When Homosexuality Was a “Disease”: My Story of Abuse

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In September 1962, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire forced my roommate, Geoffrey, and me to undergo two years of psychiatric treatment to be cured of our homosexuality.  We were just children, 16 years old, and we were faced with the Herculean challenge of becoming heterosexual while living in an all-boys’ school without so much as the sight of a girl.  Our first sexual experience was treated as though it were a crime and a sin as well as a mental illness.  The Academy did not tell my parents why I was required to undergo psychiatric treatment, and they did not ask.

Every week my male psychiatrist bombarded me with threats like these:

“If people know that you are a homosexual, you will never have any friends and you will never have any job.”

“All homosexuals end up bums in the Bowery.”

“You are a homosexual because you identified with the women in your family, but it is not too late.  Now you can identify with me and become normal.”

“You should marry a woman just like everybody else, but you must never tell your wife that you are a homosexual because if you do, she will be worried every time that you go bowling with the men from your office.”

I realized that there was a very real danger that my psychiatrist might drive me insane, and I did everything that I could do to prevent it.  My strategy consisted mostly of reading books by famous homosexuals including James Baldwin, Jean Genet, André Gide, and Oscar Wilde.   I also wondered if my psychiatrist might be working out on me his own repressed homosexuality.  After all, he had made a career in the Navy as a physician examining the bodies of young sailors, and now he was spending his last years in a preparatory school for boys.

I was being tortured and I knew it.  After one year of this psychiatric abuse, in the summer of 1963, I had my first hallucination.  It was a beatific vision.  Now I had to admit to myself that my psychiatrist had indeed driven me insane, and there was no one with whom I could talk about it.  I was mostly afraid of being locked up in an asylum for the rest of my life.  Since my hallucination was religious in nature, I had to ask myself what the difference was between mystical ecstasy and schizophrenic delirium.  If they were the same thing, then all theology had to be questioned.  I started reading voraciously: books about mysticism and theology, especially those of the German theologian Paul Tillich.

From Harvard to Hospital

In 1962, I entered Harvard. During my first year, I became totally psychotic.  I wrote an essay about my religious experience, “The Phenomenological Proof of God,” and handed it to Tillich (a professor there) four hours before the last sermon of his life, which ended with the words “The Son of Man is in our presence.”  I then suffered an acute paranoid schizophrenic reaction.  The Harvard Police drove me out to McLean Hospital, formerly known as the McLean Asylum for the Insane, and there I spent the next 13 months.  There was one face I recognized on my ward: my Exeter roommate, Geoffrey.  I shall never forget the expression of compassion and horror I saw in Geoffrey’s face when he realized that we were both now mentally ill and sharing the same fate.

The psychiatrists advised my parents to sell their house, as they expected me to be confined forever.  They also told them that they should have no further contact with me because it was their fault that I was insane.  For months I had no idea why my parents had abandoned me when I needed them the most.  I only found out 30 years later when my mother told me.

Psychiatrists did everything that they could to discourage me.  After I had been hospitalized for one year, a psychiatrist informed me that when I had arrived, I was the most severely mentally ill patient who had ever been in this hospital, which was 125 years old.  They told me that I should never return to Harvard.  They filled my veins with Thorazine and Stelazine.  They turned me into a zombie.

After those 13 months, my parents’ money ran out and I was transferred to a less expensive hospital.  There I was allowed to stop taking drugs.  After two months, I was released.

Throughout this time, I knew very well why I was sick.  My Exeter psychiatrist had driven me insane by trying to repress my homosexuality.  I had refused to discuss homosexuality with my psychiatrists since I knew that they thought that it was a mental illness and I did not.  Likewise, I never mentioned mysticism with them since I knew that they had no competence in theology. I vowed to myself that I would never again trust a psychiatrist.

