My own experience with conversion therapy, though quite different from the story Conley tells in BOY ERASED,is one of the subjects that I cover in-depth in my new memoir, SAINT UNSHAMED: A GAY MORMON’S LIFE—Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer To Find My True Self, which goes on sale to the general public on March 27, 2019, though advance copies can be purchased now at www.KerryAshton.com.
Raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints, I was a true believer in the Mormon faith when I attended Brigham Young University as a student in the early 1970s. And it was during my time as a student at BYU that I faced my gay identity for the first time and sought out counseling. Unfortunately, when I reached out for help, I was coerced into what the Mormon Brethren at BYU termed a Rehabilitation Program in an attempt to convert me from gay to straight. What they called a Rehabilitation Program back then was what gay men experience today as conversion therapy. The process was and still is one and the same.
As part of this Rehabilitation Program, I met weekly with my Mormon Branch President Cyrus W. Wilkinson for spiritual counseling and also with an assigned psychiatrist at the Health Clinic on campus Dr. Hugh Parker, while Brother Gilbert Clarke, the Head of the Office of University Standards at BYU, oversaw the entire process of my so-called rehabilitation. This conversion therapy process went on for the first two years as a student at BYU.
When all attempts at my conversion to straight man by these well-meaning LDS Elders failed, a special meeting was called in late December 1973, at Brother Clarke's office, where Clarke, Wilkinson, and Parker—what I had come to think of as the Holy Trilogy—met to decide my fate.
Seated behind his immaculate desk, Brother Clarke looked through my voluminous file. “Obviously, we need to take stiffer measures in your rehabilitation program. Dr. Parker has recommended that you undergo on electro-shock therapy sessions, and I concur with his recommendation.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. "You mean shock treatments?"
"I wouldn't call it that," Dr. Parker interrupted. "In conversion therapy, or aversion therapy as many refer to it, we only use a mild electrical shockto make distasteful what once seemed pleasurable.” Dr. Parker let his words sink in. "It sounds fearful, but it has proven effective in cases such as yours.”
"I don't want shock treatments!" I said, my voice rising.
"Calm down, Brother Ashton," Clarke replied. “We aren't going to do anything without your permission, nor would we want to.” The tension I felt within me eased somewhat, buttoo soon. "However," Clarke continued, "If you aren’t willing to go forward with rehabilitation, I will be forced to expel you and inform your parents.”
"You would inform my parents ... about everything?"
"Yes," Clarke replied. “But take the Christmas break to think it over.You can let us know what you decide once you return to campus in January."
I spent Christmas at home in Pocatello, Idaho with Mom and Dad, contemplating my fate.
After I returned to BYU in early January 1974, I met with my assigned psychiatrist Dr. Parker, who took me to the lab in the Health Center on campus where the shock therapy sessions would be performed.
Dr. Parker showed me the chair where I would be strapped into place, and explained how the voltage would be administered through electrodes attached to my lower legs and forearms. And he showed me a slide projector, and the screen on the wall in front of the chair. “This projector is attached to a special aversive shock generator,” he explained. “The edge of the shock slides, the slides of attractive men, are marked with ink. The neutral slides, those showing attractive young ladies, do not have marked edges. The slides are automatically advanced. When a shock slide is shown, a phototransistor reads the mark and triggers the shock. The patient is automatically conditioned by the visual stimulus paired with the aversive shock. I can, of course, adjust the level of shock, if and when I need to, to make the experience more effective.”
There was a motion picture screen on the wall in front of the chair. “I also add the use of sound,” he explained, through earphones, adding pleasant music when you see photographs of women, and highly negative and disturbing noises when a shock slide of men is presented. I also add unpleasant flashes of light when the patient views a shock slide, adding to the aversion that all patients will want to avoid.”
It sounded terrifying. "What happens if my behavior can’t be modified?" I asked.
"Any behavior can be modified,” he responded gently. “I’ll start you off at 150 volts. If we don’t have success, I’ll increase the voltage to 200 volts if I feel it necessary."
Nothing Dr. Parker told me that day made me any less wary of submitting to electric shock treatments.
My first session of electro-shock therapy at BYU was scheduled for Monday morning, January 14, 1974 at 9am. The session was expected to last two hours.
