Today’s interview is with Peter Gajdics, author of The Inheritance of Shame, one of the books that made my ‘Top 5 Memoirs of 2017’ list. Peter’s book is more than timely given what’s going on in the world today, and his answers to my questions awed and inspired me.
I was completely enthralled by your memoir—not only the subject matter, but the way it was so beautifully written. Can you tell me a little about the process of writing the book? Did you share it in workshops as it was being written, or did you keep it private until it was almost finished?
Writing this book began with my five-page letter of complaint about my former psychiatrist, which I filed through the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, Canada, where my six years of “therapy” had occurred. At the close of that complaint process, and after I sued the doctor for medical malpractice, I used those five pages as the foundation for my book. “What happened” in the therapy (dates of treatment, medications he prescribed and their side effects, other acts of impropriety, etc.) were all fairly straight forward, but bringing meaning to my experiences, understanding how it all had impacted me, took years of writing and re-writing, then more writing and rewriting and soul searching.
I was working full-time when I started the book, so I’d write early mornings, at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., then as soon as I returned home at the end of the day, often till I dropped into bed at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. I started pitching literary agents after a couple of years of writing—far too early in the process, I realize now. I hadn’t healed enough so my reflections were still fairly shallow, more a skeleton, although none of that seemed to matter to me at the time because I felt such urgency about having my story heard and out in the world. Eventually, after a few years of pitching and 250 rejections later, I did manage to secure literary representation with an agent in NYC, then my agent and I overhauled most of the manuscript before he submitted it to a range of top publishing houses. We came close to a sale several times, though today of course I’m relieved it never sold since the manuscript was still extremely primitive.
In the midst of these submissions, my agent left the business, leaving me again without an agent. Over the coming years I workshopped the book twice—at Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices” in LA; and at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts, in Calgary, Alberta. I continued editing, generally living out my life and trying to understand how the story I was trying to tell “fit” within the larger context of my life. One strange and difficult but likely common issue for a lot of memoirists that I faced was that I was healing and changing faster than I could write. Also, the upside of not being able to get the book published earlier is that I was able to constantly play “catch up” and revise the manuscript according to my ever-evolving understanding of past events. As I healed and forgave (myself, and others), the writing became more nuanced, and complicated. “Facts” obviously never changed (specific interactions with the doctor, dialogue, etc.), but a memoir is made of only partial facts, combined with subjective interpretation—the “meaning” of it all.
In late 2015, I hired a developmental editor to help bring everything together. The first thing he did, after reading the manuscript, was tell me to write a chapter-by-chapter summary of the whole book—a daunting prospect to me at the time. We talked about which sections of the story still seemed to be missing, then I edited the summary, went back and wrote new chapters and almost entirely rewrote the rest of the book, based on our new final summary. I had pitched the editors at Brown Paper Press around this time, and they purchased the book soon after. I went through another full round of edits with my new publishers, at which point a lot of the more egregious content in the book was called into question by them, as it had been by countless other editors and agents over the years. I understand why this is necessary—memoirs, perhaps unlike any other genre, need to be repeatedly scrutinized and fact-checked. As a writer and even a reader, I “get it.” But as the person who had lived through the trauma of the story I needed to share in this book, constantly being challenged and asked “Did this really happen? Is it all true?” felt like a form of re-traumatization. Many times in this process, I really just wanted to call it quits. Today, I’m grateful for those intense levels of scrutiny, since they all helped sharpen the book beyond what I could have done on my own, but it’s never been easy.
So much of your memoir dealt with intensely personal issues: family wounds, sexual history and choices, and abuse. How did you find the courage to be so vulnerable with your readers?
Honestly, I never thought of myself, or anything I wrote, as being “courageous”—I just wrote what felt like a matter of life and death. For the first few years after leaving this therapy I was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. I could not imagine continuing to live, since so much of what I had previously believed in, given my trust to and built my life upon, I could now see had been founded on lies, and outright hatred. After living a lie for that long, the only corner to turn is toward truth—you either tell the truth or return to more lies. At first, even the idea of speaking out against the doctor, and beginning to document it all in a book, felt like an insurmountable obstacle. But I also knew that I had to raise my voice in some way as a means of setting the record straight, if only for my own sanity. Writing the book naturally flowed from all of that, and so at that point I really had nothing left to lose. Years of active primal regressive therapy, as well, likely prepared me for a certain level of rawness in the writing. Allowing myself to be really vulnerable on the page was probably the greatest gift I could have given myself.
