Gender Gulag is a story about how the best years of my life were stolen from me by reparative psychoanalysis. I have just completed the first draft of my book, Gender Gulag. It is the story of how a vulnerable 13-year-old dyslexic tomboy ended up at Quakerbridge School and Camp during the mid-1950s in Croton, New York under the guardianship of Dr. Samuel Kahn.
Just this morning on the heels of Gay Pride’s celebration of Stonewall 50, NBC news had an article by Gwen Aviles discussing Amazon’s removal of English language books by a man generally regarded as the “father of conversion therapy,” Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. Nicolosi was the founder of the defunct Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic as well as the infamous National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) But before Nicolosi was Samuel Kahn with his book Mentality and Homosexuality (1937). Five hundred men and women (New York Correctional institution inmates, of whom “seventy-five were investigated carefully” were the main subjects of Kahn’s study. The main object was to diagnose active homosexuality. Kahn referred to his subjects as “mental cases.”
I was diagnosed by him at the age of 13 as one of those mental cases. This is what he told my vulnerable parents, particularly my susceptible mother, when they came seeking help for my disruptive social behavior. Kahn regarded homosexuals as “degenerates.” This is a perception that wasn’t refuted by the American Psychology Association under pressure from gay professionals to declare “conversion therapy” a pseudoscience and discredit it. Today the majority of professional organizations are against it and refuse to engage in such bogus and harmful diagnosis and practices.
At the time I was placed under Dr. Kahn’s care, no such safeguards were in place. So why would I want to revisit my experiences in the penal colony of Quakerbridge where I was diagnosed and treated as a “moral defective and constitutional psychopath?” Who would want to read such a book? Parents, teachers, young adults, mental health professionals, and anyone interested in authenticity. My journey as a vulnerable girl of 13 lasted three-plus years under the rule of a man unfit to define “normality.”
The methods Kahn applied to me and others for a variety of reasons were popular during the cold war period when psychoanalysis became the rage in America. Kahn’s attempts at teaching homosexual children ethics and ethical qualities were often turned over to his physician assistants. This was certainly part of my experience after my first few months at Quakerbridge.
My story is important because it demonstrates that conversion therapies began much earlier than Nicolosi’s religious branding of these practices and damaged countless nongender conforming children and individuals seeking to change their “moral defects” according to the normative standards of the day. What I went through in terms of “treatments” was enough to drive any average, healthy teenager to suicide–and it did that to me. How I developed the resiliency skills and survived serves as a blueprint not only for survival but for finding your authentic self and transforming your life.
According to the Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 2 in 3 youths reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, and kids who have undergone conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not. This is why my book is so timely and needed. It is a girl’s own story of erasure at a time when there was no internet to turn to, no groups to belong to, no gay and lesbian centers for refuge.
On the train. About to read the David Bruce papers. Trying to track the sale of Romaine’s Paris apartment to try and get some idea as to who was in charge and what was involved. Following up on real estate is one way of tracking down elusive information, especially when regulations thwart scholarship by keeping you from seeing foreign wills. I hope this changes, along with a number of other obstacles that biographers and scholars face when trying to shine light on subjects who have made it into the limelight of posterity.
Today, a writer’s life requires a lot of time, money, energy, and determination, along with a bloodhound’s nose and determination to stay on the trail.
People keep asking me about my forthcoming Romaine Brooks book. I am doing some tweaks in light of startling new information about her personal relationships that came to light while I was working to determine the proper copyrights issues.
My book contrasts Brooks’ work with the political, social, and interpersonal environment within which Brooks painted, whether during war, while living separately, in communal houses with her partners (who included Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont), or during her prime years as a socialite in Paris. Romaine Brooks: A Life proceeds chronologically through Brooks’ works and the documented interactions with both her subjects and her peers to persuasively emphasize her struggles and change the current perception of Romaine Brooks. Here is the key to finally restoring Brooks to the history of American and International art that is her rightful place in the development of art. Although a conservative modernist in her chosen artistic style, content, and approach, she was decidedly modernist in that she documented a lesbian and bi-sexual subculture. She also applied a new musicality to her work, developing a unique approach to both monochromatic harmonies and tonal scale in her use of paint and its application to the canvas.
Recognition of Brooks for the originality and quality of her work, as well as for her courage in demanding to be seen, is long overdue. My book establishes once and for all how important and innovative her contributions to art were. I firmly believe that, had she not been a conservative modernist, expatriate, and sapphist-lesbian, she would not have been neglected as she has been. Much work remains to be done clarifying the details of Romaine’s life and art. It is my hope that a new and younger generation of scholars will take up the mantle where I have left off.
