Electroshock Conversion: One Man’s Story

This is from my book, Leaving the Fold, Candid Conversations with Inactive Mormons (Signature, 1999) The interviewee graciously allowed me to use his name in the book. You can find the chapter on Signature Books website. Look under “out of print books.”

SCOTT B. interviewed by James W. Ure.

You must have had real guilt and conflict, or some conflict . . .

You know, I have to say I suffer from a lot of guilt.  I went through electroshock therapy from I think age thirteen to fifteen which was at that point a very vogue treatment specifically within the Mormon church.

This was this an attempt to make you heterosexual?

It was.  The way it came about is that my parents through a series of events found out that was my orientation and they must have sought some advice because one day I came home from school and my dad was sitting on the porch and I could tell he was upset.  He said, “Is this something you want to change, do you want to work on it?”  I thought they were very smart in finding out what they were going to approach me with, and they gave me a choice, so I thought, “Sure. I  might as well attempt to change.”  I wasn’t threatened by the change at thirteen.  So, I agreed to do it.  I have to say I never, I never believed that they knew exactly what the procedure was.  I think they would have been tremendously alarmed had they known (laughter) what actually went on and it was never discussed with me present that they knew.

Tell me what the procedure was.

At thirteen, with a Mormon psychotherapist, I was shown straight pornography films and gay pornography films.  It was the first time that I had ever seen any of that (laughs), so it was a pretty interesting thing to get thrown into.  This psychotherapist was one of the big people treating it.  He had a huge practice in it.  I knew the first time that I met him that he was way, way out there and had some strong issues floating around of his own, as I came to find out from someone who was ten years older than I was who was being treated as an adult by him at the same time.

Anyway, electrodes are placed on your wrists and then kind of a meter on your penis to gauge the arousal. I’m this thirteen-year-old kid thrown into all this stuff and it had a rather surreal quality to it.  When I call up that memory it’s this strange quality of doing this really absurd thing which from day one I knew was bogus.  The whole patterning thing is absurd and I figured out how to work within the system and simply didn’t look at the gay stuff so I wasn’t aroused.  I tried to arouse myself through the straight stuff.  I was playing into what he wanted as the end result.  I remember going home at night, at dinner.  It had never been discussed in my family, never been brought up to the rest of the group and I would have burn marks on my wrists from this shocker thing.  And the shocking never worked for me either because I have a fairly high pain threshold and it was very unmoving. I can’t imagine how it would ever get you to, you know, to change your behavior.  One of my clear memories is going home and wondering if my siblings had any understanding or recognition of what was happening.  If they would question me about this burn.   There were these two very clear, round burn marks on my wrists.  It was the kind of extraneous things like that that are the memory parts of it.  And I was magically cured when I told him I had been elected the student body president of my junior high.  He deemed me cured because he perceived as a an active member of a social order.  So it cracked me up and it taught me, very early on, that regardless of what we want it to be it’s often how you’re perceived and how you present yourself which matters in the world.  In a lot of ways I feel like what I learned there was quite positive and useful.  I made a real conscious effort not to be overwhelmed by it.  I could have chosen to really be angry at my parents about it, or I could have chosen to become antisocial.  A lot of people are really pulled down by stuff and I chose to look at it as a thing that happened.  I didn’t realize until my mid-thirties when I was going to a counselor because of a relationship break-up that there was a whole part of that stuff inside of me still.  And it didn’t take too much work to get it out or at least give it a voice.  But it was interesting when I finally decided to try and pull it up and get it out.  There was a lot more there in terms of raw nerves or damage or whatever you want to call it.  So it’s interesting from that perspective how an element like that can take you to “another place,” if you will.

After your miracle-cure, did you go back to Mormonism at all?

I think by that point I might have gone through the motions of it and I might have attended off and on and probably to some degree for the social aspect of it.  But in my heart-of-hearts I knew that it was never going to work for me. The biggest thing is I simply refused to have anything to do with a group that tells me I’m a bad person for something I know in my heart-of-hearts I had nothing to do with. I guess I continue to have a lot of anger with people who can tell me that they know for sure because it’s written somewhere that it’s a choice I’ve made and God will punish me. 

