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Lou Reed’s Sister: Electroshock Therapy Wasn’t To Treat Lou’s Homosexuality


Lou Reed

It is weird that someone like Lou Reed has never been inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame but the Velvet Underground frontman will have a posthumous induction in a few days… In anticipation to the ceremony, his sister Merrill Reed Weiner wrote a piece on Medium to clarify a few crucial points about Reed’s life, as ‘there has been speculation about the childhood issues that contributed to his artistic genius’. She writes: ‘With this piece I hope to provide clarity and context around this section of his life, as it has been inaccurately portrayed by previous authors, to the detriment of my family. For all those whose families’ lives were damaged by the pervasive medical thinking of the time, I hope to offer solace and comfort.’

Merrill, who is 5 years younger than Lou, writes about her childhood and growing up in Freeport, where they moved when her brother was only 9. The move from Brooklyn to isolated Long Island was difficult and Lou ‘was becoming increasingly anxious, avoidant and resistant to most socializing, unless it was on his terms. In social situations he withdrew, locking himself in his room, refusing to meet people. At times, he would hide under his desk. Panic attacks and social phobias beset him. He possessed a fragile temperament. His hyper-focus on the things he liked led him to music and it was there that he found himself.’

The young boy became more involved with music and drugs and increasingly rebellious, ‘Verbal fights between Lou and my parents erupted ’, she continues. ‘Lou’s behavior terrified them and they were ill-equipped to know how to respond.’

She seems to describe a classical teenager rebellion mishandled by parents, who made things worst. ‘Lou continued to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol’… ‘They pretended that the problem did not exist’.

When Lou started New York University at 17, Merrill saw her parents coming back with Lou ‘limp and unresponsive’, blaming a ‘nervous breakdown’ he supposedly had. When her parents finally asked for professional help, he was ‘diagnosed’ with schizophrenia and because of bad psychiatric theories very common during the 60’s, their mother was blamed for this.

‘Lou was not able to function at that time. He was depressed, anxious, and socially unresponsive. If people came into our home, he hid in his room. He might sit with us, but he looked dead eyed, non-communicative. I remember one evening when all of us were sitting in our den, watching television together. Out of nowhere Lou began laughing maniacally. We all sat frozen in place. My parents did nothing, said nothing, and ignored it as if it was not taking place.’

But when they finally brought him to see a psychiatrist, he recommended electroshock therapy and the parents executed ‘Told by doctors that they were to blame and that their son suffered from severe mental illness, they thought they had no choice.’

‘Was he suicidal? Impaired by drugs? Schizophrenic? Or a victim of psychiatric incompetence and misdiagnosis?’ she continues. ‘Certainly no one was talking about the impact of depression, anxiety, self-medication with illegal drugs, and what all that could do to a developing teenage brain. Nor was there any family therapy, involving us in understanding him and his needs.’

Many authors have suggested that the electroshock therapy was approved to cure Lou Reed of homosexuality, but Merrill wants to set the record straight, it was simply not the case:

‘My parents were many things, but homophobic they were not. In fact, they were blazing liberals. They were caught in a bewildering web of guilt, fear, and poor psychiatric care. Did they make a mistake in not challenging the doctor’s recommendation for ECT? Absolutely. I have no doubt they regretted it until the day they died. But the family secret continued. We absolutely never spoke about the treatments, then or ever.’

‘Our family was torn apart the day they began those wretched treatments. I watched my brother as my parents assisted him coming back into our home afterwards, unable to walk, stupor-like. It damaged his short term memory horribly and throughout his life he struggled with memory retention, probably directly as a result of those treatments.’

And then Merrill asks herself some disturbing questions: ‘Would Lou have become the artist he became without the furious anger that the treatments engendered? Did Lou use the treatments as a source of artistic fuel, a means to create an illusion of an abused individual? Who knows?’

But this barbaric treatment explains Reed’s terrible accusations against his father:

‘Despite the fact that Lou returned home additional times seeking nurturance and support through other breakdowns, he harbored incredible rage, particularly towards our father. Lou’s accusations towards our father, of violence and a lack of love, seemed rooted in that time. The stories he related — of being hit, of being treated like an inanimate object — seemed total fantasy to me. I must say that I never saw my father raise a hand to anyone, certainly not to us and never to my mother. Nor did I see a lack of love for his son during our childhood. Like his son, my father could be a verbal bully but he was loving and inordinately proud of Lou and bragged about him in later life to anyone who would listen.’

Lou Reed wrote ‘Kill Your Sons’, whose lyrics make direct references to his treatment: ‘All your two-bit psychiatrists/Are giving you electroshock/They said they’d let you live at home with mom and dad/Instead of mental hospitals/But every time you tried to read a book/You couldn’t get to page seventeen/Cos you forgot where you were/So you couldn’t even read’…and the idea that the treatment was done to cure him of his homosexuality is everywhere, in many biographies and articles like this one or this one….  Is Merrill trying to clean her parents’ image or is she really telling the truth? And in this case, why didn’t she speak earlier?



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