Regretting the Gay Cure

Psychologist Robert Spitzer has more to be sorry for.

Dr. Spitzer apologized for his 2001 study on reparative therapy

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Last night I had a nightmare about the prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Spitzer, whom I have never met: He was faceless and casting a fake Latin spell in the darkened corridors of a Harry Potter-like school. Before falling asleep, I had been reading about his dramatic late life apology for having trumpeted a highly flawed, wildly controversial study pointing to the success of reparative therapy in changing gay people into straight people. About to turn 80, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he unambiguously recanted the 2001 study, pointing to what he called its “fatal flaw,” which is that one can’t reliably measure the success of that particular, elusive transformation.

Part of the impetus for Spitzer’s radical change of heart seems to have been an encounter with a journalist for the American Prospect, Gabriel Arana, who had written about undergoing this therapy himself. At the time, Arana’s therapist had suggested he take part in Spitzer’s study, as he seemed like a success story for enforced or imposed heterosexuality. But in fact, the therapy, and the effort to root out his natural attractions, launched him into a self-hatred so harrowing and profound he almost jumped out of his dorm room window at Yale, and ended up committing himself to a psychiatric hospital, when happily his father realized that “a gay son is better than a dead son.”

In a draft of Spitzer’s letter that has been leaked, he apologizes explicitly to “any gay person” who was caused pain, but it seems to me that he should also be apologizing to their families for the violent assumptions behind that infamous study.

In instances where someone tries to live a “normal life” there is collateral damage: The people who are trying to lead this normal life with them. This may be very prominent in my head right now because I just finished reading my cousin’s, Marco Roth, fascinating memoir, The Scientists: A Family Romance. It’s a painful account of his family life on the Upper West Side with his father, who was secretly gay, a fact which my cousin only unearthed 13 years after his death from AIDS.

Starting when he was a child in the late ’40s my uncle apparently underwent some form of therapy to change or alter those impulses, according to the practices of the period. One of the early psychiatrists he saw recommended that the family hire a young man to come and be a positive male role model, and live with the family in their Park Avenue apartment, to do things like play ball with him, and model more masculine behavior. My sensitive, pale, unathletic, bookish uncle rebuffed and resented the male intruder, and when he was an adult I remember him ranting and raving against psychiatrists and their fraudulence, their unscientific hocus pocus. My cousin’s book chronicles the destruction done to his family, the ripples and repercussions of the lived falsehood in the life of his son.  

Alison Bechdel takes up this same theme in her lively graphic memoir, Fun Home, about her father’s secret homosexual life, and the way he lashed out in baroque rages and frustration at his family. “Of all his domestic inclinations, my father’s bent for gardening was the most redolent to me of that other, more deeply disturbing bent. What kind of man other than a sissy could possibly love flowers this ardently?” He poured his thwarted aesthetic energy into renovating the old mansion the family lived in, and she writes, “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” He had hidden affairs with babysitters and teenage boys, nearly went to jail, and eventually killed himself. Bechdel writes, “Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe, but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time.”

Of course Dr. Spitzer cannot be blamed (or exonerated) for these specific stories of suffering, these lavishly unhappy homes, where something is off, missing, unnarrated. But the perversion of therapeutic ideals was dangerous: the pressure to be “normal” is destructive in all of its many forms. The World Health Organization called the therapeudic effort Spitzer had endorsed “a serious threat to the health and well-being—even the lives—of affected people.”

Freud himself had a complicated, evolving relation to the subject of homosexuality, but he was forward thinking for his time. In 1935, he wrote a great letter to an American mother who asked him, in a coded way, to fix her gay son: “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider to be a variation of the sexual function.” And he went on, “It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime—and a cruelty, too.”