I just finished reading a book that brought back some pretty bad memories, both my own and those of others I knew. First, a little about the book, which is scheduled for publication this month:
In her gripping memoir, Erase Her, Cassandra Langer talks about being a tomboy and budding intellectual in the 1950s. Her mother was a narcissist, a social climber who wanted a stereotypically feminine daughter that would be an asset in mom’s urge to join an upscale country club. She thrashed the child for not fitting that mold. Pedophile men and older boys abused her sexually, including the cousin who had been asked to babysit her. Her step-grandfather was one of the pedophiles, and he had molested her mother and aunt when they were children.
Nevertheless, Langer persisted in her tomboyish ways, preferring horseback riding and competitive swimming to ballet. Her mother then sent her to Dr. Samuel Kahn’s boarding school for a form of conversion therapy. Like a number of his fellows in the head shrinking industry, Kahn ran what Langer accurately describes as a cult. A sadist, he beat the youngsters in his charge and referred the recalcitrant ones for electroshock treatments or lobotomies.
I couldn’t stop turning the pages, practically holding my breath, until Langer escaped and eventually found others like her on a Florida gay beach. (And eventually, though it is not included in this volume, obtained her doctorate in art history and became a prolific author.) Erase Her is one of the few first person accounts of the cruelties of conversion therapy—a unique and significant contribution to the literature.
Growing Up Under Patriarchal Psychology
Cassandra Langer and I are contemporaries, born in the early 1940s. Reigning psychological theories during our growing years included the three below (even in writing about them I’ve had to restrain the urge to disgorge my breakfast):
1) When women are unhappy, it’s because they suffer from penis envy, not because their options in life are so limited compared with men’s.
2) Having an orgasm via clitoral stimulation is immature. A mature woman climaxes when a man puts his penis in her vagina. In other words, he doesn’t have to do anything but please himself. This theory induced some women, most notably Princess Marie Bonaparte, to submit to three surgeries purposing to relocate her clitoris to the inside of her vagina. Needless to say, the procedures were unsuccessful.
3) Homosexual feelings are transient, normally limited to adolescence. Someone who doesn’t grow out of them is mentally ill and needs therapy. This last doctrine spawned the highly profitable conversion therapy industry.
Like Langer, I turned to psychology journals for information about my adolescent desires and like her, found a malodorous heap of articles written by academics who never questioned the official doctrines. Gays were described like bugs under a microscope—and diseased bugs at that.
Over the years I’ve met many people of our generation and older, people who were thrown into mental institutions, given electroshock, or subjected to various kinds of “therapy” purporting to cure their homosexuality or other discontents. I’ve mentioned a few in my forthcoming memoir, We Set the Night on Fire (to be published in June). Here are a few more:
My Aunt Josefa came home after a difficult birth, when she nearly bled to death. Uncle Benito—whom my father called a “domestic tyrant”—put her and the new baby on a cot in the hall, giving her bedroom to his elderly uncle, who was having some health issues. Josefa developed post-partum depression and was treated with electroshock therapy. Years later, she asked me why men can divorce for no reason under Jewish law, but women can’t. “Men wrote the book,” I replied.
G.W., mother of a friend, started an affair with another woman. When this was discovered, G.W. was hospitalized and given electroshock therapy. Later she came out as a lesbian.
Carol C. and I had a brief affair back in the 1970s. She then moved to California and joined Dr. Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy cult group. Janov said his therapy would cure “alcoholism, smoking, psoriasis, ulcers, bad skin, menstrual cramps, drug addiction, and homosexuality.” I lost touch with Carol after that.
I haven’t met people who had been lobotomized.
Who Receives These “Treatments”
To this date, about 70 percent of those who receive electroshock therapy are women. The most commonly given reason is that women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. Since women continue to be subjected to widespread sexual abuse and male violence, still earn only 77¢ for every $1.00 a man earns, and perform at least 2.5 times more unpaid work than men, it’s no wonder that we get depressed.
Lobotomy is no longer practiced. When it was still in use, women were more likely to be lobotomized than men. According to researcher Jack El-Hai, “Many psychiatrists believed it was easier to return women after operation to a life of domestic duties at home than it was to post-operatively rehabilitate men for a career as a wage earner.” (Black people were more likely to be lobotomized as well.)
Conversion therapy via talk, administration of mild electric shocks or emetics, or food deprivation, prayer and exorcism, and even physical violence is still legal in most of the world. Statista reports that as of June 2022, it was banned in Germany, Brazil, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Malta, and New Zealand. According to Baptist News Global, it was also outlawed in Canada in 2021, prompting a huge rally by conservative evangelicals to protest such bans. Twenty-five U.S. states and 100 municipalities outlaw the practice on minors, but only D.C. bans it for adults as well.
Conversion therapy was and likely still is a lucrative industry, fattening the bank accounts of certain psychoanalysts, psychologists, and ministers. I debated a couple of these headshrinkers on TV in March 1969, three months before the Stonewall Riot, but did not succeed in persuading them to change their wicked ways. As Upton Sinclair said almost 90 years ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That is true even when they are doing demonstrable harm. Baptist News Global cites a peer-reviewed study in the American Journal of Public Health, noting that LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide as those who hadn’t undergone such therapy, and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year.
I am profoundly glad that Cassandra Langer survived a psychologist’s attempt to kill her soul and lived to write about it.
* * *
A Note on Pedophilia
In Erase Her, Langer writes, “There were no laws in the 1950s stringent enough to hold men accountable for abusing children.”
Unlike Langer, I was not molested by members of my own family. But like every woman I know, I encountered abusive men outside the home, including gropers who took the adjacent seat in the movies or exposed themselves on the subway. One terrifying incident occurred outside the Brooklyn Museum, after I’d taken an art lesson. I don’t remember how old I was then, but certainly under 13. A guy tried to show me pornographic pictures. I walked away, saying I had to go home. As I was leaving, he called to me again and when I turned my head, he had exposed himself. If there hadn’t been a tall chain link fence between us, I might have been raped and killed that day.
The laws may be on the books, but enforcing them is another matter. Child molesters rarely get caught. When the molestation happens at home, the young victim rarely is able to report the incidents, and other family members have strong incentives to protect the abuser. Often enough the child is blamed, and in some cultures, murdered to protect the “honor” of the family.