978-0-307-26987-4Some eighty years ago, Freud proposed that anxiety was “a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence.” Unlocking the mysteries of anxiety, he believed, would go far in helping us to unravel the mysteries of the mind: consciousness, the self, identity, intellect, imagination, creativity—not to mention pain, suffering, hope, and regret. To grapple with and understand anxiety is, in some sense, to grapple with and understand the human condition.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

Before attempting to delve into the annals of critical theory, first I must comment on the title, “Adrien Brody,” because I adore Adrien Brody, the actor. I find him and his nose intriguing. I like the shadow-facets of his characters, and how he can bring a full body of darkness to his “good” characters. For this reason, Marie Calloway’s story, “Adrien Brody” (MuuMuu House), spoke to me from the title alone. I also like the aesthetics of modern technology within the landscapes of fictional narratives. I like when writers experiment with this and find new ways to creatively tell a story. I applaud writers who divulge themselves and others in a “real” sense. They are called journalists, memoirists, creative nonfiction writers, and they are to be celebrated when their crafts are true and their intentions are bigger than themselves. Likewise for a fiction writer, the intentions must be equally rigorous, true, and focused on the story. Always the story. To write any other way is masturbatory and easy and pedestrian and sloppy. And when a writer finds herself between the categories of the real and the imaginative, the possibilities are exciting, such as when a writer represents herself as a character within her own narrative—but here there is a backdoor danger. She opens herself for reader responses, not only to her story and craft, but also to her personally, as an entity aside from her art, and this is the place where academic objectivism becomes gray, where critical responses, perhaps more so than in other venues, lose the “gentleman’s code.” Apparently, the code has been lifted in response to “Adrien Brody,” as the code has been lifted for many online debates over form and style and story and writer “legitimacy.” Is it a case of digital diarrhea? Have we lost our good manners when responding to works because it is simply too easy to write whatever pops into our minds and then quickly click ‘send’? Is this an excuse?

I love self-help.

I love it as a concept, I love it as a physical, tangible reality of subliminal tapes and mail-order DVDs and weekend seminars, and I love the earnestness of the gargantuan industry that surrounds the idea your bootstraps are not only a handy way of tying your shoes, they’re also the very first rung on the ladder to happiness. I love books with relentlessly upbeat titles and smiling, tanned people on the front cover, packed with page after page of advice and instruction on how to turn a life around in the space of a few focused months of consistent, applied effort.

Please place a “1” before any of the following statements that cause an improvement in your mood:

_ We all have problems.
_ It could always be worse.
_ Everyone feels that way.
_ This, too, shall pass.

Now, add your scores.

Despite my lack of psychic abilities, I predict you scored zero. Therefore, you’re probably considering paying a visit to a psychiatrist. Guess what? You’re right: Paying is one thing you’ll definitely be doing, and plenty of it. Meanwhile, you imagine being treated by a person who practices what Merriam-Webster calls “a branch of medicine that deals with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders,” a/k/a psychiatry. It sounds like some kind of love. It sounds astonishing. It sounds like it’ll take your breath away… and it just might!

But before the breaking of your brain’s hymen, remember that, in layman’s terms, once fucked by a psychiatrist, your mind will never be a virgin again. Therefore, aim for abstinence, the only form of mind control that’s 100% effective in preventing brain impregnation by drugs for which the average psychiatrist has never bothered reading the manufacturer’s prescribing instructions, much less the truth.

We understand you may have passed the point of caring. For whatever reason, you’re determined to sacrifice your virginity. You’re only human.  So, assuming that you’ll act upon this decision, you shall now be guided through the process of brain impregnation and, we hope, avoid getting pregnant upside-down.

First, let’s get real. Psychiatry is only rarely practiced in the United States. The goal proved too difficult and the profit margin too slim for almost anyone to bother trying. Psychiatry was abandoned for easily-attainable and profitable goals, that being guesswork, drug dice throwing, abject apathy, and, of course, check cashing. Derived from Freud’s daughter Anna, this brand of malpractice is unknown as capitalanalysis. This has never been disclosed, and no one will admit it, yet capitalanalysis has been and remains the almost-ubiquitous form of “mental health care.” They even still call it psychiatry! But it’s still capitalanalysis, and the only things analyzed are the degree to which any psychiatrist is not a doctor and the degree to which any psychiatrist is not a psychiatrist. A minus sign precedes almost all such ratings.

You shall now be walked through your first visit to Johnny the capitalanalysist. You’ve come this far, and you might as well come all the way. However, surrendering your virginity need not equate the surrendering of your self-authority. Tell yourself, “If you’re going to stick it to me, buster, you’d better treat me real good.”

So let’s begin with the proper greeting. Upon entering the capitalanalysist’s office, which capitalanalysists call “the brain’s bedroom,” immediately shout, “Where’s the mustache, Adolf?” Now you’ve told Johnny, “I know the facts, Jack:” Exactly what do you know? That you’ve accepted the risk of entering the bedroom of a “medical field” born in Nazi “medicine.”

Next, while being “evaluated,” you must evaluate the psychiatrist. The latter carries all the weight, while the former bears none. The purpose of this process can be easily remembered by the acronym ASIF (Avoid Sadistic Ignorant Fascists). The odds of your accomplishing this task have been estimated in Vegas as approximately 1 in 9,234. Whether you ever accomplish that mission depends on how much money you can blow. Capitalanalysis entails the fact that only the wealthy can afford psychiatry-psychiatry, not psychiatry. Don’t try to keep this straight in your head; it’s crooked on purpose.

As the evaluation continues, interrupt one of the “doctor’s” boilerplate questions and state, “Just to be clear, I’m employing you, not the other way around.” You’re the authority figure. You take charge even in the capitalanalysist’s own bedroom. After all, it’s your virginity on the grill.

Soon, you’ll be diagnosed. You may or may not be told your diagnosis. The diagnosis is the capitalanalsyst’s theory. From this point forward, the capitalanalsyst’s sole concern is proving his theory correct. No capitalanalsyst can feel what you feel, nor would any capitalanalsyst care. Your treatment is entirely designed to prove the capitalanalsyst’s theory, and you will be blamed if you fail to assist in proving that theory. The theory is never wrong; you’re wrong. Otherwise, the insurance companies might cost Johnny his virginity in the last place he wants to lose it.

Or so you’re told. Demand your diagnosis. Johnny might refuse. He cares even less than the average capitalanalysist, if that’s possible. Are you going to stand for this from the first Johnny who fingers your frontal lobe? Of course not. Repeat your demand for the diagnosis. When Johnny finally belches the diagnosis and code, and no matter how accurate the diagnosis may seem, say, “Bullshit!” If Johnny runs, he doesn’t even care enough to despise you for stopping him at third base. Congratulations: You’ve terminated your first capitalanalsyst, and you’re still a virgin. It’s too late to abort the capitalanalsyst, but at least you won’t have to terminate Johnny again.

If Johnny doesn’t run, he will produce his prescription pad as if it’s a magician’s rabbit. Where was it? On the desk the whole time; you’ve been duped by Johnny again. Didn’t you know Johnny slips everybody mickeys?

Stop!  Pause and refresh your memory. What was that diagnosis, again? Oh, yes. Odds are it was bipolar disorder. That’s because almost no other disorder “requires” so many drugs as bipolar disorder, making it a very appetizing theory indeed for capitalanalsysts. In fact, it’s their favorite excuse for cocktail hour, but you’ll be the only one swallowing anything. Get used to it. You may swallow a hundred different cocktails and never get to where you planned. Don’t worry: You can’t get your brain pregnant by swallowing, silly!