Out of my four siblings only one of them is an active Mormon.  I had a discussion with the active one–my brother–and it was absolutely fascinating. He’s forty-eight and a very bright guy.  He’s a judge and hopefully well read but he still maintains that it was a choice I made.  And then I convinced him that it wasn’t a choice, and for him it became an obstacle that God had put in my way that was supposed to make me stronger.  And I said, “So that means I’m supposed to die at eighty-five never having had any significant relationship or any, any kind of primary relationship because that’s what God has done?”  I was trying to convince him that that is an absurd concept.  And I think I got him past that, but he absolutely refused to believe that there was any genetic sense to it because he said it made it too easy.  And he said to me, “You know I’ve really never thought about this, but this is what I’m supposed to believe.”  And that says so much to me about the people who are successful with their Mormonism.  Many choose not to think it through too much, because there are too many loose ends to it.

Did you ever have a bedrock belief in The Book of Mormon?

It was a social thing to go to seminary in the ninth grade before we went to school, but it was also the social thing within my group to lie about reading the Book of Mormon (robust laughter). So we all lied, and I have actually never read it.  I guess I’ve read parts of it.  The basic concept of someone in the nineteenth century, a fourteen year-old finding the real and only true religion in an age when starting your own religion was a big deal?   It was quite a fashionable thing to do.

I guess the absoluteness of it is what I find objectionable. I think any belief in a system which of God creates a better world, why we’re here and where we’re going is great.  But I can’t imagine how centuries of people who’ve lived and died and believed in a diversity of faith have all been wrong, and a hundred and fifty years of Anglos living in Salt Lake City, Utah are right.  It’s certainly spread beyond that, but, but the concept of the rightness and wrongness of it is very troubling to me.  Many people are drawn to that–that they are the “right” ones, and everybody else gets to be wrong.

Have you ever thought of asking to have your name removed from the rolls?

I’ve thought about that and I would probably do it if it was easy. I guess I do have some issues being counted among “the numbers,” although I certainly haven’t been tracked like a lot of my contemporaries have been.  Somewhere along the line I was dropped and I don’t know if that was something that my parents had something to do with and said, “It’s not going to happen there.” A lot of my friends who have been very removed from the church for even twenty years still get people trying to pull them into it. I find it (the church) a curious organization, but I’m not drawn to antagonize it.  I guess I don’t particularly want to give anybody the thrill of excommunicating me. I don’t have any need for that finality, because I think I relate so much to my personal heritage, my familial background which is very tied to Mormonism.  That’s very comforting and I like that part of my history.  And I’ve been able to separate that and enjoy that and remove it from my own personal sense of what should be.  And I really have a tremendous amount of respect for my parent’s sense of faith.  But my parents also gave me the ability to find my own place in that, which has a lot of power to me.  I have seen so many parents who don’t do that.  I feel extremely lucky to come out of a basic conservative Mormon background without a lot of the baggage–guilt being part of that baggage that a lot of my friends have.

If you were to have your name removed, would that cause your mother a lot of pain?  I know your father’s dead.

I don’t think it would.  My mother is aware that I have a sister that converted to Catholicism as an adult, and she’s very aware that out of her five children only one of them is active.  My second brother had a situation with his young children–four and six and an infant at the time.   They were being sexually abused by Mormon neighbors, and the reason the Mormon element is important in it was because  the acts were very much contained or structured within that environment.  The way these people worked was in the church.  It’s a very complex story and gets pretty hard to believe because of the dynamic. My brother and sister were very, very devout Mormon, and were very well connected to the hierarchy of the church.  They went directly to very powerful people in the church who with a list of the children in this neighborhood who had been abused.  Then through repeated efforts the church absolutely and completely blocked investigating it, and stopped the county government from investigating it.  And it was a clear path, it was a clear pathway back to the church.  In fact, one of the abusers had been fired from his job for sexual misconduct and his house payment was being paid out of the tithing fund.  So I mean there was this really odd and clear link to the church which I think for a long time they, “they” being my brother and sister-in-law, wanted to believe that the church was true and the people a little bit odd, or the people weren’t doing the right thing, or they needed to be taught. After a period of years they’ve become rather militant in the dynamic of the church, having to address this huge problem.  It’s a group where men are given all the power.  Traditionally nobody else has a voice and so it’s a perfect setting for it to happen.  Certainly for political reasons they don’t want it to become public that we have this problem; I mean it’s very complex.  But it was interesting to see them go from absolute, you know, “it’s the only true thing,” to “this is can be a very destructive element in somebody’s life.”  And they actually do some work in trying to bring about change by being on panels, working within the community.  They are not just sitting there saying it’s a bad thing.  I think some day the church will have to address that problem too.  But those kind of things build little layers of stuff where you see this organization whose most basic tenant is to protect itself.

