Several weeks ago, while at my parents’ house, my mother started talking about her escape from the concentration camp in the former Yugoslavia, post World War II. Most of the stories my mother shared about the camp I’d heard before, many times before, and so it took me a minute before I realized what she’d said. This story was new.
“After I made it into Austria,” she said, “I wrote a card, like a postcard, to the camp Commandant back in Serbia. I wanted him to know that I had made it safely into Austria, that I’d survived.”
“You did what?”
“I don’t think I told this to anyone, in fact I think I just remembered it, right now, as I was talking to you. He’d always said that if I tried to escape he’d hunt me down and kill me, but I always knew that I’d be free. Always, I knew it in my bones, I did. So when I made it to Austria I wanted him to know that I was safe. That was me at 22: sticking it to him, telling him he hadn’t won. That I’d survived.”
“You knew his address?”
“I sent the card to the camp, back in Serbia, where I’d escaped.”
“Do you still remember his name?”
“How about what he looked like?”
“I remember his hands. He beat me, repeatedly. I remember his hands.”
My mother’s story, this need to tell our perpetrators that we’d survived, despite the harm they’d caused, was synchronistic. For several months I’d been thinking about my former psychiatrist, about seeing my former psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, whom I’d sued for medical malpractice and had not laid eyes on since before the case settled out of court, in 2001. After listening to my mother it occurred to me that maybe I still wanted to tell him, like my mother had told the Commandant by sending him that postcard, that he did not break me, that I, too, had survived.
That night, the night my mother told me about the postcard, I stumbled upon a 1998 interview on the Internet between Charlie Rose and Joyce Maynard, whose memoir, At Home in the World, was about to be released. Twenty-five years earlier, when Maynard was 19 years old, she entered into a year-long love affair with reclusive writer, J.D. Salinger, an affair, she said in the interview, that nearly destroyed her at the time. Before writing her memoir about their relationship, Maynard knew she needed to face Salinger one last time, and so she drove to his house in Westchester. Seeing him again, Maynard said, was “transformative.”
“How so?” Rose asked.
“The last time I had seen Jerry Salinger I had been a 19 year old girl, and he had pointed a finger at me and looked me in the eye and told me I was unworthy. He had contempt for me, for who I was, for what I did. At 44, if somebody tells me those sorts of things I might say, ‘Well who are you?’ and think less of the person for telling me that. But when you hear that at 19, you think less of yourself. So I needed to see him as a 44-year-old woman.”
I went to the nearest bookstore to find out what she said to Salinger; she would not divulge it during the interview. When I found the book I flipped right to the end. “I stood on Jerry Salinger’s doorstep,” she wrote, “and asked him my question—what was my purpose in your life?”
“What was my purpose in your life?”
I told my friend, Didi, about wanting to see Alfonzo. I mentioned Maynard, and her visit to Salinger.
“An affair is different than what you experienced,” Didi said. “What you experienced was a psychotic nightmare. And was ongoing. For six years. And you were drugged for most of it. Add to that you became his personal slave. I wouldn’t expose my spirit to seeing him again. It gives me the creeps. What would you hope to get from the experience, best case scenario?”
In 1994, a year before my therapy ended, one blistering summer’s day I was out walking with Alfonzo on a grassy path near his home on a remote island, when he started talking about his meditations, about having made direct contact with God in his meditations. “He has special plans for you,” he said, leaning heavily on his tree branch turned hiking staff that he’d been witling down for months. “God has instructed me to watch over you. Only with my loving guidance will you be shown the way. We all have crosses to bear. Some are heavier than others. Yours is particularly heavy, one that you’ll have to bear for the rest of your life.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know too much, Peter: about yourself, your homosexuality, where it came from.” We’d had this conversation before; his comment was, in fact, the logic behind much of my therapy: to undo the effects of childhood sexual abuse—my homosexuality—and revert me to my “innate heterosexuality.”
“For you to act on your homosexuality now,” he continued, “would be like a drug addict consciously shooting up. Your only hope is to remain celibate. Only then can you go back out into the world: once you’re strong enough to resist temptation, to not act on your drug of choice.”
Alfonzo must have sensed my hesitation. He stopped by the side of the path, which had narrowed into a thick, shady wood, and turned to look at me.
“You think anyone else out there will understand you the way I do? I’m your last chance. Without my help you’d probably just get AIDS and die.”
I was 29 years old, heavily medicated on near-fatal doses of various prescription medications—one of his many means of deadening my sex drive and “flipping” me over to the other side—was deeply enmeshed in his therapeutic ideology, and had long since given up any attachment to the outside world: His scare tactic worked. I was scared. I could not respond.
