Peter Gajdics is the author of The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir. He can be found in Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Here we plumb the depths – as the cliché goes – about conversion therapy, his life and experience, and book.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You wrote a book called The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir. I could give my own description, but I would like this in your own words. What is the content and purpose of the book?
Peter Gajdics: The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir is about my six years in a form of “conversion therapy,” as well as my long road to recovery after suing my former psychiatrist for medical malpractice. Told over a period of decades, the book explores universal themes like childhood trauma, oppression, and intergenerational pain, and juxtaposes the story of my years in this “therapy” and its after effects with my parents’ own traumatic histories—my mother’s years in a communist concentration camp in post World War II Yugoslavia, and my father’s upbringing as an orphan in war-torn Hungary.
I started to write this book at the close of my lawsuit, in 2003. It is no exaggeration to say that I wrote to stay alive—to resist the silencing effects of shame brought on not only from childhood sexual abuse, and the lie that the abuse had “made me gay,” but especially as a direct result of this “therapy.” Eventually, I wrote to mine my own history and understand, to the best of my ability, what had brought me to that doctor’s doorstep, why I’d stayed for six long years, and what, if anything, I had learned. By about 2012, as conversion therapy began appearing in the media after California became the first world-wide jurisdiction to ban the discredited practice, I wrote as a political act—to try and prevent the recurrence of similar forms of torture.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How does most of your written work deal with issues of homosexuality? How does your work expose the inner workings of conversion therapy?
Peter Gajdics: I grew up Roman Catholic, and so even as a child I recall hearing the priests deliver sermons denouncing the evils of homosexuality. When I was six years old I was also sexually abused by a stranger, and ended up “learning” from various sources, including the church, the media, even my own family, that sexual abuse “caused” a person to become homosexual. By the time I started to develop sexual feelings for other males, the fear that this abuse had created my desires was unrelenting. My father had Anglicized the pronunciation of his surname, Gajdics, after immigrating to Canada in the 1950’s, and so I also grew up pronouncing my surname “Gay-dicks” (instead of its proper Hungarian pronunciation, “Guy-ditch”), which of course resulted in all sorts of ridicule from my classmates. I could not escape my name, of course, which seemed to suggest that I really was “gay,” and yet being gay, as I had learned, meant that the abuse had caused these feelings of same-sex desire. All of this amounted to one incredible nightmare as a child. And all of these factors—the fear around my name and the belief that abuse had “caused” me to become who I was—contributed to the reasons for ending up in this “therapy,” though I could never have clearly articulated any of this at the time. On some level I wanted to not be myself, to undo the effects of abuse, to escape the torment of what I thought it meant to be gay, to not be my own name. Overall, I think that one’s identity as part of any minority, especially a sexual minority, is always going to take centre stage in a person’s life if only because they are constantly fighting against the currents of shame and invisibility. Our fight really is to stay alive, to retain our humanity, to resist the dehumanizing effects of oppression in its myriad incarnations.
With respect to the “inner workings of conversion therapy”—I think that all of these treatments begin with some version of the same lie, which says that being gay or homosexual is a disease or immortal, a deviation, and must by “cured” in some way. Because of my own history, early on my psychiatrist affirmed that the abuse had, indeed, “caused” my false belief that I was homosexual, and that this “error” in my thinking and the consequent “acting out” by sexualizing relationships with men could therefore by “corrected” through the use of his therapy. Every person who ends up on one of these therapies will have their own story, and lie, but I think the premise is always the same—lies are what snare gay people into believing they need to try to become heterosexual, or that causes a parent to send their kids to one of these therapies. A person can build an entire life around a lie—until, of course, the lies come crashing down. Truth is always forcing its way back into our lives—we just have to remain open to it.
Several years after my own therapy, it was important for me to try to understand how someone could end up believing they had “changed” themselves, because I really do believe that some people who are in these treatments actually believe their own lies, that they have “changed.” Obviously, even to this day some politicians and right-wing zealots still believe that “change” is possible. The best way that I’ve been able to explain it all to myself is with metaphor of the map / territory confusion—“A map is not the territory it represents,” which was first stated by philosopher Alfred Korzybski, even popularized by Deepak Chopra. Practitioners of “conversion therapy,” and many people in these treatments, have confused the map of sexual identity with the territory of desire in that they think that a change to a person’s outer behaviour, their map, will result in a change to their inner self, their territory—but of course, that’s the lie. If I stand in Paris and call it Rome, really believe that it’s Rome, the place beneath my feet is still the place beneath my feet no matter what I think or call it. I am still standing where I was when it was called Paris. Changing a map will never change a territory, but we can invest years of effort and our firm belief into trying to do just that.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As a gay man, how does shame form a core of self-identity to potentially many gay men in their young lives. What are the majority outcomes? What are the positive outcomes? What are the more tragic outcomes from this disorientation of shame, guilt, and self-misunderstanding.