Survival?

It’s survival, and so often times it gets more and more inwardly directed. I’m fascinated to see where that will land, where that will put them.

What’s good about Mormonism?  We tend to carp about it a lot, those of us who live here.  We find it has political ramifications we don’t like but we forget sometimes what’s good about it.

As I said before, I think any religious teaching that helps us to do good things in the world or to be better people or live a Christ-like life is good. I mean “Christ-like” can take on a lot of different meanings, but a more charitable, giving life is a very good thing and I do believe the church does that for a lot of people.  That is a mechanism in which they work well at reaching out to others and doing good works.  It’s very valuable that way.  And I think it brings a lot of peace to people.   One of my favorite memories is my maternal grandmother; one of the last times I saw her in her house she had just turned ninety and I went to see her for her birthday and she was sitting on her sofa reading the Bible on a Sunday afternoon.  She was very content to move on to the next life.  It was like she wanted to turn ninety and then she was ready to go.  So for her it was such a clear path from where she had come to where she was going and I thought that was a beautiful thing to have such a clear sense of it.  I think that’s a very valuable thing for anybody to have.  So I think there is sense of peace that it can give people, a sense of structure that a lot of people need and is very powerful.  And, you know, I think anything that tells us to be good, to do good things is a good thing.

Let’s back-track for just a minute.  There is this word “faith” that’s often trotted out for acceptance-sake.  Why is some of us just can’t have the faith that all the church doctrine is correct and true?

I believe that I have faith in things that I can’t touch, feel, see, explain, but my whole issue really revolves around it being a much bigger picture.  I have a real belief in an afterlife.  I think the element of supreme being is something to do with the collective good energy.   I don’t know that it’s a guy because honestly I’d be disappointed if it was just this guy and women could never be the guy. I’m not happy with those kind of dynamics of Mormonism where the guy gets to do it, the women doesn’t, so deal with that. I’m fascinated with how it’s a religion that was designed by a white man for white men of influence and it always has been that. As for the element of faith I think it depends on how you define “faith.” For me the historical and somewhat social aspects of Mormonism were interesting and comforting, but as a doctrine, as a belief system I just never could buy it. It’s fine in the context of other religions I suppose, but the absoluteness of it is what really has always struck me as being totally off-base.

Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

I would like to think I am. When my father died, I really strongly felt like I was physically seeing him–I felt like I saw him leaving his . . . I could feel a spiritual side that was leaving this physical thing and it was very comforting and it was very real.  We’re made of certain molecules and energy and then there’s a kind of energy that has to somehow go somewhere. I was very close to my dad and he was great guy.  So I feel connected to him and sometimes it has a very strong message-quality to it.     It’s like trying to listen or build on what we learn as we go through life and we’re all going to make mistakes, but hopefully we’ll figure out how to do it better the next time.

You talked about you almost felt your father’s spirit leaving as he died. Is this your Mormonism is still tagging along?

I can call that memory up pretty clearly.  I’m a pretty bad memory kind of guy,  but it was such a strong quality that for me it didn’t have a religious overtone.  Death culturally is so removed from us.  I was driving to their house because my sister called in the middle of the night and said that he had died, and I knew I could react really badly.  It could be very traumatic.  I was really surprised how comforting it was to see him.  It was just a real strong sense of “the process.”

A spiritual thing.

Yeah it was.  It wasn’t like Mormonism versus whatever. I’m so removed from the patterning of Mormonism that it doesn’t come up in many images of what that is.

When was the last time you were in a Mormon church?

It was for my father’s funeral which was three-and-a-half years ago.  It was interesting because it was the chapel I went to as a child. I hadn’t been in one for a very long time before that.  So it was interesting because it does call up a lot of memories. His funeral was a very strict, traditional Mormon funeral.  I really didn’t need that closure for me personally because my whole thing with my dad was very separate from that.  It was fascinating on one level to see the comfort, especially to my mother, of the structure and it made a ton of sense to me why people are drawn to it. There were people there that my dad had gone to grade school with–he was that kind of guy.  I met a few people who had never entered my life before and it was fascinating.  That’s the result somewhat of culture, somewhat that this city being as small as it is. The sense of community was so strong and I think that’s a very good thing for people.

Could you foresee anyway that you might go back to an active Mormon life?

