Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wake Me When I'm Straight

I've been thinking a lot about reparative therapy recently, and I think I've figured out why I find it hard to relate to. My difficulty begins with a deep suspicion about the social sciences: I don't think that there are accessible, fixed, “objective” truths about subjective human experiences. I don't know what happened in my past, and I can't know, at least not in a scientific sense. The information that pours in over the course of a human life is just too much: it can't all be processed, much less intercorrelated and accurately interpreted. The problem begins with primary data: when you're living, at the very moment when you're intaking information from your surroundings, you're always filtering, deciding what's left out and what's left in. That means that a large proportion of your experience isn't even accessed at the point when it is immediately present. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when you're looking back, accessing the small quantity of pre-filtered data that you actually recorded for recall, it's still far too much to make sense of it all. Most of it can't even be reliably brought to mind, but the parts of it that can are still a mass of information far too large to be looked at simultaneously. The result is that people are constantly forced to produce narratives – sort of like editing together a single, coherent, two hour long documentary out of ten-thousand hours of footage.

Narrative construction, like essay-writing, generally begins with a thesis or a script. There's some sort of concept that will be developed, and mnemonic proof texts will be brought forward to support whatever hypothesis the mind has settled on. Several classics come immediately to mind:

1. The Conversion Narrative: After a religious conversion, the person often goes back into her past and finds the evidence of God acting in silence before she knew that He was there. 2. The “Born Gay” Narrative: The gay-identified man reaches into his childhood for evidence of early SSA. (There's actually a lesbian writer who re-wrote her autobiography after the gay-gene hypothesis mainstreamed, in order to more cleanly dovetail her recollections with that theory.) 3. The Hand of Fate Narrative: A person imagines that he is fated to fulfill a particular great role, and seeks signs and portents in the past which indicate his future glory. 4. The Emotional Abuse Narrative: After a divorce, a woman comes to construe her entire marriage as a series of degradations, manipulations and delusions. Obviously, we could multiply this list more or less infinitely, and there are countless private variations. The point is that the data of the past is organized in order to fit the psychological purposes of the present, and in order to create a coherent story that locates the individual within a teleological framework that provides life with meaning.

Psychoanalysis is basically the art of helping people to construct productive and useful narratives. The anchoring illusion of objectivity provided by the scientific metanarrative bolsters the feeling that a person is discovering the “truth” about him or herself, and this gives the process additional authority, and therefore additional psychic force. When a psychologist goes delving around in a person's childhood to find the “cause” of their present sufferings, what they're actually doing is finding evidence that will help the person to build up a coherent narrative to explain present problems. By establishing a series of archetypal struggles and images, the psychologist is able to provide the patient with a means of resolving their suffering by symbolically or actually defeating whatever bogeymen get summoned up to fulfill the role of the antagonist. So, for example, if someone “discovers” that their insecurities are the “result” of an over-critical mother, they can then find a way to reconcile with, or stand up to, or otherwise confront the spectre of that mother. If done properly, this confrontation will bring relief, and the insecurity will begin to subside.

The difficulty is that the therapist has to present a narrative that the patient is able to accept and believe in. Reparative therapy has several such narratives on tap: the “father wound”, the “sports wound”, “peer-rejection”, etc. These childhood origin stories purport to explain SSA, and to be fair, I have encountered some people for whom they are able to fulfill this role. However, as Eve Tushnet puts it, “there are all kinds of cases where family dynamics don't explain very much. And honestly--family dynamics are often a reductive and boring explanation for homosexuality.” To me, this really sums it up: the narrative of healing that Nicolosi and company put forward is boring. It's not that I can't find evidence to support it if I go rooting around in my past, it's that if this is the archetypal journey that I'm being asked to undertake then I can't be bothered. Neither the villain nor the prize is sufficiently interesting to justify the quest.

1 comment:

  1. hello, I came upon your blog through steve gershom. I'm on your "side" so please don't read my questions as wanting to fight...just want to learn.

    I recently interviewed someone who has been helped through "exodus." they help people walk out of homosexuality. the guy i was interviewing seemed to believe that the "distant dad, too close mom" was true for him and others he ministers to.

    now to my question...hmm...i'm not sure I can formulate a question. there is one in mind somewhere, but don't know how to articulate it. I guess i'm just a little hesitant to agree with what you're saying. What if those narratives people create are true? I don't think there is no way to prove it or disprove it, right?

    why is "reductive and boring" a bad thing if it is the truth?

    I haven't read enough of your post yet to know what you are proposing is the alternative, so if you wouldn't mind directing my attention to another post, i would appreciate it.


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