Jeremy Gavins was 18 years old when he saw his boyfriend Stephen knocked down dead in front of him. It was late 1972 and a snowstorm was raging in Bradford. As the body lay crushed under the vehicle, Gavins staggered back through the blizzard and sank into the snow, howling.
It was during the six months in which the British medical establishment tortured Gavins every week. Sometimes it was two or three times a week. A succession of doctors and psychiatrists strapped him into a chair and passed electrical currents through his thrashing body because he was gay. They said it would cure him.
Gavins only unearthed the whole story of Stephen’s death in 2011, nearly 40 years later. A lifetime’s assumptions about who killed him, how, and when, were finally overturned. The twin horror of the electric shocks and the accident, until then seemingly unrelated, suddenly surfaced, spilling out to expose an entwined tragedy. He never knew the events were related.
He thought he knew what they had done.
Today, Gavins, 63, perches upright in one of only two chairs in his cramped sitting room, forearms on the armrests, re-enacting the position they put him in.
His body shakes when he recounts what they did. His fingers vibrate, flickering back and forth. He has to stop when the words conjure too much, when 45 years of memories and aftershocks overwhelm. He can still feel the volts going in.
But he wants people to know what happened – and who was responsible. His story exposes a culture of homophobic oppression filtering through every level of British society, and implicating every institution of power: the health service, the education system, the state, the church.
And yet today Gavins apologises: for the mess in his modest terraced house; for only being able to find one photograph from that time; for the swearwords that erupt when he relives the most humiliating episodes. No one has ever apologised to him.
As the sky darkens and the wind shoots down the chimney, shuffling around the fireplace, the truth about Gavins forms over several hours in every word and gesture and facial expression: He is still howling.
“Everyone hated queers,” he says, loudly, in his deep West Yorkshire accent, pouring water into mugs for a brew. He has just picked me up from the station in a weather-beaten Land Rover.
He is talking about St. Bede’s, his old Catholic grammar school in Keighley, a former textiles town on the outskirts of Bradford. It is just 80 miles from where he lives now, alone, in Ulverston, Cumbria, and where he mends dry-stone walls for a living. A line of muddy boots occupies the bottom rung of a bookshelf.
By “everyone”, Gavins means in particular the teachers, many of whom were priests. His home life was no different. His Catholic parents were so corseted that any mention of sex was considered filth.
“They thought David Attenborough was a pervert,” he says. This was because the famed naturalist broadcast animals mating – or “fooking” as he puts it. Queers, as far as his parents were concerned, “should be put down”. They were unaware their third son was one. “If they’d found out they’d have kicked me out.” They did not hug their children.
Gavins’ black dog Timmy, a rescue, sits between his knees. After earlier barking repeatedly – unused to guests – now he looks up at his master who, in turn, clings to him. Timmy is a “collie crossed with a fox,” says Gavins, joking. It is hard to tell who needs the other more.
The room is brown and black: a hard, chequered floor, a battered tan armchair. Rocks sit on the mantelpiece. Boxes filled with diaries and medical records adorn shelves: proof of his past that now lines his present.
He is dressed in black from neck to boot. His white beard, brilliant against the dark clothing, hangs from his chin like ice from a windowsill. Blue eyes glower through bushy brows.
From the age of 11 Gavins began to realise he liked boys. As he grew into adolescence, he found other boys to experiment with, stripping off together, touching but never discussing what it meant. They knew only to keep quiet.
At 15, Gavins started going to the local library, searching for mentions of homosexuality. He did not find much, but enough to cement his foreboding sense of the culture around him. It was 1969, only two years after homosexuality had been partially decriminalised, and four years before it would be removed from the psychiatric profession’s official list of mental disorders.
“You had to hide,” he says. “I ended up splitting myself in two because it was the only way to live.” There was the outward boy that he presented to the world, who he calls Jerry, who played rugby and football, and the inner boy, Jeremy, who longed for love and touch and men, who felt everything too much to contain it.
Aged 16, at the beginning of term – the start of the sixth form – he saw Stephen for the first time. “I thought, Fucking hell, he’s gorgeous. He was just beautiful.”
Stephen Carmel Routledge had black curly hair, a little nose, and a slim build, he says. The boy, a few months younger than him, lived several miles away in Bradford.
