Shame and attachment loss: Going from bad to worse

Trying to keep up on the new developments in reparative therapy, I purchased NARTH’s co-founder Joseph Nicolosi’s new book, Shame and Attachment Loss: The Practical Work of Reparative Therapy. This post is not a review but more of a prep for a review. I am going to provide some excerpts and comments which may form the basis for a more formal review at a later date.

You have to get past a couple of features of Nicolosi’s writing in order to proceed. He has an annoying (to me) habit of speaking of himself in the plural (“When a man finds masculinity mysterious and exotic, and seeks it outside himself, we believe he is living in a false self…). This form reappears throughout the book. You also have to grasp the jargon being used in order to understand what he proposes (“grey zone,” “double bind,” “double loop”). In some respects, reading this book is like reading material from object relations theorists such as Masterson and Volkan. It is inside baseball to most folks who are not conversant with attachment and object relations theory.

However, this book is published by Christian publisher Intervarsity Press and makes an effort to make some of the concepts accessible to a lay and non-psychodynamic audience. To be sure, Nicolosi doesn’t leave the reader unclear about his views. Regarding homosexuality, he begins by dismissing Daryl Bem’s empirically derived theory of same-sex attraction because it does not stigmatize same-sex attraction. He then, indicates what has remained the same since his earlier books and what has changed. First, what has remained the same:

The essential principle of reparative therapy remains the same – simply stated by one client as “When a real man sees me as a real man, then I become a real man.” (p. 31)

The real man is the therapist or some other model of masculinity and then to become a real man is apparently to become straight. Simple, right?

What has changed?

Recently, reparative therapy has expanded to conceptualize homosexual attraction as more than a striving to repair gender deficits. We now see it more broadly, as a striving to repair deep self-deficits. (p.31)

Translation: If you have SSA, you are worse off than Nicolosi first believed. You are not just deficient in your sense of gender identity, but your core sense of self is a wreck too. He continues:

My longtime clinical observation suggests one repeated trend in early childhood: specifically, an accumulation of early, core emotional hurts that have led to an attachment injury. I believe that homosexuality is not only a defense against gender inferiority, but a defense against a trauma to the core self.

Beyond the previously recognized needs of same-sex identification and affirmation, we now better understand the condition as an attempt to heal an abandonment-annihilation trauma. We see homosexuality as typically an attempt to “repair” shame-afflicted longing for gender-based individuation. As such, homosexuality can be seen as a pathologic form of grieving. Adopting concepts from bereavement and grief literature, we thus turn new attention to the contributions of attachment theory and the role of shame.(p. 31-32; all italics in the original)

I suspect those adopted concepts of bereavement and grief will want to return to their original family. According to Nicolosi, men (women, what women?) are drawn to sex with men because it somehow helps them grieve the loss of attachment to important figures in their childhood, most notably the father. However, these losses are not restricted to gender concerns.

This understanding that homosexuality is a symptom of a larger issue of self-identity is supported by the almost universal complaint of clients that they feel “insecure,” “inadequate,” “a little boy in an adult world,” “out of control” and lacking relational authority. For years I have heard clients express this interpersonal powerlessness: “She upsets me, they annoy me, he doesn’t take me seriously. (p. 33)

The trauma is broader than lack of attachment to the same sex parent. He notes:

Attachment is the foundation of our self-identity. It is through the mother-child attachment that we develop our sense of self and discover who we are. Shame felt during this process of attachment and individuation subverts development of both self-identity and gender identity.

Since our clients report a core experience of not having felt “seen” by their parents for who they are, they inevitably also felt that they were not loved – at least in the deepest and most genuine sense. There is a deep perception that the parents, even though they may have been truly well-meaning, have failed to fully see, know and accept them.

Because parents are not perceived as loving them for who they are, gay men develop a “false self” to defend against the abandonment of not being truly known. Kids start doing things they think will get their parents and other people to like them but those things are not really them. When they actually move toward what they want to do, they get depressed because they fear attachment loss. This is very nearly the same concept as the “false self” and “abandonment depression” of James Masterson. Masterson is nowhere referenced in the book which is a curious oversight. I wonder if it is because Masterson writes about the same dynamics with straight people being the primary clientele.

According to Nicolosi, reparative therapy helps clients give up the false self, a feature of which is same-sex attraction, in order to experience real attachment and affirmation from “real men.” As this occurs, the homosexuality will diminish and heterosexuality will emerge.

This should be reasonably easy to test. If all of this is true, homosexuals should be unable to hold jobs, or advance in careers, or do other things which require secure object relations and attachments. And of course, this is the practical problem for the practical work of reparative therapy. Many gay, ex-gay, post-gay, and SSA people do not have lives which correspond to the predictions in this book. Nor do their lives indicate the kind of deep self-deficits which are predicted here.

This is first in a series of occasional posts on this book. Stay tuned…