Vancouver author Peter Gajdics details gay-conversion therapy and trauma in memoir The Inheritance of Shame
Cases of abduction and imprisonment of the kind depicted in Emma Donoghue’s novel Room have captured the public consciousness of late. However, there are other ways a person can be imprisoned and controlled by someone else—but without walls. One such example took place here in Vancouver. It’s just one of several subjects in Peter Gajdics’s multifaceted memoir, The Inheritance of Shame.
When Gajdics sought the help of a psychiatrist in the 1980s to address his conflicted feelings about being gay, it was the start of his descent into a topsy-turvy world that would be implausible if it were a fictional tale.
“If I hadn’t lived it, I would have never have believed it,” Gajdics said in an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “I’m as horrified about it today as maybe any person might be hearing about it, except it happened to me.”
As a young man, Gajdics had been haunted by the idea that sexual abuse he experienced as a child had made him a homosexual, an idea prevalent in the 1970s and ’80s. As he sought out therapy in his 20s with Dr. Alfonzo, a pseudonym for a maverick psychiatrist from Quebec City working in Vancouver, the two embarked upon an ill-conceived attempt to undo the trauma he experienced as a means to “undo” his homosexuality.
Back then, terms like conversion therapy and reparative therapy didn’t exist, and as the overall process wasn’t explicitly about sexuality conversion, Gajdics didn’t have any perspective on what was happening at the time.
“This idea that the doctor was trying to change my sexuality was so subversive in its process that I didn’t quite see it when I was in it,” he said. “There was such an internal logic to the therapy and what he was doing that I didn’t stop to question it, which is very typical in cultlike environments.”
Dr. Alfonzo drew Gajdics into primal-therapy sessions in which he regressed to childhood and expressed his pain and rage through screaming and physical aggression against a punching bag.
But that’s not all. The psychiatrist eventually convinced Gajdics to move into a local communal home with other patients, where they practised primal therapy in the basement. As they all became codependent on each other and harboured fears of returning to the outside world, they were coerced into performing domestic chores and office duties for Dr. Alfonzo, such as making and delivering his meals, caring for his pets, doing landscaping and renovations to his house, and typing out his notes, all without payment.
As primal therapy erodes the ego, the combination of that with a medication cocktail (which led to an overdose) and the living situation wore down Gajdics’s ability to question things.
“This is the point of primal therapy: it’s to break a person down and then to try and rebuild them again,” he said. “Very dangerous therapy, in my mind, because it implies that the therapist has to be so healthy himself that he wouldn’t take advantage, in any way whatsoever, which unfortunately isn’t often the case.”
Even more dangerously, the doctor didn’t provide any recovery or analysis after the sessions, keeping his patients in a perpetually regressive, childlike state.
“It’s like an operation that opens up the patient and doesn’t close them again,” he said. “This ‘need to please Daddy’, in my case, played out in this relationship with the doctor.”
When writing the book, Gajdics drew upon extensive documentation of his therapy, including his own journals, tape recordings of primal sessions, his five-page complaint to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, and the lawsuit he launched against Dr. Alfonzo after he left therapy in 1996 after about six years.
A recurring theme throughout the therapy was Gajdics’s relationship to his parents, which added another layer of trauma.
“There’s a trajectory of oppression, generally, in my family history that I was also trying to get at in this book,” he said. “What happened to me was one piece of that thread, and I almost see oppression now as something like a force in and of itself that plays out through many lifetimes and in families.”
As an ethnic German, his mother was detained in Communist concentration camps in the former Yugoslavia after the Second World War, while his father grew up an orphan in war-ravaged Hungary.
For most of his life, he only had “splinters of knowledge” about his parents’ history, but as he strove to learn more about them, “everything started to make more sense to me,” he explained.
While Gajdics knew he had to include information about his parents to provide a more comprehensive context for his experiences, he felt deeply conflicted about doing so.
He said his family maintained a “cloak of silence” about what he went through in therapy and weren’t supportive of his lawsuit, and that his brother threatened to sue him when he planned to write the book, something that shocked him. Consequently, he realized what emotional sacrifices he would have to make if he were to go ahead.
“I would have to somehow come to a place in my mind and heart where I could live my life without the support of my family,” he said. Still, he felt that the story was important not just for him but for others like him. “Hearing about this type of injustice sometimes prevents it from happening again, and that was always my hope.”
Despite the multiple layers of traumatic experience and struggle that he and his family have faced, Gajdics remains convinced that the emotional fallout can be overcome.
“The way I see shame is something that is not intrinsic to our nature, but it is something that is like a prison of almost our own making at some point, in that it could be passed on to us…but we can escape it, [and] we can recover from it.”