What do you do when you’re lying awake at night, close to 80, thinking about the harmful repercussions of one of the more despicable acts of your career? If you’re Doctor Robert Spitzer, apparently you decide it’s time to do the right thing and write an apology to the people you harmed. Which is a great credit to Spitzer, who apparently didn’t want to die with this hanging over him.
In recent years, we’ve seen a number of deaths of prominent people with troubled pasts who, from all evidence, died unrepentant to the end. Adrienne Rich, for example, contributed to trans-exclusionary radical feminism and said or directly supported a number of truly hateful things about trans women. She didn’t write an apology letter later in her life; because she didn’t feel the need? Because she felt she’d reformed and didn’t need to provide proof? Because she still believed those things? Because she didn’t know the harm she caused? We’ll never know, because she died without telling us, and that knowledge soured the commemoration of her death for many people.
Spitzer built a towering career in the field of psychiatry, becoming a key member of the establishment. Critically, he was also involved in the reclassification of homosexuality, arguing that it was not a psychiatric disorder after he met with gay activists. This capacity for change, and demonstrated interest in constantly evolving, proved to be his undoing later when he encountered the ‘ex-gay’ community, which does consider homosexuality a psychiatric condition. He ended up supporting reparative therapy, also known as conversion therapy, over the protests of his colleagues, who expressed grave concerns about the study methodology he used and the repercussions of his endorsement.
Published 11 years ago, the study didn’t even meet the standards he himself set and enforced over the course of his career. It was an embarrassment, and it was heavily criticised by advocates all over the world. Meanwhile, proponents of conversion therapy used it to bolster their argument, even in the face of studies showing that such ‘therapy’ can be deeply harmful and contributes to serious psychiatric risks for LGBQT people, especially youth.
In May, he couldn’t take it any more.
I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.
It can take tremendous courage to apologise, even when it is unequivocally the right thing to do. When you occupy a position of tremendous power and clout like Spitzer did, it is easy to attempt to sweep your past under the carpet and pretend you don’t need to be accountable for it, to close your ears to the criticisms of your work and focus on moving forward. He was clearly haunted by the study, but it still took him time to work up the nerve to apologise so clearly and crisply, to take full responsibility not just for faulty study methodology, but also for the direct harm he caused to the gay community.
It was an acknowledgement that psychiatric malfeasance can have real, serious consequences, especially when it comes from a heavily weighted authority. Spitzer was trusted as a source of information because he was known for his rigor, attention, and focus. The fact that he published his flawed study in the first place is truly bizarre, and it’s tragic that it took him 11 years to recant it and express his clear opinion on the matter.
In this media landscape, there’s tremendous pressure to repent immediately and issue apologies for any identified wrongdoing, whether or not someone has really internalised the nature of the problem. Spitzer undoubtedly endured considerable public pressure, but didn’t give in, even though he knew his work was continuing to harm people, and that the misinformation he supported was being used in very dangerous ways. It’s hard not to be angry about that—furious, actually, at the thought that he was willing to let people suffer and in some cases die because of the study.
But it’s also hard not to respect him on some level for seriously weighing, thinking about, and internalising the discussion about his work so he could issue an apology that actually meant something because he genuinely felt that way. At 79, he was at an age where many people would have assumed they weren’t going to hear from him on the matter, whether he’d repented or not. He could have gone to his grave without saying a word, both perpetuating the study and tainting his legacy as a trailblazer in the field.
But he chose not to. Instead he woke up one night, finally compelled to speak, and spoke. Clearly, articulately, and without weasel words or slipperiness. He didn’t attempt to evade responsibility and he didn’t couch his statement in qualifiers. He said what he had done was wrong, and articulated why, and expressed regret. He modeled the kind of apology I admire most: One that’s genuine and rooted in an actual understanding of the issues, rather than a desperate attempt to backpedal and distance from something without really comprehending what the problem was.
Spitzer demonstrated flexibility and the ability to learn new things when he met with the gay community and decided that homosexuality was clearly not a mental health condition. That took time too, and was ultimately widely heralded as a significant social advance for the gay community. He demonstrated flexibility again with this study when he took the time to really consider it and the criticisms brought against it, and decided to eat his words. It shows that even someone who appears entrenched can change.