Budapest

By Peter Gajdics

Poem

Stewed plums in cottage cheese
dumplings squirt sweet explosions in
my mouth. I left my flat on Wesselényi
utca beside the Dohány Street
Synagogue and this is what I found,
taste. Also mined into the roots beneath the
surface of my life is what most
frightens. I am at odds with what’s
inside. The isolation
each day is palpable, and when night arrives
like a visitor I cannot derail, I am hardly
ever able to sleep at all. Blue dreams in

There’s no doubt that with the California state legislature passing a bill to ban therapies aimed at trying to “change” the sexual orientation of minors, “reparative therapy” is once again going to make headlines. I was in a form of reparative therapy in British Columbia, Canada, for six years, after which I filed a medical malpractice suit against my former psychiatrist, “Dr. Alfonzo,” for treating my homosexuality as a disease. If this new law in California is to be criticized, it is because the use of “change” therapies on people older than 18 should be prohibited as well. I was 24 when I met Dr. Alfonzo, 31 when I left his therapy, and almost 40 when the lawsuit ended in an out-of-court settlement in 2003.

I almost couldn’t believe it when my friend sent me the YouTube of Richard Cohen, author of the book Coming Out Straight, who believes that smashing a tennis racket against a pillow while screaming at his parents will “purge” him of whatever it was that made him gay. In effect, he’ll ungay himself of being gay.

I actually could not bear to watch Cohen’s video uninterrupted, and had to stop and start it several times because of the fury and grief that laced through me the moment it began. As it turns out, Cohen and his voodoo claims of “curing the gay” was just the tip of the iceberg: it seems Christine O’Donnell, an up-and-coming conservative Senator, is also advocating the “pray away the gay” ministries. I, myself went through six years of a similar–though perhaps less religious and more psychologically-based–treatment. My 89,000-word (yet-to-be published) memoir, CROSSING STYX, details it all, from meeting my former psychiatrist, “Dr. Alfonzo,” soon after coming out and being rejected by my family, to learning the techniques behind his version of primal therapy, and finally, to isolating myself for years in a therapeutic house called “the Styx” while believing myself to be “not homosexual.” Instead of Cohen’s tennis racket we used an aluminum baseball bat; instead of “non-sexually” cuddling a parental figure, Alfonzo injected us with Ketamine, an animal anesthetic, and “reparented” us as our new “daddy.”

Despite the fact that I wrote an entire book to, in part, “warn” others of the kind of primitive logic that still runs rampant, while ruining people’s lives, a part of me wanted to believe that what happened to me was more the exception, and less the rule. A part of me still finds it difficult to comprehend how anyone–I repeat: anyone–could come to believe that screaming at their parents, no matter how much they deserve to be screamed at, while smashing a tennis racket, a baseball bat, or even, for that matter, a golf club, against whatever soft surface they desire could purge them of their sexuality. It purged me of none of mine. If anything, batting and screaming at my Tormentors served only to dig down deep into my Shadowy Pandora’s Box of rage that ended up subsuming me for years, but out of which I emerged, following one long and dark night’s journey, still very much, for lack of a better word, “gay.” If Cohen wants to help, truly help, anyone, he will learn kindness toward himself, forgiveness for those who wronged him, and the difference between the socially constructed and largely inauthentic “identity” of homosexuality, and his own very personal experience of love and intimacy and sex with another human being of the same gender. He will stop displacing the effects of childhood abuse with same sex desire. The logic behind Cohen’s “bash the racket against the pillow and become straight” therapy, and other “cure the gay” therapies just like it, is fallacious and leads nowhere but back to the self-hatred that caused the individual to want to engage in such a form of self-imposed chastisement to begin with.

Have you always wanted to write?

