 10-year-old boy I once was, to walk into a psychiatrist’s office today, without a doubt I’d be diagnosed with GID. Almost all of its symptoms I displayed as a pre-pubescent child, and yet I’m convinced my “preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities” was nothing more than an early indicator of my homosexuality.

But maybe that’s the point.

As long as we live in a heteronormative culture that by its very nature, its “thought reform,” teaches children to see themselves as heterosexual and “gender-appropriate,” those children who are not—and there will always be children who are not—will continue to experience their bodies as discordant to who they’re told they should be. I could not, as a child, imagine myself a grown up because I could not envisage a life beyond the normative boundaries imposed on me as an atypical boy. In the binary world of gender-appropriate children, I didn’t exist.

My eldest sister, Sara, was sixteen years old the night she ran away from home (Runaway). My two older brothers and other older sister and I were in the den, sitting on the multi-colored shag carpet, watching “The Brady Bunch,” when Sara walked past us, clutching a bundle of laundry. No one paid her much attention; but as she walked through the room I looked up and she looked down and in that moment, that fractured, timeless glance, I saw her eyes, a searing, searching look inside her eyes. I have to go before I die; I can’t look back or else I’ll cry. Then she was gone, around the corner and down the stairs and, as I learned later that night, out of the house and our lives like an unwelcomed guest taking flight.

My mother found Sara’s note on her bed. “Your sister doesn’t want to live with us anymore,” she said, shutting my bedroom door and leaving me alone, adrift at sea. When I cried, I begged for God to tell me why, why life took from me my sister that I loved. But no one answered, not God, not my parents. There was only silence and pain, the breaking apart of what I thought, back then, was supposed to have always remained whole.

“Daddy’s bringing Sara home tonight,” my older brother, Sandor, told me several weeks later, as we crouched beneath the kitchen table, peering through the rain-streaked window. Then we saw them. Beyond our fenced-in yard, down the potholed laneway, we saw Daddy dragging Sara by her golden hair as she kicked and punched him like an untamed animal being dragged back to its pen for the slaughter. When they entered the house, through the basement below, their screams were like a fire that burst us all up in flames. “Sit at the table and eat your dinner,” our mother, our protector, ordered my siblings and me before Sara ran past us, escaped her beating in the basement to run up the stairs, through the kitchen and around the corner to the bathroom, as our father, her captor, closed in on her like the moment of her death. And all of it, the beating and the screaming and the fear, the terror that I could be next, that if Daddy could do it to her then he could do it to me, was all like an ice storm to my body.

Dinners for seven turned into dinners for six. Sometimes, sitting around the blue chrome-plated kitchen table, my father joked with my two older brothers that they’d better not talk back to him or else he’d stuff them in a potato sack and tie it up so they could never get out again. Everyone would laugh, or at least smile. Potato sacks aren’t big enough for my brothers, I’d think, yet understood his message perfectly well: We were not, under any circumstance, at any time, to speak back to him. If we did we were slapped across our face; or else he told our mother to pass him the “fakanál”–a wooden spoon, pronounced “fuck-a-null” in Hungarian–which usually meant that someone was about to get the slapping of their lives. Every night Walter Cronkite’s voice could be heard from our black and white Fleetwood console in the living room, telling us of Vietnam and Watergate and the atomic bomb. It seemed the world was splintered into pieces, filled with betrayal and heartache, at war with itself, imploding and coming to an end.

Later, after dinner and the dishes, my brothers and I repeated our father’s Hungarian word, “fakanál,” while forcing its first syllable through our lips and back and forth at each other like darts hurled through the air. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite signed out in the background of our lives, as we raced around the house, chanting “fakanál. . .fakanál. . .fakanál.”

Depression settled into my young body like an influenza that I could not resist. All I wanted was to sleep, to go to bed and to turn life off, as if unconsciousness could take me from myself. It never did. In sleep my dreams enunciated everything I could not bear the weight of while awake. In one I stood inside my parents bathroom when I realized my thumb had been severed from my hand and that I’d have to fix it myself, somehow reattach it to my body. Then my mother was banging on the door, wanting to see, to help, to know what had happened, but I was hysterical, panicked, without a thumb, crazy and alone inside the bathroom and I could not breathe, could not scream for her to go away, to leave me to my shame, or what I wanted most of all: for her to come and somehow help me make me into who I’d been when I was whole.

Music became my lifeline. Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Three Dog Night’s “The Show Must Go On.” The Rolling Stones scared me because Sara had listened to the Stones and now she was gone. Maybe if I listened to the Stones then I, too, would end up like her: the outcast, unloved, a run-away and living on the street. I listened to Queen, and, while alone, sang aloud to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.

#

After my father returned home from the factory every night, often he talked to me about God, His love for all His children. Secretly I wanted to ask how God could love His children, but he, my father, beat his own. But I didn’t dare. The only questions we were allowed to ask were those that reinforced the righteousness of his beliefs. If we ever disagreed with anything he said, exerted our own minds over his or contradicted him in any way, punishment was meted out accordingly.

