When I was thirty-three years old I interviewed several gay men as part of a sex research project being conducted through the AIDS Organization where I’d started working as a “Public Sex Environment Outreach Worker.” Most of the men met me at my downtown office. First names were all I knew. I asked them a series of questions about their life, their sexuality, their coming out process, then let them talk. Some went on for hours. An opportunity to tell their story, to be heard, was all that many of the men needed. ,I listened to them as I’d always wanted, when I was a teenager, someone to listen to me.
One mid-50’s man asked that I interview him in his home. Emery lived on the main floor of an old, three-story walk-up near the outskirts of the city. The long, dimly lit corridor inside his building smelled of cigarettes and fried food. I knocked on Emery’s door and when he opened it, the first thing I noticed were his eyes, their kind, youthful glint that seemed to contrast against his lined face, like cracks in the earth of his age-toned skin. He smiled and invited me into his sparsely furnished room, the room of his life, with a single bed pushed up against one wall, and a mini fridge and hot plate on a blue laminate counter against the other. Next to his bed were a stack of yellow egg cartons upon which were several paperbacks, a framed black and white photograph, and a nightlight. We took a seat at a small foldout table in front of the window where we began our conversation almost immediately.
In 1960, when Emery was twenty-five years old, the Canadian Public Service “purged” him from his job for being a “practicing homosexual.” Soon after, his parents sent him to Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute, the Psychiatric Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, which had been at the forefront in Canadian psychiatric education and research. Emery spoke openly about his involvement with the Institute, and about its Director, Dr. Ewen Cameron, a former head of the Word Psychiatric Association, who had been awarded funds from a CIA front-organization to conduct brainwashing experiments on innocent civilians, both Canadian and American.
“Can I ask you a question?” Emery said, interrupting his own story.
“You’re gay, right?”
“And you’re okay with that? With who you are?”
“Now I am, yes.”
“Growing up in a different time and place the way you have. Back then we were all considered mentally ill. Cameron thought he knew how the human mind was wired and what he needed to do to fix it. He hooked us up to electrodes, gave us drugs like LSD or sleeping pills. Massive electroconvulsive shock treatments, sensory isolation, insulin-induced comas that lasted months on end.”
“Why? What was he trying to do?”
“Wipe our brains clean of all thought, and identity, including what he thought was our neurosis. Break us down so that he could build us back up again, his own way. Imprint a new, healthy identity on top of our blank minds. Depatterning: that’s what he called it. Most of what happened to me personally I only read about years later, when I finally got a hold of my hospital file. I have no real memory of any of it. I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like to have gaps in your life. Years, literally stolen from you.”
I wanted to tell him that I did know what it’s like, but I listened as he continued.
“For months we were confined to the Institute’s ‘sleep rooms,’ not just homosexuals but married woman, straight men, all of us wearing headphones and listening to taped messages, endless taped messages, sometimes sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone’s tape was different, depending on what your problem was. I thought I was a homosexual: that was my illness. Cameron’s goal was to erase my brain of all association with homosexuality, and replace it with my innate heterosexuality. So his theory went. We became like children. Grown men and women: incontinent, with no past life. By the time they released me in 1962, I was a shadow of my former self. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process information, or make decisions. My memory of the 50’s and early 60’s, well, of my life–it was gone. Wiped clean, like a chalkboard. Everything, I had to reconstruct everything, my entire personal history, from pictures or slides, from stories people told me, or from letters that I wrote or received from family and friends. Everything about my former self was a mystery. Erased. Except for my homosexuality. I was still attracted to men.”
So reflective of my life was Emery’s description of his that it took all my effort not to sink back into my past. Nine years earlier I’d started therapy with psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, after my family rejected me for being gay. Within months, Alfonzo presented me with conflicting causation theories, including that an incident of childhood sexual abuse had “created” my attraction for men. Believing that my homosexuality was based in anger and driven by pain, Alfonzo said that by releasing my anger and by feeling my pain, I could undo the knot of what he termed the error of my misguided way of thinking: the erroneous belief that I was homosexual. To facilitate treatment, various antidepressants, sedatives and an anti-psychotic, even though I’d never been psychotic, were prescribed. Doses increased rapidly. So too did the medications’ side effects: dry mouth, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, involuntary twitching, constipation, urinary retention, weight gain of over forty pounds. Weekly injections of Ketamine hydrochloride, an animal anesthetic, soon followed, which were administered before reparenting sessions with a surrogate mother who, according to Alfonzo, would imprint a new, “healthy” identity onto my child self.
