Memoir

For a Magician Like Me, Conversion Therapy Was the Ultimate Illusion

My family wanted me to change so badly, I suspended my disbelief and tried to imagine I could.

For a Magician Like Me, Conversion Therapy Was the Ultimate Illusion

Vernon, a heavyset man in his late 50s, stood in the middle of our circle of eight men, dressed comfortably in loose-fitting clothes and a pair of beat-up Nikes. “What is your deepest wound around men and masculinity?” the counselor asked.

Vernon, whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy, shared that he had never felt he belonged among men because of his body. He said that he had struggled with body image issues since he was a young boy.

I was at a campsite in Pennsylvania for a 48-hour weekend retreat called “Journey Into Manhood” to help me change from gay to straight. I’d paid the $625 registration fee with my own money, signed a confidentiality agreement, and locked my phone in the car. It was 2009, and I was 21 years old. I had mixed feelings about being there, but I wanted to do right by my family.

This particular exercise, about facing painful, unresolved feelings, was called “guts work.”

The counselor explained that for each insecurity Vernon was willing to “surrender,” he should remove a layer of his clothing and set it on the floor. To encourage and support him, they asked which of us would be willing to mirror his actions, the way friends of a chemo patient might shave their heads in solidarity. I didn’t want to undress. But I couldn’t be the only contrarian to put his own needs ahead of the goals of this weekend: be open-minded, participate, travel the pathway out of homosexuality.

The exercise continued, and shirts were removed. Vernon opened up about his difficult weight-loss surgery, and we slipped off our shoes. He said he’d been treated at four different hospitals, and we peeled away our socks. The counselor probed Vernon until he cried, and we dropped our undershirts on the piles of clothing growing next to us. “I’m sick of feeling this way,” Vernon sobbed. At last, we undid the buttons on our pants and shimmied free of them, revealing our underwear. After several long, uncomfortable moments, those came off too, and we were all standing together nude. I tried to comfort myself. Go along with it. This is what it takes to change.

“Without the burden of shame,” the counselor said, opening the tent, “we are free to move around the world uninhibited.” Vernon was first out, followed by the rest of us. We picked up the pace until we were jogging single file, barefoot and naked on a compact dirt path in the woods. It was Sunday afternoon, a cool 68 degrees. The autumn air smelled of pine trees. When I got distracted by the curve of a shoulder or a back muscle, I thought, Stop it, Shloimy. You shouldn’t be thinking that right now. It’s against the reason you’re here.

I wanted so badly to believe that this weekend would work. I didn’t understand how running naked with a group of men was going to change me, but I believed I had to change. If I didn’t, I risked losing the one thing that mattered more than anything: my family. So I suspended my disbelief.

I was familiar with suspension of disbelief, having grown up doing sleight-of-hand magic. The expression was coined in 1817 by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative — or suspend their disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient in many kinds of storytelling: magic, religion, advertising, conversion therapy.

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Friday nights, Ma stood in front of nine lit candles — one for each member of our family — and extended her hands over the flames, drawing them inward three times in a circular motion. She covered her eyes and recited the Hebrew blessing aloud, then prayed for her children to be God-fearing, for our safety, our well-being.

On the wall behind the candles was a large piece of art, a beautiful illustration depicting the messianic era. This work of art was commissioned by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or the Rebbe, as we called him. My parents were devout followers of the Rebbe. When Ta was younger, before he met Ma, he got a job working in the Rebbe’s house in the Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, assisting the Rebbe’s wife with household chores. For Ta, this wasn’t just landing a gig. It was an auspicious honor, like working in the White House, being granted access to the Oval Office.

From all over the world, people would flock to the Rebbe, seeking his spiritual counsel on all aspects of life. In a letter the Rebbe published on homosexuality, he wrote: No normal society would declare that since one was born that way, one should be allowed to go through life according to his natural desires and tendencies. Everything should be, and is, done to help individuals to overcome their neurological problems, whatever they may be.

I started having doubts about religion very young. I have early memories — maybe I was 9 or 10 — of doubting the existence of the divine, but I never admitted my lack of belief to anyone. And I never told anyone I thought I might be gay.

But then, a year before my weekend in the woods, on a transformative 10-day trip to Israel, I decided it was time to tell my family. There was something about the Holy Land that made me feel so at home. Seeing so many different kinds of people coexisting in one land, I yearned to explore parts of my identity I had been avoiding.

Back home in Seattle, watching TV with Ma and Ta, I managed to force the words “I’m gay” out of my mouth.

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There was a pause. I felt strangely light.

