Near the end of the fall semester, I facilitated a campus discussion on shame, vulnerability, and storytelling. To begin, I introduced community college students to the work of Brené Brown, who has called shame our “most powerful master emotion.” Brown maintains a two-part antidote for disrupting shame’s ability to silence and inflict harm: We must tell our most shameful stories. And our audiences must meet those stories with compassion. Shame “cannot survive empathy,” Brown has said.
But what happens when the audience we need fails to offer empathy? And what is at stake for a human life if shame is exploited, not disrupted?
Peter Gajdics’ exquisite first memoir The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir artfully examines these questions, and provides a compelling case study vis-à-vis Gajdics’ harrowing experiences in gay conversion therapy as a young man coming of age in Vancouver. Through this visceral and captivating book, Gajdics exposes how shame entrenches itself within the body and hides deep inside our cultural and family systems. As he explores traumatic events within his life and the lives of his parents, Gajdics powerfully reveals the intergenerational legacy of shame. At its heart, The Inheritance of Shame is a book about what it means to fight for one’s humanity, and what we risk in the battle to save ourselves.
Growing up in a conservative Catholic family, Gajdics internalizes shame handed down by his faith, learning early in life that, “There was no happy ending for the homosexual.” Teachers at his parochial school taunt him with his own name, then pronounced Gay-dicks because Gajdics father was unaware of the idiomatic connotations of this pronunciation when he chose it after emigrating to Canada from Hungary.
“But I was everything they named me, and more,” Gajdics recalls. “My name was like marrow, built into my bones. There was nowhere I could go to escape my insides.”
He learns quickly to hide his sexuality, and at the same time longs to explore his attraction to men. As his secretive encounters are increasingly stripped of intimacy, Gajdics seeks the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, who prominently displays the opening lines from A Course in Miracles over his desk: “This is a course in miracles. It is a required course.” Perhaps those statements should have been a clue to flee; yet, Gajdics is a vulnerable and trusting narrator, which makes him compelling. He remains innocent of the harm Alfonzo will soon inflict on him. When Alfonzo tells Gajdics, “God created Adam and Eve … He didn’t create Adam and Steve,” the young man sadly believes him.
The psychologist, in turn, subjects Gajdics to violent psychological methods that employ sexual shame as a weapon. Alfonzo refuses to acknowledge a rape in Gajdics’ childhood and further silences him by saying, “Your sexuality will take care of itself.” Alfonzo grounds Gajdics’ treatment in questionable re-parenting theories and a book called The Primal Scream by Arthur Janov. Patients reenact childhood traumas in sessions called “primals” –– full of screaming, as the name suggests –– and they are “re-parented” by other patients. One danger of this therapy, of course, is its suggestion that a failure of nurturing caused Gajdics’ homosexuality, and that nurture will change him. Alfonzo sees Gajdics’ sexuality as an error, and Gajdics internalizes this belief.
As time goes on, Alfonzo medicates Gajdics to dangerous levels without Gajdics’ consent, and Gajdics eventually moves into a house with other patients. Their lives revolve around primals and the preparing of elaborate vegan meals for Alfonzo. While friends and family fear Gajdics has been swept up in a “therapy cult,” he clings to Alfonzo for years, losing touch with any reality that exists outside therapy, with the exception of his creative writing studies at Vancouver Community College. In the most trying moment of his life, storytelling offers Gajdics a lifeline.
The turning point in his life and this memoir occurs when he watches a male and female patient fall in love, and he realizes, “If real love truly was based on a kind of ‘nakedness,’ I thought, then there was no logical reason why two men, whose souls were neither male nor female, couldn’t experience it as well.” The fact that Gajdics reaches this conclusion while entrenched in Alfonzo’s treatment is the true miracle of his story. And it is only by telling stories once imbued with shame that Gajdics extricates himself from Alfonzo, first by complaining to a medical board and then by initiating a lawsuit against the psychiatrist.
It is illuminating to read The Inheritance of Shame at this cultural moment, when stories of sexual trauma interrupt shame on a global scale. Through storytelling, Gajdics resists the narratives of his abusers, learns to privilege integration over abjection, and finds self-worth. His journey as a writer runs parallel to his journey toward self-acceptance. And his portrait of what it means to disrupt shame –– and it co-conspirators of secrecy and silence – values the interconnection of family, history, and culture, which makes his writing especially resonant now.
In its 2000 position statement on so-called reparative therapy, the American Psychiatric Association maintains, “anecdotal reports of cures are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm.” Gajdics’ memoir actively resists this harm, and goes far beyond anecdote to demonstrate the life-threatening dangers inflicted on LGBTAIQ+ people to this day, in the name of religion and medicine. Today in the United States, only nine states have outlawed gay-conversion therapy for minors, and powerful Christian institutions such as Focus on the Family and The Family Research Council apply continual pressure on Republican lawmakers to oppose anti-conversion therapy laws. Yet, Gajdics’ memoir gives me hope that when the professionals we turn to for counsel present the greatest threat, narratives asserting inherent human worth and dignity may prevail. ___
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Post, Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website, and she swears she will finish her memoir in 2018.