I have only been in therapy once and that was, not surprisingly, when I lived in New York City. Not only did all my friends have therapists but my then boyfriend, Joshua Sippen, was studying social work at New York University in the hope of himself becoming a therapist (he had spent eight years as a dancer/waiter).
Buenos Aires is said to have the highest percentage of people in therapy of any city, but Manhattan must come close. Among my friends a therapist was as common as a dentist or gym membership, and certainly more common than, say, a stockbroker. I remember two of my friends going through a protracted and self-dramatising break-up, some of it while staying with me in a house on Fire Island, throughout which both were on the phone to their therapists at least as often as to each other.
This was gay New York in the early 1980s, that period of ebullient self-confidence before HIV/AIDS really hit; a time when we felt everything was possible. Openly gay men and lesbians were moving into the mainstream in unprecedented ways: I had met Joshua at a fundraising dinner at the Waldorf Hotel addressed by former vice-president Mondale, whose presence was symbolic of the growing political recognition of the gay community. I now suspect that much of the apparent self-confidence of the time was no more than surface bravado, but being in therapy seemed just part of becoming a successful American, even if many of the scars and traumas people brought with them were directly related to growing up homosexual in a hostile world.
Joshua and I had gone a couple of times to a therapist who specialised in couples counselling, but he largely told us the obvious, while providing a neutral arena in which we could admit to some of the things that were distressing us. My own expedition into therapy was somewhat more serious, born of a sense that I had certain characteristics I disliked about myself but, after discovering them, felt quite unable to master. Almost as one might read a character in a novel, I ran through my own impatience, my quickness to anger, my tendency to rehearse indecisions and slights over and over in my head, and I thought that maybe a therapist could help me.
I’m not sure how I found Larry. I remember that I wanted a gay man whom I didn’t know, and who was not a Jungian. I have a deep distrust of the spiritual side of Jungian analysis, but I also felt some jealousy towards Joshua’s relationship with his (Jungian) therapist for whom he duly recorded his dreams in a ‘dream book’ kept by the bed and to whom he unburdened himself twice a week.
I first went to Larry at the end of 1984, so it must have been cold and nearly dark in the late afternoon. He lived and worked in a large block of flats on Riverside Drive on the upper West Side, near Columbia University, which seems to be where most New York therapists have offices—the few blocks between 92nd and 96th conjure dim memories of Woody Allen films. There were two entrances to the apartment, so patients never saw each other coming and going; I think I lay on a sofa while he sat behind me, but maybe I have superimposed a more orthodox psychoanalytic picture on what actually happened.
Larry was tall, and good looking in a rather cold and lanky way; I don’t think I ever thought about him sexually and certainly he behaved with disappointing propriety. In that first meeting we discussed why I had come, and I haggled a little over what I might pay, particularly over what seemed to me then outrageous (though it now seems perfectly reasonable), namely that I would have to pay for appointments I missed even if I gave notice of my absence. My friend Don Shewey was seeing a therapist nearby, and we timed our visits so as to be able to meet up afterwards and have coffee and cake on Columbus Avenue.
You might suspect I was not taking therapy as seriously as I could, and that indeed was the case; Larry said that my resistance was enormous. I saw him perhaps a dozen times, during which I talked about ‘the issues’ that had brought me to him, as well as others that had begun troubling me, most of which were bound up in the strange impermanence of my life in New York and my ambiguous feelings about returning to Australia and academia. My last appointment, according to my diary of the time, was on 6 June 1985; I remember saying to Larry that I had lost interest, nor was I sure that much had changed through the experience. I remember wondering when transference would occur, hoping in some vague way that I would develop a crush on him as, according to my crude layman’s view of therapy, I thought was meant to happen. A month later I returned to Australia.
There was, I admit, a certain arrogance in my attitude; if Larry were here he might say that my resistance merely hid deeply buried fears and anxieties. Perhaps I recognised these but also felt better to leave them buried. I don’t deny there are many issues about myself that are worth working on, but I’m not sure that the therapeutic investment is worth it.
You might assume from this story that I am a sceptic about therapy, but in fact this is not the case. I am strongly attracted to the framework, if not the details, of Freud’s grand architectural structures; I believe that we are all governed to some extent by unconscious and repressed feelings, and that there is some advantage to be gained in exploring these. I feel about therapy rather as I do about going to the gym, that other centre of New York gay life: while it would be undoubtedly of great use to me, it is not something I am prepared to work at.