Peter Gajdics: It’s true that shame formed a core belief or structure in my life right from an early age, but the shame wasn’t solely about my homosexuality. Shame, within my own family history, stretches back generationally to my father’s upbringing as an orphan, and even before him to his parents and their parents, and also with my mother’s experiences in the concentration camp. Generally, I think that any oppressed minority faces at least some degree of shame, if only because they are marginalized, often teased and bullied as children and ridiculed as adults, and end up becoming “the other” within a society. There’s always going to be some degree of shame when you feel you don’t belong, when you face institutionalized hatred and bigotry, when you’re ostracized or segregated. Sexuality overall is still very shame-based within our culture; even under the best of circumstances people’s sexuality is often compartmentalized. While the world is obviously more accepting of gays today, I think there is a danger in thinking that various laws or even increased visibility in the media means that on an individual level all is completely well. I don’t think it is. “Gay identity,” as a collective force, is not overly subjective; the political does not necessarily translate into the personal; and so on a very personal level, people still struggle with issues of shame and, as you say, guilt. I’m also not convinced that the portrayal of gay men and women in the media is always honest and healthy, and so there continues to be some risk of internalizing a new version of what “the world” says it means to be “out and proud.” Pride has little to do with marching in a parade once a year, or even in having a lot of sex. Quantity is not quality. The locus of attention in a healthy sense of self must start from within, not outside, not in magazines or on television, or else we’re always going to feel disoriented, caught in the eye of a social media storm. We will never “understand” ourselves if we always look to others for the answers about our own identity. “Being gay,” just like “being straight,” is largely illusory, and has little to do with being one’s self.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Does the shame come from the self, the family, community, the society or some interplay amongst and between those domains? What are some symptoms of this sense of shame? What thoughts are used to rationalize the shame if there is no support network or insight into the source of it?
Peter Gajdics: Shame is definitely sourced in various places, including the family and its history, society, various religions, and each is always fighting for attention within one person’s life. It can take an enormous act of will to resist these invaders and to exert one’s own sense of self, free from shame and self-harm. For me in my own youth, shame manifested in the form of eating disorders, unsafe and sometimes compulsive sexual behaviour, and also of course depression and despair, thoughts of suicide. A sense of hopelessness, an absence of any real purpose or agency, is, I think, the most terrible state, but I do not believe this is ever innate or static. We find ourselves in these liminal states of being not because we are meant to stay there, but because of a number of other contributing factors in our life. Shame has its own logic, but it is never honesty. On some level, I think we always know when we are living the lie of shame, when we’re self-destructing. The danger is that some behaviour, which is founded in shame, can end up feeling seductive and pleasurable. Pain can often feel like pleasure. I would like to say that reaching out for help or finding community is the easy answer, but I know this is not always possible, or easy, and sometimes we don’t always know that we even need help. I look at my own life and there were years where I felt righteous in my own self-destructiveness. I needed to learn certain life lessons for myself. I suppose expressing myself through the written word has helped save me. I’ve worked my way through many difficult passages in my life simply by writing them down and seeing them outside of me, rather than continuing to internalize it all. Writing reflected back to me a source of power and identity—who I was and what I wasn’t—that I could not find in another person.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If you could take a bigger view of the nature of homosexuality or the popular conceptions of it, what seems like the benevolent prejudices and malevolent biases portrayed in the media and culture around homosexual or gay men?
Peter Gajdics: When we talk about “the nature of homosexuality,” immediately I think of “the nature of heterosexuality,” since one cannot exist without the other. In this sense, I think we are really therefore talking about “the nature of sexuality.” Sexuality hasn’t always been divided into this kind of binary, and while language and definitions can give voice to the marginalized, in this case I think they are often used as instruments of lies—beneath the lies of “conversion therapy,” for example, homosexuality and heterosexuality are often used not descriptors of erotic desire, but of mutable identities; “change” is not genetic but taxonomically societal. Also, the fact that it is still a headline in the media when a person is “discovered” to be gay, or comes out and is interviewed about “what it was like to discover” they were gay, says a lot about how our culture still perceives sexuality—there’s still a sense of scandal, or sleaze, compartmentalization, around all of it. Within a range of benevolent prejudices and malevolent biases, some stereotypes seem to me to be fairly benign, like gay men’s love of musicals, as one example—which of course is not necessarily true of all gay men, just as all straight men don’t necessarily love football. I look to the recent past, and I think the popular conception, believed and promulgated by many for a long time, of AIDS being such a thing as a “gay disease” has been about as malevolent as they come, because it was founded on the lie that said “we” are somehow separate and different from “you”—and we’re not. We are all one. Blood runs through us all. Lies like these result in millions of deaths.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Peter.
Image Credit: Peter Gajdics.