Brave Thinkers 2012 November 2012

Robert Spitzer

Retired Professor of Psychiatry

He didn’t have to do it. Robert Spitzer was retired. He was weak from Parkinson’s disease. As the chair of the task force that had developed the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the version of the mental-health establishment’s bible that had, in 1980, famously pried psychiatry loose from its Freudian underpinnings—his enshrinement in the history of psychiatry was secure. Even his place in the history of civil rights was assured: he had been the driving force behind the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of homosexuality from the official realm of psychopathology in 1973; until then, the APA had classified gays as mentally ill. It would have been easy for him to drift quietly off into well-respected posterity; he didn’t have to publicly admit error, to reckon openly with an episode that might stain his reputation.

The episode: At a conference in 2001, Spitzer delivered a paper on “reparative therapy”—commonly known as “ex-gay therapy”—called “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” His answer, based on interviews he’d conducted with 200 men and women who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation, was yes. The study, later published in a peer-reviewed journal, provoked huzzahs from “ex-gay” advocates (the man who’d normalized homosexuality was now declaring it could be treated!) and cries of disbelief from colleagues and homosexuals. In the face of the onslaught, Spitzer stood by his research.

Then, last spring, Gabriel Arana, an editor at The American Prospect who had undergone several years of reparative therapy in his teens, called on Spitzer at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Arana, as he wrote movingly in an essay he later published in the magazine, had been driven to depression and nearly to suicide by the treatment, before he (and his parents) came to terms with his homosexuality. When Arana asked Spitzer about the criticisms that had been leveled against his paper, Spitzer told him, “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” and then went on to ask Arana if he would print a retraction of the study so that he wouldn’t “have to worry about it anymore.”

On April 25, Spitzer himself wrote a letter to the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which had published his study. His letter didn’t merely acknowledge his study’s “fatal flaw” (there was no way to determine whether the test subjects who claimed they had changed their sexual orientation really had) but also took responsibility for its consequences: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works.”

See all our 2012 Brave Thinkers.

Image credit: Alex di Suvero

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Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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