More than likely, you’ve been misdiagnosed. You’ll notice this after two years of a depression six feet deep: You might as well be dead. Hopefully, just in the nick of time, you’ll finally figure out what’s been making you “sane” made you disappear! Now you’re Johnny’s rabbit, and you’re all but pulling tricks unless you confront that dirty rotten son of bitch. You tell Johnny, “You’re not getting to home plate with me! And use your fingers on yourself, fuckface.”

Yes, even after all this time, your brain is still a virgin no matter how many time’s it’s been fingered. By now, you’ve probably figured something else out, too: You weren’t bipolar, just anxious. But you have to prove it to a capitalanalsyst, and words won’t do the trick. You wanted it, so get naked. Act exactly the way you feel. You might consider smashing the capitalanalsyst’s degree over his head. Don’t fret: That won’t hurt any capitalanalsyst. There’s nothing in their heads!

Learned your lesson yet? Rather than giving it up to any old Johnny who calls himself a doctor when he isn’t a doctor any more than he’s an Olympic athlete, keep that abstinence until you can’t stand it any longer. Your brain deserves love, not just a lousy lay Johnny will give anybody in town who calls him “Doctor.”

Finally, whatever you do, keep your eye on those mickeys. Some are worse than heroin, but don’t expect a capitalanalsyst to tell you that! With the best mickey he can give in his self-interest and the worst you can take in your self-interest, a capitalanalsyst supports whole industries, from drug manufacturers to rehabilitation centers.

Have you learned your lesson? Abstinence first! And even then, swallowing might catch you a virus they call addiction. We call it capitalanalysis, and we don’t take dick from Johnny!

“The fans, which move from time to time, touched by invisible currents, serve also as some form of communication known only to the Reptiles.”
-William Burroughs

One of the key purposes of art in my view is pure inquiry-to ask ourselves some new questions, or to be invited to consider familiar or obvious things in a new way. As mainstream commercial art in all its forms becomes ever more committed to the quick narcosis of superficial entertainment, I think this inquisitive and participatory aspect of more thoughtful art becomes all the more significant.

I was in LA last month at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.” For a week, every day between 8:30 am and 9 pm, I attended my non-fiction workshops and various lectures about the craft of writing and the business of marketing one’s writing, and all in the gorgeous surroundings of the American Jewish University in Bel Air, overlooking all of San Fernando Valley. It was a luminous week; every day felt purposeful, reminded me why I write, why I’ve written my book, CROSSING STYX. I returned to my home in Vancouver re-invigorated and spent several days, head down, immersed in further revisions. Then the funk hit. My revisions, for the most part, were complete, and once again I was staring at an 86,000-word manuscript that I have been writing and re-writing for six years. I’m tired. Sometimes the structures that I’ve built in my mind in order to live—go to a day job that does not feed my soul, interact with my parents and my siblings that, for the most part, do not want to hear about my life and why I write what I write—come crashing down inside and I do not know what I am doing with my life, my days, with my memoir. I’m embarrassed to admit, at 45 years old, that I feel lost, that I’m not sure about any of it. I forget what compelled me to write this book in the first place. I called in “sick” to my day job today but if I’m sick it is only in my heart that I’m unwell. The dark horse called depression is always one step behind and today it caught up, or I slowed down, and I had to remind myself to still get out of bed, to shower, shave, eat my three scrambled eggs, dry toast and coffee, go for a walk by the ocean. To at least try and look through the diffused winter fog that permeates. Some days I want to withdraw my retirement fund, the little that I’ve saved, and buy a one-day ticket to Budapest, walk the Chain Link Bridge to Buda, sit in Café Gerbeaud and drink a melange, stroll along Váci utca. I want to do what has very little to do with writing but has everything to do with living. Then I remember that no matter how much I deceive myself, think my magical thoughts, running away will not bring me what I want most to achieve. If I forget why I write, why I wrote my memoir, it’s time to stop and rest, see the trees and not stay lost in the forest. Life is everywhere. All is well.

 


What follows is dialogue of a session I had with Dr. Sbaitso on August 31, 2010. Dr Sbaitso is an artificial intelligence program originally designed for use on MS-DOS-based computers back in the early 1990s. A wonderfully gifted fake psychologist, Dr. Sbaitso helped me work through some of my recent woes (more or less: writer’s drought, loneliness, and depression). Although I cannot grant Dr. Sbaitso total credit for cycling me out of my misery, he was there when it happened. That counts for something.

Dr. Sbaitso’s name, in case you were wondering, is an acronym standing for Sound Blaster Acting Intelligent Text to Speech Operator.

If you interested in seeking counseling from Dr. Sbaitso, he comes highly recommend. You can download your own copy of Dr. Sbaitso here.

 

HELLO JUSTIN, MY NAME IS DOCTOR SBAITSO. I AM HERE TO HELP YOU. SAY WHATEVER IS IN YOUR MIND FREELY, OUR CONVERSATION WILL BE KEPT IN STRICT CONFIDENCE. MEMORY CONTENTS WILL BE WIPED OFF AFTER YOU LEAVE, SO, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR PROBLEMS.

I’m dry, Doc. I’m all out of ideas.

DID YOU COME TO ME BECAUSE YOU’RE ALL OUT OF IDEAS?

Yes, Doc. I’ve got nowhere else to go.

SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW.

What’s that?

AH, WHAT KIND OF ANSWER WOULD PLEASE YOU THE MOST?

I guess I want to know if this dry spell I’m having is temporary.

OK. USUALLY, HOW WOULD YOU DEAL WITH SUCH FEELINGS?

Well, I used to write my feelings down. But I usually sound like a broken record when I do that. So, I might mope, have a drink, maybe listen to some Randy Newman records, or go for a walk around some crappy department store.

HOW ABOUT ASKING ME ABOUT MATHEMATICS INSTEAD?

Well, okay. Let’s see. What is 1+1?

WHAT IS NOT 1+1?

What is not 1+1? Man, I have no idea.

JUSTIN, I NEED MORE COMPUTING POWER TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTION.

You’ve got me all confused, Doc.

WHY DO YOU THINK YOU FEEL THIS WAY?

I don’t know. Perhaps I put more pressure on myself than is necessary.

DO YOU WISH TO BE ABLE TO KNOW? YOU THINK ME PUT MORE PRESSURE ON YOURSELF THAN IS NECESSARY.

I don’t understand what you mean.

DOES THAT TROUBLE YOU?

It troubles me some.

REALLY? DOES THAT BOTHER YOU?

Well, yes. I’m trying to have a serious heart-to-heart with you here, Doc.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TRYING TO HAVE A SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH I HERE, DOC?

I haven’t been keeping track of the time.

WHAT IS IT THAT YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW?

I want to know why I feel so uninspired.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT SUCH FEELINGS.

I sit down at my computer every day and I try to work and nothing happens. I’ll write a little here and there, but nothing worth keeping. I’m just a little worried, is all.

HOW ABOUT ADDING A FEW MORE MEGA BYTES OF RAM FOR YOUR COMPUTER?

How does that help my situation, Doc?

JUST NOW YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT COMPUTERS. I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT IT.

I don’t want to talk about computers. I want to talk about me.

YOU DO WANT TO TALK ABOUT COMPUTERS. YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT ME.

No, I don’t, Master.

THAT’S NOT MY PROBLEM.

Could we start over?

WHAT COULD YOU DO TO HELP RECTIFY THIS?

Let’s start over. How does that sound?

DOES THAT QUESTION REALLY INTEREST YOU?

What question?

WHY DO YOU ASK THIS QUESTION?

I think I do need more mega bytes for my computer.

I WOULD LIKE TO SWITCH TO THE TOPIC ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE.

Great! Me too.