I wrote stories as a child, mostly about little boys who were whisked away from their home by magical creatures living in far off galaxies. My first addiction was to the movie The Wizard of Oz, I was actually a member of “The International Wizard of Oz Club” for years, so I suppose I wanted to be like Dorothy. For a time I was determined to write a book about the making of the film. I was really disappointed when I discovered that someone had thought of that before me. Eventually, I went to school for acting, which seemed like a logical career for me, considering I’d been acting like a heterosexual since birth. I made some commercials, appeared in a few TV shows, some films. But acting, like heterosexuality, definitely wasn’t for me. Meanwhile, I wrote plays and even had a few produced. When I was 24 I came out to my family, which went over like a house on fire. Soon afterward I started this therapy that I’ve written about in CROSSING STYX, which took me to a whole other level of writing: writing to survive. Survive the therapy, survive the medication, survive my breakdown in 1992. Books have always been my soul’s medicine: Rilke, Hesse, Kafka; Alice Walker, Anne Sexton, Larry Kramer. After the therapy, as I’ve written, I sued my former psychiatrist, which was a process that stretched on for years. But all the while I was thinking, split off from the part of me that was going through it, “This would make a fascinating book.” More than anything, I wanted to write about what I’d been through because I knew that others were going through it, too. If there’s one thing that I’m certain, it’s that no matter what we experience in life, someone else is experiencing the exact same thing. We all need a voice, and the entire topic is not something that’s commonly discussed in the media. Certainly they don’t make movies about it.


When you say the idea is not something that’s discussed in the media, what exactly are you referring to?

I’m referring to this notion that we can “change” our sexuality from gay to straight. Even the idea that we are these socially definable, demarcated beings, called “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” It’s a lie, a mass delusion, and it engenders considerable confusion, and harm. Even for those who are relatively content enacting the roles of “gay” or “straight”: by identifying with the labels, by believing that we “are” gay, that we “are” straight, we end up running after the idea of who we think we are. A person can get really tired, spending their whole life running. I won’t repeat what I’ve written elsewhere, but suffice to say this is what I wanted to put into the book, to flesh it out through my story because I lived it. I lived this sense of running, and it caused me a lot of pain. Not to mention exhaustion from all that running.


Is your family supportive of your writing?

That’s a “hot topic” for me; unfortunately, one with no easy answer. Does my family enjoy the idea that I’m creative, that I “write”? Probably. Are they necessarily supportive of what I write? Not really. There’s a dissonance here that’s similar to the old adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I write what frightens me, or at least what’s frightened me, and so it usually ends up threatening others, like my family. The whistleblower is seldom welcomed. There’s a reason no one talks about the White Elephant. A couple of years ago they actually threatened to sue me if I proceeded with my memoir.


Why would they do that? Had you written something harmful to them?

They hadn’t even read my book, so it had little to do with what was actually in it. Besides, I’ve never been interested in revenge. That’s not why I write, and it’s never been my intention. Before I started writing my memoir, I pasted a quote above my laptop that read: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” I need to write the truth of my life, otherwise I just don’t see the point. But the fact remains that when we write the truth of our lives, we often end up writing about other people’s lives, too. It’s unavoidable.


So maybe the truth of your life is not the truth of their life.

I suppose we could always start splitting hairs, couldn’t we. But at the end of the day I know what I’ve lived, and how I’ve been impacted by others. Each one of us knows what we’ve lived, and we can either admit to it, face it, or keep running. I wanted to stop running. I wanted to say what I’ve lived, maybe, hopefully, learn from it, but more than anything, face it.


Change of topic. How do you pronounce your last name?

Ah, the proverbial question. My surname, Gajdics, is pronounced, “guy-ditch.” Sometimes, to help people remember the pronunciation, I tell them to think of a “guy in a ditch,” although the imagery can be somewhat self-limiting. There’s actually a bit of a story around my name. When my father emigrated from Hungary in the 1950’s, he anglicized the pronunciation of his name, I suppose to try and make it easier on North Americans, from “guy-ditch” to “gay-dicks.”


Didn’t he realize what he was doing?

He could barely speak English at the time; I’m sure he had no idea what “gay-dicks” meant. So anyway, when I was a child my family actually pronounced our name “gay-dicks,” which of course only added to my misery when I discovered, at around the age of nine, that I seemed to be becoming my very name. I remember lying in bed at thirteen and wondering how it was possible that my brothers had escaped becoming our name, that they weren’t “gay-dicks,” and I was. We had the same name—how was this possible? To say that I was confused or felt trapped inside myself is an understatement. Eventually, after I came out in my early 20’s, I started pronouncing my name the Hungarian way again: “guy-ditch.” But I guess the point, at least for me, is that the truth of my life will never be found in my name. No matter what I’m called, or name myself, I’m still me. I can either accept that, or keep running.


I’ve never heard anything quite like that before.

I had a colorful childhood—a Technicolorful childhood, to be exact.


One final question.

Only one? I was just starting to enjoy this.


Were you serious when you said you belonged to “The International Wizard of Oz Club”?

Well, yes. I was. But don’t ask me how old I was when I gave up my membership; that might be too embarrassing to write.