Andrew Solomon remembers his psychiatrist, the late Dr. Richard Friedman, who spent a lifetime fighting the idea that homosexuality was pathological, and documenting the scientific basis for the proposition that sexual orientation was innate, immutable, and not a condition to by “cured” by Freudian analysis or anything else. Dr. Friedman, author of Male Homosexuality: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective (Yale University Press 1988), passed away at the age of 79 on March 31, 2020. (Andrew’s segment begins at 38:20.)
Chris Howden: At a time when gay marriage was taboo, Richard Friedman didn’t just push for tolerance, he made a psychoanalytical argument in support of it. In his 1988 book, Male Homosexuality, Dr. Friedman challenged Freud’s view that homosexuality was pathological. Instead, he argued, sexual orientation was largely biological, and not something to be cured. And his work didn’t just have an impact on psychiatry, it also helped break down the stigma against gay communities. Dr. Richard Friedman died recently; he was 79 years old. Andrew Solomon is the author of several books, including The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, and every Thursday for 25 years he was a patient of Dr. Friedman. We reached AS in Rhinebeck, New York.
Carol Off: How did you first come to meet Richard Friedman?
Andrew Solomon: My psychoanalyst, whom I had seen for a while, retired, which was a very traumatic event for me, and my closest friend and my most stable friend said that she loved her psychiatrist, and her psychiatrist recommended that I go and see Dr. Friedman. So I was shopping around for therapists, and he was the one who won.
Carol Off: What was it that convinced you to choose him as your therapist?
Andrew Solomon: In the beginning, I thought that he seemed incredibly intelligent, but I didn’t immediately sense as much warmth as I wanted. And then I was going back and forth, and finally had a kind of a shortlist of people I was considering, and I walked in one day and I said to him, I’m torn between you and one other person. And he said, you know, I’m quite a big deal in my field, and I know I can help you. And it sounds hubristic, but it was actually just so confident, and I was so moved by that profound confidence. And I thought, okay, if he really thinks he can help me, I want to give it a shot.
Carol Off: And that began twenty five years every Thursday of seeing Dr. Friedman.
Andrew Solomon: Every Thursday I was in New York, for ninety minutes.
Carol Off: What does he mean to you, first of all, as a doctor? I know you became friends, but what, first of all, as a doctor, did he signify for you?
Andrew Solomon: He had an enormous belief in the capacity, in general, of gay people to form relationships and families. I wanted to form a relationship and family. And I felt he was a very deeply kind man. He was tough, but he was kind. He was enormously witty, which meant that our sessions were fun; I don’t think I would have made it for twenty-five years otherwise. And he had really from the very beginning, and gradually growing stronger, a great confidence in my skills and abilities that I didn’t have at the time, and that was unbelievably nourishing.
Carol Off: You were fortunate enough to be able to have him as your doctor, but what he was able to do is to help many, many people with his groundbreaking book, in 1988, entitled Male Homosexuality: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective. How did that book reshape views on homosexuality?
Andrew Solomon: Even though the American Psychiatric Association had dropped homosexuality from its list of diagnoses in 1973, prejudice was in the establishment of psychiatry, and particularly of psychoanalysis remained very homophobic. And that was the book in which someone who was straight, who was not therefore trying to justify his own existence, came out and said, this is a gross civil rights violation, these are people responding to a natural and apparently biological inclination, they do not represent a greater degree of neurosis, in fact, he said, often they are people who despite having been tortured in various ways while they were growing up for being gender-atypical, have emerged as powerful and strong and self-confident personalities. And he said, the profession that we’re in has held these prejudices for too long. And I think his belief in the genuine equality of gay people had a great deal to do with the advancement, directly or indirectly, of the gay rights movement, and the movement towards where we are now with marriage and gay families as commonplace.
Carol Off: There were many people in the 1980s and the 1970s as well who were making that case as a civil rights case. But they weren’t able to do what he did, which was to indicate to a science and medical argument that this is not a pathology, This is biology, this is not something that can be cured as though it was an illness as Freudian analysts were saying at the time. How significant was it that he was he able to make that claim in the realm of science and medicine?
Andrew Solomon: He was very much a doctor. There are some psychiatrists who practice therapy who essentially leave behind whatever they learned in medical school. But he was not one of them. He was interested in the biological underpinnings of human behavior, and he was interested in a much broader sense in what parts of someone’s character are mutable and subject to change through therapy or through other processes, and what are the parts that are immutable. And he made very strong arguments for the idea that gayness, male homosexuality (which is what he was focused on), was not something that anyone was going to change. And then having said it wasn’t going to be changed, he said, actually, that it has valuable roles to play in our society. He was primarily saying, it doesn’t need to be changed, that people who are gay can lives that are just as good as people who are straight. That was an argument that was not popular among straight people in general in that era, and certainly not among straight people in the medical profession.
Carol Off: Richard Friedman was also your friend, wasn’t he? What was he like?
Andrew Solomon: Well, he was my therapist, but we had glimpses of friendship. I remember that he came to my wedding; my husband and I got married in England, and he flew over for our wedding. He met a lot of my friends on that occasion, all of whom had of course heard about him for some years. He came to a party at my house once because I wanted him to come and see my house, and I wanted him to meet a couple of other people. So we crossed over into that a bit. He told me from time to time about his life at home and his wife and his son and collaterally his grandchildren. I mean, he knew me in many ways better than anyone else on the planet knew me, and I often felt that he held my sanity in his hands, that he was the one who when I was having a difficult time in my life I could think to myself, “now how will I describe this when I see him next Thursday?” And the boundaries broke down, and he was very sick two years ago with shingles, and when he came back, he seemed very frail. And in the course of one of our sessions I said to him, “You know, people always say that the therapeutic relationship is transactional, but do you think of this relationship as transactional?” And he said, “Oh, Andrew, of course not; we love each other.” He said, “It’s therapy, but we love each other.” I would say that was a great moment for me, and a great relief. I’m very glad in this moment of having lost him to be able to remember it.
Carol Off: Andrew, thank you very much for sharing your memories of Dr. Friedman with us.
Andrew Solomon: It’s been a pleasure.