When I drove into the campus Health Center parking lot that morning, I was full of fear and apprehension. I wanted to turn around and drive in the opposite direction. But fighting back my fear, I parked and went inside, meeting Dr. Parker as arranged at his lab.
In a jovial mood, Dr. Parker chirped, "Good morning, Kerry." Then he left the room for a moment, leaving me alone to contemplate my fate.
Soon a nurse with raven-black hair entered the room. “Now, just take a seat in the chair, Kerry.”
I sat down in the chair facing the screen. She quickly began attaching suction-like conductors to both my arms and legs, plugging the wires into the control panel of the nearby aversive shock generator sitting on top of Dr. Parker’s desk.
“This is a similar process to getting you set up for an EKG,” she explained, “except rather than reading your electrical responses, we’ll be conducting a small electrical shock to various parts of your body.” I gulped. “Now, just relax,” she continued. “This won’t take long.” She placed the electrical conductors on my extremities and attached a monitor to my thumb apparently to take my pulse, explaining, “This way Dr. Parker can keep an eye on your vital signs during the session.”
After I was prepared, Dr. Parker reentered the room. “Kerry, just sit in the chair and try to relax," Dr. Parker said softly. I sat down and the nurse strapped me in, wrapping my arms tightly into the armrests.
"What are the straps for?" I asked, terrified.
"They’re for your safety," Dr. Parker reassured me. "It will make the shocks easier to bear." Dr. Parker must have seen the panic in my face because he tried to calm me down. "There’s no need to be frightened, Kerry. I'll go slow and gauge your reactions."
The nurse took my pulse and blood pressure, and made some notations on a chart.
Dr. Parker approached me from the front with a pair of headphones. "This is for the music," he said. "I think you'll find the songs very much to your liking." Before he put the headphones over my ears, he patted my knee, and said, "Don't worry, I'll be right here if you need me." The headphones covered my ears and the lights were turned off. I sat strapped in the chair, plugged in like an appliance, waiting to be turned straight.
I won’t get into the details in this blog posting about all of the specific horrors that I experienced during that first session of electro-shock therapy. I will just say that it took ten minutes after that first session ended before I could stand without feeling like I was going to pass out, and another ten minutes before I could make it to my car. After that first session of shock therapy, I finally understood that the Mormon Brethren wanted me changed or they wanted me dead. Sadly, this was just the first of many shock treatments that I endured over the course of the next year-and-a-half.
After several of these sessions, my hands began to shake uncontrollably—a direct result of the electrical current sent through my body on a weekly basis. It is a condition that has persisted ever since, for over 43 years, and one that I assume will be with me until I die.
As horrible and unpleasant as my weekly shock treatments were, I wanted and needed to believe that they might be working, helping me transform from a horrible and sinful homosexual into a normal heterosexual male. I had, after all, managed to give up masturbation since my last sincere promise to God, and I had even had some success in keeping my sexual fantasies about men in check. Of course, gays can’t be turned straight, any more than straights can be turned gay. Anyone who believes otherwise is uninformed.
Fifteen months later, on Monday, April 7, 1975, and only a week before my graduation from BYU, I underwent my last electro-shock treatment. After Dr. Parker completed his task, removing the electrical conductors, I spoke up. “So, Dr. Parker, how many conversion therapy sessions does this make in all?”
He laughed slightly. "I don't know, Kerry. I've never stopped to count."
"Well, I have! I’ve had a two-hour shock therapy session every week since January 14, 1974. That’s 65 sessions, which adds up to 130 hours of electric shocks! And do you know what I have to show for those 130 hours of shock treatments? My hands shake so badly now that I can’t even hold a pen steady! But I’m still gay, as I always was, as I always will be!"
Now 40 years later, a new American Civil War is upon us with each side claiming its own facts and its own reality.
In 2016, Americans chose as their next president a pathological liar, fascist bully, and self-proclaimed pussy-grabber. Even his choice for vice-president was a man who supported, and I imagine still supports, the same type of conversion therapy that I once endured at BYU.
My hands still shake as a result of such barbaric treatment, an enduring testament to the victimization that I, and so many gay men like me, have experienced and continue to experience in America. I can only hope that no gay American will ever again be forced to suffer as I did, that we will never return to the shadows, but fight for our rights and for our lives, no matter what. I am nobody’s victim now.