One of the many interesting but perplexing things that happens when publishing a book is the actual story of the book gets reduced, out of necessity, to its barest elements, known as a “hook” or “pitch” while the writer is still marketing the manuscript to publishers, and then while the distributor, after the book’s publication, continues marketing it to book sellers, even as the publisher tries to garner interest from media. “What, in the least possible words, is this book about”? If an author can’t summarize his story in a few words or a sentence—say, if he was suddenly standing next to a publisher or an agent at a party and he wanted to pitch his book—then he’s definitely not ready to market the manuscript. Of course, reducing any book to a catchy “be-all-and-end-all” can often mean figuring out which parts of the story are topical, or newsworthy. In a literary marketplace overwhelmed with evermore books each week, why would a reader pick up this particular new book (in a bookstore or online), invest their hard earned money and then days if not weeks reading it to the end? What makes a media outlet choose to cover one book over another?
While pitches no doubt start out being helpful, they can also have the unwieldy effect of backfiring on the author in that he starts to believe that this savvy summary is really what his book is all about. In the case of true-life memoirs, the memoirist runs the risk of starting to view his own life—at least those parts of his life he has traversed in the memoir—through the rather narrow lens of that pitch. Not only does his book get reduced to a newsworthy hook, his own life, it seems, now becomes reduced to the banal.
“Conversion therapy”—the practice of attempting to “change” sexuality from gay to straight—was not a term that I used, or even heard very often, when I started writing my book in 1997. The truth is, for the longest time I had great difficulty figuring out what the pitch of my book could be, in the same way that I’ve often had trouble summarizing the trajectory of my own life—was my book a “coming out” story complicated by “psychiatric abuse,” “generational trauma,” “childhood sexual abuse,” “religious dogmatism,” or “cultic manipulation”? Obviously, my book was about the trauma of one man who falls victim to a sociopathic psychiatrist hell bent on trying to “change” his sexuality. All of these “hooks” seemed accurate enough, though not particularly topical, but it wasn’t until working with an agent in 2007 that the label of “conversion therapy” took hold. In 2007, however, “conversion therapy” was still rarely, if ever, covered in the media, and so my agent’s letter to potential publishers, which mentioned my years in “conversion therapy,” was met with horror and bewilderment, as if I was writing about a fiction that most of these big wig publishers could not even fathom still existed. Hadn’t gay politics “eliminated” such “barbaric therapies”? Wasn’t this all part of a bygone era—together with the lobotomies of the 1950’s? Did this topic have any relevance at all anymore, to anyone? In their eyes, my book was not at all topical (translation: unsellable).
With a surge of new laws, beginning in 2013, banning “conversion therapy” in the U.S. and even in Canada and other countries, the subject seems to have now formed part of a cultural vernacular, appearing regularly in the media and even in several television documentaries. At the same time, as helpful as the pitch of “conversion therapy” has been in the marketing of my book, continuing to talk about my story (i.e., my life) as being primarily about this one topic does run the risk of adding an expiration date to its relevance, not to mention continuing to reduce my life to the banal. If and when “conversion therapy” becomes universally outlawed (as it’s already been universally discredited), will the book (and my life) retain any lasting merit? Will my life (and the book) still sound “topical”? In the elusive conveyer belt that today’s social media has become, what happens when the apparent topicality of a book becomes culturally passé? Does a life end up in the $1.99 bin?
“Conversion therapy” is, after all, not a wholly encompassing description of the story that I have documented in my book; “conversion therapy” itself is a label that describes a whole spectrum of “therapies” or practices, and so in theory, depending on their life circumstance, each and every person who ends up in one of these “treatments” would have a very different story to tell. Relying on the label of “conversion therapy” to describe my book is actually not so unlike relying on the label of “gay man” to describe who I am as a person. The label of “gay man,” I really do believe, is part of the collective gay identity politics that has flourished in the post-Stonewall era (to escape the “closet,” create just laws, combat homophobia, etc.), but has done so often at the expense of the individual, the subjective. Telling people that I am a “gay man” says little to nothing about my inner struggles, my feelings and sensibilities, my lingering “bad” affects, like shame, that the gay movement claims to have liberated me from; and telling people that my book is about “conversion therapy” says even less about its underlying narrative.
