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What Are Little Boys Made Of?

An investigation of an experimental program to train boys to be boys.

Jim Burroway

June 7th, 2011

Part 4: The Bitter Root
Mark clearly remembers a “before” and “after” with Kirk’s treatment. His memory is helped by the fact that they moved to a new house in 1969, just before Kirk entered treatment. And so he recalls with confidence that the family deteriorated noticeably during and following Kirk’s therapy. “I can remember a clear difference with our parents in our first house,” he said. “There was none of the ranting and raving, the fighting and drinking. Boy, that sure came after that.” Rod always drank some — “Those Irish Murphys you know,” Kaytee said, “they liked their beers!” — and so she doesn’t attribute Rod’s worsening drinking to the stresses surrounding Kirk’s therapy. But worsen it did, and that added more friction in the family.

Rod was clearly under a lot of pressure. While psychologists had placed a great deal of emphasis on the mother’s role in their children’s development, researchers at UCLA (Rekers included) were turning their attention more directly toward fathers in deciding which parent was more at fault in making a child “prehomosexual.” Donna remembered overhearing the adults in the family blaming Rod for Kirk’s “problem.”

“They said he had to go to UCLA because of his relationship with his dad,” she said. “They said it was Rod’s fault because he didn’t love Kirk enough. Kirk wasn’t interested in sports the way Mark was, and he would play sports more with Mark. Kirk was quieter and more interested in music. And I know it was discussed that he didn’t love his son enough. I don’t believe that was true, but there was a discussion that I remember.” Rod remained resistant to taking Kirk to UCLA. “I don’t think he bought into the whole thing,” she said.

The move to the new house also helps Kaytee remember another new development. “The treatments had been going on for, I don’t know, a while… a few months. That’s when Kirk started having nightmares.”

“He’d come into our room,” she recalled, “and I’d wake up and he would be standing there by my side of the bed. And he wanted get in bed with us. Well, I let him because I wasn’t going to send him back to his own bedroom to lay there and be scared all night, and neither did his dad. Rod probably thought it wasn’t the best thing to do, but for Kirk’s security I thought it was probably the best thing to do.”

And if that weren’t enough, two more events would shake the Murphy family within two years of each other. The first one shook them literally: the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. It registered 6.6 on the Richter scale, and claimed 65 lives and inflicted more than half a billion dollars in damage. The earthquake was centered in Sylmar, just ten miles from the Murphy’s home in Saugus.

Then in 1972, the youngest son of Rod’s twin brother Ron, was brutally murdered just after Thanksgiving.53 Little Scotty, who was about the same age as Maris, was stabbed to death by an intruder while playing at a friend’s house. The young friend and the friend’s mother were also killed. Ron’s wife was injured as the assailant fled. The horrific crime devastated the two families. “I mean it was just one thing after another,” Kaytee exclaimed. “When my kids would get out of my sight I would just go ballistic. I had to get out of there. I had to move where my kids could play outside in their own yard. So with the problems of trying to figure out what was going on with Kirk and his cousin getting murdered, we moved to Montana.”

They chose the town of Hamilton, about fifty miles south of Missoula, because some friends in the neighborhood had moved there a few years earlier. Rod’s family went for a visit, and Rod and Kaytee fell in love with the tranquility of the Bitterroot Valley. Rod and Ron bought adjoining properties and the Murphy families made Montana their new home. Kaytee’s parents soon followed.

The move from Los Angeles to Hamilton was quite a change. Kaytee felt safer, and she loved the rural setting. The mountainous views were amazing, but, as she remarked, “you can’t eat the scenery.” Rod ran a concrete business, but he struggled to make a living from it. Customers sometimes paid their bills with farm animals, food, bikes for the kids, or other forms of barter. Meanwhile, Rod’s drinking continued to worsen.

It was also at about this time that the Murphy family began to go to church a bit more regularly. They had attended church before, but it was more off-and-on then. “I think we had gone to this Christian church with some friends, but we didn’t go all the time,” Kaytee remembers, thinking back to the time when Kirk was in treatment at UCLA. “We went more after Scotty’s murder than we did before, because Rod’s brother and his wife, well she was almost a fanatic, and they were going to Church of Christ and we were going in support of them.”

And with the family going to church, the kids would occasionally attend Sunday School. Maris remembered church as being “mostly a social thing,” but Kirk would take what he learned in Sunday School seriously. “Kirk was very intelligent and he was very academic in some ways. And when I think about that, he would have taken what he learned in Sunday School very seriously. He analyzed everything. And so I think part of his struggle was he really did believe in God. …and they basically said that God won’t love you like this.”

