Skip to comments.Can They Change? A Different View On The Recent YU Debate
Posted on 01/22/2010 6:16:29 PM PST by Maelstorm
While reading the various accounts and debates over the recent Yeshiva University panel about those of a definitively non-Torah orientation, I realized that, beyond the political, social, and halachic aspects of the issue, a critical aspect of the discussion appears to be minimized or dismissed. Amidst all of the emotionally explosive revelations and painful self-disclosures regarding the lives of those students appearing in the panel, the question of whether or not their orientation can be healed, modified, or indeed changed seemed to have been glossed over. The fact that these brave young men are of such an orientation appears to be just thata factabsolute, black and white, immutable as the color of their eyes. Any reference to attempts at changing through treatment were portrayed, at least from the accounts replayed over the internet, as a wasted and ultimately fruitless endeavor.
So, this all begs the question: can a person really alter his or her orientation? Can people really change what attracts them? According to conventional wisdom and the mainstream psychological community, the answer is an unqualified, definitive no. Such an identity and orientation, according to the American Psychological Association, is a biologically determined, genetically fixed reality that cannot be influenced by psychological treatment, and moreover, any attempts by mental health professionals to assist patients in modifying their orientation is unethical, period. This position was reiterated at the most recent APA convention this past August, during which a statement was released that there is no evidence that substantiates the claim that reparative therapies are effective in successfully changing orientation, and that such treatments should be avoided.
Seems like an open-and-shut case, right? No point in debating the issue furtheror so it seems. The problem is that there is an entirely different perspective on the other side of the political/scientific aisle that strongly suggests that this issue is not nearly as clear and absolute as the pundits who oppose treatment suggest. The real truth is that there is a plethora of solid clinical research and experience that strongly supports the real factsthat orientation, in many, if not most cases, is modifiable, and indeed changeable, given the right motivation, treatment plan, and therapeutic technologies that are currently available.
To be specific, in 2007, Dr. Robert Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist and former president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), published a landmark study of 450 former homosexuals who, according to their self-report, had achieved a substantial or complete transformation out of this lifestyle and orientation, and were living stable and fulfilling normal lives. Dr. Spitzers study concluded that change in orientation is indeed possible, and that psychological treatments, as well as spiritual interventions that support therapeutic change, are both safe, and effective.
What was so ironic about these findings was that it was Dr. Spitzer who was the president of the APA in 1972 when it made the change in its Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM) which completely removed any form of this orientation, including what was described as of the ego-dystonic variety (unwanted or incongruent with what the individual truly desires) from the manual, or for that matter, from any discussion involving psychopathology. In effect, the APA, under the direct prodding of Dr. Spitzer, paskened that it is a natural variant of an attraction expression, and is completely normal and non-pathological.
Now, over 30 years later, the same Robert Spitzer appears to be chozer beteshuvah; he is recanting his previous stance on the immutability and normalcy of this type of lifestyle and attraction, and strongly endorses the concept that people who are motivated to change their orientation can indeed transition out of it, and even more importantly, an individual should have the right to choose to engage in a therapy of their choosing that establishes as a goal to modify ones orientation.
This blockbuster announcement literally shook the APA, the lobby that constantly clamors for their rights, and the scientific community at large. It resulted in much effort to discredit Dr. Spitzer, a scientist/practitioner with a previous record of stellar professional achievement, and to disqualify his findings. That alternative community was extremely threatened by the study, because it undermined their attempts to portray their lifestyle and attractions as biologically fixed, and therefore not amenable to change. However, for the many clinicians who work with these patients to help them transition out of it and heal its underpinnings, and to achieve their lifes goals of having a fulfilling family, spiritual, and social life, the results of the study only confirmed what they already knewthat change is, indeed, possible!
These clinicians are part of an organization called NARTH, the National Association for Research and Treatment etc. (www.narth.org), a world-wide network of clinicians, researchers, and academicians who are involved in research and treatment of unwanted attractions (SSA). This past November in West Palm Beach, Florida, I was privileged to be one of the keynote speakers at NARTHs annual conference, and I had the opportunity to share my clinical experience in utilizing a comprehensive multi-model, holistic approach to the treatment of SSA. I was struck by the dedication and commitment of the individuals in attendance, and how they were using their own unique treatment strategies to successfully treat SSA in the patients. One by one, clinicians from literally around the world were validating the reality that, with the right motivation and treatment approach, people can really change.
