The following is an excerpt from The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir by Peter Gajdics published by Brown Paper Press this week. Gajdics spent six years of his life undergoing conversion therapy that attempted to "cure" his homosexuality. Kept with other patients in a cult-like home in British Columbia, the author "lived under the authority of a dominating, rogue psychiatrist who controlled his patients, in part, by creating and exploiting a false sense of family." Gajdics' new book aims to demonstrate the dangers of these therapies in the face of renewed support in the US and, to some extent, apathy in Canada.
Eighteen months into my therapy, I attended my first weekend "marathon"—an intensive group session held at the office: ten hours a day, two days in a row. Like an elite club, only select patients were invited: Styx members and intensives. Because British Columbia's government-administered Medical Services Plan prohibited the billing of ten patients over a two-day period, Dr. Alfonzo scheduled the marathon prior to his vacation so he could bill for each patient throughout the two weeks that he and Yvette were away at Club Med. Alfonzo's billing methods were no secret amongst "family" members at the Styx.
Saturday morning began with a guided visualization led by Yvette, who, in addition to acting as Alfonzo's secretary, co-facilitated many of his group sessions.
We all picked a spot on the floor and lay on our backs. Candles were lit, lights dimmed, soft music with the sounds of chimes and light rain played in the background.
"I want everyone to close their eyes," Yvette instructed, stepping around limbs like rungs on the floor. "Take a deep breath through your nose, slowly. In … then out. In … out. Feel your stomachs rising and falling like waves on a sea. In … out. Good."
Our visualization lasted thirty minutes, after which everyone sat in a circle around the room and was encouraged to work on the mattress or at the bat as many times as possible. The process was relentless, offering little respite between primals. For two days the world outside would cease to exist as ten of us dove deep into ourselves, like un-swum oceans, waiting to be chartered. The stated goal: to break through our defenses and submit to our "primal pain."
Saturday night was spent as a group at Ludo's house. Ludo was one of the marathon's members and a past Styx intensive. Originally from Denmark, Ludo was an architect and had designed his multi- million-dollar dream home, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, on the crest of a wooded property.
Everyone ended up in pairs after dinner, taking turns playing their favorite LPs from one of Ludo's hundreds of records or enjoying a few minutes of banal conversation following our day of intense "body work." I went out to the house's veranda, closed my eyes, and breathed the scent of pine deep into my lungs. Inside I heard the Moody Blues' "Isn't Life Strange." After a minute, Ludo joined me on the veranda.
"Beautiful, isn't it," he said.
"How long have you lived here?"
"Ten years. It was my present to my soon-to-be wife."
"This was your wedding gift?"
It was always strange talking to someone outside of therapy. On the mattress we bared our souls, our histories of loveless childhoods, of abuse or neglect, but in reality, no one knew much about anyone's "real" life of wives and children and daily trials. All I knew about Ludo, from his session that morning, was that he'd been profoundly affected by his father's inability to express any sort of physical affection, his "wall of silence."
"Are your parents still alive?" I asked.
"My father is," he said, slowly, as if each word were a painful effort. "My mother died three years ago. I hate saying it … but I think it would have been easier if my father had gone first."
"At least then I would have a parent I could talk to. I have never been able to talk to my father. He refuses to talk to me. I became an architect to please him. I thought maybe then he would be proud of me. Now all I think about is how he'll die and I won't know what to say at his funeral. Once he even said to me, out of the blue, he said … 'What will you say during my eulogy? You don't even know who I am.' He's my father, but he's a stranger to me. I worry sometimes about my own children."
"How many children do you have?"
"A boy and a girl. Everyone expects you to be a good parent to your children, to hold them and to love them. You're expected to do for them what no one did for you. Sometimes it feels like too much to learn in one lifetime."
Yuen poked her head out of the house and said that meditation was about to begin. The scent of frankincense wafted onto the veranda as we slid open the Japanese partition and returned to the group.
