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May 16, 2017

Book Notes - Peter Gajdics "The Inheritance of Shame"

The Inheritance of Shame

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Peter Gajdics' memoir The Inheritance of Shame is a powerful and important account of conversion therapy and its aftereffects.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Raw and unflinching: a powerful argument against conversion therapy as well as the healing power of memoir."


In his own words, here is Peter Gajdics' Book Notes music playlist for his memoir The Inheritance of Shame:



The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir is about the six years I spent in a bizarre form of therapy aimed at "curing" me of my homosexuality. Juxtaposed against my immigrant parents' own tormented histories, my story details the damaging repercussions of reparative therapy, while exploring the universal themes of childhood trauma, oppression, and intergenerational pain.

Early in the book, I write about growing up on the west coast of Canada in the 1970's, trying to escape my volatile family, as well as my conflicted sexuality, while listening to specific LPs on my portable Denon turntable:

"Bohemian Rhapsody," by Queen
"The Show Must Go On," by Three Dog Night
"Someone Saved My Life Tonight," by Elton John
"Yesterday," by The Beatles

My mother, a German born in the former Yugoslavia, and I often spent time alone in the kitchen while my brothers and sisters played outside on the street. Helping my mother bake anything from the "the old country" always meant listening to her talk about her childhood, which would inevitably lead us to stories about her years in the concentration camps, where she had learned, before her escape, about the scarcity of food. Once, in the middle of her baking, the melody of a song from her childhood started playing on our portable Sony AM/FM transistor radio:

"Those Were the Days," by Mary Hopkin

During these same childhood years, my eldest sister, Kriska, ran away from home, and certain songs from that time had always haunted me of the night she left for good:

"Runaway," by Del Shannon
"Superstar," by The Carpenters
"Killing Me Softly," by Roberta Flack
"Wildflower," by Skylark

A few years later, in my grade nine sex-education class at my all-boys Catholic high school, I learned all about the "lifestyle of the homosexual," which sounded frighteningly similar to my own secret desires. Like a revised Book of Revelation, the final chapter of our textbook explained it all, beginning with the homosexual's choice to act on an immoral and intrinsically disordered behavior, and ending with their self-imposed misery, diseased body, and assured annihilation. There was no happy ending for the homosexual. Only during art class, painting and drawing while listening to my favourite top 40 hits on the AM radio station, was I happy:

"The Logical Song," by Supertramp
"Sail On," by Commodores
"Dog and Butterfly," by Heart
"Baker Street," by Gerry Rafferty
"I Like Dreamin'," by Kenny Nolan

My best childhood friend, Tommy, and I, spent nearly every weekend throughout our late teens at the downtown gay dance club, The Gandydancer, or driving around town in his father's Park Avenue model automobile, singing along to tapes of our favorite songs:

"Careless Whisper," by Wham!
"If I Was," by Midge Ure
"True," by Spandau Ballet
"One of Us," by Abba

By my early twenties, in the mid-1980's, I was trying my best to appear as my family had always expected me to become—heterosexual. Pearl and I met one night while volunteering at a local crisis center phone line; that same evening we discovered our mutual love of the confessional poets, probably because we were both keeping secrets. Pearl and I became inseparable: reading poetry and plays aloud till all hours of the morning, listening to music while lying tangled like weeds on our beds. More than any other, one album became the anthem for our relationship:

Filigree & Shadow, by This Mortal Coil

Pearl and I went to many movies together, late night screenings of Sid and Nancy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pick Floyd's The Wall, Bagdad Café, and then another whose soundtrack I've since listened to for years, especially throughout the writing of The Inheritance of Shame:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by various, but mostly Leoš Janáček

After coming out at the age of 23 and being rejected by my family, in 1989 I fled my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. Soon isolated and even more depressed than before, I sought professional help and was referred to Dr. Alfonzo, a psychiatrist, for psychotherapy. Within months of beginning his treatment, which was an offshoot of primal therapy, the doctor told me I needed to move, along with several of his other patients, into a therapeutic house he called the "Styx." In the basement of our rented house, we built a makeshift sound-insulated "screaming room," where we continued with our regressions on a mattress, or raged and batted against a punching bag till all hours of the morning in order to exorcise ourselves of childhood trauma and pain. Our "primals" were often triggered by personal conflicts in the house, or even fuelled by music before heading downstairs to our basement's primal "dungeon":

Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd
"One of These Days," by Pink Floyd
"Break On Through To The Other Side," by The Doors
"The End," by The Doors

In our quieter moments at the Styx, other songs played in the background to our days of what became endless "family chores," including cooking all of the doctor's meals (and later transporting them to his office or private home), and taking care of hundreds of his other patients that he sent to the Styx for three-week therapy "intensives":

The Graduate (Soundtrack), by Simon and Garfunkel

Each of the permanent Styx members listened to their own music. Yuen, a suicidal Chinese/Canadian from Jamaica, was a wannabe artist who sculpted one black pregnant Madonna after another while listening to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, even Yanni. Jamie, a Quebecois with a history of childhood sexual abuse and homelessness, adored the power ballads of Celine Dion. Claude, a former architect who had since abandoned his thriving career in order to devote himself to Alfonzo's therapy, made his own music by playing anything by Joe Satriani on one of his many electric guitars. Clayton, who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and talked often about plotting to murder his psychiatrist father, liked grunge and hard rock, Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, but in his rare quieter moments he did listen to:

