Psyche & Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul

Mixed Narratives and the Problem of Language: Homosexuality and the Search for a “Cure”

Mixed Narratives Checklist and Object Descriptions
Listen: Jack Spicer reading “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy”

In this section of the exhibition are books and manuscripts documenting the investigation of homosexuality from the early years of psychoanalysis through the tumultuous middle decades of the twentieth century.

If sexuality is one of the key areas of investigation for psychoanalysis, then the question of homosexuality has been the focus of much theorization. Though Freud’s early attempts to posit same-sex desire in the range of human sexual expression were championed by early colleagues and followers, by the 1950s, mainstream psychiatry defined homosexuality as an illness and principally sought to “cure” gay men and lesbians.

The debates over the reasons for variant sexual object-choice can be read as a question of language as much as a question of psychology. At issue are definitions of behavior and the self; the control of discourse; and the vocabulary used by professionals, analysts, patients, and laypersons—all of which contribute to the debate over whether homosexuality is a true pathology. An overview of the sources for understanding the goals of psychoanalysis reveals that a key issue with definitions of sexuality is this problem of language. The terms used for non-normative sexuality—invert, deviant, degenerate—gain extreme connotations when used outside the clinical discourse.

Many voices have contributed to the discussion of how the mind works and how sexual nature is discovered and shaped. In the early part of the twentieth century, trained analysts who had years of research and observation were the most compelling: Freud, Stekel, Brill, Hesnard, Bien. A second generation of analysts expanded the understanding of sexuality and refuted some of the fundamental concepts posited by Freud. Thus, psychoanalysis, especially in the English-speaking world, came to be strongly influenced by the altered ideas of analysts such as Sándor Radó and Karen Horney. The establishment of a diagnostic manual for mental illness, the DSM, in the 1950s occasioned an official pathologization of deviant sexual behavior. The release of Alfred Kinsey’s study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 broadened the discussion of sex to a wide segment of America and by the 1950s, the popular reading market was flooded with books claiming authority over the nature of homosexuality. Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America, Edmund Bergler’s Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?, and Richard Robertiello’s Voyage from Lesbos: The Psychoanalysis of a Female Homosexual were countered by editorials in gay and lesbian magazines like The Ladder and Mattachine Review that argued for a more balanced, humanist view of sexual identity. Many readers were also informed about gay sex practices by pulp novels that aimed to titillate and educate.

Personal accounts of engagements with psychoanalysis reveal a range of emotional reactions to the process of therapy. Such narratives can be found in works by poets and in the original papers of authors who went through analysis. Personal and private reflections point out the troubled state of psychiatric affairs for gay men and lesbians that only began to be resolved in the 1970s, as homosexuality was reintegrated into the “normal” spectrum of sexuality. Drawn from archives in the Beinecke Library’s collections, diary entries and drafts of novels by the likes of Glenway Wescott and Edmund White exhibit how writers processed the experience of therapy.

—Timothy G. Young, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts

Image: “Can Homosexuals be Changed?” in: Homosexuals Today, edited by Isadore Rubin, New York: Health Publications, 1965. A cartoon summarizes the view of a therapist working in the 1960s who applied basic psychoanalytic concepts of core psychic faults and traumas to explain sexual preference.

Mixed Narratives Checklist and Object Descriptions
Listen: Jack Spicer reading “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy”

Written by Rebekah Irwin

January 29, 2011 at 1:54 am

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