Within the hour we were all in bed, some of us in shared rooms, or on the floor in sleeping bags. I ended up on the bottom of a bunk bed, curled like a peanut in the child-size frame the shape of a toy truck. Blurry white elephants filled my vision as my nighttime medication, 350 milligrams of Elavil, smothered me to sleep.
Alfonzo joined the group Sunday morning. I was the first to volunteer to work on the mattress, but before I could, Alfonzo told me to lie on my stomach on the floor.
"What for?" I asked.
"You want a good trigger for your session? Just do it."
I followed his lead, nervously, and lay on my stomach on the side of the room. Alfonzo told Claude and Clay to lie on top of me and to pin me down. I glanced over as one held my arms above my head, the other pinned my legs to the floor.
"Now," Alfonzo said, "try and break free."
I turned my head and glanced up at him: he was standing next to me, above me, arms folded, smiling.
I did not move.
"Feel familiar?" he continued, bending down to where I lay, staring me in the eyes. "How many times have you been fucked in this position? Huh? Fucked up your ass by some man you didn't even know. And you just lie there and … take it."
He must have motioned for Claude and Clay to release the prisoner, because their hands let go, their bodies lifted off me, while the weight that bound me, the shame inside me, was heavier and more powerful than any man who had ever held me down before.
I rolled from my stomach onto the mattress and immediately I started to work: closed my eyes, moved my arms and legs like I was walking, then running, sank back into the endless pit of shame.
Within minutes, I was using my screaming, pounding, and writhing on the mattress like an ice pick to chip away at my defenses. My internal scale had tipped to one side, and the conflicted feelings over being gay that I had struggled with for years had given way to the militant conviction that homosexual acts were unnatural, abominable, and disgusting, and that homosexuality itself was the result of historical pain. My homosexuality, moreover, was the result of the sexual abuse. Or so I screamed while lying on the mattress. Like a cartographer, I was involuntarily mapping out my life through primal, one word at a time. Promiscuity was the nature of homosexuality. All gay men dissociated while having sex. Shame and a lifetime of lovelessness were synonymous with 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. 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.
After an hour on the mattress, something inside me cracked wide open. I hit bottom, or center: tears flooded out of me, overwhelming me with grief, clouding my vision. The next thing I knew, someone was guiding me by the arm, leading me into Alfonzo's private office. The door slammed shut and I collapsed, sobbing, in Alfonzo's arms.
"One-quarter cc," I heard him say to someone in the room.
Then I felt a cold prick like a bee sting near my bicep as Alfonzo injected me with something. The next thing I felt were his powerful arms as he wrapped himself around my middle, squeezing the screams out of me like a blow-up doll wailing out its pain.
Everything blurred as the boundaries of my body dissolved and I floated up. Up and outside myself, I looked down upon my body. I had given up the fight, let go, and released into his containment. I had surrendered.
"Ssshh," he whispered in my ear. "Papa's here now. Baby's safe in Papa's arms. Everything's okay . . . Papa caught you."
The walls to my "self " took hold as I returned from wherever it was I had gone. I was a body again. Peter. Eyes opened, fingers stretched wide, the world was seen anew. Structures and boundaries became evident. Wetness was tears and sweat and snot. They were wiped away by a cloth Alfonzo handed me.
"Thank you," I said.
"Go slow," he said. "Drink this. You may feel slightly dehydrated for a while."
He handed me a glass of water. I sipped and my parched throat, a tunnel, opened.
"Stand up slowly."
I did, and like my parent, he was watching me take my first steps. Then I heard the bat in the adjacent office and I remembered where I was: at a marathon. The others were still working, sweating, pounding, crying.
"What time is it?" I asked. "We've been in here about forty-five minutes." "Oh. Okay. I guess I should go back . . ." I stumbled toward the door, weak and disoriented from our session.
"Wait a minute."
He moved to his desk and pulled a bottle of cologne out of its drawer.
"Papa's scent," he said, spraying the pungent odor over my shirt.
"So baby feels safe. Now you have me on you wherever you go."
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