What is heartening about people is the appalling stubbornness and the strong roots of their various cultures, rather than the ease with which you can convert them and make them happy and good.
William Empson, review of W. H. Auden’s Another Time, in Life & Letters Today, August 1940
On 2 October 2012, the Guardian reported that ‘Britain’s biggest professional body for psychotherapists’ – the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, which has nearly 30,000 members – had ‘instructed members that it is unethical for them to attempt to “convert” gay people to being heterosexual, formalizing a policy change long demanded by rights groups’. Clearly if this had been long demanded by rights groups it had been an issue for some time; there were therapists who believed both that gay people could and should be converted, and that what they should be converted to was heterosexuality; that is to say, there were people who believed that heterosexuality was itself something people could be converted to.
The BACP had written to its members, the Guardian reported, to inform them of the new guidelines; the official letter said that the BACP ‘opposes any psychological treatment such as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, or based on the premise that the client/patient should change his/her sexuality’. The letter added that it was the World Health Organization policy that, as the Guardian put it, ‘such therapies can severely harm an individual’s mental and physical health’. Once again we must assume that larger powers are invoked – the World Health Organization – because there was a long-standing problem about ‘conversion’ therapies; that there were a sufficient number of therapists who still believed that homosexuality was a mental disorder, and that people with mental disorders could be converted. We should note too the pairing of ‘reparative’ and ‘conversion’ therapies, both intimating, as they do, that something has gone radically wrong, that something needs mending, that wrong paths have been taken; and that somebody knows what the right path is; the ideas of reparation and original sin necessarily conjoined, with conversion as their traditional complement.
Conversion, in its religious context, is usually deemed to be the repair of something; though, as we shall see, it is a word that portends many different kinds of change, all radical but not all reparative. It is a significantly mobile and adaptable concept, a word that can be used (converted) in many contexts – economic, scientific, psychological. Buildings, currencies and energies can be converted. And as we shall see, for Freud, in the very beginnings of psychoanalysis, conversion and sexuality were necessarily linked. So this chapter is about what we are talking about when we talk about conversion, and why we feel as we do about it. Or, to put it the other way round, this chapter is wondering how we can tell, when we change, whether or not we are being converted, and what that might involve as a picture of how we change and how we are changed. What kind of change is inevitable and what kind of change is possible in a life? We are the only animals for whom radical change can be an object of desire. And we are traditionally at our most ambivalent about objects of desire.
So we do need to wonder, here, what so-called sexual orientation is assumed to be, or to be like, if conversion can be the treatment of choice. And, of course – and this will be one theme in this book – how we picture, how we imagine, the conversion process such that a person is transformed from one form of life into another quite different form of life; how a set of founding beliefs can be replaced by another, apparently more persuasive or convincing or compelling – it is difficult to know what the word always is – set of beliefs, in the full acknowledgement that it is always the preferred thing that people are converted to. People are only converted from and to the things that apparently matter most to them – their sexuality here, though once it would have been their religious convictions, these things now blurred and overlapping, flourishing or not in the same hedgerow. Indeed, the idea of conversion raises fundamental questions about what it is for something to change into something else, and for someone to change into somebody else; involving, as it does, the basic assumption that a person must be something – something recognizable, identifiable, discernible – in order to be so changed.
Conversion, then, is never less than serious; supposedly not real if casual or fleeting, or lightly entered into. We talk of serial monogamists, and serial killers, but we don’t talk of serial converters. And yet conversion, which was once, quite recently, one of our most socially sanctioned forms of personal transformation, has itself become one of our most suspect; forcing us to think about just what kinds of personal change we can value and why; what kinds of change we deem to be desirable, and what our criteria might be for forms of personal transformation that we can support and endorse. (That is, what we are willing to let people do to each other.) In short, what kinds of influence we want people to have on each other. From Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to Maoist training camps and radical Islam, we have had in the more modern era apparently horrifying examples of the wish and the will to convert whole nations, to make new men and women. And these examples have left us duly sceptical not merely about the possibility of radical change, but about the desire for it. Are those seeking conversion in some sense, by definition, as it were, lacking, or even ill? What does calling them ill, or deprived, or depraved add to the conversation? And what could they be deprived of that conversion will assuage or appease? What kinds of frustration are conversion experiences a self-cure for? Conversions to radical Islam now, for example, only have a bad press – other, that is, than among radical Islamists – but it is both the religion itself and the conversion process that we have become disturbed by. Would we feel better if these young jihadi men and women had slowly converted during a three-year course at Oxford University in Islamic studies? Why would incremental, evolutionary change be preferred to revelation or revolution?
