“I Came Out First to God”

Question: When did you come out?

Andrew Sullivan:  The first person I came out to was God.  And the first conversation I ever had about this with anybody was in prayer.  For me, God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit have always been my closest friends in this journey.  It’s funny; I’ve never quite put it like that before.  So when people tell me: "How can you be openly gay and Catholic?" My response is now and always has been: "I’m openly gay because I’m a Catholic."  Because my conscience really... and it was not an easy decision, it was a struggle for a long time.  I was a very precocious kid and I thought a lot about this and prayed a lot about it.  And was because I really believe it was my moral responsibility as a Christian to tell the truth.  Because I do not believe that the truth can ever be in conflict with God.  And I think a lot of people are afraid the truth is in conflict with God.  And are unable to let go and let the truth of the world, I mean, as John Paul II put it, the one thing Jesus tells everybody here that meets in the gospels, the most common thing that he ever says is, “Be not afraid.”  And homophobia whether internalized or externalized is really fear; it’s not hatred, it’s fear.  It’s fear of the truth about ourselves. 

So, and the first person I actually told that I actually was going to have an emotional or sexual relationship was a priest.  I went to confession and said, "Bless me Father, for I am about to sin."  I did it preemptively, because I knew at some level I didn’t really think it was a sin.  Then having done it and having entered that world, boy was it not a sin.  It was a form of such lung-filling life that... such an obvious blessing from God, that it was absurd.  I mean, not that a homosexual cannot sin, not that I haven’t sinned, not that there are some aspects of sex that are so powerful that they obliterate from our minds even an understanding or the sense of the presence of God.  In that sense because they take us away from him, they can be sinful.  But I mean by sin, simply forgetting God.  'Cause this stuff is so awesome. 

On the other hand, I also believe that there are moments in sex that are so awesome that they actually reflect God.  So I see no conflict.  But to return to the basic question.  So the first person I came out to was God, the second person I came out to was a priest, who himself, of course was gay because there are barely any who aren’t.  And then my parents and my family.  And I went home to England and I asked my mom and dad to sit down together to have a conversation with me, which is something I’d actually never done before.  And they were kind of a little perplexed by this.  And so I sat them both down in the living room and I said, "I just want to have a conversation with you both at the same time.  I’m gay.  I always have been and I always will be, and I’m happy."

And my mother, I mean these very English people, and my mother is also... I mean, they’re English, but Irish in origin and my mother’s devoutly Catholic.  She just said, "What does that mean?"  I said, "I'm gay.  I’m a homosexual."  I finally decided I wanted to clear it up.  I think she was still grabbing onto various forms of etymology at that point.  And then she said, in classic English fashion, "Oh my God!  I better go make a cup of tea."  This was her literal response to this question and she left the room to make tea, which is what the English do when all hell breaks out because you know... it’s a ritual, you know what to do. 

And my father, who is and was like a bit jock, captain of his rugby high school team, captain of our town’s rugby team.  A real man’s man, English, reserved, bent double and started sobbing, which kind of took my breath away.  And I said to him, "Daddy, you know, why are you crying?  I’m okay.  I’m really okay.  It’s okay.  I’m happy, I’m fine."  He carried on what seemed like forever.  I’ve never seen my father cry.  He only ever cried once before, according to lore, which was when Kennedy was shot and killed.  And then when his own mother died.  At least that’s...  I don’t know if that’s literally true. 

But finally I said, "Well, can you tell me why you are crying so I can respond to it?"  And he looked at me in the eyes and he said, “I’m crying because of everything you must have gone through when you were growing up and I never did anything to help you."  Which was some of the most beautiful words anybody has ever said to me in my life.  And then I was a wreck. 

And my father has been a rock for me every since.  And again, it’s a long time ago, but it’s funny how when you say it again, that you remember how painful that was and how cathartic that was, and how tough it still is for so many people, and how much pain and misery that is still inflicted on so many people in the world.  And we’d been reminded of it recently with these ghastly suicides; this horrible torture in the Bronx or in Queens. 

But I guess at the bottom, so to speak, I believe that that was a moment of grace.  That my father’s ability to transcend so much was God intervening and lifting us up to a better place and therefore all these things that are supposed to be contradictions within me and within many other people are not.  They are actually just things we just don’t yet fully understand. 

Recorded on October 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

The first person the blogger came out to was God, and the second was a priest. But when he told his parents years later, his father’s response was a true moment of grace.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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