Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Q&A with Peter Gajdics

Peter Gajdics, photo by Erich Saide Photographer
Peter Gajdics is the author of the new book The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir. It focuses on his experiences with a form of conversion therapy that attempted to “cure” him of his homosexuality, and on his family history. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Advocate and New York Tyrant. He  lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and what impact has writing the book had on you and how you think about your life and your family?

A: My reasons for writing this book were initially very simple—I wanted to try and prevent the recurrence of similar types of abuse in the future, particularly with young people.

Although I was a writer before the therapy, my perspective around the act of writing definitely shifted post-therapy, whereby now I looked at writing as a political act, an act of defiance. I wanted to defy the lies of the therapy—the entire idea behind conversion therapy—and also my shame-based youth, by writing the true story of what I’d experienced, and learned.

As I travelled backward in my mind while writing the book, mapping out the facts of the therapy and relevant events from my childhood, it soon became clear to me that I could not write about all of these events without also touching on my mother’s experiences in the concentration camps post World War II Yugoslavia; I could not write about my own grief and sense of abandonment as a child without also including my father’s childhood as an orphan in war-torn Hungary.

My father’s estrangement had become my own later in life; I had experienced a kind of incarceration, not unlike my mother’s in the camps, within my own corporeal self. As a child of trauma survivors, my parents’ histories had forced their way into my therapy, and so writing about my own shame and sense of displacement meant also writing about theirs.

Gaining this sort of generational perspective to my own life relieved me of a lot of my personal shame, because I could see that shame and even acts of oppression are inherited from generation to generation—they are not just about “me” and “my” story. We all have a piece in the puzzle of how oppression is enforced, and, hopefully, overcome. This shift in perspective helped me heal, and forgive.

Writing this book over the last dozen years also helped me recognize that everyone has their own limitations in what they’re able to face and reconcile, largely because of their own histories and traumas. My own family’s inability to support me in my life, or this book, is not necessarily a reflection of their lack of love for me, or mine for them, but it is a reminder that I need to tread carefully.

When I met the doctor I still operated under the life belief that I could not be happy or at peace—that I was not “crippled”—unless my entire family was in full support and acceptance of who I am as a gay man.

This is just not true. People do lots of things out of fear or threat of attack, whether that attack is real or imagined—none of which of course is a reflection of who I am. Fear of the truth-teller can make even the ones we love turn against us.

Q: The book focuses on the years you spent in a therapeutic cult that attempted to “cure” you of your homosexuality. Can you describe how you initially got involved with this group, and how you were able to get out?

A: 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, despair, and thoughts of suicide. I fled my hometown, thinking, in part, that if I could only escape my family, I could escape the situation—I could “start again.”

Soon, I was even more depressed, so I went to my new family doctor and he referred me to this psychiatrist, since psychiatry is covered under our socialized health care in Canada, and at that time I couldn’t afford to pay for any other kind of therapy. Like most people in a deep depression, I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I needed help.

There was no discussion about “curing” my homosexuality at this point, and I think that this is an important point about conversion therapies generally, in that they come in all shapes and sizes—some may advertise 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, and yet they prey on the internalized homophobia of its victims.

They turn the desire to belong into a desire to change sexuality, as misguided and counterproductive that may sound. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but the doctor seemed to be my only hope against even more depression and self-destruction. In a sense, after fleeing my hometown, I fled myself in the hopes of being “saved.” I wanted someone else to save me from my suffering.

My homosexuality, in my mind at that time, seemed to have been the cause of all this suffering. This flawed thinking on my part was also another dynamic that the doctor preyed on, instead of helping me to understand that it wasn’t my homosexuality, per se, that had caused me pain, but other people’s opinions and prejudice about my homosexuality. 

I trusted the doctor, as I’d been raised to believe that doctors and all authority figures should be trusted, and so I did what he told me to do, which soon meant taking various psychiatric medications. The doctor practiced a form of primal therapy, and the process of regressions, which I detail in the book, was emotionally raw and physically exhausting.

When he told me I needed to move into a therapeutic house (he called “the Styx”) with his other patients, at first I was nervous, but there again, I did what he told me to do because I couldn’t see any other options in my life. The therapy and the doctor’s intent to “correct” my sexuality progressed rapidly, but by then I was in over my head.

Flash forward five years and the Styx closed, so we all went our separate ways. My symptoms upon departing the therapy were far more extreme than when I entered, but my thinking was also beginning to shift.

If I could say the therapy “helped,” it shook me to my core and helped me reframe what I thought it meant to be gay. You’re either crushed beneath the weight of oppression, or you emerge hopefully a stronger person, having learned a lesson.

None of which is to say that I would endorse the kinds of acts of inhumanity that the doctor practiced: I would not. Conversion therapies are acts of hatred. They’re hate crimes, and should be illegal. 

Q: You also explore your family’s history in the book, and describe some difficult relationships over the years. What do your family members think of the book?