Why this resistance? (I imagine Larry asked himself that, and I wish he were here for me to ask.) Some of it I think is an Australian scepticism, allied to my deeply ingrained rationalist and agnostic view of religion and spirituality. Some is undoubtedly linked to my very strong fear of losing control, which explains, I suspect, why I hardly drink and rarely take drugs. And some is related to the fact that through my adult life I have found substitutes for therapy that offer me ways of coping with many of my semi-conscious fears and desires, though not necessarily doing much about the defects that led me to Larry in the first place.
I went to see Larry while I was writing AIDS in the mind of America, a book I embarked on while living in New York in late 1984, relatively early during the epidemic. I remember quite consciously feeling that to write about AIDS would act as a means of dealing with the fears that all gay men felt in those early years when we knew neither what caused AIDS nor how it was transmitted, and I don’t remember any discussions in therapy that more than skirted around those fears. Looking back, I realise that my writings, which are often in part autobiographical, have acted as a way of dealing with all sorts of fears and self-doubt, probably since I scribbled away at would-be novels in my teens, half historical fantasy, half imitation Wodehouse.
I write constantly, and almost always in ways that relate to my own concerns and preoccupations, although I have learnt various strategies, most of them academic, for disguising the personal element. Increasingly I have become aware that writing is a means by which I both escape from and take control of issues that bother me; one of the great boons of the compact word processor is that I have learnt to write while travelling, and the computer has become as necessary as Valium in getting through some of the worst stresses of too much time in a strange and not necessarily inviting city.
For me, writing and activism have been twin ways of seeking to make sense of myself, which is what leads others into therapy. Gay liberation, which emerged when I was in my late twenties, has been the single largest therapeutic influence in both my life and career. Outsiders often miss the extent to which social movements are about the psychological needs of their participants as well as about challenging external pressures, and in the cultural and political pressure cooker of the late 1960s and early 1970s this was true for a whole range of movements.
Yet what was gay liberation if not a way of dealing with one of the major underlying problems for anyone who is actively homosexual, namely the knowledge that one’s sexuality poses in itself particular problems that demand to be managed as well as all the common problems human beings face in relationships, family ties, careers? It is not the homosexual who is perverse, but the society in which he lives is the name German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim gave to his documentary on the gay movement, summing up the central tenet of the movement. Once you grasped that tenet, it released a great deal of guilt and anxiety and allowed a projection of anger outwards onto what we were beginning to call an oppressive and homophobic society.
Gay liberation, both its public face and the countless small group discussions, impromptu dinners, parties and meetings that went with it, certainly played a major role in helping me bring together my public and private life. I fell into gay liberation when I went on study leave to New York City at the end of 1970; it became the subject of my first book; by 1972 I had become a ‘public homosexual’ in Australia, and either resolved or denied whatever major self-doubts remained.
Like the second-wave feminism of the time, gay liberation had its own consciousness-raising sessions, which were quite intentionally devoted to discussing personal issues, but the therapeutic style went far beyond these: it offered a sense of community, of common purpose, and an alternative to what we dismissed as the alienating and oppressive commercial world of bars and beats. I was only briefly in a CR group (with, among others, the late artist David McDiarmid) but the ethos of exploring one’s feelings and the language of oppression and internalised guilt was ubiquitous in the movement.
The early seventies were a period when the anti-psychiatry views of R.D. Laing and David Cooper were influential, and feminists such as Kate Millett were attacking Freud for his phallocentrism. Gay liberation also developed its own critique of therapy, of the attempts by mainstream psychiatrists (the most famous in the USA were Bieber and Socarides) to ‘normalise’ us. Many of those who became gay activists had their own experiences of therapy, sometimes as brutal as the electric shock therapy portrayed in Alex Harding’s play Only heaven knows. Thus one of the early ‘actions’ of Sydney Gay Liberation was directed against Neal McConaghy at the University of New South Wales, who practised aversion therapy to ‘change’ sexual orientation.
I remember very clearly the time when someone told a group that McConaghy’s favorite music was The magic flute and the scorn with which this attempt to make him more human was received. I had never thought seriously of trying to change my sexuality—which is not to say I never had doubts or unhappiness about it—but others in my consciousness-raising group had, and I was somewhat bemused by the passion with which they attacked psychiatrists and psychologists. One of my closest friends, John Lee (now dead), had long and unhappy experiences with psychiatrists, which he related with some pain.
Not that either the ideologies nor the practices of liberation resolved all personal traumas. I had my share of those, particularly in relationships, but only with Joshua—and several years later, when I was in a relationship with a young actor in Melbourne—did I contemplate a therapist as the answer. I certainly looked elsewhere for help; at some point in the mid-1970s in Sydney, when I was tormented by the particular strains and passions of a difficult but long-lasting relationship, I went to a couple of ‘massage therapists’, that is, people, usually women, who sought to dissolve tension by a combination of massage and relaxation therapy.
