Cabral: Writing is more than therapy

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

Content warning: This story contains mentions of conversion therapy.

I was 15 years old when my mother asked me if I was gay.

The copy of André Aciman’s “Call Me by Your Name” I borrowed from my sophomore English teacher sits in her lap, and tears slide down her cheeks, dripping onto the cover of the book as she rocks back and forth in her favorite rocking chair. A dozen lies spring to mind, but what comes out of my mouth is the truth. Syllable by syllable, word by word and sentence by sentence, I break my mother’s heart. By the time I finish, I am crying too. My hands shake as I reach for her, but I barely graze the cold skin of her hands when she stands and shuffles to her room, leaving me alone with Elio Perlman and his tragic love affair. 

Two weeks later, I am in a too-cheerful room with a therapist whom I have decided to hate on sight and principle. The couch I am sitting on is pink, the walls are pastel yellow and the therapist’s dress boasts a rainbow-colored polka dot pattern. It would be funny if she wasn’t the therapist my parents sent me to in the hopes that my “sudden” homosexual tendencies were the result of stress, depression or teen angst. She tries to get me to open up chirping at me in a lilting voice that pounds against my head like a sledgehammer but I pull out a notebook and a pencil from where I’ve smuggled them in the waistband of my jeans and tally the number of times my mother said we were only going out for ice cream.

I was 17 years old when I wrote down every use of the word “therapy” in Garrard Conley’s memoir “Boy Erased: A Memoir.” 

When Conley’s parents use it as a synonym for “cure,” my stomach turns. When the people at Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy program, use it as a synonym for divine will, I clench my teeth. When Conley uses it as a synonym for “pain,” I throw the book against my wall. The word “therapy” connects us in a way that no two people should ever have to be connected.

Every time I flip a page, my thumb burns with the sensation of a papercut. But instead of blood, what comes out is memory, and I put a hand over my mouth to muffle my sobs as I wonder how close I myself came to being able to write “Boy Erased: A Memoir.”

I was 19 years old, and in the middle of my application to be a creative writing major, when someone told me writers need to learn writing is not a replacement for therapy.

Not only does the comment make me flinch, it implies that I am broken and attention-seeking. It implies that my writing derives its worth from someone else’s approval. It implies that the sole purpose of my writing is to provide an outlet for my emotions.

And while the walls of my room are indeed covered in sticky notes where I’ve written down the intrusive thoughts that wake me up in the middle of the night, the reality is that there is no box big enough to fit every single niche that writing fills in my life. 

I write to immortalize experiences that, for better or worse, have changed my life. I write in an attempt to hold on to what I’ve lost. I write to create stories that might make people feel seen.

And even if I choose to write about my time in a pastel yellow room with a bubbly therapist, what makes my writing more juvenile, less impressive, than heart-wrenching works like “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong which recount tales of abuse, addiction and familial trauma? 

Perhaps this piece will only vindicate those who believe writers use their art as a sort of blood-letting — a dumping of their emotional trauma onto their readers that turns them into unwilling therapists. But, while I’ve shared why the word “therapy” will always make me flinch, nothing I’ve written here is meant to imply that it is something innately harmful. Instead, I simply want to show how foolish it is to try and claim that writers believe that the words “writing” and “therapy” — which hold different meanings and significance for different people — are somehow the same. 

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.