Peter Gajdics is an award-winning writer whose essays, short memoir and poetry have appeared in Maclean’s, The Advocate, The Gay and Lesbian Review/Worldwide, New York Tyrant, Brevity, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others. His first book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, published in May 2017, tells the story of his six-year journey through, and eventual recovery from, a form of “conversion therapy” in British Columbia, Canada. The Inheritance of Shame is the winner of the Silver Medal in LGBT Nonfiction from The Independent Publisher Book Awards, and was also nominated for The Publishing Triangle Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. Peter lives in Vancouver, Canada. Here we talk about his life and views, and book.
Gajdics and I spoke on The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir in order to open the conversation. In recollection of the contents of the text, Gajdics talked about the six years spent in a form of so-called “conversion therapy.” It was a grueling and long process for him because he eventually sued the psychiatrist for malpractice as well. Not something to wish on members of the sexual orientation and gender identity minorities community.
Gajdics stated, “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 aftereffects 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.”
He continued to speak on the reason and timing for the writing of the book at the time of the closing of the lawsuit in 2003. He stated that the writing helped him stay alive and to resist the silencing effects of the shame that the childhood sexual abuse brought on him. He also talked about the lie repeated in the public even now; that the abuse in childhood made him gay, which seems insulting, absurd, and factually incorrect on the psychological science of abuse and trauma.
“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,” Gajdics explained, “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.”
The conversation leads into the work of issues relevant about homosexuality and the inner workings of conversion therapy as a system, professional network, and purported therapy. Gajdics said that as he grew up Roman Catholic; he remembered the denouncements of homosexuality by the Roman Catholic priests in the sermons on Sunday. At the age of 6, he was sexually abused by a stranger and learn the sexual abuse ’caused’ the homosexuality.
“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,” Gajdics stated.
The name was one in which he could escape. The sense of “gay” was not one of being comfortable as is and with the same wellbeing expected within the average of the rest of the population. The gay felt by Gajdics, based on the messages from the media and culture and religion, was the gay being something bad and caused by abuse. It, from my interpretation, made the homosexuality associated with abuse and so a reaction to trauma, almost like a sickness in same-sex desire.
Gajdcics lamented, “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.”
The homosexuality as a problem of the self, the fundamental sense of one’s identity especially found – in part – in sexuality and sexual orientation, and, therefore, something demonized from the outside and then internalized as something at root wrong with himself. He notes the continuous battles against the onslaught, whether from the external world/the culture or the internal dynamics inculcated through repetitive ignorant messaging, 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,” Gajdics opined, “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.”
Within the context of his own history, he noted that the basic experience of abuse and the shame and subsequent invisibility that came from it; that was further enforced by the work of the psychiatrist. The notion of the abused being the mono-causal phenomena, where the sexual abuse in childhood created the homosexual proclivities and same-sex desires. That is, these were wrong feelings, as they were diagnosed in a clinical way similar to the identification and labeling of a psychological and physical disease, and so needed immediate correction – or, rather, six years of work to be corrected.
Gajdics related, “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.”
The basis of a lie in a life is quicksand and bound to dry-drown the individual caught in it.
With the numerous years of conversion therapy for Gajdics, he wanted to know the ways in which someone could change themselves in a defunct theory. Although “defunct,” the therapy continues in its widespread use and at times outright ban – to the benefit of the those undergoing it. Many people continue to think the fundamental self can be changed through the conversion therapeutic practices.
However, as with Gajdics case, we can see the fundamental sexual self does not change but, rather, the alteration happens in the sense of wellbeing regarding the sexual identity from positive and comfortable to negative and attributed to false mono-causes. He spoke about the metaphor and the reality or the map and the territory as a fundamental confusion.
“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,” Gajdics explained, “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.”
I wanted to know some more of the internal associations and landscape of self-understanding for Gajdics. He related some of the important belief structures about shame, especially in the lives of the young and gay. However, the shame cannot be solely put into the categorical relationship between self-identity and homosexuality. In that, Gajdics saw a family history with a father as an orphan and even his father’s parents being placed in concentration camps.
He spoke on how oppressed minorities can feel a sense of shame because of being marginalized, teased, and bullied, even outright ridiculed as adults. This can make them internalize the outright sense of being the other in the society, which forms the basis for an unhealthy sense of self and communal identity for the minority populations. This ties into the idea of ostracization and segregations within the larger society based on the “institutionalized hatred and bigotry against said minorities.
“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,” Gajdics opined.
He thinks that the political does not by necessity translate into the personal, where the collective force of the “gay identity” is not overly subjective. He notes people continue in their own struggle, in their own way, with shame and guilt. However, Gajdics opined on the media representation of gay men and lesbian women as not necessarily always “honest and healthy.”
Gajdics opined, “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.”
As the interview drew to its closing portions, the dialogue continued into the areas of the source of the shame for the homosexual community tied to some of the symptoms of the shame for the individual gay person. Also, and more personalized per person, the idea of the rationalizations for the shame when there is no support network present at the time of the feeling the shame.
“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,” Gajdics explained.
There can be a sense of hopelessness connected to zero feeling of agency and purpose. Gajdics considers this something coming from a multitude of factors outside of the individual homosexual rather than from the inside or something innate. Shame contains a certain dishonesty while maintaining an internal logic; he described how the sense of feeling shame in living a lie and self-destructing by living through the guise of the falsehood.
Gajdics said, “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.”
He relayed the personal life knowledge. That it took time; Gajdics needed to learn some life lessons. The writing down of his experiences and opinions, and thoughts and feelings in turn, probably saved his life from a negative spiral that can come as a consequence of shame, guilt, pain, trauma, and abuse. He notes the writing down was an important aspect of internalizing and then seeing things outside of himself, where the reflection permitted the re-framing of the trauma and then the ability to get a new source of power in a renewed identity: “…who I was and what I wasn’t—that I could not find in another person.”
The final question for this particular interview focused on the nature of homosexuality and then the popular conceptualizations of it. In particular, the pluses and minuses in the representation or the benevolent prejudices and the malevolent biases portrayed through the media and culture. When he reflected on the idea of the “nature of homosexuality,” he posed the idea of the nature of heterosexuality because one cannot exist without the other in a mutual interdependent definition.
“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,” Gajdics stated.
He also made the observation that the discovery of someone as gay or coming out as homosexual is something that is still a news item. Gajdics thinks this explains a lot about how the culture views homosexuality and where the social context sits at the moment.
That is, “…there’s still a sense of scandal, or sleaze, compartmentalization, around all of it.”
For the range provided in the question about the “benevolent prejudices and malevolent biases,” Gajdics talked about the stereotypes that do seem rather benign with the gay community universally liking musicals, similar to the stereotype of straight men loving football en masse. He looked to the past for a malevolent stereotype in the “gay disease” of AIDs, where it was seen as something of the homosexual community alone.
Gajdics concluded, “…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.”
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Image Credits: Pixabay