Upon my liberation, the first thing that my mother told me was this: “You will never be able to buy health insurance in the United States.”  American insurance companies do not sell policies to people with a history of psychosis.  Thoughts raced through my head: First, America drives me insane because people think that the American landscape would be more beautiful if it did not include any homosexuals. Then, it punishes me with incarceration, and finally, it tells me that to be eligible for health insurance, I will have to spend my entire life in exile.  The United States is the only country I am aware of that has ever obliged its citizens to emigrate to obtain medical service.  As a consolation, I told myself that if my schizophrenia had prevented me from having health insurance, it had also saved me from the draft and being killed in Vietnam.

Love and Exile

I knew then that the only remedy for my troubles would be to live openly.  The minute I was released I overcame all my sexual inhibitions.  I returned to Harvard, where I soon fell in love with Mark, who had just escaped from a mental hospital in Connecticut.  He was 18 years old at the time, two years younger than I.  His life had fallen apart after a Catholic priest seduced him when he was only 14.  His story was so similar to mine: First, American adults destroy our lives, and then they punish us by locking us up in insane asylums.

Mark’s tender loving care cured me of my schizophrenia.  And as soon as I graduated in 1968, I went into permanent exile, living in Europe and Canada, where I  taught English at various universities.  I have not consulted a psychiatrist or taken psychiatric medicine since being released from the hospital in 1966.

Europe seemed like a good place to live as a refugee.  After all, I already spoke French fluently and was proficient in German and Italian.  During the nine years that I was teaching there, I added Polish and Spanish to my repertoire.  Communicating in foreign languages is wonderful therapy for a person recovering from psychosis.  When I speak German, for example, everything that I experienced while speaking English seems to belong to another person, another country, another epoch.  There is also the comforting idea that if I say something really crazy in a foreign language, people will just assume that I have not learned the language correctly, whereas if I say something bizarre in English, people suspect that I am really out of my mind.

Moving to Europe also helped set a barrier between me and my bad memories of America.  Sometimes when I was walking through Bonn, I would hear American tourists talking with each other.  Just the sound of their voices made me jump, frightened, as they brought back so many memories of traumas that I had experienced in the United States.

The men I had loved were not so fortunate. My Exeter roommate, Geoffrey, continued seeing psychiatrists until 1974, when he committed suicide.   I have always blamed myself for ruining his life and causing his death.  Most people would say that this idea is totally irrational, but I just call it “survivor’s guilt.”  Geoffrey does not deserve to be dead, and I feel that I do not deserve to be alive.  After the Phillips Exeter Academy separated us and made us see psychiatrists, I had vowed never to contact Geoffrey after our brief reunion at McLean Hospital.   He needed to forget about me and what we had done together, I thought.

But when I heard of his suicide, I realized that I had been wrong to abandon him.  Perhaps he had thought of me every day for the past 12 years, just as I had thought of him.  If we had simply been left alone and allowed to love each other as we wanted, he would not have killed himself and I would not have become psychotic.  I hold that psychiatrists are responsible for his death and for my mental collapse, but they will take no responsibility for either.

A few weeks after I left America, Mark was discovered by the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who chose him to be the star of his movie Zabriskie Point.  Antonioni was looking for the angriest young man in America for the principal role in his film about young American Marxist revolutionaries, and he found my Mark, 20 years old, standing on a street in Boston having an altercation with a sailor.

I was in Europe throughout Mark’s film career.  In 1973, Mark decided to start the Revolution by staging an armed robbery at his local bank, but his socialist apocalypse never happened.  In 1974, when Mark was in prison and I was teaching in a German university, I told him: “You are the suffering Christ.”  It was the sincerest statement that I have ever made.  One year later, he died in prison at the age of 27.  The official story says it was an accident, but I believe his fellow inmates killed him. I have never stopped worshiping him.

The Struggle Against Homophobia 

During my lifetime, the lives of homosexuals have greatly improved in North America and Western Europe.  The horrors that I was forced to undergo are now unthinkable, but they continue to raise questions about the ethics of psychiatry.  During the 1950s, psychiatrists used different techniques to “cure” homosexuality, including electric shock “therapy,” insulin comas, lobotomies, and chemical castration.  Under the influence of behaviorism, the homosexual patient was shown the picture of a naked man on a screen and given an electric shock.  The picture was then replaced by a picture of a naked woman at the same time the shock ceased.  The purpose of this torture was to make the patient associate homosexual desires with pain and heterosexual desires with the removal of pain.

