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My Top Five Surprises While Investigating The Kirk Murphy Story

Jim Burroway

June 7th, 2011

Kirk, in 2003 (Photo courtesy of Tim Lee)

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.

Comments

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Matt
June 7th, 2011 | LINK

I have to say that your discoveries about the shoddiness of the “peer review” done on Rekers’ work don’t surprise me at all. I was immediately reminded of the takedowns that your compatriot on this blog, Timothy, regularly performs on the latest studies purporting to reveal something about homosexuality or gay people.

Social “science” is not science and the greatest mass delusion in our society today is that is, or can be.

Boo
June 7th, 2011 | LINK

Shoddy follow up is pretty much the norm in these kind of cases. Just look at David Reimer.

Bryan
June 7th, 2011 | LINK

What I realized while reading through this story is just how powerful the anti-gay movement used to be in academia and how they have lost almost all their influence there. But it was also frightening to realize that this is what the anti-gay movement wants us to go back to: a world where it is taken for granted that gays are perverts in need of therapy, and that the only option for an individual to lead a successful life is to be straight.

ScottLanter
June 8th, 2011 | LINK

Wow, I just finished reading a good chunk of your investigation. You have done an absolutely amazing job. I have not read everything, but I think it’s really important to contact Reker’s peers in college. Remember, this is a young man in his early 20′s at the time and definitely sexual to some degree (even if only fantasizing and masturbation). What happened to so many hundreds and hundreds of young Priests when they tried to push down all vestiges of their blossoming sexuality? Did they perform “experiments” on young boys? I honestly think there is A LOT more to this story that has not come to light yet.

Dan L
June 8th, 2011 | LINK

As a graduate student, numbers 1 and 3 actually don’t surprise me very much. Graduate students in these fields are often granted a great deal of autonomy. Some supervisors exercise far more control on their graduate students than do others. It certainly sounds like Green was a “hands-off” supervisor–so much so that Rekers turned to someone else to be his mentor.

Peer-review is the gold standard, but there is one thing that peer review cannot defend against: people who are willing to brazenly make stuff up. When you submit an article to a journal, other academics read the paper and make comments. At the heart of this process is the assumption that the person submitting the paper is being honest about what they’ve done. Its not practical to have the peer reviewers fly out to another state to another person’s laboratory to make sure that the author(s) haven’t just made up their information.

Michael Bellesiles, for example, wrote a book called Arming America that completely revamped our understanding of guns in early American culture. It sailed through peer review, was hailed as a breakthrough, and won the most prestigious prize the field of history has to offer. The problem was that Bellesiles simply made up much of his archival material. He cited records that simply don’t exist.

In the field of history, however, another historian can always go and track down your footnotes. And that’s how Bellesiles’s fraud was discovered. But that’s not the job of the peer reviewers–it’s unreasonable to send them to archives across the country to double check references. If a journal insisted on that, they would instantly have no reviewers at all.

I’m not a psychologist, but in psychology, I imagine that fraud must be almost impossible to detect. There are no archives for other psychologists to track down, only subjects, the identities of whom in many cases necessarily must be kept concealed. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the extent of Rekers’s fraudulent corner-cutting is only coming to light now.

You’ve done excellent work here. I’ve read all of it–it’s very moving. Well done.

enough already
June 8th, 2011 | LINK

Bryan,
I wish I could agree with you, but the Christians still have enormous sway in that area of academia which counts: Publishing.

Sadly.

I fear Boxturtle will censor this, but I’m not in the mood after seeing this report to pretend anything but fury, rage and a strongly held desire to see the monsters who perpetrated this crime brought to justice.

My justice, preferably, but I’d settle for lifelong penal servitude at hard labor.

CAfurrball
June 8th, 2011 | LINK

Just a few moments ago, I looked up the David Reimer story on Wikipedia, to refresh my memory. I had seen the man’s story on Discovery Health [before it turned into OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network], and agree that the two stories, David Reimer and the young man whose suicide is covered herein are certainly strikingly tragic. That David’s brother had also committed suicide made David’s story even more sad.

Frankly, I hope stories like this being shared with the public puts an end to the abuses of “experimentation” with gender-identity, and those who practice such quackery have their licenses to practice revoked, for good.

Let these stories be a “testimony” – if I am allowed to use that word here – to the abuses of so-called “experts” and the very REAL consequences of attempting to change gender and psychological make-up of anyone, child OR adult.

Amicus
June 9th, 2011 | LINK

Jim,

I have not been through all the material, but this is a question that I have to answer, when I do.

