Peter Gajdics grew up in British Columbia in a deeply Catholic household with his mother, who had survived a communist concentration camp, and his father, who was orphaned as a boy in war-torn Hungary. Their faith, and their pasts, led them to reject Gajdics' homosexuality. In his adolescence, Gajdics decided to seek therapy—from a psychiatrist that promised he could be "cured". The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir looks at 20 years in Gajdics' life, from the deepest upsets of his childhood, to his experiences prostituting himself as a teen, to his entrance into and escape from this cult-like therapeutic "cure", and ultimately, to Gajdics' current habitation of a working self-acceptance and life-after-trauma. We exchanged emails with Gajdics ahead of his book tour for a little more insight.
Megan Jenkins: Unlike many others who experience “reparative therapy”, you voluntarily sought out therapy as a young adult. Why?
Peter Gajdics: My therapy actually turned into a form of reparative therapy; I did not seek out reparative therapy. I was 24 years old when I met this doctor in 1989. A couple of years earlier I’d come out to my Catholic family, and their rejection and our ongoing fights around my “sinful lifestyle” sent me into a tailspin of addiction and depression. I fled my hometown, thinking, in part, that if I could only escape my family, I could escape the situation. Soon, I was even more depressed and isolated, so my new family doctor referred me to this psychiatrist. Initially, there was no discussion about “curing” my homosexuality, and I think that this is an important point about conversion therapies generally, in that they come in all shapes and sizes—some may promote themselves as “helping to heal the homosexual,” while others, like what happened to me within this traditional doctor/patient relationship, are highly subversive, never once mention anything to do with “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, yet prey on the internalized homophobia of its victims, especially the heteronormativity in which most of us have been raised. They turn the desire to belong into a desire to change sexuality. Shortly after beginning therapy, the doctor began “treating” my homosexuality.
MJ: How did the therapy impact or influence your identity formation as a young adult, and how does it continue to impact you, later in life?
PG: Believing the lie upon which my therapy was based—that my homosexuality and been “caused” by childhood sexual abuse—held me back in life for years because it reinforced a kind of shame that did not belong to me, namely, that being gay was an “error” in need of “correction” (the doctor’s words). As long as I believed this lie, and lived according to its false promise of one day “becoming heterosexual,” I could never really be a whole person since it set me up for enormous cognitive dissonance—basically, my body remained at war with itself until I imploded. In terms of how this therapy impacts my life even now: because I almost died as a result of the near fatal doses of multiple psychotropics the doctor prescribed in an effort to “silence” my sexuality, I’ve felt continued urgency about speaking out about my experiences in order to prevent the recurrence of similar types of abuse. For me, the dangers of conversion therapy are not just theoretical, but experiential.
MJ: You say that writing this book was “an act of survival.” How does storytelling aid you in recovering from the trauma of your adolescence and young adulthood?
PG: So much of my youth was shrouded in silence: the silence of my parents’ experiences in World War II; the silence of sexual abuse; the silence of family dysfunction; the silence of growing up gay at a time when homosexuality had only recently been decriminalized and declassified as a mental illness; the silence of spending six years in a therapy that sought to change me into something that I wasn’t. Even after the therapy ended, I ran up against yet more silence through the process of filing an ethics complaint against the doctor with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and even through the malpractice suit. Friends and family told me to “forget about it” and to “move on” with my life. Writing this book was my act of survival against the invisibilizing effects of silence. Finally, I could speak the truth of what I’d experienced and no one could stop me; no one could silence me. I think about the ACT UP slogan, “Silence = Death,” and I’m reminded of my youth and the trauma of this therapy, since both silences almost killed me; speaking and writing the truth, and finding my agency again, was enormously healing.
MJ: How did your relationship with your parents and their religion, and with the therapy, change as you aged?
PG: As a young man, I couldn’t imagine living my life without my parents’ acceptance of my sexuality, much in the same way that I couldn’t imagine being happy while the church of my youth chastised me as an abomination simply for being gay. A lot of the conflict I experienced with my parents early on stemmed from this struggle between wanting to live my life openly and honestly, and tell them who I am, and wanting to please them and not feel buried beneath the weight of what they thought it meant for me to be gay, a lot of which I believed at the time as well.
As I aged, stopped believing a lot of the lies of my youth, and healed much of the trauma related to the therapy. I learned to understand that people and religions hold beliefs that are sometimes founded on misinformation and prejudice, even hatred. It is not my job to try and become something that I’m not simply to please others. No one, in the end, would end up winning. I learned to separate my love for my parents and their love for me, which is real, from our different beliefs. One is not dependant on the other. I can be happy and whole without that kind of outside validation, even from family. I stopped taking some of the religious rhetoric about homosexuals and gays as an attack on me personally, but as a reflection of a particular mindset that’s developed over generations and is largely outside my control.
With respect to the therapy and the doctor—today, I feel far less interested in thinking about the actual psychiatrist or what I experienced personally, than in the issues at-large: the dangers of conversion therapy, homophobia and heteronormativity, the impact of sexual abuse on my sexuality. Obviously, it was important for me to remain specific about my experiences while writing this book, but I’m actually interested in sharing or talking about “my” story only inasmuch as it can help bring about positive change in the world.
Find out more about Peter Gajdics and purchase The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir here.