What are the dynamics and elements that need to be considered in determining how this change is possible? Although the dynamics of SSA are extraordinarily complex, it seems that the development can be distilled down to a few general factors: family dynamics, trauma, personality factors, and self-esteem.
To be specific, the men in question, in particular, often come from families in which the mother is the more dominant, overbearing parent and the father is more passive, or absent. The developing child becomes overly attached to the mother, but in a way that often associates females with something unsafe or even aversive, and the normal male-to-male bonding that is so vital to a boys self-identification as a male fails to occur. This results in an over-identification with females, and a strong desire to bond with males.
Women involved in this often have mothers who are disturbed, abusive, or distant, which interferes with their ability to bond with a significant female figure, causing them to yearn for a connection with women later in their lives. They also often over-identify with their fathers as a result, and the masculinity they represent. Although the dynamics of these families are not a hard-and-fast rule, Im astounded by the frequency with which I see them occur in the families of the patients with whom I work.
There is much objective research that also strongly suggests that these men and women are much more likely to have been abused sexually, physically, or emotionally, than their heterosexual counterparts. Emotional and physical abuse by parents or childhood peers, and sexual abuse by adults or same-age peers are quite common in this population. These traumatic experiences seem to derail normal psychosexual development, and greatly contribute to the development of SSA.
I have been fortunate to be one of the handful of clinicians worldwide who have been able to pair a dramatic breakthrough treatment for trauma, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (see www.emdr.com), which utilizes Rapid Eye Movement to desensitize past traumas and to help reprocess the experiences in a more adaptive way, with reparative therapy, to facilitate and potentiate therapeutic change in SSA patients. Over the past twelve years, patients from such far-flung places as Australia, Turkey, Europe, South America, and throughout North America, have traveled to Miami to experience the often dramatic therapeutic effects of our comprehensive treatment program, utilizing an interdisciplinary team of clinicians, which attempts to identify and heal the underlying personality dynamics and other psychological disorders which contribute to their attractions.
Another therapeutic and political resource is JONAH (www.jonahweb.org), an organization which specifically provides support and treatment for Jewish men and women who are conflicted by their orientation. For Jews, especially those who identify with a religious lifestyle, being this way and observant is so fundamentally incompatible that the internal conflict and distress is often overwhelming. Knowing that resources such as JONAH and proven psychological treatments are available can be a huge relief for people who are struggling.
So, unfortunately for the YU panelists who have concluded that their orientation is what it is, and that there is no way to change it, they may not have benefited from an effective therapeutic paradigm, or they may have possibly gone into treatment with a negative assumption that they cannot change, thereby sabotaging the therapeutic process. They consequently conclude that they (and we, as well) must categorically accept their status, and by inference, incorporate them into our social and halachic reality.
Although the struggles of these individuals do deserve our complete empathy and unqualified support, we cannot endorse the absoluteness of the idea that change is not possible, any more than we would accept a conclusion that a treatment for a disease cannot be successful just because one doctor failed to produce positive results. I have personally seen successful outcomes in patients who have gone to one, two, and even three previous therapists, whose treatment approaches may not have been the right one for them, just as former patients of mine may find success with other therapists after working with me.
So, whats the bottom line here? The Torah states rapoh yerapeh, you shall truly heal thyself, which suggests that, especially for something so vital and fundamental as this in terms of ones future as a member of Klal Yisroel, one simply cannot conclude, I tried and it didnt work, or worse yet, I am who I am. We believe that Hashem does not send us a machalah that we cannot overcome. Nisyonos, challenges that we face in our lives, are there to push us beyond our personal capacity, to drive us to a higher level of growth and development, and to ultimately help us to achieve the goal of being the best that we can be. Individuals who struggle with this orientation can and do heal and transform themselves, and no longer have to accept the overplayed notion that it is what it is. Good help is available and should be utilized with patience and persistence. The results, in terms of growth, healing, and the ability to live a fulfilled, normative Torah life, is well worth the effort.
Dr. Norman Goldwasser, a clinical psychologist, is director of Horizon Psychological Services in Miami Beach. He specializes in the treatment of trauma, marital dysfunction, and unwanted SSA. See www.horizonpsych.com for more information. ♦