Kirk got similar messages from his maternal grandmother. “She doted on Kirk,” Maris remembered. “He could do no wrong. But she would talk about queers and how they should be shot, all the while treating Kirk like he was a princess in a way. I don’t know if that was her way of getting Kirk to go the route she wanted him to go, but she talked about that all the freaking time.”

Before moving to Montana, Kirk’s grandmother had been a waitress in Hollywood and she would talk about some of the actors who came in to the restaurant. “Nanny would talk about Liberace and go on and talk about his capes and his jewelry, and in she would turn around in the next breath call him just a four-buck queer. It was so bizarre. And the thing that just makes me sad about that is Kirk really loved Nanny, and if you would have asked all of us kids who she loved the most, we all would have said Kirk. But imagine from his perspective sitting there and hearing her say those horrible things. And he knew that she knew who he was.”

Donna agreed. “My grandmother was very homophobic. She was also very racist, but then she would talk about her black nanny who raised her and how she loved her so much. She was that way about gay people too. She would talk about her ‘queer hairdresser’ – but then she loved her queer hairdresser.”

“I remember her going to UCLA with them,” she continued. “Whether she was part of the problem or if she thought she was part of the solution I don’t know. But I think she was involved with it.”

Soon after moving to Montana, UCLA flew the family back to Los Angeles for a follow-up examination. In addition to a battery of tests, interviews and behavioral observations, they also performed a physical examination. That’s when they noticed that Kirk had an undescended testicle. He also underwent chromosomal tests, presumably to make sure he wasn’t intersex. Those results were normal. In the resulting paper knocking aside suspicions that biology might have played a role in Kirk’s gender variance, Rekers wrote that “there was no evidence … that the mother received hormone treatment during pregnancy, nor were there any hormone imbalance in the mothers.”54 Kaytee disputes this. “I got pregnant with Kirk and I almost had him at seven months,” she remembered. “My neighbors took me to the hospital and I was on hormone pills throughout the last two months that I was carrying him.”

The results of that follow-up, according to Rekers, indicated that Kirk “was found to have normal gender identity and emotional, social, and academic adjustment.”55 That statement didn’t come close to describing Kirk’s actual state following the move to Montana. While Mark adapted to the change rather easily — he made friends, played football, and would later join the party scene — nine-year-old Kirk had no interest in sports, hunting, horseback riding, or any other popular activities for boys. Mark remembered, “We moved from a big city lifestyle with lots of neighbors to the middle of freaking nowhere, to a one-horse town.” Kaytee, Mark and Maris all agree that Kirk had always been something of a loner, and the move to a rural setting only intensified his isolation.

Kirk did make friends with one neighboring family. Barbara Irwin, the mother of twins, a boy and a girl, remembered Kirk as very smart, curious and quick-witted. She was also impressed with Kirk’s finely honed powers of observation, which he expressed through his uncanny impersonations. “His grandmother,” she said, “she was something. She was really not a good influence on his mom or him or any of them really, I think, but he could really mimic her exactly.”

“He was up on the latest of everything. He knew the latest gossip and was very quick-witted about everyday things that were going on. He observed everything. He knew everything we all did.”

“I liked him. He was a nice kid,” she continued. But she also noticed that he was very nervous. “I didn’t really understand why he was nervous.” Now that Barb knows what Kirk experienced during therapy, she says she understands it better today. But his nervous vigilance was a mystery to her then. “He noticed everything and was aware of everything,” she said. “I cannot ever describe him as calm.”

It was at this time that family members noticed Kirk adopting a very unusual coping strategy. “Did you know about the stick?” Mark asked me early in our first conversation. “He used to go out to one corner of the property and he would get a long stick, about three feet long, and he would play with it. He would dance back and forth and wave this stick around like he was conductor of a spiritual orchestra. But instead of standing in front of an orchestra, he would dance and prance and jump up and down and wave the stick around and twist it around in his hands.”

“Was he twirling it like a baton?” I asked.

“No, because the stick was too long for that,” Mark explained. “Our cousins used to make severe fun of him about it, but that was his ‘work.’ It’s what got him through the day. After school, he’d go out there and do this. He took a lot of abuse for it, but he didn’t care. He just kept doing it.”