Given the failed, earlier therapies (particularly the British shock therapy and hormonal therapy), why did anyone in the field of psychology believe that other therapies might be successful, where the most “forceful” had already failed?

Can it all be chocked up to the tenor of the times? Or, was there really a kind of giant-sized – even criminal – hubris behind the suggestion that ‘we just need to refine out therapeutic approaches’?

Amicus
June 9th, 2011 | LINK

“out” = “our”

Donny D.
June 11th, 2011 | LINK

Amicus,
It was the tenor of the times. Up to 1970, anti-gay bigotry was the correct opinion for anyone to have in regard to homosexuality, and in most social milieux, if you expressed a different opinion, you could suffer negative consequences. Up to that time, opposing “the spread of homosexuality” was considered the socially responsible thing to do. Journalists, politicians and academics felt it was important for the good of society to work against social acceptance of homosexuality as normal, natural and positive.

After 1970, we weren’t a supine, voiceless presence that could be spoken about as though we weren’t there. Those who spoke against us were no longer able to effortlessly present (or see) themselves as good people who wanted the best for society. After Stonewall, there was a counter-voice standing up time and time against them, sometimes at great cost, to tell respectability-clad authorities that they were hurting real people, that they were doing it out of bigotry, and that they now face opposition.

I’m sure those researchers in the late ’60s and early ’70s felt that it was so important to keep boys from “becoming homosexuals” that they should perservere in their efforts despite other researchers’ demonstrated harms and lack of success.

Jim Burroway
June 11th, 2011 | LINK

Given the failed, earlier therapies (particularly the British shock therapy and hormonal therapy), why did anyone in the field of psychology believe that other therapies might be successful, where the most “forceful” had already failed?

That can partly be explained by the fact that there were many different schools of psychology, just as there are today (For an overview of behavioral therapy, the driving force behind the “forceful” therapy, see Blind Man’s Bluff). Many of behavioral therapy’s strongest critics believed that the methods they used were all wrong because, using a medical metaphor, they thought the therapy was only treating the symptom and not the “problem.” And so they tried different therapies aimed at trying to affect the root of the “problem.”

That’s not to say that they were any more successful, but they believed the theoretical basis for behavioral therapy was all wrong.

And there’s one more thing. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in 1970. Even if you had therapies that weren’t very effective, treating an illness was considered to be better than not treating an illness.

So yeah, I think when it comes to the mental health profession, it really can be chalked up to being the tenor of the times. But as the times changed and now it’s 2011, we obviously can’t regard today’s ex-gay movement with the same assumption of innocence. Those who practice ex-gay therapy have more than ample evidence to know better, if they only have eyes to see.

Priya Lynn
June 11th, 2011 | LINK

Its obvious to me that people could condition a child like Kirk to suppress their effeminate behavior, but that there’s no reason to believe that that would affect who they are attracted to. I’m surprised, although I probably shouldn’t be, that this never seemed to have occurred to those advocating this sort of conditioning, especially when they claimed without any proof that the subsequent non-effeminate behavior meant the victim was not gay. There was simply never any reason to believe that eliminating effeminate behavior would mean the victim wouldn’t be same sex attracted.

Donny D.
June 13th, 2011 | LINK

Priya Lynn wrote,

There was simply never any reason to believe that eliminating effeminate behavior would mean the victim wouldn’t be same sex attracted.

Back then, anti-gay bigotry was so ubiquitous that its most ludicrous assumptions often weren’t questioned, even by university trained doctors and psychologists.

Priya Lynn
June 13th, 2011 | LINK

So it seems, Donny.

canderson
July 20th, 2011 | LINK

I have been haunted by this since I read the story. UCLA needs to do a thorough and transparent investigation of “Dr.” Green and “Dr.” Rekers’ work.

Children were abused, physically and emotionally by a taxpayer funded program that apparently had little scientific rigor or standards. “Dr.” Rekers has made quite a nice living for himself promoting this questionable body of work and has been very active with anti-gay groups. He was recently paid $120,000 by the state of Florida to provide “expert” testimony intended to keep gay people from becoming foster parents.

“Dr.” Rekers was recently caught returning from a vacation with a very young gay man. You do the math.

We now know that one of “Dr.” Rekers subjects was a little boy who endured weekly beatings and emotional abuse packaged as therapy. A little boy who attempted suicide as a teenager and ultimately killed himself as an adult.

This therapy seems to have been destructive to the entire family and may have caused a death. UCLA needs to find out where the other children are and how they are doing.

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