My time undergoing reaparative therapy with a group called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) was recently brought to public attention. The one experience that has stood out and has raised eyebrows across the world was my last session with a JONAH “life coach” (a self described ex gay) who manipulated me into removing my clothing and touching myself in a locked room as he looked on. While that experience is something I have to live with every day of my life, I wish I could say that was the only unconventional “technique” that I was exposed to while attempting to change my sexuality. I’ve decided that it’s time to start talking about some of the other experiences that I endured while attending weekends and group meetings with JONAH and another group called People Can Change.
At the age of eighteen I was directed to JONAH by a local rabbi in my community. I was told that JONAH was supposed to be the answer to my prayers and they were supposedly going to “cure” me of my homosexuality.
Upon meeting with Arthur Goldberg, the director of JONAH, I immediately felt reassured by the false hope Goldberg gave me when he said that anyone could change and become straight so long as they tried hard enough. I wasn’t the only person who was victimized by the false hope peddled by these groups. Many of my friends who went to JONAH ended up leaving after not changing their sexual orientation.
However, after speaking to Goldberg I was ready to do anything these people asked of me in order to become straight. I never thought that accepting myself as a gay person was an option, especially because of the strong Orthodox religious community that I was raised in. As far as I knew, there were no other gay people where I came from and hearing that false message from Goldberg only reinforced my ill informed belief that I can change my sexuality and become straight.
Over the next year and a half I endured many different “processes” conducted by JONAH and People Can Change, processes that they claimed would ultimately serve to change my sexuality. Today, four years later, I’m a proud gay man and wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’d like to tell you about some of the “exercises” conducted by the people who claimed to be “experts” in this field — exercises that left me scarred and traumatized until this very day.
The first thing Goldberg told me that I must do was register for an upcoming “Journey into Manhood” (JIM) weekend hosted by People Can Change. He was very insistent that this was the first very big step that I must take in order to get the ball rolling. Four weeks later, on June 1, 2007, I found myself on my way to a retreat center in rural Pennsylvania, feeling anxious and unsure about what to expect from the next 48 hours.
ABC Nightline aired a segment on Journey Into Manhood and interviewed myself as well as another person who had negative experiences while on this weekend. Unfortunately, the producers at ABC gave us merely 10 seconds of a 21-minute segment, which basically turned into a promotional piece for People Can Change and their “Journey Into Manhood” weekend. During my interview with ABC I spoke about some of the dreadful memories that come to mind when I think back to those weekends. I spoke about what it was like to participate in what the facilitators of the weekend called “guts work,” which is something I’d like to elaborate on.
“Guts work,” otherwise known as psychodrama, was one of the main parts of the JIM weekend. We were split up into groups of ten with the point being to recreate a traumatic memory. This was accomplished by choosing people in our group to serve as surrogates for those deemed responsible for causing those traumas. An example of this would be if someone had an abusive father or mother, they were instructed to pick someone to represent that energy and reenact the distressing situation from long ago with the intention of getting in touch with our “authentic” emotions which they claimed would lead us to healing or reduction of our SSA (same sex attraction, gayness).
So to clarify, the small breakout group spent about ten hours, with each of us given an hour to recreate some of the most traumatic incidents of our life in the hopes of bringing out anger, sadness, or other emotions that came with those memories.
For me, those ten hours were pure hell.
I witnessed people go back to some of the most painful memories of their lives, being sexually abused, being beaten by a parent or classmates, and I watched in fear and horror as every single man “lost it” and started yelling on the top of their lungs and then were encouraged to hit something that represented that anger. So you have someone who’s angry with his father or mother, and he’d be screaming at the top of his lungs while hitting a pillow with a bat or tennis racket and yelling the name of their mother, father or other bully that brought on this anger. As someone who grew up in a household with a lot of yelling, this explosive rage and emotion frightened me.
Despite the facilitator’s reassurance that we were safe, the boiling rage and horrifying screams of people reliving the most traumatic situations in their lives made me feel unsafe, vulnerable and exposed. Though I try to erase these images and memories, they are forever seared in my mind.
When it was my turn to reenact my own traumatic event I was reluctant to participate. But I desperately wanted to become heterosexual and they told me that I needed to step out of my comfort zone in order to complete the “work” that was required to “change.”
I recreated a situation in my childhood that until this day is something I don’t speak about publicly, something too traumatic for me to describe in this essay. I recreated part of the situation and watched it “play out” by the people I picked to represent those energies. I was very detached from the “guts work” and I pretended to get angry and riled up so that I would be able to complete my work as quickly as possible. The event that I reenacted relates to extensive childhood sexual abuse that I endured for a very long time, and watching it play out once again in front of my eyes was so difficult and disturbing, I just wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
After yelling really loud, cursing at the top of my lungs, and even hitting something, as I recall, they asked me to pick someone to represent my parents because according to the facilitators it was my parents’ job to protect me from the abuse I faced, and this tragedy of my childhood was their fault. I was encouraged to yell at my father (someone representing his energy) and blame him for not protecting me.
I have many issues with my family and my parents, but this event that I was reliving was not their fault. One of the saddest parts of reparative therapy is the way it destroys relationships, because clients are falsely led to believe their parents caused their homosexuality. This unscientific and unfounded belief can often lead to enormous resentment, which ends with clients alienating themselves from their families.
One of the many issues I had with this “process” was that licensed medical or mental health professionals weren’t monitoring it. As People Can Change themselves acknowledge, they aren’t a “professional therapy organization,” and so I found myself reliving possibly one of the most traumatic events of my life in the presence of amateurs, which left me feeling unprotected in this explosive environment.
These stories are still only hitting the tip of the iceberg of what reparative therapy was like for me, as time goes by, as I heal from these experiences, I’m becoming more able to write about them and share the experiences that myself and many others endured while attempting to change our sexuality.
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Check out Chaim’s blog Gotta Give ‘Em Hope.