JERSEY CITY, New Jersey—Wiping away tears, Benjamin Unger described how he stopped speaking to his mother for several months after his gay conversion therapist, Alan Downing, suggested that Unger’s strong bond with her was the reason he had homosexual urges.
Unger, who was 19 years old at the time of his conversion treatment, is now a plaintiff in the civil case against Downing and the New Jersey-based JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing.
It all started when the teenaged Unger, who comes from a strict Orthodox Jewish family, told his parents and rabbi that he felt attracted to men. They referred him to JONAH, which in turn connected him with Downing, a life coach with a background in musical theater. Through individual and group sessions, Downing was allegedly going to help Unger become straight.
Told that he was clinging too much to his mother, Unger “began the process of detaching” from her, he said on the witness stand Wednesday. “Obviously I felt a lot of anger at that point. I blamed her.”
Unger went on to describe his experience with Downing in excruciating detail. In one session, he said, Downing gave him a pillow and, instructing him to imagine the pillow as his mother, told Unger to hit it with a tennis racket over and over while screaming “mom.” Unger did so, until his hands were raw. Downing told Unger to go the Jewish ritual bath, the mikvah, with his father, Unger testified, and to look at his father’s penis. In so-called “healthy touch” group sessions, Downing allegedly told Unger and his other young, gay clients to touch and cuddle with those in the group they were attracted to—apparently to learn the difference between sexual and non-sexual affection.