One night, instead of God he started talking about Sara, which surprised me because he’d hardly mentioned her name in the six years she’d been living with a foster family. “She had the devil in her,” he said. “You don’t want to end up like her. You’re a good boy. She was a troublemaker.”

“No she wasn’t,” I shot back, knowing better than to respond, but unable to contain myself.

What did you say?”

The tremor of his chin and a burn in his eyes warned me of what was to follow.

He raised his hand like a paddle, backed me into a corner of the kitchen. I darted past him, heard the snap of his belt buckle, like a bullwhip, and ran, as if trying to run outside myself: through the living room, the dining room, up the wooden stairs and down the hallway to my room.

Once inside I locked the door as he pounded up the stairs in the distance. Then he was on the other side, banging with fists for me to open up and let him in.

“This is my house, this is my door, as long as you live in my house you will open my door!”

Nothing, not one breath, escaped my body. Everything, all fear, incomprehension, knotted up inside my belly. Then a stiffness that I did not want or understand swelled between my legs. Outside, my father gave up and returned, I suppose, to my mother and “The Lawrence Welk Show” downstairs; but in my room, crazed with tension, like angular objects jabbing in and out of me, I rubbed my pants to stop the stiffness. Then like a pipe bursting down below, something exploded, was shooting out of me as a flush of light-headedness spun me around and down and the release of all of everything that had been trapped inside of me, the fear and the rage, seeped into my pants. On the floor, chilled, sweating and still spinning, I unzipped and looked with horror at the goo, a sticky, whitish blood, oozing from my penis. I broke myself. Oh God oh God oh God, forgive me, please, forgive me. . . forgive me. . .

Weeks later, after I didn’t die from shame, all that remained was the experience that what came out of me had released me from my self when I was still too young to escape, or like my sister before me, run away from home. Whatever it was called, whatever I had done, all I wanted was to do it again, and again, for it to come out of me again, and again . . .

#

That same year, in grade nine, I started sex education class at my Catholic high school. Like a revised Book of Revelation, the final chapter of our textbook was devoted entirely to the lifestyle of the homosexual–beginning with their choice to act on an immoral and intrinsically disordered behavior, and ending with their self-imposed misery, isolation, diseased body, annihilation.

If I thought of anything during the hours of English, French, Mathematics, Catechism, History, and Social Studies, I thought only of how I could divide myself in two, like a wishbone, straying as far away from my desires as possible. The fact that I had Final Chapter Tendencies did not mean that I would have to become a Final Chapter, I told myself. I could control my urges, my behavior.

Facts and figures from all my classes flowed over me. Nothing stuck, sunk in, was absorbed, retained. If the Catholic Brothers didn’t mock me, make fun of my endless failed exams, my sixteen percents, then the boys crowded around me during recess like crows around a carcass, threatening to beat me up after school. Escaping was as easy as excusing myself during class to go to the bathroom, running out the backdoor of the school, and busing downtown.

And that’s where I was–downtown, one Monday morning–when I noticed a man three times my age wink, lick his lips, and motion for me to follow; and follow I did: for over twenty minutes as we wound our way through a crowded shopping mall, into a parkade, then down what seemed like coils of concrete stairs that bottomed near a single exit door. The stink of piss and cum dizzied my mind as the stranger pushed me up against the concrete wall and kissed me, hard, on the lips; held my hands above my head and devoured me, as I did him, each of us like sexual cannibals, starved for what the other had to give. When I opened my eyes two other men were above us, five steps up, like on a balcony, rubbing their crotches through their bulging denims and kissing, stripping, entering each other while spitting, sweating, watching.

After that I skipped out of school every day. Back and forth, I walked the crowded shopping malls for hours, from one public washroom to another, then down into the guts of that parkade. If I held a man and told him that I loved him, I also knew I’d never have to see him again so it didn’t matter what I said. Some of them scrawled their names and numbers on a piece of paper, and as I walked away I’d see their faces, hopeful that I’d call them one day soon. I would smile–always the good, Catholic boy–and tell them that I would, then throw their number away as soon as they were out of sight. The world of sex with men had nothing to do with who I was in my real life, I told myself. Sex with men was something that I did, a force that took hold of me, like my father’s angry fist. It was not who I was. And always, when I got on the bus to return home, sex with men was part of another world that I left where it belonged: downtown.

Hitchhiking was what I learned when I saw a boy my age stick out his thumb and a car pull over. Days later I followed suit, and sure enough a car pulled over for me. The man inside asked me how far I was going. “All the way,” I told him. Halfway home he began to rub his hand over my leg. Within the month I was hitchhiking home every night, and being picked up by a different man two or three times my age. When they pushed me down into their crotches, shutting my eyes could not stop the ugliness from staring back at me, and the shame from making me do the things that I did not want to do. Sometimes I asked them why they liked to do it with guys. Mostly we never talked at all.

Maintaining the contradiction that my life had become grew increasingly difficult. Fear of discovery was always imminent. Once, during dinner when I was seventeen, I told my parents that I thought I was a Final Chapter. They just stared at me, as if I’d spoken a foreign language. And in a sense I had. But having said that much, codified as it were, released the pressure to tell them all, to tear the mask completely off the actor, then live to regret it.