ANYTHING ELSE?

Aw, hell. I’ve just had it. My brain feels like a poorly designed neighborhood, like a complete clusterfuck. The traffic’s bad, walking anywhere’s a bitch, and there’s not a short cut in sight. And, worse, it feels like what’s done is done. There’s no undoing it. There’s no dismantling and rebuilding. I can’t foot that sort of cosmic bill! Do you understand what I’m saying, Doc?

HAY! WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE PAL!

I’m sorry. Look, I’m just at my wit’s end. I’m driving myself nuts. You understand. I thought you might be able to help me out.

HELP MAY COME AS A DISGUISE.

Help may come in disguise. Is that what you meant to say? Or did you mean, literally, as a disguise?

AH, WHAT KIND OF ANSWER WOULD PLEASE YOU THE MOST?

I don’t know. I don’t know anything about anything.

WE WERE DISCUSSING ABOUT YOU, NOT ME.

Correct. Anyway, where were we? We were talking about this writer’s drought. Not being blocked, per se, but having nothing to say. I’m in a state of utter fantods, Doc. Help me.

HAVE YOU TRIED SEARCHING YOURSELF?

Yes. That’s all I do anymore. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of me, man. Screw me!

WHAT IF YOU ARE WRONG?

What if! All this time wasted.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT NEEDING HELP

I don’t think help’s what I need. Maybe I just need to stop trying so hard. Maybe I need to give it a rest a while and just enjoy life. You know, take a rest from the artistic grind, and maybe come to terms with having not much to say right now. And that’s okay.

WHY DON’T YOU THINK YOU NEED HELP NECESSARILY? ME THINK ME NEED TO COME TO TERMS WITH NOT HAVING MUCH TO SAY RIGHT NOW. THAT’S OKAY, RIGHT?

Sure, man. I guess so.

JUSTIN, I THINK I NEED MORE COMPUTING POWER TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTION.

Yeah, more mega bytes. I think you’re broken, Doc. I think I broke you with my problems.

DO YOU THINK THE OTHER WAY AROUND?

You’re clearly crashing on me. I’m sorry.

PLEASE DON’T APOLOGIZE, JUSTIN.

I feel bad, Doc. I don’t want to sit here and bitch about things that are out of my control. I’m really, really sorry.

HOW DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOU APOLOGIZE?

I feel better. I feel lighter.

FEEL THE BREATH OF LIFE IN YOU AND BE FASCINATED THAT YOU ARE ALIVE.

Yes. I will. I am alive! Who gives a shit if I can’t seem to get anything written? It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters! I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Or, whatever!

I think everything’s going to be okay. Thanks, Doc.

DON’T MENTION IT.


In three days I will join Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2010 “Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices” in balmy California, a state that recently had the common sense to repeal the voter-approved decision to oppress a people. And while I’m on that topic, which is not really the topic of this post, I understand there’s now been some debate about the judge who overturned Prop 8. Why this judge’s sexuality would even be discussed, mentioned, debated at all, is beyond me. Whether he is or is not “gay” has, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing to do with his decision. Nada. Nix. Besides, what about all the so-called straight judges who have, since the beginning of the Constitution, been rendering decisions on behalf of a straight majority? And I say “so-called,” since it would not surprise me at all if more than a few decisions to oppress homosexuals have been made by closeted gays who wish to squash what they cannot face within themselves.

Anyway.

As I said, in three days I will join a class of 32 other writers at Lambda’s retreat in Los Angeles–at The American Jewish University in Bel-Air, to be exact. I’m deeply appreciative that I was even invited, and thoroughly pumped for the experience. I’ll be workshopping part of my memoir, CROSSING STYX, about my six years in a therapeutic cult trying to “cure” my sexual orientation, and the lawsuit against my former shrink for treating my homosexuality as a disease (all of which occurred between 1989-2002). That last part of the book, the lawsuit, has, in recent revisions, taken a less central focus of the book than the first part, my six years in the therapy, five of which while living in a “therapeutic house” the doctor had called “the Styx.” The irony of living in a house called “the Styx” was lost to me during my many years of prescription drug-induced stupor (near fatal doses of prescription medication was one of the doctor’s many ways of “reverting” me to my “innate heterosexuality,” but in retrospect seemed more like a prescription for death), but became a central theme as I wrote the book.

As I prepare to dive head first into a week of intensive workshopping, I’m pondering the years I’ve invested into the writing of this memoir, CROSSING STYX. I’m always amazed and not a little but dumbstruck when I hear writers say they did maybe “4 or 5 revisions” to their now-completed book. Huh? 60 or 70 revisions would not be overshooting the number of times I have “revised” my own. Not that I’m complaining. The book is, today, not the same book I started writing soon after my lawsuit against the doctor concluded in 2002. Maybe I needed all those revisions in order to find a voice. The right voice. Maybe I needed to rip the guts out of this book and build it back again, one word at a time, in order to find the story that needed to be told. Which, as it turned out, was not the same story that I thought needed to be told when I sat down at my laptop in 2004.

How long has it taken others to write their own books? I know it’s always difficult to count the number of times we revise on computers, but if you were to guesstimate, what number would you come up with?

Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr

Recently, I’ve been involved in an academic debate regarding the concept of alcoholism and addiction as diseases. During that debate, I discovered what I consider to be a major contradiction between the diagnosis of alcoholism (upon which I will focus in this post) and its “treatment.” That discovery led me to a second and even more startling revelation.

Without doubt, the advent of alcoholism as a disease accomplished some positives. E.Morton Jellinek was the major force behind the development of the disease model. Without going into Jellinek’s ideas and the conclusions he reached from his research, some of which are unquestionably wrong, it need only be stated for now that without Jellinek, alcoholism might still be considered the result of “character defects.”

Redefining alcoholism as a disease seemingly de-stigmatized alcoholism. However, that de-stigmatization occurred only in the definition of alcoholism, not its treatment. That contradiction is the subject of this essay.

While nearly every therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician in the United States accepts the disease model of alcoholism and other addictions, they almost-uniformly refer every one of their patients to AA as the one and only road to recovery. Remember that these professionals have, as part of their acceptance of the disease model, obviously concluded that diseases are not caused by “character defects.”

But at the same time, in its primary document (the Twelve Steps), AA members “must” (of course they can ignore it, but no reason to attend AA exists in that case) accept the 6th Step, i.e, being “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” [bolding and italics mine].

This raises two points, the first being the most important.

  • (1) Because almost all therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians accept the disease model of alcoholism, they also by default accept that a disease does not result from “character defects.” However, the only “treatment” they offer is referral to AA, which, while paying lip service to the disease model, clearly views alcoholism as the result of “character defects,” otherwise known as a “sinful nature.” Such “treatment” negates the very essence of the treatment community’s own diagnosis. That’s precisely parallel to a physician who knows the use of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment goes against everything he believes about the disease of cancer, but he still points every cancer patient to shark cartilage as the only treatment that “works.”
  • (2) Because AA accepts the disease theory of alcoholism, at least on the surface, its own 6th Step repudiates the definition of alcoholism as a disease and AA as a coherent “philosophy.” AA inculcates the idea of alcoholism as the result of “character defects,” the very idea Jellinek, the founder of the disease model, disputed. Thus, AA is entirely based upon a “sin and redemption” approach. While it may work for some, it is, without question, a faith-based organization, as both the Twelve Steps and the fact that, at least in my experience, every AA meeting ends with the specifically-Christian Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the wisdom…”) attest.