Clearly a lot depends on how people change and are changed, and what kinds of transformation any given culture promotes; and, by the same token, what kinds of transformation it contests and disparages. What kind of relationship, for example, could a student have to the literature they are studying that would make their teachers or their peers uneasy? Or, in what sense could you be converted to the multiplicity of voices and texts, which both resist and invite interpretation, and that we call literature (you could far more easily be converted to psychoanalysis)? So we might wonder, say, in the literature department of a university, that if we don’t want students of literature to be converted to the study of literature, whatever that might entail, what kind of experience do we want them to have? If a student of literature ends up wanting to be an academic, or a writer, in what sense have they been converted and in what sense has something else happened? And how can we describe that something else? What is it not to be converted to something, but to feel it to be in some sense one’s vocation? The study of literature, after all, was for some people expected to be a substitute for, or a replacement of, religious belief (as were some of the more secular therapies); and the two things a religious sensibility is most mindful of are the temptations of heresy and the possibilities of conversion. So these are the kinds of questions that a consideration of conversion experiences might provoke.
Liberals, broadly speaking, prefer education to conversion – often intimating that one is the antidote to the other – and therefore they/we prefer conversation to rote learning, multiple perspectives to exclusive explanation, dissent to conformity; and, sometimes, description to explanation. It is, I think, integral to liberal societies to assume that education and conversion are distinct, if not actually at odds with each other. That in liberal cultures people are not educated with a view to their conversion, despite the ineluctable paradox that they are perhaps converts to liberalism. John Stuart Mill presents in On Liberty what has become the classic liberal position:
That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action, not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.
I think it would be true to say that a conversion is not felt to be what Mill calls an experiment of living. And indeed that those who seek to convert others don’t think of themselves converting others to half-truths (people convert to things that they believe smack of infallibility). That, in short, conversion tends to be a cure for scepticism; a narrowing of the mind that frees the mind. Frees it, one might say, from the kind of complexity – the relishing of complication, of diversity, of contradiction – that Mill believes makes up the good liberal life (it is noticeable that he uses conversion sparingly in On Liberty, and always in a secular context: he refers, for example, to it being ‘important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things, in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs’; converting uncustomary things into customs suggesting that, as is often the case, conversion is in the direction of permanence, of new-found continuity). That whatever else a liberal ethos, a liberal education, is taken to be, it is not taken to be a conversion experience, or conducive to a conversion experience; and certainly not a conversion experience to liberal values. It is, that is to say, usually taken for granted that liberalism is, by definition, not something anyone is converted to. And yet, of course, we might think of ourselves, as I say, as having been converted, by liberalism, to being distrustful of conversion experiences. Indeed, in many ways, a liberal arts education aims to arm us against conversion as an object of desire.
Liberals believe that freedom is born of acknowledged eccentricity, complexity and nuance; that, as Mill puts it, ‘different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can in the same physical, atmosphere and climate’. Mill almost proposes that all consensus is forced consensus; consensus as something we should always be suspicious of (how like-minded can the like-minded ever really be?). He wants to make us suspicious of our apparently natural wish to have things in common, as though agreement is an all too easily disguised collusion, and shared interests are forms of willed compliance. Indeed, the liberalism that he promotes encourages us to ask not what do we have in common, but what do we want to have in common, and why? And what are we using having things in common to do?
Conversion converts us to a new shared world, with new shared purposes. Conversion is always conversion to a group. So what is at stake when we talk about conversion and the kind of hysteria it can both cure and evoke is what people should be doing together, and how people should influence, should affect each other, and what about them should be so influenced; what Mill wants in On Liberty is people ‘less capable … of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character’. He wants to make us wary of our temptation to fit ourselves into any of the small number of moulds society provides (with the implication that societies only and always provide a small number of moulds); and for the more secular liberal, conversion experiences of virtually any kind would simply be one of the small number of moulds available (Mill, of course, mindful of the pun on moulds, and the implication of the desiccations of conformity). But the converted, of course, do not think of themselves as having been compressed, or fitted into a mould; they would think of themselves as having been released, or enlightened, or liberated. Conversion, that is to say, always involves an essentialism of one form or another. The converted know, in some absolute sense, what is of value, and how it should be valued. They are living in a new truth that renders all other supposed truths false and misleading and corrupting. For the converted, the unconverted are always failing at something and harming something. For those heterosexual therapists who practised conversion therapy, homosexuality was damaging in the fullest sense.
