Readings — From the November 2015 issue

Perversion Therapy

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From testimony given by Benjamin Unger, a plaintiff in Ferguson v. JONAH and one of five former clients of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) who filed a lawsuit against the New Jersey nonprofit in 2012. JONAH was found guilty of consumer fraud in June and ordered to pay $72,400 in damages. David Dinielli is Unger’s attorney. Alan Downing is a counselor for JONAH.

david dinielli: Good morning, Benji.

benjamin unger: Good morning.

dinielli: Thinking about the first few sessions with Alan Downing, can you tell the jury what you discussed?

unger: Yeah. The predominant issue that came up was who I was attracted to, what their names were, all their physical attributes, which body parts I was attracted to, and to describe them at length.

dinielli: Benji, do you recognize this handwriting?

unger: Yes.

dinielli: Whose is it?

unger: Mr. Downing’s.

dinielli: Benji, does looking at this remind you of what you and Alan Downing talked about at your August 30, 2007, session?

unger: It was a very, I would say, big topic of many of the sessions. It was basically my — my attraction to butts.

dinielli: Did you have any idea that Alan Downing was drawing a diagram during this session?

unger: No. I never — no. I definitely didn’t know that.

dinielli: I see words that say, “I am cute,” “play with me,” “fluffy butt.” Do you know what that is?

unger: I do not. These are not my words.

dinielli: What percentage of sessions that you had with Alan Downing would you estimate involved discussing particular body parts that you found attractive?

unger: Specific body parts? I would say around 80 to 90 percent.

dinielli: Benji, can you read that?

unger: “Ben wanted to understand how to interpret the sensation that he most often associates with S.S.A.”

dinielli: What did Alan Downing say about that?

unger: He was talking about when I have erections, if that means it’s a same-sex-attraction erection.

dinielli: In trying to help you understand those, did Mr. Downing use any analogies?

unger: Yes. He compared it to when your nephew sits on your lap and you get an erection.

dinielli: Did that make any sense to you?

unger: No.

dinielli: In addition to the individual counseling with JONAH, what kinds of things happened at the group counseling sessions?

unger: We did a lot of exercises. We had what they called healthy touch sessions.

dinielli: What is healthy touch?

unger: So healthy touch, we were told, was that if you learn how to touch other men, but you focus on it being in a healthy way instead of a sexual way, you’ll lose some of the sexuality involved with touching. So on one occasion, we were told to pick someone in the group that we wanted to do healthy touch with, preferably somebody we were attracted to. And then we were told to lie on the floor and to hold each other, to cuddle. And then the lights were dimmed. There was some really, really, really slow music playing in the background. And Alan Downing was in the middle sitting there, like, kind of watching over us.

dinielli: Was hugging common in group sessions?

unger: There was a lot of hugging.

dinielli: Does anything else stand out from your experiences in group sessions?

unger: I was told to take a pillow and imagine that the pillow was my mother. And I was given a tennis racket and I was told to lift the racket over my head and start beating the pillow while yelling “Mom” the entire time.

dinielli: Did anything significant happen in individual counseling sessions?

unger: Yeah. In Alan’s office there was this wooden mirror right in the middle of the room. I was told to walk to the mirror. Alan was directly behind me. And at first, I was told to kind of just look into the mirror, observe myself a little bit, feel my body. And then I was told, let’s — let’s go a step further. And I was told to take off my shirt. I felt uncomfortable, but I took off my shirt. At one point, he put his hands on my shoulder. I felt him breathing on my neck. And then I was told to look at my body, you know, kind of feel my masculinity. And then I was told to take my pants off. I couldn’t.

dinielli: How did that make you feel, Benji?

unger: For lack of a better word, extremely weird.

dinielli: Has the way that you feel about being gay changed since you left the JONAH program?

unger: Yes. I enjoy my life now. It’s not perfect, but it’s — I think it’s totally fine. As I become a healthy gay man, I realize that everything I was told was a lie.

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