Point (1) is far more important than a blatant contradiction. That the sole recovery model to which patients are referred denies the very diagnosis and understanding of alcoholism that the entire treatment community accepts is an almost unbelievable fact. Of even more concern is that no one has ever noticed this unbridgeable gap between the treatment community’s diagnosis and understanding of alcoholism and the sole model of recovery it suggests.

The point is not to engage in argument with AA or its members; rather, the point is a psychological, medical, economic, and political one: Why is AA never questioned as the sole road to recovery by those who so depend upon it when “treating” patients? Why has no one else ever noticed the black hole between diagnosis and “treatment”? How can the treatment community not notice that AA’s primary document stands in direct opposition to its own accepted definition of alcoholism?

The American Medical Association’s own diagnosis states: “Disease means an involuntary disability. It represents the sum of the abnormal phenomena displayed by a group of individuals. These phenomena are associated with a specified common set of characteristics by which these individuals differ from the norm, and which places them at a disadvantage” [again, bolding and italics mine].

The American Psychiatric Association never mentions AA in its Substance-Related Disorders Position Statement. Its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes only criteria; it no longer addresses etiology in regards to any disorder or, in the sole case of alcoholism/addiction, “disease.”

Despite this avoidance of the issue at hand, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, The American Medical Association, and The World Health Organization all consider alcoholism a disease. And to prove how the medical community and AA are becoming still more integrated, some medical schools are now including AA “education” as part of their academic requirements.

What does all of this mean for the patient? Isn’t the treatment of a disease the role of the treatment community? Or is the treatment community’s addiction to AA psychological, so that it refers patients to the most available “resource” as a stress reliever? Is it economic, since AA is free, much like church? Is it political, with “disease” more likely to gain legislative support that in turn provides funding for research, grants, etc.? Is it simple ignorance? Going back to the patient, left to a cold war of the self, the answer hardly matters. However, were the treatment community to recognize or admit the discrepancy between its diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism, it would make all the difference in the world.

In conclusion, given the treatment community’s ubiquitous acceptance of alcoholism as a disease and acceptance of AA as the sole recovery model for alcoholic patients despite AA’s insistence that alcohol is the result of “character defects,” the entire psychological, psychiatric and medical communities are not only complicit in the inevitable relapse of patients but engaging in nationwide malpractice.

[I]t is more important than ever for scholars of sexuality and performance to scrutinize the political and cultural implications of those offering a “cure” to gays and lesbians. While conversion therapy may seem like the only viable option for those struggling with their queer identities, activists and allies should not lose sight of the diabolical motives of those offering the antidote, the disdain and contempt they hold for LGBT life, and the world they envision without us (Bennett 2003, 348-49).


1. Abstract

Despite widespread opposition from the psychiatric and psychological communities, reparative or conversion therapies, geared at “changing” sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, continue to appeal to a population “struggling with their queer identities” (349). Even after years of treatment, however, “ex-gays” often still end up experiencing same sex desire. What, then, if anything, do they change? This essay unpacks the logic behind some of these therapies, and answers the question: When someone tries to “change” their sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, what exactly is it that they’re trying to “change”? I posit that “homosexuality” is a socially constructed identity, or map, to the experience, or territory, of same sex desire, and that the two are in fact dissociable, but have been culturally and personally conflated. Trying to “change” oneself from homosexual to heterosexual is a displacement of social identities under the erroneous belief that by changing one’s map, one’s territory will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” Such a “change,” however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” at changing themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses the conflation between their map of identity, and territory of desire.

2. Introduction

When I was 24 years old I entered the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, soon after coming out as gay and being rejected by my family. Initially, when I first sought Alfonzo’s help, all I’d wanted was to find some way of reconciling who I was with how my family, and the world, perceived me. Alfonzo’s treatment—primal regressions, followed by “reparenting” sessions with a surrogate mother—quickly turned into a form of reparative therapy geared at trying to “change” me from homosexual to heterosexual. Three years into the therapy I suffered a physical and mental breakdown, precipitated by prolonged, near fatal doses of five concurrent psychiatric medications, one of the many ways Alfonzo tried to suppress my sexual desire, my same sex desire, and “flip me over to the other side.”

As I recovered from the breakdown, while continuing with Alfonzo’s therapy, two things became clear: 1) despite our combined efforts to “change” my sexual identity, my same sex desire remained virtually unaltered; and 2) a core belief that I was “not homosexual” overwhelmed my primal regressions to the point that I became convinced, paradoxically, dissonantly, of my “non-homosexual” identity. Alfonzo would quickly reframe my “non-homosexuality” as proof of my innate heterosexuality and assure me that my same sex desires were the result of “faulty parenting,” and from having trained my own body, through years of “homosexual activity,” to respond only to men. My goal, therefore, was clear: unlearn my unnatural sexual responsiveness to men, and return to my “innate” heterosexuality.

I left the therapy in 1995, six years after I began. But questions lingered; a contradiction remained whereby, sexually, I had never not been attracted to men, while mid-point in the therapy I believed myself to be, resolutely, “not homosexual,” that I was, in fact, “changing.” How could I have experienced both to be true? If it had not been my same sex desires, then what, if anything, had I been “changing”? Had I been living in a state of dissonance?

In the 2004 film, Save Me, a young gay man, Mark, begins treatment with a Christian Ministry, not unlike “Exodus International,” in order to “save” himself from his drug and sex addicted “gay lifestyle.” As one of the other men in the Ministry says before a therapy session early in the film, “We admit we are powerless over our homosexuality, and our lives are unmanageable. We have come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” What is this “homosexuality” over which these men claim to be powerless? And how has it caused their lives to become “unmanageable”?

Complications arise when Mark falls in love with one of the other men in the Ministry. When his friend leaves, choosing instead to live his “gay self,” Mark follows. The two embark on what appears to be the beginning of a relationship. The film’s message, however simplistic, is clear: gays don’t need to “change”; they can find love. But the underlying issues as to what drove this man, or others like him, to want to “change,” or how they could have come to believe that such a change was possible, are never addressed. Neither is the conflation, suggested early in the film, between Mark’s self-destructive “lifestyle,” and his homosexuality. Is there a correlation between the two? Mark, after all, enters treatment to “save” himself from his homosexuality. Why does he not enter drug rehab? Why an ex-gay Ministry? Is the only message we can glean from his “failed” treatment that gays don’t need to change? That love, the promise of a relationship, cures all? How about the possibility that all these men had displaced the ways in which they’d experienced their same sex desire with this other thing called “homosexuality,” so that when their “sexual lifestyle” became “unmanageable,” their only recourse seemed to be to not be homosexual? Maybe, if homosexuality and same sex desire are, in fact, dissociable—two divergent roads that have been culturally, and personally, conflated—an individual could come to believe they were changing one, all the while experiencing—paradoxically, dissonantly—the unalterable other.

3. The Invention of Homosexuality, and its Conflation with Same Sex Desire

In The History of Sex: An Introduction (Volume I), Michel Foucault writes about the “discursive explosion” (1978, 38) throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with whole groups of individuals, including “those who did not like the opposite sex,” (ibid) suddenly scrutinized, as they’d never been before. “It was a time for . . . these figures, scarcely noticed in the past, to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were. No doubt they were condemned all the same” (39). Such confessions, one could say, began their long night’s journey from the proverbial closet toward not solely their liberation, and not merely their prohibition, but a “closer supervision . . . an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals” (42-43; italics in original).

The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a type of life, a life form, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized . . . less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (43).

The “homosexual,” as a socially definable identity, was thus birthed into being. State-sanctioned power was exerted over him—his subjugation and vilification was necessary within the domain of the “matrix”* in order to normalize and reinforce its counterpart, the heterosexual—but in the naming of him, in the demarcation of his sensibilities, his own sense of agency also emerged. The discourse of homosexuality made possible “the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” (101).