Our final conversation, after my therapy ended, was in 1996.
By this time he was weaning me off the last two of the six psychotropics that he’d had me on since 1990—the Elavil, Rivotril, Surmontil, Sinequan, Anafranil and Nozinan—and so I was returning to his office only once a month for prescriptions. During each of these visits he made derogatory comments about gays. The realization that I’d spent six years in his therapy, through my late 20’s to early 30’s, acting on the belief that I could change myself from gay to straight—in effect, become who I wasn’t—was beginning to sink in and when he spoke I felt numb. I dreaded returning to his office, but seemed to have little choice. My best defense was to say as little about my life as possible, get my prescription and leave.
Finally, during the end of one of these visits, he turned, while sitting in his reclining leather chair, and faced me.
“I’m concerned for all my children,” which was colloquial for his family of patients, “especially for you.”
“Don’t be,” I said. Not since the early days of my therapy had I ever once talked back to him—I’d learned not to, lest I suffer the consequences of being screamed at, or humiliated in front of other patients. My response shocked both of us.
“The world is filled with homosexuals, Peter, and you’ve stepped back into it. That must be difficult.”
If only because my senses had been anesthetized for so many years, now they were heightened. His words sent a jolt through my body, as if I’d woken up inside myself and was hearing his hatred for the first time.
“I’m one of those homosexuals,” I snapped back, “and nothing’s going to change that fact. I can’t hide from the world my whole life, and homosexuals are as much a part of the world as anyone. I’m a part of the world.”
There was an electricity in the room, an anxiousness at what might happen next. I had stood up to the class bully, was staring him in the eyes, and was waiting for his response. He said nothing. A moment later, he turned back to his desk to write another prescription. Then he handed me my prescription, and made an appointment for the following month.
I never kept it.
Instead, after weaning myself of the remaining medications, I sued him, in 1999, for medical malpractice.
Our final exchange came in December 2001, during my Examination for Discovery.
Only once throughout the entire eight-hour deliberation did I look at him, and then, accidentally. I’d made a point not to as his lawyer, sitting stone-faced and white-haired, across from me, asked question after question, many about my “promiscuous youth.” Then, near the end of the day, dizzy with exhaustion, my eyes glanced over at him, to the far end of the boardroom table, where he was seated. He was smirking.
Afterward, in the hallway, I’d motioned for my lawyer not to get in the elevator; but before I could open my mouth the mirrored metal doors had slid open and all five of us, Alfonzo and his two lawyers and me and mine, walked in together. Defense and Alfonzo continued their conversation. I saw their mouths moving, but their words were muffled, as if pillows were held over my ears. It wasn’t till the elevator doors slid open twenty floors later that I realized I’d been holding my breath the entire way down.
What was my purpose in your life?
Sometimes it feels like I’m still holding my breath, waiting—for what I don’t know, but waiting nonetheless as if for something outside of me to bring me peace. To set me free. “[T]he past,” wrote Desmond Tutu in No Future Without Forgiveness, “far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.”
“Seeing him again as I did that day,” Maynard wrote in her book’s Afterword, “with the eyes of a mature woman, and not as a terrified and worshipful teenager—freed me to write this book. More than that it changed my outlook on my life.”
I used to think that suing Alfonzo, that holding him accountable for all wrongdoing, would free me from the past. If only I could speak my truth—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God—then all would be rectified, maybe not forgiven, but at least acknowledged. Only then would I be able to “move on,” would everything be put right. Like a joint that’s snapped back into place. It didn’t. The past that flickers on in me will not, despite my best efforts, burn out. I spoke my truth; Alfonzo denied all wrongdoing; and at the age of 44 I still want to see him, have one last stare into the eyes of my own demon and tell him, not as the young man that I was but as the mature man I’ve become, that he was wrong, he was wrong about homosexuals. He was wrong about me.
Or maybe it’s not that I want to tell him anything but ask him, like Maynard asked Salinger, what my purpose was in his life. And there had to have been a purpose. In nearly crushing me I found the strength of self-acceptance. What did I teach him?
When those who’ve wronged us do not take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused, how is it possible to release them, the hope for their contrition, their remorse, from our lives? “Forgiveness,” Tutu also wrote, “does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” Maybe, in wanting freedom, all that’s left is to forgive, not escape or move on but draw out the sting in the memory. Forgiveness is, I’m convinced, my only way.