The core of your book revolves around “conversion therapy,” the coercive practice of attempting to turn a gay person into a straight person. I was completely appalled reading the details of this. To your knowledge, is this still going on or has it been legally outlawed?
The second part of your question (about laws) is probably easier to address first. So-called “conversion therapy” has been banned for minors in I believe 9 U.S. states, D.C., and 28 cities and counties, including in New York City most recently (for adults, as well as minors). Even in my native Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba have enacted their own law and regulation (respectively) against “conversion therapy.” All other U.S. states, cities, and Canadian Provinces and cities have no legal ban.
Whenever I’m asked if these kinds of “therapies” are still practiced today, I usually try and explain that no one who currently endorses or practices what’s commonly called “conversion therapy” will likely ever refer to their own treatment as such—in the case of medically licenced practitioners, for example, they certainly won’t be billing for anything called “conversion therapy.” This is important, since by their very nature these “therapies” are subversive, even shrouded in euphemistic language about “helping to heal” the homosexual, often by learning to overcome same sex desires and to not act on one’s homosexuality (i.e., “love the sinner, hate the sin”). “Conversion therapy” is really just an umbrella term meant to include a whole spectrum of practices aimed at “changing” sexual orientation and gender identity, some more egregious than others, but all emotionally and mentally hazardous, potentially life threatening, since all are all based on the shame-based presumption that to be gay or homosexual is an illness or moral failing, some sort of deviation, that should be cured or healed. When we talk about “conversion therapy,” therefore, we are talking about extreme forms of homophobia and transphobia—a system of beliefs built on lies, and hatred, and the enactment of that belief system by people in positions of power over the vulnerable (counsellors or therapists, religious or secular, with those seeking some form of therapeutic intervention). Framed in this light, I think it’s easier to see how these kinds of “therapy” can still occur anywhere today, under various guises and circumstances, and to varying degrees.
One of the themes of your memoir that fascinated me—and also gave me loads to think about—was the idea that people who have been through war come out on the other side with wounds, and then pass the consequences of those wounds down to their children. My grandfather fought in WWII, and I have close friends whose fathers served in Vietnam and I definitely think this is true. Can you talk a little bit more about how that “war wounding” might manifest in a family?
This has perhaps been one of the most enlightening and fascinating parts of writing my book—learning how my parents’ histories of “war wounding” trauma impacted my own life, including the choices I’ve made along the way. Many authors, such as Judith Herman, Caroline Myss and Bessel Van der Kolk, to name three I’ve read and greatly appreciated, have written about the ways in which trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next and encoded in our cells, eventually even manifesting in our biology. Overall, I think trauma can distort our perceptions, causing us to live out a kind of lie about ourselves and our bodies, and the world-at-large. In some respects it’s as if trauma leads us down the “wrong” path in life, but of course at the same time there’s no such thing as a “wrong” path because trauma is only a kind of “information” that we end up absorbing, but then we also have the ability to reframe it, to see it for what it is, hopefully learn from it and transmute it into something helpful and positive. In this way, embedded in all trauma is the potential to open us up to deep levels of self-awareness.
When I was a child, my father rarely spoke about his own childhood as an orphan in Hungary during World War II, but as he started to write his life story, which I document in my book, I found that phrases he used to describe his own existential crises were almost word-for-word to how I’d always framed my life, even within my book, which I was still writing at the time. Obviously, the circumstances of our two lives couldn’t have been more different—he was straight, I was gay; he was an orphan, I had parents and siblings; he grew up poor and sometimes even homeless in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I was raised in a relatively “safe” and prosperous environment on the west coast of Canada in the 1960’s and 1970’s. At the same time, certain eventual patterns to our lives, especially those that grew out of trauma, were almost identical. How was all of that even possible?
My mother, on the other hand, often did talk about her life during and after the war, the persecution she faced as an ethnic German by national Serbian communists in her native Yugoslavia, her three years in the concentration camp. The thematic similarities between our lives was often arresting to me, and so I’d ask about how she dealt with the kinds of oppression she faced as a means of trying to navigate what I was facing in my own life—even, ironically, the difficulties I encountered as a result of my own parents’ treatment of my homosexuality. My mother had also been the victim of war-time physical and sexual abuse, which is tragically not uncommon for almost all women in times of war, and I had experienced childhood sexual abuse as well. As I moved through adolescence, then entered this therapy, I found that the lines between each of our life stories of abuse often blurred—as with my father, it seemed that certain themes from my mother’s life were echoing through my own life narrative.