“No, you’re not,” Ma said. “There’s no such thing as gay.” Her disdain for the word shot me like a bullet. In my stomach, a hollow pit expanded. Fury bloomed in my chest.

“OK … ” I said. “Well, I’m attracted to boys and not girls.”

Hashem Yishmor,” Ma said, a Hebrew phrase used when you hear of a calamity, similar to oh my God but with the added benefit of asking the aforementioned deity to provide some assistance. “What did I do to deserve this?”

A few days later, my oldest brother, Yossi, called. “There’s this place I think you should check out. They specialize in this issue and have helped many guys your age find clarity.”

His word, clarity, immediately struck me as a euphemism for straightness. I was silent, digesting what he was saying. I wasn’t buying that anyone could “help” me, because I didn’t think I needed to be helped.

“What do you mean find clarity?” I said. “I know I’m gay.”

“I know,” Yossi said, lovingly. “I just think you should be open-minded and consider it. Hear what this guy has to say. If it’s not for you, fine, no harm done. I can’t force you. If you were to meet with him, it would have to come from you. We can go together.”

Yossi and I stood on the sidewalk in front of a weathered, three-story brownstone in New Jersey, looking at the sign above the door: “The Museum of Russian Art.”

“Are you sure this is it?” I said. A jolt of adrenaline shot down my arms and spread to my fingertips. I clenched my fists and could feel that my palms were sweaty.

“This is it,” Yossi said.

Relax, I thought. You’re with family. Family only wants the best for you. What’s the worst that could happen?

Yossi buzzed the intercom and we climbed some creaky steps to the third floor, to a waiting room with poor lighting and dusty pamphlets on mental health.

“How are you guys?” a man said, inviting us in, his thick Boston accent booming. He was in his early 50s and wore a red patterned tie over a blue button-down and a brownish checkered blazer. His receding hairline led to brushed-back gray, curly hair. He reminded me of Ta.

I felt like a patient being called in to see the doctor. We sat across from him at his messy desk strewn with stacks of papers. The man, Arthur Goldberg, spoke as if he needed to convince us that we weren’t being hoodwinked.

Arthur — along with his wife and another couple — had created Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) in 1999 after each family had a son who turned out to be gay. He was very proud of the clever acronym he had come up with to disguise his questionable practice. “We are the only organization worldwide that works to help men with unwanted same-sex attractions go from gay to straight.”

There was something about the use of his word unwanted. It hooked me. For years before I came out, I’d hoped my attractions would go away on their own. So many nights before going to sleep I’d prayed to God to make this part of me go away. “Please Hashem,” I’d often say quietly, alone in my room at night, my eyes welling up with tears. “Please make me wake up straight.” And so many mornings I’d wake up to the overcast gray skies in Seattle, still attracted to men, wondering when God would come through for me. If God would come through for me. If there was a God.

“I’ve actually written a book on the subject,” Arthur said. He lifted a hefty paperback from his desk, his greatest accomplishment, Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change.

He said there was no genetic cause for someone being gay, but that a boy who is more sensitive will take in an emotional wound that may fester and cause him to disassociate and have an issue with his own sense of gender.

“It goes into what the true biblical understandings are of the various sexual prohibitions,” Arthur said, plugging his book again, “not just homosexuality, but transgender issues, incest, bestiality, promiscuity.”

I was startled. Had Arthur just compared me to people who have sex with animals?

I wondered if it was possible to truly change — to no longer be gay, and instead, accept JONAH’s alternative.

In magic, there’s a bad habit sleight-of-hand magicians develop where we look away from our own hands at precisely the moment we do the secret “move.” Looking away allows us to avoid the truth, to negate the fact that the secret is showing. If you were to watch me closely while I performed a simple card trick — say, waving my hand over a king of spades and “transforming” it into a three of hearts — you might not even notice the moment I look away. It’s such a small flutter, a minuscule flicker of the eyes. In some unconscious way, we think that by not looking — by choosing to not see the reality — it prevents the truth from being seen. If we don’t see it, we tell ourselves, will anyone else be able to?

I felt I owed it to Yossi and my parents to go along with the therapy, to at least try to be who they wanted me to be. I was skeptical about what Arthur claimed to offer. But like the audience in a magic show, I recognized my disbelief, and willingly suspended it.

For the next year, I attended private and group therapy sessions with two JONAH counselors: a former Orthodox Jew who had “a season of same-sex attraction” in his life, and an ex-gay Mormon theater major who was now married to a woman and described himself as a “life coach.” A few months into my sessions with the life coach, he recommended that I go on the Journey Into Manhood retreat.

Soon after I started going to JONAH, I was at a party in Manhattan when my friend introduced me to a tall guy with neatly arranged blond hair. I had noticed him already talking to others, moving his hands as he spoke. His voice was shrill and exuberant. He looked to be around 30.