Maris described Kirk’s handling of the stick a little differently. “He would twiddle his hands around the end of the stick, almost like he was wringing his hands but while holding the stick. And he would pace back and forth. He had a favorite stick, and the end of it was worn smooth and polished from the wear, while the rest of it still had the bark on it.”

Kaytee described the stick as his imaginary friend. “He’d talk to it and that’s what he would love to do,” she said. “After we moved to Montana and he was playing with those sticks, I realized it (the therapy) hadn’t done any good. He wasn’t putting shirts on his head or anything like that, but the program had not done what I thought it was going to do in making him more sure of himself. The playing with sticks is what really bothered me. In fact, if he saw me come out into the yard, he’d drop them and try to hide them. He was ashamed of the fact that he was playing with those sticks.”

Maris remembered playing in the yard where she could stand guard while Kirk was with his stick. “If someone came looking for us, I could always sound the alarm,” she said. She was protective of her big brother, but she was also bothered by his behavior. “I’d say, ‘God, can’t you just stop?’ Sometimes I’d get mad at him, and sometimes I’d protect him.”

But Maris understood that Kirk used his stick as sort of a “sanity check.” And sometimes, she noticed Kirk talking to himself while playing with it. “He’d play things over, and also he berated himself. He’d say things over in his mind and maybe say, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t act that way or people will know that I’m different.’”

Kirk often obsessed over what other people said or thought of him. “Sometimes we might have been part of the same conversation,” Maris recalled, “and for a while after that, he would ask, ‘What did they mean by that? Why would they say that?’ Or ‘I think they hate me.’ And I’d think, oh wow, I totally didn’t see it that way. But his wheels were always turning, and lot of times things were more difficult for him because of that. He over-analyzed everything.

Kaytee noticed the same thing. “He got a little more careful about wanting to please neighbors, friends, whatever. You know what I’m saying? He wanted to fit the mold. He wanted to please everybody and he didn’t want to be different.”

It’s no wonder. UCLA taught Kirk the value of pleasing others above all else, and not fitting the mold led to serious consequences. “I know I shouldn’t go back and blame Rekers for everything,” Maris said, “but damn that! Now I understand why he felt so self-conscious of every little thing that he did and he found criticism with it. Because that’s what they did to him. They made him find fault with everything: how he walked and what he did. And so I understand that now in a way that I couldn’t have before.

But as much as he tried to hide his differences, people noticed. “I did,” Barb said. “I always thought that he was gay. He just was more effeminate. He noticed things that boys normally don’t notice, like your hair or makeup, you know, anything different. I never saw him use any of those things or dress like a girl or anything, but he just noticed all that.”

It’s not surprising then that he didn’t fit in very well at school. Maris remembered that he was picked on for not being interested in sports. “I knew that he would get called a fag or a pussy,” she said, “especially because of his love of music and probably because of his lack of friends.”

By the time Kirk reached the eighth grade, his grades were failing. His teachers recognized that he was very intelligent; he just wasn’t doing his schoolwork. Finally, his math teacher told Kirk’s parents that he should hold Kirk back a year, but wouldn’t on the condition that they send him to a tutor. And so that summer, Kirk worked with a tutor for two to three hours several days a week.

This proved to be something of a boost for Kirk. “I have to say she was a misfit of her own right,” Maris said. “She was a pretty large lady, probably not very well accepted there and was something of a recluse. I don’t know what she told him, but from that time on, he got his act together and he did well in school.” He still never brought a book home or studied, but his grades improved from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.

Kirk also had other activities to keep him busy. In high school, he was in choir and band, where he played the saxophone. “He was very good at it,” Maris remarked, with just a hint of sibling jealousy over the fact that Kirk never practiced. “He also had a beautiful voice as well.”

His band teacher, Scott Southwick agreed. “I think he was more talented that he realized. I can remember once trying to get him to play a solo at the district music festival and he wouldn’t do it. I just remember thinking he’s got all that talent and ability and he should use it. But he didn’t want to stand out. That was very obvious.”

Scott remembered that Kirk was personable, but cautious. “He would talk to me, but what I do remember though is that he wouldn’t look at me right in the eye. He would talk to me and kind of look off, and then he would glance back at me and then look away. He was very self-conscious.”

