Sunday, May 4, 2014

Man Down

One of the reasons that the “distant father/smothering mother” narrative, and other related psychotherapeutic stories, continues to hold clout in Christian circles are the claims that therapists make about their own experience. On the surface, it's very reasonable to think that if someone has worked with hundreds, or thousands, of same-sex attracted clients and has seen a pattern that emerges in the vast majority of cases, their testimony can be taken as highly authoritative.

But there's a problem. Although a handful of clinicians see this pattern over and over and over again, the vast majority of psychotherapists (regardless of their ideological convictions) do not. This points towards an overarching problem with using clinical experience, rather than randomly sampled studies, in order to understand the genesis of homosexuality. What's the difference? Well, in clinical experience if you see a pattern, you might just assume causation. In a randomly sampled study, you're able to investigate whether the pattern is a) universalizable (or at least widespread) in a non-clinically presenting population, and b) whether the pattern is more prevalent in the population being studied that it is in the population generally. 

Universalizability is important because there are often massive differences between clinical and non-clinical populations. For example, no one would ever think it made sense to explain why some people like wine by calling on the expert testimony of substance abuse counselors. A population of non-addict oenophiles will obviously diverge in numerous salient respects from a population of winos – and there may also be significant differences between the population of alcoholics who seek clinical treatment vs. the population of alcoholics who join AA vs. the population of alcoholics who never seek treatment vs.the population of heavy drinkers who manage to sobre up without outside intervention. 

Even if a reparative therapist has worked with thousands of clients, he's only ever worked with a population of people who have chosen to seek, or at least investigate, orientation change. He can't be relied on to have an accurate sense of how his client base differs from the wider LGBTQ community.

A further complication, is that you can't investigate what a man's level of attachment to his parents was during childhood without relying on self-reporting data recalled long after the fact. A number of studies have shown that self-reporting data is often influenced by a subject's perception of the desired outcomes of researchers. We also know, from personal experience, just how unreliable and malleable memory can be. We often remember events differently at different times in our lives, and it's perfectly normal (indeed, inevitable) that we interpret our memories in order to meet our present psychological, existential or ideological needs. 

In therapy, the therapist doesn't just document a person's pre-existing understanding of his or life: the therapist helps the client to build a narrative that will make sense of their circumstances. In the case of reparative therapy, the therapist begins with a pre-crafted narrative and then tries to find events in the clients' life that conform to that narrative. It doesn't matter whether the client comes into therapy feeling that he never really connected his father; it's assumed that if he's willing to dig deep enough he will find the father wound.

One problem with this was demonstrated by an investigation in which a heterosexually attracted journalist signed himself in to reparative therapy, claiming to be seeking treatment for homosexuality. Apart from lying about his sexual attractions, the journalist was honest in filling out an initial assessment and answering the therapist's questions. By the end of the first session he was told that his (non-existent) same-sex attractions were caused by a problem in his relationship with his same-sex parent. The narrative was projected onto the client regardless of the fact that he was a straight man who had a perfectly normal relationship with his dad. 

This doesn't surprise me. In the years that I've been studying and writing about faith and sexuality, I've encountered a number of people who have had experience with this kind of therapy. Some have ultimately embraced the narrative presented, others have rejected it. I know of several cases where people insisted that they didn't have a poor relationship with their same sex parent, and where they were repeatedly told that they were in denial, refusing to co-operate, or failing to dig deep enough. I know of one case in which a young woman was told that all lesbians are the victims of childhood sexual abuse, and when she insisted that she had never been abused, the counselor tried to convince her that she had in fact been molested but had suppressed the memory. In some cases where people have embraced the reparative therapy narrative, the “childhood wounds” that allegedly caused their SSA are really just perfectly normal events that happen to every child, like feeling scared or abandoned the first time their mom left them overnight in the care of another adult.

