A Review of Peter Gajdics’ The Inheritance of Shame

March 14, 2018 § 3 Comments

book coverby Magin LaSov Gregg

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.
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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.

Rejections and the Art of Not Taking it all So Personally

November 8, 2017 § 28 Comments

Peter G 003by Peter Gajdics

I don’t like to tell anyone that my recently published book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir,  was rejected by over 400 agents and publishers. While working on the Acknowledgements page, in the months leading up to publication, I did ask my publisher if I could include a line thanking “the 350+ literary agents and 50+ publishers who said ‘no,’” since they “taught me to persevere.” My publisher cautioned me against adding such a line, since (as she wrote back), “normal folks don’t really understand that great stuff gets rejected for any number of reasons all the time, and that all writers have experienced rejection. They may wonder, ‘What is wrong with this guy? With his story? And they might start looking skeptically at the book or at you. I understand what you are saying here—but I think it might be revealing too much.”

I took my publisher’s point and removed the line from the Acknowledgements. But it never stopped me from feeling thankful to the hundreds of agents and publishers who all said “no.” Oh sure: with each early rejection over the years I did feel devastated. One quite menacing rejection, in which the (esteemed) editor emailed that “books like yours don’t get published anymore,” left me feeling sucker punched, as if my life itself was now obsolete. I read the rejection on my iPhone while walking home from my day job, and by the time I arrived back to my apartment I was sobbing. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I thought afterward. Why do I keep submitting this book, year in and year out, even after so many rejections? I must be crazy.

Such internal dialogues typically continued after each harsh rejection, followed by weeks of numbed confusion, then I was off to the races again: researching more agents; locating other independent presses that accepted unagented submissions; polishing my query letter; tracking all outgoing and incoming correspondence on my spreadsheet; continuing to edit the manuscript; even (sometimes against my better judgment) praying to a God I didn’t know existed anymore. Thoughts that I could not quite imagine my book never finding a home were often interrupted by the paranoia that I had all along just deluded myself—my book was completely unworthy; I was not a good enough person, certainly not a talented enough writer, to ever get published. With each passing “rejection”—or worse: long stretches of silence and then never even hearing back from particular agents or publishers—the cycle continued: internal homicidal dialogues questioning not only the book’s quality but my existence as a viable human being.

My family never wanted me to publish my memoir. At one point, amidst my querying, my older brother threatened to sue me “on behalf of the family” if I continued with the book. No one in my family had ever read my manuscript, but they did seem to know that I’d been writing “something” about having felt estranged from the family as a young (gay) man, my six years in (conversion) “therapy,” during which time my former psychiatrist had tried to “cure” me, the medical malpractice suit I’d later filed against the doctor for treating my homosexuality as a disease—even (or maybe especially), the fact that I’d included aspects about our parents’ traumatic histories in Europe, post World War II. I knew they knew that I’d been writing “something” about all of this—but we did not discuss it. My family’s silences had always been palpable: a white elephant in the room of our shared history.

Rejections from agents and publishers were one thing, but threats from my family eventually all helped sharpen my reasons for continuing with the memoir, from polishing the manuscript, to pitching it to industry folks. At some point along the way, between the tears and bouts of depression, I stopped viewing this influx of information about my book as a direct reflection of my value as a human being and writer, and considered it as helpful advice. Writing a memoir—writing this memoirhas been a journey that changed me from the inside out. I’d always believed in my story, that there was value in sharing it with the world in order to help prevent similar events from recurring again in the future, particularly for young LGBT people, but if enough agents or publishers told me the same thing about one section of the book, then that was helpful advice I needed to address substantively. Maybe I also needed to actually “throw the baby out with the bathwater”—consider the source, and “move on”; not take it all so personally. If my family’s fear was so great as to threaten me with a lawsuit, then that was advice that I needed to use in order to question my personal motives for actually writing the book, as well as my level of healing.

Some very famous memoirists have suggested that writers should always provide their memoir manuscripts to their families before publication, perhaps to ask for “permission.” Unfortunately, after years of scrutiny, I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t think this is always possible, or plausible, even advisable: in some cases, such as for those writing about trauma, especially a history of familial trauma, I think it could even add to the trauma. What this means for the writer is that they are often faced with confronting very difficult questions themselves. Friends can help, but even they can never replace our own conscience. Questions of ethical and moral responsibility, like when is it appropriate to include aspects of someone else’s life without their actual content or knowledge, become crucial. Just because someone says they don’t want you to include aspects from their life in a book you’re writing about your own doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do it—but “how” to do it, and “why” it should still be done, may need to be addressed.

I struggled with all of this while working on my book. The payoff, I would like to believe, helped me create a more universal product, because the process itself forced me to grow and become not only a better writer, but more objective and thoughtful in my approach. Industry rejections, I now understand, were never a reflection of my value as a person, but they certainly have been useful in the execution of a final manuscript—or at least they were once I used them to my advantage, and stopped taking them all so personally.
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Peter Gajdics’ essays, short memoir and poetry have been published in The Advocate, New York Tyrant, The Gay and Lesbian Review / Worldwide, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Opium, where he won their 500-word memoir contest. He is a recipient of writers’ grants from Canada Council for the Arts, a fellowship from The Summer Literary Seminars, and an alumni of Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.” Peter’s first book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was published by Brown Paper Press on May 16, 2017. Peter lives in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @HungarianWriter.

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