The American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental illness until December 15, 1973. That is when, at its annual meeting in Boston, a homosexual psychiatrist (wearing a mask to hide his identity) pleaded with his colleagues to remove homosexuality from the manual of mental illnesses.  Meanwhile, the Canadian Psychiatric Association had said right along that homosexuality was not a mental illness.  It remains a mystery how sexual orientation can be pathological on one side of the border and healthy on the other, or how it can be an illness one day and perfectly normal the next.

This all goes to prove that psychiatry is not a science at all, but rather a potpourri of psychiatrists’ prejudices, phobias, and uncertainties.  The American Psychoanalytical Association has apologized for having once treated homosexuality as a mental illness, but the American Psychiatric Association has yet to do so.  It is difficult to imagine how much money psychiatrists once made by trying to convince homosexuals that we were mentally ill and that the remedy could be found within their offices.

At present, conversion “therapy” for homosexuals has been banned in 20 American states, mostly on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.  Canada and Germany have drafted laws to ban it, and it is expected that they will soon come into force.  However, Russia still has a law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda.”  This essay would fall within that category.  There are towns in Poland that are proud to announce that they are in “LGBT-free zones,” meaning that sexual minorities are not welcome there.  In 72 countries, homosexual activities between men are still considered criminal, 44 countries outlaw lesbian relationships, and 11 countries consider homosexual activities to be a capital offense.

The Italian writer Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and then committed suicide when he returned home to Italy, said: “Chi è stato torturato rimane torturato”: “He who has been tortured remains tortured.”  This is the story of my life.  psyc

Repressed Homosexuality and Schizophrenia 

During my extensive reading about schizophrenia and schizophrenics, I have sought examples of men whose illness was like my own; in other words, people whose schizophrenia was caused by the repression of their homosexuality.  Today’s psychiatrists, all of whom I consider to be charlatans, refuse to recognize that sexual repression can cause mental illness, even though Sigmund Freud himself was the first person to advance this idea.

Through my research, I have discovered four famous schizophrenics whose illness seems to have been caused by the repression of their homosexuality.  They are the German judge Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the Québec poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941), and the American mathematician John Nash (1928-2015).  I have published articles about all four of them in the Chinese review Journal of Literature and Art Studies.

Nietzsche, for example, was the most famous German philosopher of the 19th century.  As I explain in my article, he became totally psychotic in 1889 at the age of 45 and spent the last 11 years of his life in a vegetative state, living first in an insane asylum and then in custodial care given by his mother and sister.  In 1989, Joachim Köhler published a book that revealed the story of Nietzsche’s homosexuality: Zarathustras Geheimnis (Zarathustra’s Secret).  This book created a scandal among Nietzsche scholars because its ideas demonstrate the homophobic point of view of Nietzsche’s many biographers who discuss his barren sexual life and lack of heterosexual relations without once considering the possibility that Nietzsche was a homosexual.  According to Köhler, Nietzsche started making trips to Italy at the age of 37 in search of homosexual adventures.  At the time, Germany had a law punishing homosexual acts by up to five years’ imprisonment.  Italy had no such law, and thus it became the favourite destination of Germans looking for homosexual pleasures.

One of the major arguments of the anti-psychiatry movement is that psychiatrists never agree among themselves, and Nietzsche’s case offers a perfect example.  Serious, respected, and erudite psychiatrists have written brilliant, scientific articles “proving” the real cause of Nietzsche’s psychosis.  The problem is that they all disagree with each other.  Some say that his psychosis was due to a bipolar illness, some say it was due to schizophrenia, some say that it was due to syphilis, and some others say that it was due to a brain tumour.  His friend Richard Wagner claimed that the real cause was excessive masturbation.  As I say, I strongly believe it was due to his having to deny who he was, both to the world and to himself. It should be no surprise that my article about Nietzsche caused much controversy among Nietzsche’s admirers, whose homophobic prejudices have blinded them to what seems obvious.

