1- Becoming Gay: A Personal Odyssey
We seek other conditions because we know not how to enjoy our own; and to go outside of ourselves for want of knowing what it is like inside of us. —MONTAIGNEIn Yale’s psychiatry department during the 1960s, most of us studying to become psychiatrists believed that psychoanalysis was the optimal therapy for emotional disorders. The analyst, with his esoteric technique that included a couch, free association, and four or five sessions a week over at least that many years, appeared to have greater access to the hidden recesses of his own mind, as well as to the mind of others, than did the psychiatrist in his face-to-face, once- or twice-weekly therapy. Psychoanalysis also offered an all-encompassing theory of mental functioning and human development, and reading Freud was not only intellectually engaging but great fun. The majority of psychiatric residents at that time wanted to be analyzed; many of us hoped to become analysts.I had wanted to be a psychoanalyst since my third year at Haverford College. In a course on nineteenth-century philosophy I had read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, whose views about irrational sources of human behavior and the unconscious mind intrigued me. Jung’s speculative thinking about myths, archetypes, and archetypal images provided a bridge between my interest in philosophy and a growing fascination with academic psychology. I had no idea that my burgeoning interest in the mind was due to distress and confusion over a longstanding attraction to other boys.In my freshman year I had fallen in love with one of my classmates. I first saw Bob on the train returning to college from Thanksgiving vacation. He had a slender, well- proportioned, athletic body, dark hair, which he wore in a neat brush cut, soft but intelligent brown eyes, and a warm, engaging smile. I thought he was incredibly handsome. I admired how comfortable he was with our classmates and how much they, in turn, appeared to want him to like them. Although too shy to speak to him on the train, I noted his every move and developed a crush and the determination to get to know him. We lived near each other in the same dormitory, and with a studied nonchalance that belied my excitement I’d drop over to his room to chat. We gradually became friends and decided to live together the following year. I moved into the suite he was sharing with two roommates.In my sophomore year a recent graduate of Harvard’s clinical psychology program had joined Haverford’s faculty to teach psychology. He was a demanding and dynamic teacher, interested in psychoanalytic theory and the contributions psychoanalysis had made to understanding human motivation and behavior. In his course on personality we read Freud’s views on homosexuality as a perversion, and I became convinced that I was sick. But from what I learned the next semester about adolescence in his course on human development, I comforted myself with the knowledge that some attraction to other boys was natural and that my infatuation with Bob was a passing phase that would soon be replaced by an equally passionate interest in girls.Since I was never attracted to girls, I dated infrequently. My evenings and weekends were spent studying, often simply to avoid the appearance of having time on my hands. My roommates were all diligent students. Bob was pre-med and worked hard, although his considerable academic achievements often appeared effortless. Another roommate, Jack, was the college German scholar, who immersed himself in German literature in addition to his premedical studies. Their dedication to academic pursuits, along with my own, usually made it unnecessary for me to date except on rare occasions such as the annual college dance, when I felt social pressure to do so.I looked forward to the time that Bob and I spent alone and was jealous when he was with other friends, particularly his girlfriend. I fantasized about spending the rest of my life with him, longed to have unlimited access to him and the time and freedom to touch and be close to him forever. I knew that I had fallen in love, but I believed it was due to his being a kind and thoughtful person. The idea that my desire was the passionate expression of a sexual orientation never crossed my mind. Although Bob and I engaged in casual sexual play, I did not label myself “homosexual.” I did view my attraction to him as a serious neurotic problem since I was uncertain that I fell into the category of those normal adolescents who simply had occasional thoughts about other boys.Midway in my third year of college I was concerned enough about my attachment to Bob to attempt to speak about it with my psychology professor. On the way to his office I recalled his response to a student who had asked him how to distinguish between an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old who had normal homosexual thoughts from someone who was actually homosexual. “You might worry,” he had said, “if you see a soldier in uniform, he looks attractive, and you wonder what his body looks like.” By the time I had arrived at the office door, convinced that he would think I was homosexual even though I was unable to, I decided not to mention being in love and, instead, spoke with him about my career