Maris attributes his self-consciousness to Kirk’s treatment at UCLA. “I don’t know when that development occurs when someone can say, ‘I’m gay’,” Maris said. “But I know he thought he was really horrible to have had to go to UCLA. I think he thought he was damaged goods. He would say that he was not worth anything. He would never outwardly try to make friends. He would just assume that everyone would reject him so he was unable to put himself out there at all. Even the few times when someone would try to draw him in, he would just close the door.”

“He never said he was sad that he didn’t have friends,” she continued. “He just said that he knew people would hate him. But when someone would show kindness to him, it always made a big impression on him and stay with him. He would talk about that for a long time.”

Scott said he never saw Kirk bullied at school — “I would have put a stop to that if I had,” he was quick to add — but he knew that Kirk was teased in the hallways. “It had to do with the fact that he was, I guess you would say, a little bit effeminate. Certainly not athletic at all.” But if teachers saw it, it evoked little reaction. Scott is now a guidance counselor. “Today if you think about how things have changed, it’s amazing how oblivious we were to things.”

Maris and Mark both recalled that Kirk ate lunch in the bathroom stall in high school so he wouldn’t have to face his classmates. He did that until his senior year, when he was finally allowed to leave campus during lunchtime. Scott was shocked to hear it. “I would bet the counselors at that time didn’t know about that either,” he added. “He got decent grades and he kept his nose clean, and those kids kind of go unnoticed. It’s probably still true today.”

Meanwhile, the situation continued to deteriorate at home as Rod’s drinking got worse. “Kirk hated the fact that his dad drank,” Kaytee said. Kirk would sometimes take his father’s beer and hide it. “He always said one beer was too many,” she continued. “If you’re in the bar, and not coming home with your family having dinner, one beer’s too much.”

Rod finally left the family for another woman. It was an extremely acrimonious separation, making Rod’s continued contact with the family virtually impossible. And with his concrete business still struggling, Rod couldn’t provide financial support. He eventually moved back to California. Mark said, “I don’t think Kirk ever had anything to do with Dad after that.” That same year, Mark graduated from high school and, as they say, got the hell out of Dodge. He also, as he described it, “started my own career as an alcoholic.” That left fifteen-year-old Kirk at home with Maris, who was eleven, and their mother, who proceeded to collapse emotionally. “Now we can understand that she had a nervous breakdown,” Maris recalled, “but that didn’t help us at the time.”

It was left to Kirk to become the adult of the family, acting not just as Maris’s parent but his mother’s as well. Maris recalled, “He would tell my mother, ‘You’re going to get up, you’re going to get showered, you’re going to get dressed and you’re going to put some makeup on. No you’re not going to wear that — that looks stupid. You’re going to go back and put something else on.’ How people looked was really important to him. He quickly became her boss in some ways.”

Kaytee agreed. “I will have to say that Kirk became my father for a while because I did have a nervous breakdown after everything. So Kirk was kind of the man of the house. People would call and want to speak with the man of the house, and Kirk would say, ‘There’s nobody here but me and I’m fifteen.’ It was just a very tragic time in our lives,” she said.

The family’s financial situation became increasingly precarious over the next few years. Sometime in either 1981 or 1982, the electricity was cut off and the family went on food stamps, two more humiliations for Kirk to endure. Maris recalled, “Our grandparents lived next door and we depended on them for food and a lot of things. My grandfather was very harsh and so was my grandmother, so that wasn’t a lot of fun for us. We had to go over there to eat and then we’d be constantly told how horrible it was our father wasn’t providing for us, and then listen to them tell us how much they spent on food to feed us.”

“I know Kirk resented the fact that Dad was gone and Mark was off doing his thing. I was too young to understand what was happening, and here he was hauling water up from the creek so we could flush our toilets. So from his perspective, that’s where he really started to show resentment towards our father.  He really didn’t have much time for him after that.”

“It was a crappy time.”

Notes:

53. “Woman, 2 boys slashed to death in Valencia; boy, 17, held.” Los Angeles Times (November 28, 1972): B1. [BACK]

54. Rekers, George A.; Crandall, Barbara F.; Rosen, Alexander C.; Bentler, Peter M. “Genetic and physical studies of male children with psychological gender disturbances.” Psychological Medicine 9, no. 2 (May 1979): 373-375. [BACK]

55. Rekers, George A. “Assessment and treatment of childhood gender problems.” Chapter 7 in Benjamin B. Lahey & Alan E. Kazdon (eds.) Advances in Clinical Child Psychology, Vol. 1 (New York: Plenum Press, 1977): 267-306. [BACK]