A writer’s life is simple. We go through our daily lives in the flow, letting life flow through us. I write every day. I get up early in the morning. Feed the newly adopted rescue. Put up the coffee, get some cereal, and sit down on the couch and just let the words and ideas and connections flow. I rarely, almost never, have writer’s block and am as happy as a clam just being able to have the time to get my thoughts and impressions down on paper. Writers — contrary to what many may think — do not necessarily lead glamorous lives (although some may). Generally we simply sit down (now with our computers and tablets) and go to work. It little matters whether we get paid. Although we do want to get paid for our work, that we write is the main thing — to get our ideas out there and let our audiences come as they may if they have an interest and like what we say and how we say it. So, for now, that’s my writer’s life. How about yours?
I never started out as a biographer. It was always about how I took in the picture before me, tasted it, rolled it over, let it sit in my sensorium, and savored all its flavor — appreciating the artistry of the maker; composition, color, execution, emotions. In short, I was able to follow along when an artist grabbed me with just one look and took me to places both familiar and strange.
From childhood, even as a small toddler, I’ve had this uncanny ability to experience words and pictures in the most intense way. It was one of these experiences (as I write in my introduction to Romaine Brooks: A Life (forthcoming from University of Wisconsin press in 2015) that set me on a 44-year course of investigation. I left me with a need to know so intense that throughout my academic and teaching career I felt compelled to follow the elusive trail that Beatrice Romaine Goddard (Brooks) had forged.
An Intriguing Subject…and Audience
It began with the first scholarly/critical article to be written in America on Brooks’s intriguing, chromatically painted portraits. I followed up with a lecture that garnered the attendance of an ACLU representative from Florida International University. This was, after all, the early 1970s, and I was an out lesbian dealing with an out subject and painter of lesbian and gay subjects. Over the years I continued to write critical commentary on any Brooks articles and/or essays that appeared.
Finally, in 2000, after reading yet another essay sidestepping the problems of Brooks’s complicated relationship with D’Annunzio and right-wing conservative politics of the period, my frustrations propelled me to deal with the issue head-on. I then published two more articles to set the framework for an in-depth look at Romaine’s fascist aesthetics in my new book.
Thus, the Accidental Biographer
In order to unearth the truth of Romaine’s life, I had to become an accidental biographer. That determination set me on a course I never intended to take. If you truly want to understand the real nature of the biographer’s art, you’ll have to read my introduction as to how this studio/art history/philosophy student was compelled to become a reluctant biographer by default.
Life is full of heartbreaks. Recently a close friend was in the hospital with a broken hip. She had a much-loved animal companion named Harry who was a cat of many dispositions. He was older than my old friend, who was in her late 80s. He had developed cancer and was thin as a rail, losing his grip on things, and suffering from a number of other serious conditions. While my friend was recovering, Harry developed a serious mouth abscess. This added to his many woes and he was no longer able to eat or defecate. A close friend was looking after him and reported his condition daily.
My friend had hoped to be able to see him before he passed, to take him home to her country home and bury him where he had been happiest. Alas, it was not to be, and he had to be put out of his misery.
One of life’s lessons.
At times like this there is almost nothing one can offer by way of comfort.
I wrote a poem almost 35 years ago when I lost my long-haired German Shepherd. I had to put her to sleep because of deteriorating hip problems and skin conditions. She was 13, had hematomas in her ears as many shepherds get as they age, and suffered from numerous other problems. I did not want her to suffer. I felt guilty about it, I still mourn her loss, and I am at times overwhelmed with sadness.
The lesson is, with each loss of a companion the heart is cracked open, and that is how the light gets in. Or so the poet Leonard Cohen thinks. So do I. My heart grew bigger and more open because of Salaza. I hope that my friend’s does as well.
Every Spring, without fail, this tree puts out for all to see.
As a writer I am incredibly grateful that I can take a break from being chained to the computer to enjoy these early spring days when things are just beginning to put out flowers. I don’t even mind my allergies kicking into full gear because beauty is the inspiration that drives this writing engine.
Take a break, get out, and smell the flowers.
Take in the beauty. It’s still free.
Right now, my brain is burnt out. Just when I thought I had completed the manuscript for my forthcoming book, Romaine Brooks: A Life, I stumbled across a treasure trove of primary source documentation that is a game changer. The Chinese were right. I had always wished I could solve some vexing questions about Brooks’ last years because so many riddles still remained. Now that I have turned over the rock, I am entangled in what lies beneath. Tune in for more in the adventures of a scribbler.
First you get interested, then you do the research, then you write the book, then you go in search of a publisher — and when you succeed in getting one, the fun starts! This is truly what a writer’s life is. Chained to the computer until everything is in place. It’s true one can get lost in the process, but there is a world outside our individual bubbles.
Every time I pick up a newspaper or magazine or go online, I am bombarded with that reality. I try to remember we are the world; we make up the world we live in, and it is all part of what makes us human and united.