“I thought, I just have to know him.” He befriended Stephen at first, keeping his feelings secret so as not to frighten him off. “I found someone I could talk to,” he says. “I trusted him.” He begins to explain the enormity of this for a boy like him.
“I had to be very vigilant to make sure the gay part didn’t come out,” he says. “I was doing that with every single person I ever met. It’s very hard work. You cannot be yourself. When I was with Stephen I could be me, the whole me, the rugby me and the gay me, and he accepted me. Whenever we were together on our own I was completely relaxed.”
Gradually over many months, the closeness progressed to kissing, embracing, and more. Any opportunity, when no one was looking, Gavins took, finally able to taste Stephen’s lips and clasp him in his hands. He loved how Stephen smelt.
“It was heaven,” he says delicately, the tenderness jarring with the practical, wind-worn man uttering the words. He says Stephen’s name as if even enunciating the letters is like kissing him. Stephen Stephen Stephen Stephen.
One day, “I pulled him into a classroom and said, ‘Stephen, I love you. I’ve fallen in love with you,’” says Gavins, before his eyes flash. “He said, ‘It’s about time you said something.’”
It was soon after that he realised he was going to lose him.
As Easter 1972 approached, an encroaching reality hit: When their A-level exams were over in the summer, he and Stephen would be separated, each going to different universities. It was unthinkable; the only person he ever felt calm with or known by would in just a few months be gone.
The thought of this impending loss looped and looped, taunting him, until one afternoon in early May, Gavins stood up during a maths lesson and bolted out.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says. He started looking up and down the corridor, back and forth, unable to decide where to go, how to carry on. Anxiety and confusion spiralled suddenly into unbearable distress. “I fell down the wall,” he says. “Collapsed on the floor.”
It was while he was sitting there sobbing that a teacher walked by and took him to his office to find out what was wrong – a conversation that would change everything.
Initially, Gavins simply told the teacher he was in love. But the teacher pressed further – why would that upset him so much? The pupil confessed: “Because he’s called Stephen.”
“Those four words ruined my life,” he says now, matter-of-fact. It is not an exaggeration.
The teacher’s tone changed immediately. “You’ve got a disease,” he told Gavins. “An evil disease.” He sent the boy to the headmaster, Monsignor Sweeney, who, agreeing with the other teacher’s assessment, forbade Gavins from seeing Stephen, and ordered him to report to different teachers every day at different times, so they could ensure he was not fraternising with his loved one.
“They convinced me I was evil, sinful, and had a disease,” he says. Stephen, meanwhile, denied to the head that there was any relationship, freeing himself from punishment.
After three or four weeks of reporting in, Gavins was sent to the headmaster again, who gave him two options. “He said, ‘You can carry on being a homosexual and I will expel you today. You will not do your A-levels. The other choice is we can cure you of your disease. Tell your GP you’re a homosexual and you want to be cured.’”
It was not a choice for Gavins. His A-levels were the only hope of leaving Keighley, getting to Exeter University, which had offered him a place on the condition of passing two A-levels, and perhaps finding acceptance there. He agreed to the second option.
His family doctor was also a Catholic, he says, and she confirmed that he had a curable disease and she would refer him to a psychiatrist – a conversation that took less than a minute.
At the time, the notion of curing homosexuality, deemed a mental illness, was acceptable in medical circles and beyond. Such treatment had been practised since the 1940s, in a variety of ways. Some, like Alan Turing, the now lauded World War II code breaker, were given oestrogen to lower libido, often referred to as chemical castration.
Others were given apomorphine by NHS doctors, a drug that induced nausea and diarrhoea, while being shown images of men, in order that the arousal might be severed. A few patients, left for days dehydrating on hospital floors, died during this process.
A further group received electric shocks administered similarly for the same purpose: If the patient came to associate images of naked men with agony, the theory went, that attraction would be quashed. All such attempts to disrupt gay feelings by causing pain were known as aversion therapy – a technique mostly discarded now, but which morphed from the 1970s and 1980s into talking treatments that became known as conversion therapy.
A few days after Gavins saw the GP, one of the teachers asked him if he’d received a letter from the psychiatrist. He had only just received it, alerting him for the first time to the sense that the teachers were in contact with the psychiatrist.
