The doctor is out: embracing her lesbian identity took Betty Berzon from a mental ward to an honored place among gay psychologists – books – author of ‘Surviving Madness: A Therapist’s Own Story’ – Brief Article – Interview
Betty Berzon almost wasn’t the pioneering lesbian psychologist and author we know today. In the early `50s she was in a mental institution after nearly killing herself with a razor blade, a casualty of her own homophobia.
“There are moments forever etched in memory, indelible imprints,” she writes in her new memoir, Surviving Madness: A Therapist’s Own Story (University of Wisconsin Press). “I will never forget waking up in that hospital bed, seeing the leather restraints on my ankles, my bandaged wrists tethered to the bed rails. I couldn’t move. I was helpless, trapped.”
It’s quite a revelation from a woman typically credited with boundless strength and energy. Berzon has written books about homosexuality, helped found gay and lesbian organizations-including the first gay community center anywhere, in Los Angeles in 1971and hobnobbed with luminaries ranging from Anais Nin to Paul Monette. Yet when she looks back, her main wish is that she’d had the energy to do still more.
“I said to someone the other day, `If I hadn’t had to spend so many years fighting being gay, I could’ve really been somebody.’ And [they said] `But you are somebody,'” she says, laughing. “But I truly have the feeling that I could have accomplished much more in life if I hadn’t had to devote so much energy to resisting being gay.”
Even so, she did plenty. Born during the Depression, she dated pilots in World War II and interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt while still in high school. She attended Stanford University but dropped out and went to Greenwich Village, where she shyly and unsuccessfully explored the lesbian scene. After moving to Los Angeles, she hosted Nin and Dame Edith Sitwell at her own bookstore, Berzon Books. In the `60s she conducted workshops at the Esalen Institute, joined in orgies, and went to Tijuana for an abortion.
In the midst of it all was the `50s, the decade of her crack-up. Encouraged to become a psychologist by her doctors, she spent much of that time rebuilding her life and trying to bury her homosexual inclinations. “By the time I was in my 30s, I had close women friends, and sometimes it felt as if my feelings were getting out of control. Then I would just back off,” she says. “I felt very vulnerable, that I might slip into that terrible hole that I thought homosexuality was.”
It wasn’t until she turned 40 that Berzon decided to come out. She recalls thinking, I must stop the charade. I know I am homosexual. I have to do something about it. Still, she had trouble resolving her feelings until she joined a writers group that included Monette (the group, she says, that inspired him to write his National Book Award-winning memoir Becoming a Man.) Monette’s example helped Berzon put her feelings on paper–though it’s hard for her even now. “I’m always surprised by how interested people are in that girl,” she says.
Today, Berzon sees few patients, devoting most of her energy to writing. In
1996 she published two books, Setting Them Straight, a guide to fighting homophobia, and The Intimacy Dance, a look at gay and lesbian relationships inspired by the couples she’d seen in her practice. She’s personally experienced too, having been with her partner, Teresa DeCrescenzo, since 1973.
Right now she’s writing a futuristic novel about the gay movement in the late 20th century–with a twist. “I’ve completely redesigned the gay movement–fixed everything that was wrong with it,” she says, laughing. “I’ve kind of created a new world for gay people.”
COPYRIGHT 2002 Liberation Publications, Inc.
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