No (robust laughter). I think off and on about trying to become more connected to something more structured because I do think there is some good to allotting a time of the day of the week to focusing on it.  Because I think you can get so lost in everything else.  I really do think that the structure, the go-to-church-on-Sunday thing has a lot of positives. But I don’t think it would ever be Mormonism for me.

You could see yourself in another religion?

Maybe, and it would probably be some religion or philosophy with looser definitions of what’s right and wrong, good and bad.  One of the most poignant examples of the rigidity of it for me was when this niece had been abused.  She was six and she was in the car with me one day.  We were looking for a new place for them to build a new house because they left the old place to get the kids out of the neighborhood.  She was a very serious six-year old kid.  And she, you know, turned to me and said, “You know Scott, my dad said that you drink coffee.” I said, “Yeah I do.”  I couldn’t figure out why she was asking that.  But one of the ways they (the perpetrators of the abuse) manipulated these kids was to make them drink coffee.  The kids had always been taught from day one that drinking coffee was a very, very bad thing.  The abusers made the kids drink coffee and said, “If you ever tell that we did this or this occurred we’ll tell your parents you drank coffee.”  So in a kid that age’s mind that has more power. I’m a bad person because I drink coffee?   People drink gallons of Coca Cola.  You know there are basic health tenets that we should all live by, but the concept which you can take one element out of the bigger picture and focus on it to the point where it manipulates people’s lives so dramatically is very troubling to me.

If I were the president of the Mormon church sitting here across from you, what would you say to me?

Any president?  Or the current one?  Or does that matter?  That’s an excellent question.  I’m not completely sure. I don’t know how I would inter-relate to someone who’s so removed from me. I would like to believe that the expressions of compassion and, and reaching out that you hear from these guys are true.  So I mean, you know, my desire is to believe that they have good intentions about what they’re doing. I have the respect for the institution and understand that to maintain that you have to have certain guidelines. My personal sense of things is that they’ll have to adapt to the next century.  They’ll have to figure out a way to make it okay for women to respect themselves if they go to work, because otherwise they’re “not being good mothers.”  That one baffles me to this day. Most families now–young families–have to have two people working.  But, at least there’s a subliminal message if not an active one that says a mother should be with their children, which obviously most mothers, if they could economically afford it, would do.  It would be great if men were given that same option socially, which I know clearly within that culture it’s not thought of as being up-and-up.  Those are the things I would like to see them change first because I think they cut a deep wound in people.  In all of the people I know that survive in Mormonism there are pieces of that which don’t really go away.  Everyone has their own way of dealing with where to place that.  I guess my statement would be come to the party, come to the year, come to the day which in which we live and then figure out what works. They’re very old guys and they’ve lived in a different time; and so it’s very easy to kind of make these rules.  I guess the other thing is that Ezra Taft Benson at one time said he couldn’t believe that anyone could be a good Democrat and be a good Mormon.  I was so appalled by it.  It’s like, have a little respect for a difference of opinion.  That’s the kind of thing that troubles me dramatically, because if that’s the message people hear, it’s not going to work.  I mean, it’s a very narrow path.

I certainly feel a part of the bigger thing and again partly that’s my familial heritage. My great-great-grandparents were killed by Indians in Ephraim.  And I just recently found this memorial for it; and it struck me how amazing their lives were and what they gave up.  He was a sailor in Denmark and so he came to Utah and was sent to Ephraim by the powers that be to be a farmer.  He was very ill-suited for that.  It amazes me that we have become so removed from giving up anything. I think of people who lived through World War II, lived through a hard time and knew what giving things up was. They struggled for a “greater thing” and now we have this generation which I belong to where you had expectations of getting things the easy way. I was really struck by the color of the day and the setting of these people leading this life and working really hard and then dying and being buried in a common grave with seven people because they just couldn’t deal with single graves.  It fascinates me.

It still binds you to the church in its way.

Yes.  I don’t know if it’s cultural or “the” church, but the church is the culture today and it certainly was then.  There is that binding and I think it’d be fun and fascinating to go back in time and even feel a sense of what that was like.  We have a pretty easy and comfortable life even at its hardest, you know.  So those kinds of things I have a great appreciation for and I’m appreciative to my parents for speaking of it and giving me a heritage because a lot of people my age don’t have a sense of where they came from and their family history.  I think that’s an interesting thing about Mormonism:  we’re encapsulated here and all quite current, still very alive.

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