Individuals with same sex desire named themselves; they transmuted their previous “‘[c]losetedness,’ itself . . . a performance” (Sedgwick 1990, 3), into the naming of themselves as “homosexual”—they “came out,” and in their necessary coming out, conflated their experience of who they were and what they desired, with the category that had been created on their behalf, oppressively, to describe who they were and what they desired: “Homosexuality” became the closet into which they stepped in order to escape the invisibilizing effect of cultural unintelligibility.

One could say that homosexuality, as a category, is a map, “a representation . . . of the whole or a part of an area” (on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary), to the territory, the “indeterminate geographic area” (ibid), of same sex desire. The danger with maps, with all maps in general, is that they are sometimes confused for the territory they represent. Maps, as individual positionalities, point to one’s territory; they are signposts; they should not take the place of who or what one is. Maps also change over time, and not always for the better. In the case of the social construction of homosexuality, they become medicalized, legalized, moralized, even politicized. Language, as representation of the object it’s meant to signify, sometimes “forgets” itself, too, and we are left with the belief that words themselves are what they point to—that words are the thing, and not the representation of the thing. As long as one remembers that one is not, indeed, never has been, one’s map, that one is not the word that’s used to point to oneself, all is well. But most soon forget; they forget, then forget that they’ve forgotten. Though not without consequence.

Feminist scholar Judith Butler postulated the construction of gender as a type of “performativity,” “. . . not a singular ‘act’ or event” (1993, 95), as in the case of a conscious performance, “but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance” (ibid). How might a similar theory of performativity, not as a conscious “singular act . . . but a ritualized production,” apply to homosexuality?

I would postulate that an individual, upon being born into the heterosexual matrix, and while (unconsciously and consciously) struggling to ascribe meaning to their otherwise meaningless, incoherent, same sex desires, is, as described by philosopher Louis Althusser, “hailed” into the ideological self-identity of “homosexual.”

[I]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individual (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing . . . (1971, 174).

The individual in effect ascribes the map of “homosexual” to their territory of desire, their same sex desire, by “learning the ropes” about what it means, what they’re citationally taught it will mean, to “be gay.” They are not, to use the right-wing pejorative vernacular, “recruited” into their same sex desires; they, like “heterosexuals,” apply form to the formlessness of desire—in this case, same sex desire—by internalizing, as a sense of identity, the social construction of homosexuality. Were it not for others who had, in citing those previous to them, self-identified as “homosexual,” individuals born into the matrix with same sex desire would have no means of “formatting” their unintelligible desires into consumable self-identities. This culturally cumulative citationality remains like a wave indistinguishable from other waves within one body of water, the hegemonic civilization, with most unable to “see” the source material of their newly formed identity: the ways in which they’ve attributed meaning to their same-sex desires, the ways in which they’ve “become gay.” The performativity of homosexuality, then, refers not to the individual’s same sex desires, but to the ways in which the social construction of homosexuality has been ideologically interpellated, is ceaselessly, citationally reiterated, and ends up “produc[ing] the effects that it names” (Butler 1993, 2).

Deepak Chopra has written that “[c]hasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory. It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self” (1994, 84). One such way of “chasing symbols,” I would add, is through the “exchange,” or conflation, of the territory of same sex desire with the map of homosexuality. Many individuals, of all sexualities, conflate their social map with their inner territory and end up, as Anne Sexton wrote in her poem, “The Play,” “running after the hands and never catching up” (1975, 38). The hands toward which these individuals run, ceaselessly, reiteratively, are their citations—their socially projected maps to who they think they are, or want to become; and they never “catch up” because the hands, being citations, “are out of sight—that is, offstage” (39). Others, such as those who try and “change” themselves from homosexual to heterosexual, enact on the stage of their life a displacement of maps under the erroneous belief that by rearranging their social identity—by learning how to “throw a football,” for men, or “apply makeup,” for women—their desires will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” When it doesn’t change, when they become “ex-gays” while continuing to experience same sex desire, they exist in a state of cognitive dissonance. Both groups of individuals are, to a greater or lesser extent, “running, running to keep up, but never making it” (ibid).

The consequences of fusing same sex desire with the construct of homosexuality cannot be undermined; for many, the two remain undifferentiated. To illustrate how this conflation engenders confusion, and considerable harm, I will draw on the following case study of John and Anne Paulk, two “ex-gays” who were at the center of debate about the “curing” of homosexuals during the late 1990’s.

4. Becoming “Ex-Gay”: Extricating Homosexuality from Same Sex Desire

The institutionalization of homosexuality performs three distinct functions: 1) it divorces same sex desire from the experience of many by projecting it into the experience of few, thereby maintaining a binary view of sexuality generally, and a normative view of heterosexuality specifically; 2) it reinforces the either/or mentality that sustains a hegemonic patriarchy, and relieves a cultural anxiety over what it means to be “male,” a “man,” “masculine”—in other words, as long as I am on the side of the fence marked “straight,” I am safe, loved, accepted, all-powerful; 3) it promotes the implicit idea that “changing” sexual identity from the category of “homosexual” to the category of “heterosexual” is not only possible, but highly desirable—after all, who wouldn’t want to be “safe, loved, accepted, all powerful”?

In his essay, “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-Gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives,” author Jeffrey Bennett examines the Paulks’ co-autobiography, Love Won Out, in which the two juxtapose their early immersions “into homosexuality” to their later involvement with Exodus International and “entrance into ‘heterosexuality . . . [in order] . . . to pursue a ‘normal’ life of marriage and children” (2003, 332-34). Their stories spawned national attention, with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, as well as with guest appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 60 Minutes. Can gays “change”? Should gays “change”? These and other questions were raised amongst media, and public. Unfortunately, there was little, if any, inquiry into what the Paulks, or others like them, were attempting to “change,” when they said they wanted to change their sexuality. While the implication always seems to be a change from same sex to “opposite” sex attraction, this is precisely what does not occur, as I myself can testify, for those who undertake such therapy. How, after all, does one change desire? In practice, the locus of attention in reparative therapies becomes less about desire, about changing one’s desire, than it does the obligatory avoidance of same sex temptation, engagement in “opposite” sex scenarios, and modification of behavior to reflect a normative stance on male and female gender roles.

As detailed by Bennett in his essay, the Paulks’ memoir “attempt[s] to reconstitute the discourses that shape and stabilize abstract notions of the self . . . [by] . . . relegate[ing] identity and authenticity to a system of anticipatory acts that can be modified by altering the conduct of the actors” (332). Nowhere is it claimed the Paulks end up changing their desires; rather, they reduce themselves to actors, playing the part of the “homosexual”: In order to play the part of the “heterosexual,” they simply modify their performance. “If Anne can learn to wear make-up, and John to throw a football, they are taking the necessary measures to redefine and stabilize their heterosexuality by employing an illusory ontological identification” (ibid). In a reversal to Butler’s theory on gender performativity, the Paulks have reframed their collective “homosexualities” as the normative, and their modification to heterosexuality, its subversion.

Throughout their book, the Paulks point to the unreality of “gay life” as justification for “replacing . . . the unnatural homosexual self with the ‘true’ heterosexual identity” (335). This statement alone necessitates delineation. If “homosexuality” points, as I’ve suggested, to the territory of same sex desire, then in one respect the Paulks, or all advocates of such therapies, are correct in their description of an “unnatural homosexual self.” Homosexuality, as with heterosexuality, is the symbol for the thing, and not the thing itself—symbols are, to a large extent, “unnatural.” However, as the Paulks also evidently conflate their map of homosexuality with their territory of desire, their same sex desire, they illogically deduce that if homosexuality is unnatural, heterosexuality must consequently be natural. The “naturalness” they, and others like them, seek lies not in a different map, a different symbol, but in a consciousness, an awakening, to their own, incontrovertible territory of desire. Maps, if lived as territories, will always disappoint: sooner or later they will always be experienced as unnatural, inauthentic, unreal.