A: No one in my family has read the book, not at any stage in its development, and I’ve never considered asking anyone in my family to read it. I also haven’t discussed its upcoming publication widely with my family. For many reasons, I needed to keep this “good news” close to my heart.

Early on, I did naively share with my family the fact that I was writing a book about the therapy and the lawsuit, and, to some degree, our family history. Unfortunately, my disclosure backfired on me, big time.

Their response was very painful for me, because by then I knew that my writing was basically keeping me alive—as I said, the act of putting my voice back out into the world through my writing helped save me from the silencing weight of oppression.

Conversely, the muzzling effect of my family felt like a return to my depressive youth, which had nearly killed me. I knew that I couldn’t not write, so I decided that I had to stop talking about my writing and this book, at least around my family. 

Memoir is a strange animal. Ideally, we’d all be able to ask the people that we’re writing about to read what we’ve written and to give us their thoughts.

Unfortunately, I just don’t think the scenario of sharing our writing with family members is always a possibility, especially for many “real life” writers determined to write about a history of trauma or sexual abuse, whose very hallmarks are often silence and invalidation from within the core family unit.

Everyone has their own opinions and interpretation of past events, and as a writer, I have to be able to write what I know to be true—supported, of course, by empirical evidence. This book is my own story, and it would get terribly confusing to me to ask five or six family members “what they think” about what I’ve written. Undoubtedly, they’d all think something different, then where would I be?

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: My publishers at Brown Paper Press suggested this title, "The Inheritance of Shame"; during all the years I worked on the book, I used a different title.

Initially, I was very concerned about pairing the words “Inheritance” and “Shame” in one title. Inheritance, specifically, is often used in relation to one’s genealogy or biology—“I inherited my parents’ genes.” And while the theme of shame is definitely central in the book, as it has been in my life, I never wanted to suggest that I’d inherited all my life’s shame from my parents.

Cultural shame is an equally powerful force that I think is “inherited” especially during one’s formative years. Like many people who grew up in the 1970s, I know that I absorbed and internalized much of the cultural shame about being gay during this time. 

The Catholicism of my upbringing obviously compounded much of my shame as well, but I don’t think my family necessarily created any of this—each member of my family had to face their own shame, which was also passed on to them from many sources.

Part of the consequence of trauma, any trauma, is a whole other level of shame. Survivor’s guilt is a kind of shame, too, and anyone who’s lived through war, as both my parents had, will say there comes a day when they don’t understand how it is that they survived while others they knew and loved were tortured and killed.

I was also sexually abused as a young boy, and the shame bourn from that trauma permeated my life for decades, even throughout the therapy. My body inherited a kind of shame from having been violated at a core level. I couldn’t necessarily see this shame, but it displayed itself in how I thought about my body, and my sexuality, in how I lived my life, my emotions, even my absence of feeling.

Once I reconciled myself to the idea that the title of my book was not suggesting that this inheritance of shame meant that we are then stuck with shame, like a malignant tumour, I couldn’t have been happier with it.

The truth of my own life is that shame is something that I normalized, and that almost killed me, but to a large degree it was a prison of my own making. I could escape from it.

The title of my book, therefore, signifies as much of the cultural shame that was passed on to me as it does the familial shame of my upbringing, and the fall out from personal trauma. I inherited all of it. What happened to me as a result of that inheritance, and how I recovered from much of it, is also part of this story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’d hate to jinx the creative juices by saying too much, but I will admit to working on a piece of fiction. I also recently received a new writer’s grant from Canada Council for the Arts (Canada’s national endowment for the arts) for this “novel-in-progress.” I never imagined I would want or even be able to write fiction, so I try my best not to think too much about expectations.

Writing memoir, for me, seemed so straightforward—never easy, but at least I knew the story, since it was factual. How I ended up telling that story was part of this long journey in getting the book written. The rules around fiction seem so different, in that the plot has not already been lived.

At the same time, I recognize that the two genres are not too dissimilar in that the truth of a “character” or a story is as important in fiction as it is in memoir. The reader knows, on some level, if what they’re reading is believable, if it’s “true.”

Fiction also grants the writer an opportunity to let their imaginations soar, and one obvious downside to writing memoir, of course, is that we’re bound to the facts of our history, which was always at the forefront in my own mind while writing the book. The only thing I could “create” was meaning.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writing about trauma and memory, which are both central in my book, presented many challenges, and rewards. Experts in these fields note that memory tends to change over the course of a life, and that traumatic memories in particular lack coherence, so that people and key life events remain unlinked or frozen in time, even separate or fragmented from a whole.

Forgiving other people for their actions, which was ongoing for me while writing this book, helped change my own memory of events, which in turn changed how I wanted or needed to tell this story. I was constantly playing “catch up” while writing, since my interpretation of past events shifted as I changed and grew—and forgave—in the present.

The facts of the past never changed, but I did eventually learn to see it all in a whole new light. Compassion really does change how we view our lives and the world, and what we do in this world as a direct result.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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