My Top Five Surprises While Investigating The Kirk Murphy Story
June 7th, 2011
This was a story full of surprises, beginning with the first one: this comment that Kirk’s sister, Maris, left on BTB last October. That was the comment that started it all. And as I interviewed the family and researched the story, I had several other surprises along the way:
Surprise #1: Who’s In Charge?
When I interviewed Kirk’s mother, Kaytee, for the first time and I asked her about George Rekers, she had no idea who I was talking about. She had taken Kirk to UCLA after seeing Dr. Richard Green, a noted expert on childhood gender development, on a local Los Angeles talk show. For all of these years, she beleived it was Green who was in charge of Kirk’s therapy. (The last time I talked to her, she still believes it, and has good reasons behind her belief.) Kaytee remembers Rekers as just a “college assistant.” In fact, Rekers was a grad student who had just earned his Bachelor’s degree a few months before treating Kirk. It’s hard to believe that Rekers was solely responsible for Kirk’s therapy, but getting to the bottom of the riddle proved much harder than I would have guessed.
Surprise #2: How Important Kirk’s Case Really Was
I was surprised at how often Rekers wrote about Kirk’s case and how important it was to behavioral therapists who were trying to change their clients’ sexual orientation. The 1974 paper which broke the case very nearly became a “classic” in the professional literature and was cited more than a hundred times by other journals, books, and even college textbooks. “Kraig’s” case — Rekers’s pseudonym for Kirk, was cited specifically by numerous researchers, and he became the subject of intense debate over the ethics and efficacy of behavioral therapy to change sexual orientation. Yet all the while, the Murphy family new nothing about it. (I’ll have more on that tomorrow and Thursday).
The last time George Rekers wrote about Kirk was in 2009, nearly six years after Kirk committed suicide. Rekers contributed a chapter to Dr. Julie Harren Hamilton’s Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions. Hamilton is the president of NARTH, and the book is available through NARTH’s online bookstore. It has also been sold at various ex-gay gatherings and conventions. In the book’s final chapter, Rekers wrote:
Follow-up psychological evaluations three years after treatment indicates that Craig’s gender behaviors became normalized. An independent clinical psychologist evaluated Craig and found that post-treatment he had a normal male identity. Using intrasubject replication designs, this published case was the first experimentally demonstrated reversal of a cross-gender identity with psychological treatment, and the journal article on this case was among the top 12 cited articles in clinical psychology in the 1970s.
Surprise #3: The Lack of Independent Verification
Given how important Kirk’s case was in behavioral therapy, I was very surprised at how easy it was for someone to publish a paper and see everyone else accept the report at face value. Peer review is supposed to be the gold standard in science, but this case reveals that peer review has very little ability to guarantee the facts in a case. Rekers claimed that there were independent follow-ups, but his evidence for that is very scant at best. I’ll have more on that tomorrow morning, but suffice it to say, once independent evidence finally came available, it revealed — or at least should have revealed — that Rekers’s assurances that Kirk remained “normal” on follow-up were suspect, to say the least.
Surprise #4: How Kirk’s Therapy Affected Others In The Family
As a gay man myself, it was easy to identify with Kirk’s suffering. What surprised me though was how the therapy he underwent affected the whole family. Especially poignant is Mark’s story. He saw how abusive the therapy was for Kirk, so he moved some of Kirk’s red chips into his own pile and took the beatings for his younger brother. When he told me that over the phone, it took him a long time to work his way through it. It was a very emotional conversation, and he has been carrying that emotion with him for forty years.
Also, while I think it is easy to look at Kirk’s parents as villains in the story, I think I have much greater sympathy for Kaytee and Rod than I thought I would. Sympathy for Kaytee was relatively easy; she did what most mothers in 1970 would have done, and she is horrified at the results. But I am surprised at my sympathy for Rod (he has since passed away), given the fact that he was the one who delivered the beatings. No, I don’t condone the physical abuse at all. He clearly went over the line. But the context is interesting. First, Rod didn’t want to be a part of the therapy to begin with. But also remember, he was being blamed for Kirk’s “condition” according to the theories that UCLA communicated with the family. (and I’ll have more on that Friday). According to Rekers, it was absent or distant fathers that made their sons gay, and it remains one of the main theories behind the ex-gay movement today. Fathers are still the fall guys for their sons’ sexuality.
Surprise #5: How Kirk Managed To Stay Alive For So Long
That’s a paraphrase of Maris’s observation as she came to understand the magnitude of what happened to her brother. The fact that he did survive as long as he did is a testament to the good friends he made along the way, particularly his ex-wife Debbie and his roommate Tim. Getting into the Air Force after high school was probably the best thing that could have happened to him, not only for the self-confidence he must have gotten over becoming a successful linguist, but more importantly for meeting Tim and Debbie. It just goes to show how important close friends can be.
Those were the biggest surprises so far for me. I’m still learning. I wonder what you found surprising. Please let me know in the comments.