“Shloimy, meet Mordechai.” I didn’t come right out and ask if he was gay. It seemed obvious that he was out and proud. But Mordechai? That was a name from the Orthodox Jewish world — a world I didn’t think embraced gay people.

“Meet Erez,” Mordechai said. He motioned to the shorter guy at his side. Erez stood with slouched shoulders. He had dark eyebrows and a big goofy smile.

We all shook hands, exchanging quick facts about where we were from, where we went to summer camp, and who we knew in common.

There was something immediately warm about the connection we had. There seemed to be a shared sense of belonging, deeper than what I shared with the other Jews at the party. It was as if they said: I see you. You’re OK. I acquired this feeling over small talk, as we sipped wine, laughed at one another’s jokes, interrupted each other, and skipped from one subject to another with reckless and giddy abandon.

Who were these guys? Meeting them felt like the frozen exterior that had built up around me since coming out and starting JONAH was thawing out, melting away. I wanted more of it. We traded numbers and emails.

“Be in touch,” we said, and as if it was something men did all the time, we kissed each other on the cheek to signify our goodbye-for-now. I gave a last wave as they drew closer to the exit and felt a hot glow over my body as it adjusted back to room temperature.

Mordechai and Erez told me about JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), a gay Jewish support group. When I first heard about it, I imagined it must be a secret. My family’s reaction had led me to believe that my sexuality was something that should not be talked about. JONAH definitely operated in the shadows. I quickly learned that that wasn’t the case for JQY. Their main message was that you can be Jewish and gay.

Once a month, a group of 20 young men would meet at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. Discussion topics would cover being out in the Orthodox Jewish community and coping with parts of our identity that were seemingly at odds with each other.

With the guys at JQY, I could breathe easier and let go a bit more. We could make gay jokes with each other and laugh without feeling guilty for indulging in it. I felt I understood the guys on a deep, intrinsic level. It seemed as if we shared an unspoken code. A language that couldn’t be translated. A history that couldn’t be erased.

At JONAH, I was challenged to examine why I felt the way I did, to go in search of the “truth” behind my desires.

I knew that bouncing back and forth and belonging to both communities wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, I would have to choose. But for now, the relief and comfort I felt in the JQY community, competing with my desire to please my family, drove me to keep a foot in each world.

All the while I could hear my father’s words in my head, repeating an old Yiddish saying he was fond of: You can’t dance at every wedding. It basically meant you have to make your choices in life and decide what to prioritize; you can’t be all things to all people.

After running in the woods, I stood in the tent picking up items of my clothing and getting dressed in front of the other men. I shot a glance at Vernon, who was lacing up his Nikes. I wondered if he felt any less attracted to men now. I didn’t.

If anything, the retreat gave me a peek into the most vulnerable sides of these men — and there was nothing more attractive than that.

I’d tolerate the cognitive dissonance for a few more months. I’d watch straight pornography and try to convince myself I was enjoying it. I could clearly see it wasn’t working. I wasn’t changing. If what my family wanted was for me to change, what would happen if I failed to? Would they believe that I didn’t try hard enough, or that the therapy itself was bogus? If they had to go on their own journey to accept my sexuality, what exactly was my role in that? I was putting in the work, adopting a whole different vernacular for my identity — one that aligned with what others believed about me. I wondered if in the end, it would be about other people needing to examine and revise their understanding.

Finally, on a cold Monday night in January, I could no longer suspend my disbelief. While JONAH and Journey Into Manhood positioned themselves as “support groups,” changing my sexuality wasn’t the kind of support I wanted. Ultimately, I felt the support I received from my friends and community at JQY was far healthier. My time at JQY instilled in me a profound sense of self-worth and pride. Meanwhile, there I sat in a circle at JONAH in front of others “processing” why it was that my mind went to a sexual place when I saw an attractive stranger on the train. Constantly monitoring my thoughts and finding alternative ways to interpret them felt fatiguing and oppressive. I imagined who I would be in the future if I continued down this path, and I didn’t like the version of myself I saw. I wondered what it might be like to invest my energy into accepting myself and living my life to the fullest. I rose to my feet in the middle of that group session and made for the door.

“This is ridiculous. I’m done.”

Our life coach tried to reason with me. “I think you should stay and we can process this.”

I left the room, walked down the stairs, and exited the front door of “The Museum of Russian Art.” As I moved down the block, JONAH shrinking in the distance behind me, I still didn’t know what role my family would play in my life now that I had decided to embrace my version of the truth.

I’m a magician, I told myself, I’ll figure it out.