I have managed to spend the last 55 years outside of mental hospitals whereas Nietzsche was confined for 11 years.  One major difference between him and me is that I always knew what the cause of my psychosis was, and he apparently never did. For the past 25 years, I have enjoyed a stable and happy relationship with my husband, who is a local man here in Québec.  My advice to young Americans struggling with mental illness is to learn foreign languages and start life over in another country that is less violent and less confused.

 

 

 

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for raising this important issue. In the early 90’s I met a man who had suffered, “electric shock “therapy.” He said don’t ever do it. I had no intention of doing any such thing.

    Your school and psychiatrist were evil. People deserve compensation for these sorts of harms. Sadly that is unlikely to happen.

  2. Great article! Thanks for taking the time to share it. I very much agree with you that trying to repress gay feelings can lead to being mad. I never experienced the kind of oppression you did, but I still found I was induced to turn against my own feelings in a way that contributed to madness.

    And thanks for pointing out that psychiatry in the US has still not apologized for pathologizing gay people. One more sign of lack off accountability.

  3. Your ending advise made me smile, thank you. I’m personally so sorry for the harm psychiatrists did to you, and am very grateful more people are accepting of the LGBT community today, in part because I have a couple children in that community. Your theory of what made you “psychotic” may be true, I don’t personally know.

    But I do know that Thorazine and Stelazine could also have made you “psychotic,” both while you were on them, and/or after you were weaned from them. Since the antipsychotics can create “psychosis,” via anticholinergic toxidrome. And withdrawal from them can result in what’s known as a drug withdrawal induced super sensitivity manic psychosis.

    I’m so glad you escaped psychiatry and have enjoyed a long term happy relationship, and it sounds like a very productive and happy life. That’s my prayer for my children, too, and so far their both doing well. Kudos, thanks for sharing your story, Robert, and God bless.

  4. All this frenzied effort Mr. Dole, et. al. had to endure reminds me of the days I was treating various individuals for distorted perceptions with basic B3 and C therapy. Having read Linus Pauling and David Hawkins, MD, I made a point of warning the proper “clients” who I knew were gay, that gay males receiving megavitamins sometimes found that their sexual orientations involuntarily changed, and that I couldn’t do anything about this side effect of treatment, as I was dealing with his dysperceptions, instead.
    Now, I find that Mr. Dole has had to undergo years of useless punitive treatment at the hands of bunglers with MD degrees in attempts to achieve, what for me, was a routine hazard of my sideline practices.

  5. Thanks for the life accounts Robert.
    Psychiatry just likes to frame people.
    It really is all just slander, no matter what label they use.
    A highly scientific field dontcha know.

    The funny thing is, now we can listen to and observe people and we can diagnose each other, it’s that easy.

    Life is really about luck. And it’s very much luck if one never meets a shrink. To get an informed one, informed about life, is almost zero percent chance.
    And things have not changed since you had the honor of being shrunk, they are getting more angry every day.

  6. Regarding possible reasons for the madness of Nietzsche checkout God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos, by Arthur Evans. In fact Dionysos, the only ‘god’ I find myself attracted to warns how trying to suppress Divine Madness, which would involve ecstasy. and sexual freedom, can cause a much more pernicious for of madness which is very destructive!

    I am gay, and know what homophobia feels like, but THANKFULLY I missed the insanity of when ‘homosexuals’ had to endure torture to ‘treat’ them. Think of poor Alan Turing, he who helped crack the Enigma Code, and was an early innovator of the computer. Just for being ‘busted’ having a sexual retaliations with a young dude he gets the ‘choice’ of prison OR ‘homosexual aversion therapy’ which he chose, and it was basically chemical castration. He started growing breasts and ended up killing himself!!

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