Over the last several decades, “gay people” on the whole have made great strides in not remaining invisible; but I’m not so sure that this collective “gay person” that advanced our visibility has done all that much in furthering the subjective or inner lives of people who call themselves “gay.” I tell the world (usually starting with my family and friends) that I’m “gay,” and for a short time I am elated because I think the whole world now “sees” me—I am “free.” But am I, really? So, the world now knows my sexual-object attraction is not for the opposite sex—but is that enough? On some primal level, a large part of me still feels unseen, remains unexplored or concealed—“closeted,” under a different guise.
In his 2012 book, How to be Gay, author David M. Halperin clarifies further:
…the transformation of homosexuality from sexual perversion into a social identity, and the political requirements of gay pride, have tended to militate against any serious gay inquiry into the inner life of homosexuality—especially those non-sexual dimensions of it that gay people are still unsure or nervous about. Gay subjectivity, and the distinctive cultural practices that manifest it, may now have become just as disreputable, just as taboo, as queer sex. One name for this strategic avoidance of gay subjectivity, for this refusal to explore it, is, quite simply, “gay identity.”
Existentially, summing myself up as “gay” says little about who I am—I call myself “gay” so that I am not subsumed into the heteronormativity that pervades the world around me; but then I look at myself through the lens of that narrow label, “gay,” and still I don’t see my whole being—or if I think I do, then really all I’m seeing is a projection of the collective. I see a cliché, a life reduced to the banal, a pitch. I am trapped once again.
Years ago, one of my brothers, a businessman, told me that he didn’t have “much use for gays.” Considering that my brother already knew, at this point, I was “gay”—his comment left me flattened. How could I even respond to such a remark? What did he even mean? And why would he say this to my face? I never asked, and I never found out (“don’t ask, don’t tell”); instead, in the moment, I just stared at him, confused, dejected. Now years later, I can see that what my brother did with me was similar, on some level, with these literary pitches—he’d reduced all “gay” people (and me, by extension) to their barest elements, so that in his eyes we had no other story, hidden narrative or sensibility, than the universal “gay.” This is the risk of identity politics: in increasing visibility, we run the risk of being reduced to the banal and remaining invisible on some other level. Our identities are now public, but our hearts get stuck in limbo, still closeted.
As in life, the trajectory of any memoir is often messy and non-linear, rarely neat, and hopefully never shallow, and reducing it all in the form of a pitch, useful as it may be for marketing, does little in explaining what a book is really all about. A book is about so much more than its pitch; and a life is about so much more than any identity. My own mother lived through and escaped from three years in a communist concentration camp in Europe, and so the one thing about “liberation” that I’m certain about is that it does not exist, not really. Our bodies may escape the tyranny, but our souls carry on with scars. The walking wounded need to talk, even as they go about their newfound freedom.
Today, I am far more interested in talking about the kind of shame that’s governed my life, instead of avoiding the topic entirely because “gay identity politics” tells me I’m not supposed to have felt it anymore. I am more interested in taking about what it was like to experience sexual abuse as a child, a male child, and then to live through the disorientation of discovering that I was sexually attracted to other males, the same gender as my abuser—I want to talk about this issue, even though my sense is “gay identity politics” would rather I keep quiet. I am more interested in talking about what it was like to grow up as a survivor of trauma survivors, or about being Catholic and fearful that there was causality between the sexual abuse and my emerging sexual desires, and then to fall into the erroneous belief system, as promulgated by the then culture and even my own family, of thinking that if I healed from the trauma of abuse, I might also revert to some kind of a priori attraction toward females. Where do such twisted lies, born from trauma and fed by cultural misinformation, lead a person in their life? “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
These (and more) are the kinds of issues that walked me straight into the barrel of a loaded gun—otherwise known as “conversion therapy”—and so these are just some of the issues, which step far beyond the boundaries of gay identity politics, that I need to talk about today. As important a topic of “conversion therapy” is, both politically and sociologically, on a personal level I have so much more to say. “Coming out,” in fact, demands so much more than telling people I’m gay, and discussing my book’s underlying issues necessitates so much more than repeating the potentially banal pitch of “conversion therapy.”