So the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy was firmly on the side of Mill’s liberalism in the statement by its board of governors. ‘BACP believes’, they wrote, ‘that socially inclusive, non-judgemental attitudes to people who identify across the diverse range of human sexualities will have positive consequences for those individuals, as well as for the wider societies in which they live. There is no scientific, rational or ethical reason to treat people who identify within a range of human sexualities any differently from those who identify solely as heterosexual.’ Like Mill, the BACP believes that not only the individual but his whole society is the beneficiary of diverse sexualities, this being itself a judgement despite its promotion of supposedly ‘non-judgemental attitudes’. Conversion therapies are opposed to diversity. They are, the Guardian journalist Peter Walker writes, ‘mainly associated with evangelical Christian groups in the US. It was long presumed that most UK counsellors and psychotherapists recognized that these were widely discredited. But a 2009 survey of 1300 therapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists found that more than 200 had attempted to change at least one patient’s sexual orientation, and 55 said they were still offering such a therapy.’ We need to be able to distinguish pathologizing from bullying.
Perhaps we should not be quite so surprised that the whole notion of conversion, in some ways so very traditional and familiar to us in its (religious) engagement with suffering, has held its ground even in the apparently liberal, secular therapies. Nor indeed that sexual orientation should be treated as akin to religious orientation; as though for many modern people their sexual orientation is their contemporary equivalent of a religious identity.
Philip Hodson, a spokesperson for the BACP, said after one of its members had been struck off for offering ‘conversion therapy’: ‘To me as a therapist it seemed inconceivable that someone who had been trained and made accountable could act in that way. I was shocked rigid that a member was practising conversion therapy, which I thought only happened in wackier parts of America.’ We might wonder what Hodson’s outrage is seeking to protect here, quite what it is that he needs to distance himself and the BACP from. Presumably ‘the wackier parts of America’; and something about how a training that makes people ‘accountable’ could find itself including conversion therapy within its professional practice. Certainly no therapy today, within secular liberal societies – societies in which there has been what Philip Rieff memorably called ‘the triumph of the therapeutic’ – that offered conversion experiences would be considered to be anything other than disreputable, so far has conversion fallen from grace as a good story about how people should change each other, or about people changing or, in Mill’s terms, forming their own character. ‘In general,’ Freud wrote in 1920, undoubtedly with some irony, ‘to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse.’
We have very different stories now about acceptable forms of change; and indeed about the effects people should be permitted to have on each other. The difference, say, between violation and persuasion. And we have become extremely suspicious about how people can undermine each other – seduce, manipulate, exploit – through words and associated intimidation, as though our language has become potentially the most dangerous thing about us. All the suspicions about psychoanalysis and the other, related talking therapies are all worries about conversion (or brainwashing), with supposedly more rational forms of treatment proffered as alternatives. In this drama, rationality or various fantasies of empiricism are often proposed as our best defence against conversion experiences. As though what is being acknowledged is that something is needed to protect us from whatever it is about ourselves that is prone to conversion. As though conversion was akin to seduction, which it is.
That we are capable of being converted is taken to be the problem. But what exactly is that a problem about? Our receptivity, our longing both for change and for intimacy: our desire, in short, to join other people in something shared, and that makes our lives worth living? Or an essentially megalomaniac drive to be connected to the truth, and so to acquire an inner superiority? Clearly the kind of problem conversion is deemed to be takes us to the heart of something significant: that we do not know what to make of the fact that people can have such a powerful effect on each other; and that we desire these effects as well as fear them. The suggestible, the too easily impressed, the overemotional – the fans and followers and devotees – need help with their susceptibilities.
