My Journey Into Manhood IV
Ted Cox is a Sacramento writer who follows the gay “conversion” movement: Organizations that claim to “cure” gays of their homosexuality. This week we’re running excerpts from his report of an undercover visit to a weekend retreat held near Phoenix last year. The entire article is available online.
Some details have been altered to protect the identities of participants.
One-by-one, the “Journeyers” (as participants are called) in our small group take turns reenacting painful childhood memories. Jason, a baby-faced, barely-out-of-college guy, struggles for a minute to come up with something. Then, finally, he half-heartedly recounts the time he tried to get his dad’s attention. But Dad rebuffed him, saying that he was busy reading the newspaper.
“So what message did you internalize from your dad that day?” prods the “Guide,” a staff member.
Again, Jason struggles. “That he wanted to read the paper?” We chuckle.
The Guide fills in the blanks. “He was telling you that the newspaper was more important than his son.”
The Guide instructs Jason to reconstruct the scene. Jason picks men from our group to play his young self and his dad. Dad grabs a scrap of paper sitting in the sunny cabin, takes a seat in one of the folding metal chairs, and buries his face in the paper. Young Jason approaches Dad, trying to get him to play. Dad brushes him off: “I’m busy.”
Young Jason and Dad play out the scene over and over again, while the Guide and Jason stand off to the side.
“You were a boy who needed his father’s attention. And do you know what you got instead?” asks the Guide. “He told you you were worthless. He didn’t have time for you.”
Dad picks up on the Guide’s words and incorporates them into the dialogue. “I don’t have time for you. You’re worthless. Leave me alone.” For the fifteenth time, young Jason approaches Dad seated in his cold metal chair, and Dad rejects him. Young Jason skulks away.
Much like Jason had trouble coming up with a traumatic memory, he draws a blank when the Guide asks him what he can do to change the situation. Each Journeyer, after recreating his memory, must step into the role of his younger self and take control to change the memory.
This final step is vital to the process, and it varies based on the memory. When Charles, a young evangelical minister from Oregon, recreated the day his father beat his mother because she wanted to buy Charles designer jeans, the Guide told Charles that to take control of his memory he had to remove his abusive father. What ensued was a four-minute wrestling match, where Charles struggled to drag the Guide out the cabin and slam the door shut.
With few exceptions, most Journeyers took control of their memories the same way. Whether one of the three Guides played a father sneering about the “faggot” behind a fast-food counter or the high school locker-room bully, Journeyers dragged the offending character out of the cabin and slammed the door shut.
The Guides put up a good fight. When Charles the minister didn’t completely close the door to the cabin, the Guide pushed his way back in. “Are you kidding me?” panted Charles when he was told he had to start all over again.
My resolution was different. I recounted the time in fifth grade my father stormed into my bedroom when he heard me fighting with my little brother, punched us to the ground, then walked out. I played the part of my younger self. While I lay on the floor of the cabin, the Journeyer playing my brother lying two feet away, the Guide pulled out a blanket and draped it over me.
“You never got up from the bedroom floor, did you?” he asked. “You’ve been lying there all your life.”
He had the other men in the room kneel around me, their knees pinning the blanket so that I was wrapped tight like a taquito. Only my head poked out from an opening.
My resolution was to finally, for the first time in my life, get up from the floor where my father had left me physically and emotionally bruised all those years ago. On the Guide’s mark, I struggled to push myself up, but the weight of the men kept me pinned. Sweaty and exhausted after several futile minutes, I switched strategies: Wriggling like a worm out of an apple, I freed myself out of the topside of the blanket. My shoes were pulled off in the effort. I think my feet stank.
But for Jason and his newspaper-reading father, the solution took a violent approach. First, the Guide playing Jason’s father rises from the metal chair to stand in front of him, repeating the lines about Jason being worthless. Next, Jason is handed a baseball bat and told to kneel on the floor. A punching bag is placed between him and the father.
“What you need is a new father,” the Guide says, moving another Guide to stand behind the first. “But this old father is standing in your way. You need to get rid of him.”
Jason looks wide-eyed at the man standing in front of him. The Guide who has been leading Jason through the exercise makes an over-the-head swinging motion. Jason grips the bat, lifts it up behind his head, and swings it down, the bat thudding on the punching bag.
“Again!” yells the Guide.
Jason obeys. He swings over and over again.
“Yell! Let it out!” commands the Guide.
His yells are weak at first, but with each swing, they grow deep and primal. Every few swings, Jason’s old father buckles a little, clutching his body as though wounded.
Another Guide motions for the rest of us to encourage Jason.
I’m horrified by what I see — Jason beating his dad to death in effigy — but I join in the growing roar of voices. Jason seems like such a nice kid, the kind of guy whose biggest regret was the day he forgot to do his algebra homework.
After several minutes, Old Father crouches close to the floor. Jason wails away, his timidness fleeing with his wide-eyed, belly-deep screams.
“Finish him!” commands the Guide. A few more swings, and it’s over. Old Father lies motionless on the ground.
The room is silent, except for the New Father, who stands with his arms open, repeating the lines that have been covered by the thudding and screaming: “I love you, son. I care about you.”
Jason drops the bat, stands, and approaches New Father, who wraps his arms around his son.
Many of the other scenarios end the same way: the Journeyer is held by the Guide playing his father, who tells him how much he loves his son. I’ll admit feeling a twinge every time I see it. What son doesn’t crave his father’s love?
After our group has finished the exercises, we walk from our cabin to the carpeted lodge room. Inside, the lights are low. While the different cabins slowly file in, two staff members off to the side of the room sit in the Motorcycle position. The man in back gives the other a back rub.
Once all the men have assembled, a Guide speaks briefly about the work we did with our father issues. He then instructs us to take out our pens and notebooks. We are instructed to write the letter that we wish our ideal father, the Golden Father, would write to us. After a few minutes, Guides take their places for another holding session. When my turn comes, I opt for the side-by-side hold. I don’t need to feel another erection in my back.
While the Guide reads me my letter, I think about the beatings and bruises and black eyes my dad gave my brother and me. Mom was the breadwinner most of my childhood years; I think Dad took out on us his frustration over feeling emasculated. In the patriarchal Mormon faith, a stay-at-home dad never fully lives up to his manly obligations. Dad and I haven’t spoken much in the ten years since I left the Mormon church; in fact, I haven’t heard from him at all in three years. And yet, despite being raised by an abusive, spiritually castrated father, I have a strong preference for women.
When each man has been held, we adjourn to our cabins.
Just a few hours left. I want to go home.