Before reading The Inheritance of Shame, there were three things I knew about conversion therapy: that children who exhibit signs of homosexuality are whisked away into church basements for exorcisms, that adults are told they can withdraw from their sexuality, and that if they fail, it is portrayed as a lack of piety.
Peter Gajdics' harrowing memoir goes deeper. Covering seven years spent struggling to change his sexual orientation, The Inheritance of Shame is a profound journey to self-destruction, self-acceptance, and finally a reckoning with the dangers of shame and silence. This is a memoir that is hard to read, but one that must absolutely be read.
Conversion therapy (sometimes called reparative therapy, or ex-gay therapy) has been discredited and condemned by most medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, and yet it is not illegal for a licensed psychiatrist to engage in conversion therapy. Only eight states in the country (including California) have instituted a ban on conversion therapy for minors. It continues to exist for adults through churches and faith-allied organizations, or as in the case of The Inheritance of Shame, through a prejudiced psychiatrist.
How does one arrive at a place in life to want to seek conversion therapy? And how does one become, essentially, part of a cult?
For Gajdics, the answer to both questions is: not all at once. His story begins with primal therapy, wherein Gajdics lays on a mattress, relives repressed traumatic events, and expresses pain and anger through unrestrained screaming. He imagines the moment an older man abused him as a child, and the moments he felt unprotected by his parents.
There's a slow boil to the oncoming calamity as Gajdics’ psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, says an odd thing here, does an odd thing there, insignificant enough to miss or forget. Then, Alfonzo says that he believes Gajdics to be heterosexual -- that his true sexuality is buried under the abuse he experienced, and that homosexuality is something he can unlearn. Gajdics writes:
This had always been my greatest fear: that my attraction for men had been created, and not by God; that my sexuality had been like a descending staircase I’d been pushed down, one step at a time, into the cellar of my homosexuality [...] Alfonzo was saying that I could unlearn my homosexuality, unlock my trap door, and ascend into the light of heterosexuality. [His] words were like a lifeline thrown out to me at sea.
In just five more pages, Gajdics moves into a house with two other patients, where they receive intensive accelerated treatment. The inpatients aptly nickname the house The Styx, but there is no ferrying of the dead to the underworld. Rather, there is Gajdics and eventually five other residential patients who forsake their former lives in favor of Alfonzo, whom they begin to call Papa. He starts medicating them with ketamine (a horse tranquilizer), and bids them shave their heads so they may be like children and get to a place where they can rewire what each of them want changed.
It is a relief to witness the full journey of this book, to get through the raw, horrifying parts and reach the other side. Everything is hard-earned in this book, vulnerable, naked, and luminous. Though it's hard to imagine reaching acceptance after such an experience, Gajdics does. As he wrote in a 2012 op-ed for The Advocate:
If my experiences taught me anything it was that a change to the ‘map’ of my identity from homosexual to heterosexual would never change the ‘territory’ of my experience from same-sex to opposite-sex desire [...] Enacting laws to make it illegal to practice reparative therapy on anyone under the age of 18 is only a start. Reparative therapy may be a lie, but the lie begins not with the idea that we can change from gay to straight, but with the belief that we are who the culture tells us we are, that a change to the map of our identity is a change to the territory of our experience. And no one, no matter what age, is safe from that.
The Inheritance of Shame is an important story -- one that isn't soon forgotten.