As I sat down to write my book, it became clear to me that I could not reflect on my years in this therapy, as well as my history of sexual abuse, without also addressing my mother’s years in the camp; I could not fully understand the palpable grief and sense of abandonment I’d experienced as a child without also learning more about my father’s childhood as an orphan in war-torn Hungary. Gradually, it became clear that my father’s estrangement had become like my own, later in life; I had experienced or at least ended up viewing my life as a gay male survivor of childhood sexual abuse through the lens of being “incarcerated,” not unlike my mother in the camp, within my own corporeal self. There was a trajectory to all of our life stories—from my mother’s abuse and my father’s isolation, to my own abuse and alienation from my family—that had carried on from one generation to the next. As a survivor of trauma survivors, I learned how to navigate or “silence” my own abuse in order to protect my parents’ from their own. My own shame and fear of annihilation, oppression, “fit” within the larger context of my parents’ lives.
Whenever I’ve heard my parents talk about their first years after escaping Europe, I have no doubt that they were suffering through extreme “post trauma,” though of course that label had yet to be invented. I also emerged from the therapy with extreme “post trauma,” as if our lineages were once again repeating, searching for resolution. Today, I really do believe that oppression, in whatever form, and of course its expression of trauma, is a force all its own, spreading like wildfire and manifesting in each of our own particular life circumstances differently—but it’s all still the same old oppression. How I’ve dealt with my own version of it as a gay male survivor of childhood sexual abuse who also fell victim to a form of “conversion therapy” is not that different from how someone else might deal with their version of oppression; the point, I think, is that we are all able to step outside of oppression long enough to be able to see it for what it is: destructive, and antithetical to what it means to be human and free. We all have the ability to overcome oppression and trauma—to allow it to sweep us down in its path, or to overcome it.
How did members of your family react to your memoir? Did some members of your family choose not to read it? I ask this because this has definitely been my experience with my own memoir. Some members of my family have said they’re not comfortable reading it, and I’m wondering if you’ve had a similar experience.
For reasons touched on in the book itself, I decided long ago that I could not share news of the book’s publication with most of my family. I did end up telling one family member. That person told me that they tried to read the book, but stopped after only a few pages because they found it “too painful.” I have to respect their decision, and of course I understand how difficult it must be to read about someone you love going through years of abuse, but of course it still hurt. Not telling the rest of my family about the book has mostly been because of my mother, who’s now 93 years old. I wrestled for a long time with the dilemma of whether or not to tell her about the book’s publication. Considering our difficult history, her adamant opposition to the book’s subject matter as I was writing it early on, and some very graphic content that I know would be deeply unsettling to her, I decided that it would be to no great advantage, not to her and definitely not to me, if she found out about it. Obviously, keeping this kind of very public news a “secret” has been challenging, even Kafkaesque, especially when it’s come to navigating media. I’m guessing this whole double bind is common for many memoirists. How do we write the truth of our own lives when the need to write is so great that it can feel like needing to breathe, and yet writing that truth means by necessity also needing to write about other people, like family members, many of whom may still be alive and opposed to being included in a memoir? I’ve heard writers say, “I just don’t write the story.” Or: “I wait till they’ve all died.” To me, however, those never felt like viable options.
What kinds of reactions have you received from readers? How do you deal with readers who have a negative reaction to the book?
I’m happy to say I’ve received or heard of no “negative reaction,” at least thus far. The most immediate responses I’ve experienced of course have been at readings and during the launch period, when people thanked me for writing the book; a few people have sent me emails, and then there are on-line reader reviews, all of which have been incredibly supportive and positive. I’ve also had a real mixture of straight and gay people thanking me for the book. One married woman in Seattle, who attended a reading with her husband and daughter, approached me afterward in private and told me that writing about my history of childhood sexual abuse helped her to want to tell her own story of sexual abuse, which she had never even mentioned to her family. Another woman approached me after a reading in San Francisco recently; she almost couldn’t talk, she was so moved. She just wanted to hug me, so of course we hugged, for quite a long time, actually. I don’t know what her story is, but I’m glad she felt moved by mine not only of abuse, but of the need to speak up and be heard, that healing is possible, especially in light of the #metoo movement.
Any more books planned for the future?
I recently received a writer’s grant through Canada Council for the Arts (Canada’s national endowment for the arts) for a new book, so I’m working on something now. I won’t say much about it just yet, since the creative juices are still percolating!
Where can readers find out more about you?
The book’s website, at www.inheritanceofshame.com, has lots of information, including links to all ongoing media coverage and reviews, as well as a blog. I also have a personal writer’s site, at www.petergajdics.com.