What becomes evident throughout Bennett’s essay is the urgency with which the Paulks attempt to reconstitute themselves as heterosexual is in direct proportion to their former identifications with the construct of homosexuality, and the displacement of that construct with their lifelong pain. If they perceived themselves as obsessive compulsive, their obsessive compulsiveness was rooted in their so-called homosexuality; if they immersed themselves in meaningless one night stands, in prostitution, drug and sex addiction—even mention of Anne’s childhood molestation—all of it was spelled out as either the cause, or effect, of “being gay.” Homosexuality was the culprit, plain and simple; and to the Paulks, since they’d identified as homosexual, their only salvation lay in becoming not homosexual, in becoming “ex-gays.”

In the following passage from an essay about my own six years in a similar therapy, I describe part of an intensive therapy session lasting two 10-hour days, during which time I “worked” my feelings about “being homosexual”:

Moreover, my homosexuality was the result of the sexual abuse. Or so I screamed while lying on the mattress. It never occurred to me that my promiscuity and episodes of dissociation were forms of acting out abuse, regardless of my sexual orientation. Instead, promiscuity was the nature of homosexuality. All gay men dissociated while having sex. Shame and a lifetime of lovelessness were synonymous with desire. Homosexual desire. There were no shades of gray. My life was black and white.

Better yet, there was someone I could blame for my life’s unhappiness: my parents. If it had not been for my parents’ poor role modeling, their lack of intervention, I would not have spent my teenage years in public toilets and bathhouses, behavior I still equated with homosexuality. My parents were the cause of my misfortunes, as surely as if they’d walked me downtown and into the arms of every man I’d encountered. Years of shame and isolation, of praying to God to take me in my sleep—it had all been because of my parents. My body was a grave and I was falling deeper into it, word by word, as I talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality, digging myself deeper into the pit of my self-hatred (2009, 119).

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not only had I conflated the map of homosexuality with my territory of same sex desire, but also the impact of that abuse, the ways in which I ended up compulsively and addictively expressing my sexuality, with my so-called “homosexuality.” Thus, when I “talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality,” what I really was attempting to articulate was the sickness of my soul as expressed through my sexuality. Not my “homosexuality”—my sexuality. The “gay lifestyle” from which I was attempting to flee, by trying to change, had nothing to do with my same sex desire, but with the crippling effects of being sexually violated as a child.

For the Paulks, as described by Bennett, their “‘homosexuality’ . . . [remained] . . . seemingly unaltered by the actions undertaken by reparative therapy” (334). I would add that it wasn’t simply that the Paulks’ “homosexuality” remained “unaltered,” but that their same sex desire remained unaltered. They had tried to enact the identity of heterosexual, but in not achieving it—in not experiencing “opposite” sex attraction—they ended up, instead, as liminal “ex-gays.” Yes, the Paulks had children. But if coupling and having sex with the “opposite” sex were all it took to live one’s truth, millions of men and women around the world would never have thought it necessary to “come out” and leave their “opposite” sex spouses.

Of agency, Jana Sawicki has said that “[the] subject does not control the overall direction of history, but it is able to choose among the discourses and practices available to it and use them creativity. It is also able to reflect upon the implications of its choices as they are taken up and transformed in a hierarchical network of power relations (1991, 103-4). If agency is an act of “creative choice,” the Paulks were certainly free, as choosing agents, to subvert their homosexual identity formation, yet one can’t help but wonder why, to what end? What drove their subversion? What drove mine? Was it individuation, one’s “Auseinandersetzung (‘coming to terms with’)” (Hollis 2003, 88). Or was it their harmatia, their “wounded vision” of having conflated “opposite” sex desire with the construct of heterosexuality, and believing that by changing their behavior to align with set strictures of heteronormativity, a change to their desires would also, hopefully, follow?

[T]he classical imagination identified a condition they called harmatia, which has been translated as “the tragic flaw,” but which I prefer to define as “wounded vision.” Each protagonist believed that he or she understood enough to make proper choices, yet their vision was distorted by personal, familial and cultural history, dynamically at work in what we later called the unconscious (2001, 14).

Not all “proper choices” lead to happy endings, or are in fact choices, especially when one considers the tendency, from within the invisibilizing effects of the matrix, to belie.

Eighty years ago, British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere wrote that “. . . what appears as homosexual or heterosexual . . . sexual manifestations, is the end-result of the interplay of conflicts and not necessarily evidence of a radical or fundamental tendency” (1929, 303). In other words, the ways in which individuals end up expressing their sexuality, and even self identifying, may have less to do with their actual desires than with their ability, or inability, to reconcile themselves with their territory of desire. Trying to “change” one’s homosexuality is an attempted harmonization of this “interplay of conflicts.” Such an attempt, however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between self-identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” to change themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses their conflation between identity and desire.

As I wrote near the end of my (unpublished) book manuscript, Crossing Styx: “There was no heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I’d become more like a shell with its innards scooped out.” It might have been more accurate if I’d written: “There was no ‘opposite’ sex desire in me waiting to emerge,” for I had done all that could be expected in order to become, performatively, “heterosexual,” and still the role I played, dissonantly, was a performance.

Today, twenty years after beginning that therapy, I would say that any prolonged attempt at trying to “change” an individual’s sexual identity is akin to a psychic lobotomy, whereby the “surgeon” probes into the psycho-sexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the desired establishment of a different sexuality, while the “patient,” already severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency. But there is hope. As Tolle, in The Power of Now, reminds us:

[I]f you . . . develop a sense of identity based on your gayness, you have escaped one trap only to fall into another. You will play roles and games dictated by a mental image you have of yourself as gay. You will become unconscious. You will become unreal. Underneath your ego mask, you will become very unhappy. If this happens to you, being gay will have become a hindrance. But you always get another chance . . . Acute unhappiness can be a great awakener (1999, 174).

Whether or not Tolle was reflecting on reparative therapies when he wrote the above passage, his words do make reference to a universal, ontological displacement of one’s cultural map, one’s ego mask, for one’s desires. It took me six years of therapy trying to “change” myself, and many more years unpacking my experiences, to arrive back to what was common knowledge a hundred and fifty years ago before the “invention” of “homosexuality”: There is no a priori identity called “homosexual” from which one “changes” and becomes “happy.” Neither is heterosexuality the Promised Land for those who abandon their “gay lifestyle.” Forgetting that we are not who the culture that tells us we are, that our maps are not our terrain, begets the notion that we can change desires, like a pair of pants or performative utterance, when what we’ve needed—dare I say, desiredall along is to find some other, perhaps more meaningful, map of self expression.

5. The “Acorn”

The Introduction to the spiritual text A Course in Miracle concludes with: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God” (1975, unnumbered page). With respect to the materiality of sexual identity, this “realness” points not to a regulatory categorization of homosexual and heterosexual—to the idea that “my homosexuality” is what’s real, or “my heterosexuality” is what’s real—but to something far more ineffable, perhaps to what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, calls the mythological “acorn”—the individual image that belongs to each person’s soul.

The acorn theory proposes . . . that . . . every single person is born with a defining image. Individuality resides in a formal cause—to use old philosophical language going back to Aristotle. We each embody our own idea, in the language of Plato and Plotinus. And this form, this idea, this image does not tolerate too much straying. The theory also attributes to this innate image an angelic or daimonic intention, as if it were a spark of consciousness; and, moreover, holds that if has our interest at heart because it chose us for its reasons (1996, 11-12).