When it became clear, after four years of therapy, that my attraction for men wasn’t diminishing, Alfonzo ordered me to bottle and to sniff my feces whenever I saw a man I found attractive. Then he threatened to hook my genitals up to electrodes in order to “retain” my penis, and added a fourth tricyclic antidepressant to my regime of now over 600 milligrams of daily medications. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off, as if the fire in the furnace of my body were being extinguished by medication: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal, eradicated.
Another two years of so-called therapy would elapse before I’d stand naked in front of my bedroom mirror, staring at a sad and pale reflection of my former self–at my body, bloated from years of overmedication, and into my thirty year old eyes: dark and sunken and unhappy. There would never be a heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I became more like a shell that had had its innards scooped out.
Thirty years separated Emery’s experiences from mine, but the similarities between what he went through with Cameron, and what I had with Alfonzo, were shocking. The psychiatric community may have ceased classifying homosexuality as an illness in 1973, but beneath the banner of gay liberation and political progressiveness, as I had learned all too well, beat the hearts of some of its practitioners that still treated it like one.
Emery walked to his egg carton bookshelf, picked up a picture of a young man with greased black hair, sea-blue eyes and a dimpled smile.
“His name was Jim,” he said, displaying the framed photograph with pride. “Such a handsome man, don’t you think? His parents sent him to the Institute. To help cure him. By the time he left he was physically and mentally impaired. Like a vegetable. They killed him, but left him alive. Two years later he killed himself.”
Emery dusted the frame with his shirtsleeve and replaced it back on the egg cartons. “There’s more than one way to murder a fag,” he said. “Cameron was an architect for genocide.”
Question after question raced through me. I wanted to ask Emery about his road to recovery, whether he’d ever found love, or forgiveness, somehow reconciled himself with his past. I wanted him to tell me what I could not figure out for myself. But before I knew it our interview was over and Emery, visibly shaken, was ushering me out his front door.
I was scheduled to hand out condoms in the park that night–the “public sex environment outreach” part of my job. It was also the part of my job I liked the least, that seemed the least productive. At least it would have been for me, had someone handed me a condom through all the years, as a teenager, that I’d had sex in parks. Not to mention all the sex I’d had in cars, and public toilets, bathhouses, parkades. Condoms, I knew, would not have saved me from my self, my use of sex to fill a void, the hole inside my heart that became, with every passing year after the year I was sexually abused as a child, like a crater in my soul. But part of our funding at the AIDS Organization depended on the number of condoms distributed, so I distributed as many condoms, as many “safe sex packets,” as possible. At least the men liked the flavored lube.
The park seemed busier than usual. Nighttime brought with it the need for sex, the need for something, and everywhere I looked, once my eyes adjusted, shadows of men, like hunters, roamed back and forth between trees. My routine had always been to wait until a man approached me along the trail, then to tell him that I wasn’t there to “play,” but as an outreach worker–would he like to talk instead? That night, however, all I thought about was Emery, the years he’d lost to ignorance, to hatred, years that he would never get back. His words “There’s more than one way to murder a fag” echoed through me as outside, all around I heard the sounds of ravaged, hungry souls, breeding in the dark. The memory of Alfonzo was with me too, as was the knowledge that whatever he did to me I did to myself. Six years of trying to change myself had taught me that I could not change, and yet I’d tried. And tried. Like stabbing myself, I’d tried to kill that part of me, and in the process, almost killed myself. I had been both the written word and the eraser erasing itself. If Alfonzo was a monster, then when I met him there were monstrous demons inside of me just waiting to emerge. I was Pandora’s box.
I left the forest before distributing my quota of condoms. Back home, alone, naked and in bed, Emery’s phrase “an architect for genocide” haunted me to sleep. And before I opened my eyes the next morning, not yet awake but not still asleep, balanced liminally in between, for a moment I thought I heard someone next to me in bed crying, sobbing.
I awoke to realize it was me.