Every night I prayed for God to take me in my sleep, and every morning I awoke to feel my body, alive and heavy with despair. Why was I sentenced to a life of sin? Why did God hate me so? How long would this phase last? Often I could think of nothing at all, and felt only numb and lifeless. Through the fog of my depression I could hear my siblings ask me what was wrong; but at sixteen, then seventeen, eighteen years old, lying catatonic, face up on my bed, there were secrets from my past, and fears about my future, that I could not share with anyone.

#

Sara and I were like strangers when I called her, in 2001, to ask if we could meet.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I remembered you. I mean emotionally, in therapy, during one of my sessions. The love I used to feel for you, before you ran away. I think it’s time we get to know each other. Don’t you?”

In the thirty years since her final escape, that night my father beat her with a tree branch in the basement, Sara and I had rarely been alone together. Once, when I was ten, my parents drove me out of town to meet her new family, her foster family. I could not talk to her. I could not look at her. She frightened me. Her defiance mirrored all of everything I could not, as the good, Catholic boy, bear the weight of within myself. Years later, when I was twenty, I saw her from the bus as she was walking down the street. Her hair, still golden, was longer, but every bit as wild, like weeds that could not be controlled. At first I thought she looked like the girl who used to be my sister. Then I realized that she was.

“Were we close as children?” I asked her in my apartment, the night after talking on the phone.

“Why do you ask?”

“I had this feeling, like a body memory, that you used to hold me as a child. Did you?”

“When you were born, yes. I was eight. Mom couldn’t get out of bed for three months after you were born–excessive bleeding, I think. So it was me who held you mostly.”

“The night you left, I cried myself to sleep. No one explained anything to me. I thought that there was something I had done that drove you away. I blamed myself.”

“My leaving had nothing to do with you.”

“Did something happen? I mean, why that night?”

“You know mom got pregnant out of wedlock.”

“It took me to the age of seventeen to count the number of months between their anniversary and your birthday: they married in May, you were born in December. But, yes, I finally figured it out.”

“Dad never forgave himself for what he did: having sex out of marriage. I’m sure he’d never admit it, even to this day, but I know it’s true. When I was born, I became the personification of his mortal sin, his failing as a human being, a Catholic. He could never forgive himself for that, or me, as his reminder.”

“But the night you left, why then? Why that night?”

Sara looked away, away from the memory as much as the question.

“There was this boy at school,” she said. “The night before I left, he and I had gone out on a date. Just a date; it was all very innocent back then, in the early ’70s. Dad was waiting up for me when I got home. He asked me where I’d been. I told him. He asked me if we’d had sex. Of course not, I told him. I had never had sex with anyone. He didn’t believe me. So he told me to pull down my pants.”

“What?”

“He wanted to inspect me, my underwear. As if my body belonged to him. The humiliation. I was crying. When it was over I knew I had to leave.”

“All through my childhood, whenever they talked about you they called you troubled; you had the devil in you, that’s what he said. Mom once told me you were evil and I should stay away from you.”

Sara started crying. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I already know what you’re saying. My own mother thinks I’m evil. Of course it hurts. Not feeling wanted by them has been a part of my life for as long back as I can remember. Anorexia, bulimia. I was a small size three throughout my twenties and I still I thought I was fat. I’d be out with friends and they’d tell me how thin I was, too thin, and I’d get really confused ‘cause I’d go home and look in the mirror and all I saw was fat. Sex was difficult. Men were always telling me how beautiful my body was, but. . .I couldn’t even walk around in front of them. Naked, I mean. It’s taken me years to be able to do that and still I have to tell myself to do it and that it’s okay, that nobody’s going to judge me. I just tell myself that all these people, years of people telling me that I have a beautiful body, that they can’t all be wrong. They must be right and I’m wrong.”

Sara could have been describing my own history with men, at least when I was a teenager. Men had told me I was beautiful, desirable. But all that meant was I had something that they wanted. Nowhere could I find, in anyone or anywhere, what I needed. Sex was what I’d used, like a drug, to escape the prison of myself; and sex was what reminded me of what I wanted, more than anything, to escape: the memory of the day, at six, when a fat, balding man molested me in my elementary school bathroom. It seemed I’d spent my life either possessed by, or running from, that day: my ground zero.

“Where do you think your body dysmorphia came from?” I asked Sara. “Do you remember anything specific?”

“I was talking about this with my counselor just the other week, about a time when I was ten, maybe twelve. We were eating dinner, all five of us kids. You were two or three, I think. Dad told me I was taking up too much space. I remember being really confused because I looked around and I wasn’t taking up any more space than anyone else. Dad took two paperback books and put one under each of my elbows and told me to hold them against my body like that and if I dropped them I’d have to go to my room without dinner. I didn’t eat dinner that night. It’s taken me years of therapy, and even more failed relationship, to reconnect those types of dots in me.”

“So the run-a-way kept running. At least for a while.”

“Something like that.”

“I understand,” I said. “I understand.”