Voyage from Lesbos front cover

Voyage from Lesbos front cover

by Richard C. Robertiello, M.D.
Published in 1959 by Avon Books

Voyage from Lesbos is the case study of the “treatment” of a lesbian identified only as Connie as related by psychiatrist Richard Robertiello, M.D.

The book begins with a brief introduction to Connie.  We learn that she works as a secretary, is attractive despite the fact that she’s slightly overweight, is able to discuss her homosexuality frankly, and is the submissive partner in her relationships.

A classical practician of psychoanalysis, Dr. Robertiello spends most of his time with Connie analyzing her childhood and dreams to help “cure” her of her homosexuality. As Robertiello reveals more about Connie, we “learn” the source of her inability to sexually relate to men stems from her the classic oedipal complex and her competitive relationship with her mother. Connie also seems to suffer from the belief that her genitals are dirty and that no decent man would want her.

Most frightening to me are the references to Connie’s depression. Depression is a legitimate and often debilitating mental illness.  Sadly for Connie the person she entrusted to help her with her problems doesn’t recognize that depression is the illness she suffers from and needs the most help with, instead he views the depression as a natural symptom of her “real” illness: homosexuality.

If I didn’t know that this book dates from the 50s and that Robertiello’s other books were mainstream psychological discussion, I would have assumed this to be satire of Freudian psychology.  But if it were satire, it would be too over the top to have the subtle edge of credibility that good satire demands. Telling you that by the book’s end Robertiello claims to have successfully “cured” Connie of her homosexuality won’t ruin the book, but it might ruin the sense of comfort that you have with the then current state of medical knowledge.  As disconcerting as Robertiello’s opinions are, realizing that his opinions were considered to be fairly mainstream until about 30 years ago gives one pause.  More frightening is that even today many people (not just the extreme lunatic fringe) still believe that homosexuality is a disease in need of a cure.

I couldn’t help but wonder what became of Connie after her treatment from Robertiello.  Was she really “cured” of her homosexuality? Did she learn to embrace her lesbianism?  While I don’t believe for a moment that such a “cure” is possible or desirable, it certainly is possible someone might have denied their sexuality for the rest of their life. But at what cost?  And what of others who, like Connie, were victimized not only by the real fear of coming out of the closet but by the professional psychological community that told them their sexuality was a mental illness?  Luckily we’re now able to hear some of their stories, but nothing will make up what was taken from them.