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.
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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.
As always, thank you for a very strong piece of writing.
Like you and many other women, I’ve known many women who were victims off sexual abuse. Some of those abusers were non-relatives in positions of power. However, the majority of the abusers were either neighbors, members of the family (in all levels of relationship) and people we thought of as friends either of the family or of ourselves. I seem to remember reading some time ago, years ago in fact, that 1 in 4 women have been sexually abused at some point in their lives.
Five of the women I was in serious relationships with over the years had been abused. Bobbi, one of the women, had been abused from early childhood by her grandfather who told her it was okay because they weren’t related by blood…she had been adopted as an infant. She had also been raped by a group of three neighborhood bullies when she was 5 years old. Point of fact, she told her mother (adoptive) what had happened, but was met with skepticism and punished for going down by the creek when she’d been told to stay away from there. Additionally, her mother had a child of her own two years after Bobbi was adopted. Bobbi’s life became one of physical and emotional abuse on top of what was done by her grandfather. She was frequently locked in a dark closet as punishment and suffered night terror the entire time I knew her. She eventually became a drug addict with multiple trips to drug treatment centers and inevitable relapses over the years. One of those times took place while we were partners in 1986. Luckily for me the center offered, and encouraged, counseling for the family, not just the person in treatment. The therapist I met with at Turning Point (New Albany, IN) became my personal therapist for the next 14 years. She explained to me that for Bobbi, and many victims of extreme abuse, that it was a matter of self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol to cope or commit suicide.
Jackie, who became one of my best friends and was my granddaughter’s Godmother, had been physically and verbally abused from early childhood. She started being sexually abused by male relatives (including her brother) and their friends, when she was 8 years old. She did marry, have a son, but when she left husband, he and her father beat her badly enough to send her to the hospital. Jackie suffered from debilitating depression for the rest of her life, was hospitalized several times because of suicide attempts and became part of a support group offered by the county Mental Health Services for the last three years of her life. The last time I spoke with her in February if 2002, she said the psychiatric staff who had been seeing her (part of the County Mental Health/Dept. of Social Services since she was on Medicaid), told her they just didn’t have any medications left in their arsenal that would help. in short, they told her the only option left, since medications and individual and group therapy hadn’t helped, was shock therapy. She told me she just didn’t think she could do that. Jackie committed suicide in May of that year. After the initial gut punch when I learned of her death, my next reaction was to say, literally, “it’s okay Jackie. It’s okay, you don’t have to do it anymore”. Thankfully I understood and didn’t feel guilty over not being able to prevent her death. I say I understood because I truly believe she had the right to make that choice and had not made it lightly…a moot point anyway as I lived 460 miles away.
The other women I’ve known over the years, in relationship with or not, all have one thing in common. They had no control over their lives or their abusers. The type of abuse really doesn’t matter. It’s all about the abuser wanting, demanding, control over our lives. Personally I’ve also experienced both date and marital rape. And while some people say one type of abuse is worse than another, abuse is abuse.
Again, thank you for a powerful piece of writing. I will eagerly watch for the release of your next book.
Cassandra Langer has been a friend for many years. Reading her book was heart-wrenching. These other accounts are equally shocking — as a straight man, I had no idea that so many women were raped or sexually abused as children. I’m glad I had no children from either of my wives, because if someone sexually abused them I would be homicidal. At my advanced age, not many situations about the human condition impress me, except the extraordinary strength of women who survive such abuse and go on with their lives despite the emotional and physical trauma they have endured.