"My God," by Jethro Tull
"Everybody Hurts," by R.E.M.
"Woman (She Was Waiting For Her Mother At the Station in Torino and You know I Love You Baby But It's Getting Too Heavy To Laugh)," by Shawn Phillips
"Tears in Heaven," by Eric Clapton

Alone in my own room, often I sculpted with clay, sketched self-portraits, or wrote in my journal while listening to Peter Gabriel on a used turntable that I'd reclaimed from a nearby neighbourhood "charity bin":

Passion: The Last Temptation of Christ
"The Rhythm of the Heat"
"Lay Your Hands on Me"
"Here Comes the Flood"
"Moribund and Burgermeister"

Instead of finding solace in the therapy, eventually I found myself enmeshed in a cult-like atmosphere, catering to the doctor's ongoing personal demands, highly medicated, and undergoing an experimental form of primal therapy that sought to regress me to a childlike state so that the doctor could "re-parent" me in a supposedly healthy way. This, Alfonzo affirmed, would "cure" me of my homosexuality. After months of taking near fatal doses of multiple psychotropics—a sedative, four concurrent "tricyclic" antidepressants, as well as receiving weekly injections of ketamine hydrochloride (an animal anesthetic)—I suffered a medication-induced breakdown. In the wake of my overdose, once again music soothed:

"Don't Give Up," by Peter Gabriel
"Wallflower," by Peter Gabriel
"Adagio in G Minor," by Tomaso Albinoni
"Air Orchestral Suite N° 3 in D," by J.S. Bach

Near the end of my six years in the therapy, I fell in love with Shane, another man my age who had also consulted the doctor to try and "change" his sexuality. One night, when we were alone in his apartment, Shane played me his favorite song from a band that I'd never heard at the time:

"Blood and Fire," by Indigo Girls

After I left the Styx in 1995, Shane and I virtually lived together in my new bachelor suit apartment on the top floor of a subdivided Tudor mansion. Lying in bed at night, listening to music, we often talked about the ways in which we'd each grown up under the lie of believing that our histories of childhood sexual abuse had somehow "made" us gay:

Schindler's List (Soundtrack), John Williams

Shane and I visited a downtown Karaoke bar on one of our many date nights, where he astonished me with his amazing voice while singing:

"What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes
"Runaway Train," by Soul Asylum

My relationship with Shane ended abruptly, and I found myself alone for the first time in over six years, shell-shocked from the effects of the therapy. Months of insomnia followed as my body fought to regain its natural rhythms. Finally, in 1997, I reported the doctor to British Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons; and in 1999, I sued him for medical malpractice on the grounds, among others, that he'd treated my sexual orientation in an effort to change me from gay to straight. I also moved back to my hometown, gradually re-establishing contact with friends and family. While visiting Tommy in his parents' sprawling estate high atop the British Properties in West Vancouver, one song in particular played on the nearby stereo as I thought about needing to write a book about what I'd experienced in the therapy:

"Jesus to a Child," by George Michael

In 2004, I traveled to Europe in large part to find long lost Hungarian relatives and reclaim my heritage. After fifteen years of my life focussed on the doctor, his therapy, and the court case, I also needed a change. Hungary had only joined the European Union a few months earlier, and the city was still raw and untethered. Everywhere I walked, shadows flocked two steps before me. Gypsies littered the Ferenciek tere underground, beneath the busy city streets, that smelled of concrete bones and cold stale urine. One legless man cupped his hands for forints, while a fat busker perched wide-kneed on a two-legged bamboo stool strung Csárdás songs for euros:

"Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor," by Johannes Brahms

Back in Canada, my elderly parents and I established a more consistent relationship during my increasingly frequent meals with them at the family home. Now it was my turn to cook many of the European delicacies from my childhood: Hungarian goulash with roasted macaroni; paprikás csirke in sour cream and homemade egg dumplings; "palacsinta" (Hungarian crepes) with sweetened cottage cheese filling, and "mákos tészta" (poppy seed noodles), made with German egg noodles, freshly ground poppyseed, lemon rind and butter. My trip to Hungary, my father's homeland, had also sparked our own very private healing and acts of forgiveness. For the first time in my life, he opened up about the tragedy of his childhood in Hungary, and I came to understand the generational trauma and shame that I'd inherited from him, as well as from my mother's experiences in the concentration camp.

My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and in his final days at a hospice, he chose to listen to one piece of music on endless repeat on a portable CD player next to his bed:

"Canon in D Major," by Johan Pachabel


Peter Gajdics and The Inheritance of Shame links:

the book's website
excerpt from the book

Foreword Reviews review
Kirkus Reviews review
Lambda Literary review

CKNW interview with the author
Deborah Kalb interview with the author
Matthew's Place interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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