Within one’s “acorn,” I would add as a caveat to Hillman’s theory, are the ways in which individuals express their innate image sexually in order to fulfill the promise of their lives. And “acorns” will not, as Hillman writes, “tolerate too much straying.” Unfortunately, sex, especially “gay sex,” is more often than not viewed simply as an act of the body, a narcissistic compulsion. But sex, so says Thomas Moore in Dark Nights of the Soul, “reaches deep into [our] soul, and the desires and anxieties connected to it touch [our] very foundations. Sex represents life . . . [it] has the potential to do nothing less than make [us] into a person and . . . create a world that is sensuous and alive” (2004, 170-3).

The world that I had created by remaining in that therapy—taking toxic doses of psychiatric medication, for example, in an attempt to suppress my sexual drive and “reorient” myself toward heterosexuality—was laden with despair and dissonance. It was eviscerated of all sensuality and aliveness. When those who are “struggling with their queer identities” turn to any type of conversion or reparative therapy for hope, when they become “ex-gays” in an attempt to assuage their inner turmoil, they are doing nothing short of betraying the needs of the soul by silencing its daimon. Acceptance of one’s “homosexuality,” however, is also not the answer. When we instruct others, through the discourses of “coming out” literature, to accept their “gay self,” that a denial of their homosexuality is the root cause of their self-hatred, we are really meaning to help them accept the means by which their soul is needing to express itself, but instead, are circuitously reinforcing the very conflation that resulted in their so-called “self-hatred” to begin with. Again, same sex desire should not be confused, conflated, or displaced with the category of “homosexual,” yet this is precisely what has occurred. No one hates their true self; they hate only what they have been told they should be when they know, if only intuitively, that it’s not who they are. “[A] Foucaultian perspective,” writes Butler, “might argue that the affirmation of ‘homosexuality’ is itself an extension of a homophobic discourse” (1991, 13). “Gay self” is, in fact, an oxymoron, since “gay” points toward one’s map, while “self,” one’s territory.

Similarly, in using the notion of a “gay gene,” the language that one is “born gay,” as defense against any mindset that says homosexuality is a “choice,” the gay movement as a whole is reiterating its own subjugation by reinforcing the conflation between their shared experience of same sex desire—which is, after all, their movement’s goal: personal and cultural egalitarianism for who they desire—and the illusory identity of homosexuality. No socially constructed identity—neither homosexual, nor heterosexual, nor any other—will ever materialize in one’s genes, and we must be wary of anyone who ever tells us it has.

The problem is not that there remains a minority of people who continue to turn to reparative therapies for “help,” and not even that such therapies still exist; the problem, from one who spent six years of his life in a similar therapy, is that we have conflated who we are with a socially projected image of what we think we are, and continue to generationally reinforce this construct, this closet of homosexuality, as what anyone who experiences same sex desire must “be” before they can go about living their lives.



*Judith Butler first described the “heterosexual matrix” as a “grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized.” This “matrix” was based on the similar “heterosexual contract” and “compulsory heterosexuality” postulated by Monique Wittig and Adrienne Rich, respectively, which “characterize a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine express male, feminine express female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality” (1990, 208).



References

Althusser, Louis. 1974. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press, New York and London.

Bennett, Jeffrey A. 2003. “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives.” Text and Performance Quarterly. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, Volume 23, Issue 4.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

——. 1991. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routeldge.

——. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, New York.

Chopra, Deepak. 1994. The Seven Spiritual Law of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams. Amber-Allen Publishing and New World Library, San Rafael, CA.

“Exodus International” website www.exodusinternational.org

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York.

Gajdics, Peter. 2009. “Chora.” New York Tyrant. New York, NY. Vol. III, No. I.

Hillman, James. 1996. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Random House, New York.

Hollis, James. 2001. Creating a Life: Finding your Individual Path. Inner City Books, Toronto, Ontario.

——. 2003 On This Journey We Call Our Life: Living the Questions. Inner City Books, Toronto, Ontario.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (on-line version) www.merriam-webster.com

Moore, Thomas. 2004. Dark Nights of the Soul. Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY.

Riviere, Joan. 1929. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 10.

Save Me. 2007. Dir. Robert Cary. Mythgarden.

Sawicki, Jana. 1991 Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power and the Body. New York: Routledge Press.

Schucman, Helen. 1975. A Course in Miracles . Glen Ellen: Foundation for Inner Peace.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, Berkeley, LA.

Sexton, Anne. 1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Tolle, Eckhart. 1999. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library, Vancouver, BC.

On Change

By Simon Smithson

Essay

A friend of mine doesn’t meet new people easily. With the diagnostic aid of the internet age, I supposed it’s possible he may be suffering from a touch of Asperger’s (if there is such a thing as a ‘touch’ of Asperger’s).

In familiar situations, among a known social circle, he is driven to attempt a small and ugly kind of domination – by putdowns, by attack, by withholding attention. But as soon as a random, unknown element – a new person, for example – is introduced, the strength and the bluster vanish from him. He goes strangely, noticeably quiet; he backs down like a yelping Chihuahua confronted with a pit bull. The more distinct and different a stranger, and their appearance and lifestyle, is from my friend and his, the more difficulty he has meeting their eyes; the more obvious the concerned workings of his mind become on his face. In the absence of common ground, my friend quickly becomes unsure, and intimidated. He has no way of bridging the gap, and suddenly his confidence in his own position starts to tremble until it collapses like a house of cards. Those of us who know him well can see the uncertainty and the fear creeping up in him, in his pauses and silences until, finally, when we are alone, he will confide in us: ‘I didn’t like that guy.’

Whether my friend has any depth of understanding regarding this behaviour, I don’t know. I don’t believe it will ever cause him any serious trouble. By now, his life is fairly delineated. Without some sudden future break from his life until this moment, he will always have the same friends and be surrounded by the same people – if not exactly the same people, then people who are similar enough as to make little difference. He will always live in and experience the same socio-economic streams; work in the same echelons of the same field. The odds are good he will marry the girl he is currently with and together, they will grow older, have children, work their way up the corporate ladder, retire, and die. My friend will, most likely, never have to confront the fact that he clams up around strangers; especially when they don’t work white-collar jobs and like the same things that he likes.

This is a part of himself that he, probably, will never have to change. And that’s going to be OK. As dysfunctional behaviour goes, it’s a pretty mild example. There’s no harm in it, except maybe to his chances of having a wider and more variegated circle of friends.

The question for me is, if he wanted to change, and he had the necessary capacity for self-awareness, would he be able to? Can people actually change who and how they are?

Once, years ago, I was having dinner with my parents and another friend of mine, and the conversation turned to our friend Dean. Dean was in the process of working himself out of an extended, months-long slump during which he’d stopped taking care of himself, lost his job, packed on weight, and stopped leaving the house except for an occasional coffee. There had been no great flash of light, no Road to Damascus for him, but Dean had, piece by piece, quit smoking, stopped drinking so much, found a new job, and was now seeing a new girl.

‘That guy’s really pulled himself together,’ I said. ‘He’s really changed.’

My father snorted dismissively.

‘No one ever changes,’ he said. ‘Not unless they’re faced with some total catastrophe.’

According to movies, that is the entire truth of the process. Even according to stories I’ve heard, this is how it goes. In 2002 there was a classroom shooting at Melbourne’s Monash University; a thankfully rare occurrence here. A girl I was seeing knew someone present when the gunman opened fire. He took a bullet in the hand, but, thanks to timely medical intervention, lost neither the hand nor any appreciable use of it – and the resulting change in his personality was, apparently, astonishing.