A few years later I discovered the other sort of ‘massage therapy’, but that’s another story. I did contemplate writing at length about sex as therapy, or more accurately the way in which searching for sex fills up periods of doubt, loneliness and general neediness, but that, again, seems to be another subject. It’s worth noting, however, that many accounts of prostitution suggest the need to unburden one’s problems is often the primary reason that brings clients to workers.
Much of my cynicism is not so much about specific therapies as about the therapeutic urge, the belief that we need constantly to seek to ‘be in touch with our real feelings’, as if they existed independent of our making of them. ‘Develop your self’ says the advertisement in the Age, ‘Tap into your potential, invest in yourself’. The course in question promises to help ‘set personal boundaries’, ‘explore co-dependency’ and work at ‘self-discovery and self-esteem’.
Since the 1970s, Western societies have tended to adopt increasing amounts of the modern American preoccupation with the self, with the idea that we can constantly remake ourselves, both physically—exercise, diet, cosmetic surgery, liposuction—and psychically, with the apparently unending list of New Age therapies, all devoted to uncovering ‘the real you’. Even American politicians—Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton—feel compelled to share in public their spiritual and emotional struggles towards personal completion. In his introduction to the English translation of Hector Bianciotti’s What the night tells the day, Octavio Paz writes of the author ‘drawing ever closer to his true self … the rigor of that intimate exploration, the search for oneself’.
But I doubt if there is such a person as ‘the true self’; who we are is shaped by larger social and familial forces, and there is no inner essence just waiting to be released by the right combination of therapy, good thoughts and crystals. ‘Oneself’ is a constantly changing persona, and one whom we construct rather than discover.
I do not want to be read as dismissing all therapy, either from a stoic belief that we should be able to do without it or from a crude Marxist determinism that denies any inner psychological conflicts. I am lucky in that I have never had any immediate contact with serious mental illness, though I have known many people who have suffered from depression serious enough to require professional help. My criticisms of the therapy industry therefore are not intended to apply across the board, nor do I deny that different people face very different times and situations.
Part of me shares the common scepticism of therapy as a crutch, the slight disdain for people who are unable to act without first checking with their therapist. Yet I remain enthusiastic in encouraging others about its benefits. When a student came to see me recently in need of guidance I urged him to seek professional counselling, saying that it was no different to going to the doctor if he had a throat infection.
And yet my doubts remain. I suspect that much therapy encourages too solipsistic a view of the world, concentrates too much on the inner space at the expense of the larger social landscape. Maybe a lot of what we did in gay liberation was equally self-centred and narcissistic—Simon Watney has defended it against charges of being ‘a knitting circle’ arguing that much of the personal discussion ‘could not have taken place between a group of socialist men in any context other than that of GLF’. The movement helped create a sense of community and the development of political perspectives, which individual therapy fails to do. At one extreme this might seem to prescribe the sort of politically correct self-confessions that were perfected by the Cultural Revolution. Taken more critically, however, there seems to me real value in trying to marry the therapeutic and the political, to recognise both individual and social forces in the creation of, say, the battered wife, the suicidal teenager, the alcoholic businessman.
I sometimes worry that my very brief brush with therapy disguises a deep superficiality. I recognise that the simplistic solution of just talking it through with one’s friends is precisely that, too simple: sometimes one needs to unburden oneself to someone who is not a friend, who can impose no reciprocal demand on one. But I also wonder whether the rise of therapy isn’t also the marker of a disturbing collapse of intimacy, requiring us to seek professional support to disguise the anomie of everyday relations.
The Catholic Church knew the value of unburdening oneself when it invented confession, and this is why so many people will talk about themselves most openly to strangers when they are travelling and away from permanence. But the church also knew that there is a deeply conservative side to confession, which therapy also perpetuates, namely the idea that all problems can be reduced to individual sins or psychoses, and dealt with in the lonely quiet of sanctuary, the closed world of the therapist’s office. ‘Know yourself’ says the old adage, but it is as important to know the social world in which we live and that shapes us, both externally and internally. Therapy is an important part of the answer as long as we remember it is not all of it.
A few years ago I was at a Gay and Lesbian Studies Conference at Yale University. I sat at dinner near a man who looked familiar. After a few minutes of conversation I admitted that I knew him but wasn’t sure how. ‘You should,’ said Larry, ‘you came to me for therapy.’