That's not to say that no gay men have actually been rejected, bullied, mistreated or neglected by their fathers – nor that those who have been are merely inventing their experience in order to please a therapist. Men who have really suffered from paternal rejection do tend to find reparative therapy helpful, but they don't tend to find that it eliminates their same-sex attractions.

I've never been to reparative therapy, but I have been involved in forms of healing prayer and informal counselling that involve trying to resolve present problems by healing and forgiving the past. I recall in one session being told that I should pray for God to give me an image, an emotion, a memory, something that would lead me back to the moment when a particular vice had taken root in my soul. I prayed, and I prayed earnestly, but nothing. The woman leading the prayer continued to encourage me, and it became increasingly socially awkward to deny that I was receiving any kind of deep insight or inspiration. Eventually I began to grasp at the nearest thing that looked like a plausible explanation, and offered that. We prayed over that wound, and moved on. 
I know that in counselling this kind of thing happens all the time, and that when it happens with a client who is less habitually analytical the narrative is often adopted as true. This means that if a reparative therapist has worked with a large group of clients, and has the experience of repeatedly leading his clients to a discovery of a father wound, that doesn't necessarily mean that the father wound has any kind of objective existence outside of the therapeutic process. The therapist thus ends up unintentionally exagerrating the number of clients who had poor relationships with their same-sex parents.


  1. Melinda, I don’t think I’m going to say anything here that you’re really going to disagree with, but let me add a few things to what you wrote that I believe are important.

    I question how far your call for a more scientific/statistical approach to understanding the causes of homosexuality will get us. Imagine a study that found (and I’m picking these numbers out of the air) 45% of heterosexual men and 55% of homosexual men reported lousy relationships with their fathers. Such a study would, I suppose, go a long way to debunking the father wound narrative. But it would run into the same problems of self-reporting that a clinical study would, not to mention the phalanx of problems around how people identify their sexualities. Even if this kind of study is accepted as having any validity, what does it tell me about my sexuality? Does this kind of survey-based research not just as easily become another imposed narrative, and one imposed with all the false claims of positivistic authority?

    I don’t identify as homosexual, but I have sought therapy in a number of different contexts for both depression and difficulties with my sexuality. I had one therapist who did have this whole narrative that he insisted on putting on my shoulders. I lasted about three sessions with him until I had to restrain myself from strangling him. I don’t know much about reparative therapy, but it seems the real problem with it is not only imposed narrative, but also the whole notion of “cure”. The best help I ever got was from people who weren’t trying to cure me of anything, but helped me find my own path to healing, my own narrative. It is true, that the kind of healing narratives you find in this kind of faith-healing group are, as you described, finding a childhood wound and learning to forgive. I think there’s a lot of truth to these narratives, but at the same time I don’t think we should pretend that they’re the final word on anything. I myself am always learning new things and revising my own story. This is fine. We aren’t looking for objective truth, much less ultimate truth. In my case, the first thing I needed was some reason not to commit suicide. Nuances could come later.

    But when we’re talking about the “causes” of homosexuality, what we really mean are the individual narratives discovered by people who have done a lot of self analysis and/or therapy. This means someone who has experienced their sexuality as a problem, a neurosis or a crisis. Someone, of whatever orientation, who is happy and comfortable with their sexuality, not only doesn’t need a healing narrative of any kind, but will probably react with incomprehension if not hostility if you try and give them one.

  2. Hi Melinda ~

    As I was reading 'More Reflections" I thought that you spent too much energy focusing on the "ex gay' reparative therapy movement. This seemed to be validated after watching "The Third Way"

    First and perhaps foremost, I was amazed to see r Richard Cohen show up in a Catholic film. Cohen is ....there is no charitable way to put this .. a dangerous quack.... This interview with your Catholic lesbian sister, Rachael Maddow lays everything out.

    The film reinforces that myth that all gays, especially gay men come from dysfunctional families. A position certainly not held by the Church. I worry that by appearing in it, your ministry will loose credibility with the audience your're trying to reach.

    Best regards,

    Greg Smith


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