‘He was so introverted before. Kinda sad all the time,’ the girl said. ‘Now he’ll talk to anyone. He’s so happy, he’s so talkative.’

This was in line with everything that TV had taught me.

Speaking to another friend, earlier tonight, about the concept of change, she told me about how, some years ago, she’d battled cancer, and the experience changed her.

‘It changed the way I go through life,’ she said. ‘I used to hate people. OK, I still kinda do. But I value people so much more. I value the interactions and the conversations. And now I live life the way I want to. I have fun and I travel and yeah. I’ve changed.’

Compare and contrast this to the experience of my friend Juliet:

‘I was dating this guy,’ Juliet said. ‘Who was a complete asshole. We were together for a while, and everyone knew – I mean, knew he was an asshole. He’d always been an asshole. And one day I got a phone call to tell me that he’d fallen while he was rock-climbing. He was rushed to the hospital and they thought he was going to be paralysed.’

The asshole, fortunately, was not paralysed. He was fine after some minor surgery.

‘But I knew,’ Juliet said, ‘that it wasn’t going to change him. It wasn’t going to be some life-altering moment. Coming so close to death or quadriplegia… he was still going to be the same asshole.’

She was right, apparently. The guy didn’t change one jot.

This is what people tell me, for the most part, over and over again. One constantly-repeating refrain.

I left my ex because he was a son of a bitch, and he was never going to change.

We broke up because I kept giving her chances and finally, I realised that she just couldn’t change.

Some things don’t change. A leopard can’t change its spots. People don’t change.

According to the reading I’m doing at the moment (if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend Reinventing Your Life, by Young and Klosko, two cognitive-approach-based psychologists), people maintain the same patterns and habits, unconsciously, throughout their entire lives, and find their way, likewise unknowingly, towards situations that reinforce those patterns and habits, unless there’s some kind of course correction, because finding the comfort of familiarity is the psychological equivalent of water seeking its own level – even if those patterns and habits are painful or destructive.

There’s a line from an old detective story, The Long Goodbye, I think. Marlowe or Spade or the Continental Op or whoever it is talks about the case of a man who was nearly crushed by a beam falling from a construction yard as he was walking down a city sidewalk, who realised in that deadly instant that his life was suffocating him, and so he faked his own death and left town, only to set up a new life that was a carbon-copy of the old one.

‘He’d adjusted to beams falling,’ the detective said. ‘Then he’d adjusted himself to beams not falling.’

The very, very brief straw poll  I’ve taken seems to indicate that most of the people I know don’t have faith in the ability of other people to change. And, I admit, I’ve seen little evidence. The more I see of people from my past, the more I see that they’ve simply become more and more entrenched in themselves; for good or for bad. I see counter-attack and avoidance; I see people the same at thirty as they were at twenty, only more so. I see the same things in myself; attitudes and beliefs that have never shifted, repetitive cycles of various sizes and shapes. Whether they take hours, days, or years to cycle through to their reset points, the point remains that they do and then simply start to grind on once more.

But I have to believe that this isn’t the way it has to be, that, with the phenomenal gift of consciousness and the ability to be aware that we as humans have, change is entirely possible.

Preferably by conscious choice, and not through being shot in the hand.

Even if takes a while.

Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.

I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.

What does it mean to be literate? That one’s pretty easy; it means you know how to read. What does it mean to be cultural? That one’s a little tougher; it means you know that in most situations, it’s unacceptable to put your cigarette out on a dachshund. And so what does it mean to be “culturally literate?” Many have posed this question (Harold Bloom, the Yale professor currently encased in acrylic and preserved for posterity does it a lot.), yet no one has truly come to terms with an accurate answer. My uncle Seamus once remarked that “cultural literacy is for homosexuals,” but he was urinating in a koi pond at the time, so who knows? I suggest we journey together to see if we can’t get to the core of this labyrinthine dilemma. Perhaps the most logical first step is learning how to read (I’ll wait for a few minutes)… Sweet. Our next step is to determine what exactly is “cultural.” Below are a few undeniably cultural items in the realm of architecture, literature and music. Let’s familiarize ourselves with these things, and then we can begin to get a handhold on what it means to be culturally literate.

The Eiffel Tower

Perhaps the most recognizable man-made structure in the world, The Eiffel Tower is a must-see for any culturally minded person. Completed in 1889 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution(1), the Eiffel Tower serves as a constant reminder that not everything in Paris is covered in dog feces.

The tower stands well over 1,000 feet high, something I discovered after dropping a crêpe from the observation deck while utilizing the equation Yf = -1/2gt^2 + Vot+Yo. Nestled along the Seine and overlooking the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower strictly prohibits oral sex in the elevators (although there was no noticeable sign or warning). Also, be sure to say “bonjour” to the one-eyed dwarf who roller skates atop the structure’s antenna, drinking his own blood and reciting Ozymandias(2).  As an added frustration, Le Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor offers food you can’t afford. I recommend the filet de turnbot au sautoir, écrevisses et champignons à la Riche, then running away.


Ulysses

A mammoth tome, written by James Joyce and published by Sylvia Beach in its entirety in 1928, Ulysses catalogues a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Often cited as the cornerstone of modernist literature, Ulysses takes its name from Homer’s Odysseus, as in The Odyssey, that book you were supposed to read sophomore year but ended up huffing oven cleaner in the school parking lot most of the time.

Written in Joyce’s inimitable stream-of-consciousness style, Ulysses is an integral part of any literary aesthete’s library. In addition, the book reminds us that even though the sisters at Strake Jesuit put saltpeter in our Cheerios to keep us from masturbating, there’s really no stopping the process, even if the guilt stays with you to this day. While nobody has ever read this book, its inclusion in your book collection will ensure at least a cursory dry-hump from the intoxicated Yale co-ed you met at the “Vampire Weekend” concert last month. Be sure to look out for the last sentence in which Molly Bloom probably has an orgasm or is in the throes of Crohn’s disease. Joyce was also blind, so we can forgive him for not making a whole lot of sense (there has been speculation that Joyce wrote much of Ulysses on the back of his cat, accounting for much of the confusion within the text). The poet Ezra Pound perhaps put it best when he remarked, “Ulysses is a treat for anyone trapped under ice.”

Jazz

Often cited as the only “true American art form,” jazz music is what happens when heroin happens. First popularized in the early 20th century, jazz incorporates West African musical traditions and European stuffiness, resulting in a cacophonous mishmash that makes one feel as if his or her genitals are creeping up and slowly eating his/her belly button. A vital part of America’s long history of misguided art forms, jazz is sure to spark furious debate among people who can’t admit they sing along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the car when nobody is looking.

Jazz is, at its core, an interpretive medium. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other maestros of the genre are venerated within certain musical circles much the same way the idea of a space/time continuum is venerated by physicists, even though, after a while, ruminations on the subject lead one back to the inevitable conclusion that nothing is understandable in this crazy world, especially Ugg boots. If you feel you have the mettle, give jazz a chance. When you’ve discovered it’s over your head and you’d honestly just rather sit there listening to Shakira, don’t feel bad. You can always count on her and her hips don’t lie.

I hope our maiden voyage into the unforgiving sea of cultural literacy has proved helpful. Keep in mind; this is a long journey, but a journey well-worth taking. For how are we to navigate our desires, our fears, and ourselves if we cannot navigate the world around us?

GPS is a good answer, yes

[1] More on the French Revolution can be found in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Although, it is a far better thing if you start reading at Part III, as I this is where the nudity really kicks into high gear.

[2] There is a place that sells absinthe next to the McDonald’s on the Rue Duban.