There is in this, whatever else there is, a terrified misogyny; and a terror of our earlier, more dependent selves. A terror of something about love, and a terror about what the loss of love exposes. There is, in the psychoanalytic story – conversion and psychoanalysis having always been somehow connected – the woman who first, and hopefully often, converted us – the mother who was, in Christopher Bollas’s phrase, our first and formative ‘transformational object’, the woman who, through her care, could radically change our mood; and ourselves as infants and young children desiring and depending on such benign conversion experiences as were possible. ‘The mother is experience’, Bollas writes in The Shadow of the Object, ‘as a process of transformation, and this feature of early existence lives on in certain forms of object-seeking in adult life … The memory of this early object-relation manifests itself in the person’s search for an object (a person, place, event, ideology) that promises to transform the self.’
This ongoing search for an object that ‘promises to transform the self’ is then a reminder of our earliest, most absolute states of dependent need. An object that we depend upon can only be an object that calls up in us the most profound ambivalence. Conversion experiences all too easily, then, have a mixed but not actually a bad echo, both historically and personally. We want to get over them, and we don’t. We crave them, and we fear their failure or their unavailability. They link us to our losses, and they remind us of extraordinary boons and benefits. We crave them as opportunities and we fear them as tyrannies. Conversion experiences that, by definition, seem to answer so many questions for the converted can’t help, by the same token, but raise so many more questions for the unconverted. The converted, that is to say, are always a provocation to the unconverted, and vice versa.
What then is wrong with conversion? If you feel yourself to be homosexual and don’t want to be, why is a conversion experience inappropriate, rather than just the job? One answer would be: sexuality is not the kind of thing that can be converted (any more than friendship is); it is the wrong picture of what sexual desiring is like. Which also allows us to wonder how we do imagine our sexuality if it is not something that we can be converted out of or converted into; if, that is to say, sexuality is unlike sinfulness, or unlike a wrong set of beliefs, or a religious way of life. If we can’t convert our sexuality, what can we do with or about it? (Freud, as we shall see, did believe that we could convert our sexual desire into all sorts of other things: but with a view to sustaining our pleasure.)
What do we imagine people are doing to people when they convert them that makes us so fearful of the whole idea? One answer would be: we imagine people willingly being colonized, undermined, overwhelmed, enslaved and having no redress: we imagine people reduced to states of helpless submission, but without realizing that that is what is happening; indeed, being so unconscious of their compliance that they welcome it, they desire it. In this picture conversion is like an apparently benign version of being driven mad, of losing one’s mind: the converter and the converted like a sado-masochistic couple, entranced by their ritual: members of a cult that believes it is not a cult, but the truth about life. And what do we think people might be like, what kind of creatures are human animals, if they are prone (unlike all other animals) to being converted? Again, one answer would be that people can’t bear certain kinds of frustration, and crave certain kinds of love, or connection to what are taken to be sources of life. That our willingness to be converted is a measure of our abjection, of our need and of our isolation; or of just how unmoored we have become in the cultures we were born into. And, indeed, what do we think language is like, language being the primary medium of conversion, if it can have this kind of effect on people (language also being the medium of psychoanalysis and all the other talking therapies)? And one answer would be that, consciously or unconsciously, we think of language as daemonic. We think of ourselves as doing things with words, while language does things to us.
So the fact that there is such a thing, following on from the language of religion, as ‘conversion therapy’ at all, however discredited, invites us to consider what might be going on, in this case, in a therapy, if it is not a kind of conversion experience; what kind of conversation can make a difference to people, a difference they desire, that is not a form of conversion? And this, of course, is a version of more ancient misgivings about rhetoric, and about there being something pernicious about the wish to persuade people; or rather to persuade people by disarming them in some way. As though all forms of persuasion involved some kind of disarming; as though all conversation was more or less tentative seduction; and that what we should fear most about ourselves is just how seducible we are (imagine what a world would be like in which our greatest wish was to be seduced). As though there is a magic of words that exploits credulity and insidiously coerces assent. The word ‘conversion’ itself breaks down into a con version, ‘con’ meaning ‘to know, learn, study carefully’ or ‘to swindle, trick, to persuade by dishonest means’. We need to think about what honest persuasion might entail. I think psychoanalysis is best described as a form of honest persuasion. Or that, at least, is what it aspires to be.
Copyright © 2021 by Adam Phillips