indecision. I thought I detected some incredulity when he asked me if anything else was troubling me, and I uncomfortably responded, “No.”In fact, I was concerned about my future career plans. By the second semester of that junior year I had decided to go to graduate school in clinical psychology in order to become a psychoanalyst, a decision that I knew was partly motivated by concern over my own emotional distress and the belief that I could benefit from treatment. But in the spring of that year, as president of the Haverford–Bryn Mawr Psychology Club, I had the opportunity to spend time with the famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who had been invited to lecture at the college. He was accompanied by his blond and attractive second wife, who seemed quite a bit younger than he. I was impressed by how adoring they were of each other, and though it was clear he would have preferred being alone with his new wife, I took every opportunity to talk with him about the future direction of my career. Fromm had studied sociology and political science before psychoanalysis, but he advised me to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist before receiving psychoanalytic training, assuring me that psychiatry offered more career opportunities and financial security than psychology did at the time.By the end of my junior year I had decided to follow his advice, and I began to take the necessary and arduous premedical courses the following year. Neither my senior year of college, in which I began my premedical studies, the postgraduate year in which I completed them, nor my first two years of medical school studying the preclinical sciences held much academic interest. These courses, however, kept me preoccupied and depressed. I was both too busy to date women and too distressed to be aware of my homosexual desire.Bob told me in the spring of our last year of college that he planned to marry immediately after graduation. Jealous and angry, I tearfully opposed his marriage and told him so. He listened patiently, but seemed relieved that I would be traveling during the summer and unable to attend his wedding. When I visited him on occasional weekends the following years in Boston, where he was in medical school, I was consumed by anguish and jealousy whenever he and his wife would retire to their bedroom. Depression over my separation from him contributed to my lack of interest in sex during this period.I was aware that I had homosexual masturbation fantasies and was occasionally conscious of longing for sexual contact with men, but I continued to believe that my desires were symptoms of emotional difficulties that could eventually be cured. I had read enough psychoanalysis to be convinced, as analysts then believed, that if I was not having sex, I was not really homosexual. Also, at the time I was convinced that in order to be accepted for training as a psychiatrist or as a psychoanalyst I would have to be heterosexual, so in my second year of medical school I set out with determination to date women.The summer before my third year I met my future wife. We went out several times that summer while I was in New York City on a fellowship and she was home from college. I thought it was a sign of the severity of my emotional problems that I was not attracted to women, and my lack of passion made me more eager than ever to begin treatment. With the help of an analyst, and providing I did not give in to my homosexual impulses, I believed that I would be able to put such feelings out of my mind and eventually be able to marry.I did not contact her for another three years. Although exhaustion during my internship year in Cleveland had extinguished most of my social inclinations and much of my sexual desire, I did notice my attraction to some of the men I shared on-call rooms with. I became eager to start treatment the following year to rid myself of these unwanted impulses.Two months after beginning my training in psychiatry at Yale, I started to look for an analyst. I spoke with two. Both were certified to analyze candidates in psychoanalytic training, so I assumed that they would be knowledgeable and clinically proficient. The first was the chairman of the Education Committee of the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis in New Haven. When I called to speak with him, his secretary told me that I could make an appointment only by writing and describing the nature of the difficulties for which I felt I needed to be treated. Since he was educational director of the institute, I thought he would be the best analyst. I should take note, I believed, of his request to put my problems in writing, since this must have important technical significance. Several years later he told me that he was somewhat phobic and avoided speaking on the telephone except when doing so was unavoidable.During the consultation he asked me about my sexual experiences with girls. I had no difficulty telling him that I had none since he, overweight, quite bald, and shy, gave the impression that he was asexual. However, even he seemed a bit surprised by my sexual inexperience and inactivity.
Excerpted from Becoming Gay by Richard Isay, M.D.. Copyright © 2009 by Richard Isay. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.