The impression Gavins had, therefore, was that this was a well-worn mechanism. “I am 100% sure it had happened before to other kids at the school,” he says. “The Catholic machine took over.”
This practised response to homosexuality, says Gavins, came with an instruction. “Monsignor Sweeney said to me, ‘You mustn’t tell your parents about this because when you’re cured you’ve no need to tell them anyway.’ And I never did.”
One of the teachers took Gavins to Lynfield Mount psychiatric hospital, less than a mile from the school, to meet the psychiatrist. His name was Dr Hugo Milne, and he would later became notorious for his assessment of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, accepting Sutcliffe’s explanation that murdering 13 women was a “calling” from God.
Gavins’ first meeting with Milne simply involved a lot of questions: the name of the boy he was in love with, how many men and boys he had had sex with, and how Gavins felt about his Catholicism and his family.
Milne wrote back to the GP. Gavins shows me the typed letter, which he later obtained by demanding his medical records.
After describing the boy as “having homosexual desires” and a “disturbed personality”, Milne prescribes “aversion techniques” to “encourage his heterosexual desires”.
The first aversion therapy session took place on 6 June 1972. It was also the first day of Gavins’ A-level exams. His voice dips almost to a whisper as he begins to take himself back to that morning, arriving at the hospital.
“I was met by a male nurse; he took me to some changing rooms and said, ‘Take all your clothes off, put them in a locker, and put these on.’ He pointed to some slippers and a dressing gown,” says Gavins. “I could tell by the way he looked at me that he hated every inch of my body.”
He stripped, covered himself with the gown and slippers, and began to walk down the corridor to the treatment room.
“There was a doctor in there,” he says. “He said, ‘You have to come over and sit down.’ So I sat on this chair, a wooden-backed chair with arms. He put this strap round each wrist.” The doctor also wrapped a wide, blue piece of fabric around his right forearm.
“Then he explained what was going to go on,” he says, looking down. There would be two screens Gavins had to look at, with pictures of men on one and pictures of women on the other – some naked, some clothed.
“He said, ‘When you see a picture of a man I’m going to give you an electric shock and when you see a picture of a woman I’m not.’”
The doctor gave Gavins a switch in his left hand that he could hit to turn off the electricity. He did not tell the patient that the switch would only work occasionally.
“Before we began he leant forward and opened my dressing gown,” he says, explaining that this enabled the doctor to see his penis, to check in case of any arousal. Gavins scoffs at this: How would anyone become erect in these circumstances?
The doctor did a test run. The electricity bolted up wires, through the blue fabric and into Gavins’ right arm. He shouts now to convey the strength of that first shock: “FUUUUUCKKKK.” He told the doctor how much it hurt. “He said, ‘It’s supposed to.’”
The session proceeded in near darkness, Gavins almost naked, lit up by the projector flashing the images on to the screens. The doctor watched. Each shock lasted several seconds.
“It was a pain I’d never felt before,” he says. “What you try to do is lift your arm away from it but you can’t because you’re strapped down.” Gavins says this while shaking his arms up and down, as if still there, trying to escape. He had no idea what was going on, the agony fusing with confusion, as the shocks kept coming and coming and coming.
“I was pushing the little fucking switch to stop the shocks,” he says, demonstrating how frantically he would do this, desperate for the current to cease. It mostly did not work. He discovered later while researching the technique that this was deliberate, and was set to work about one in five times.
As a result, he says, “the right arm starts to hate the left arm because it’s not stopping the pain”.
The shocks only stopped when a picture of a woman flashed up. But this was scarcely better as it meant instead that he was left anticipating the pain, knowing that in a few seconds there would be a picture of a man. The fear made his whole body clench. He seizes up now, shoulders, arms, and hands tensing into terrified claws.
“You know you’re going to get another electric shock and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it,” he says.
It was during that first session that he began to do something without realising that would become a pattern – a coping mechanism for future sessions that would affect the rest of his life. He began to mentally disconnect from what was happening.
Psychologists call this phenomenon dissociation. It includes a variety of responses to acute stress that involve different levels of detachment from what is happening. Unlike psychosis, it is not a loss of reality, but a switching off.
Gavins left that first session stunned. He picked up his clothes and his watch that told him he had been there for an hour and 20 minutes and then he returned to school. That afternoon he had to sit his A-level chemistry exam.
“I went in and couldn’t do it,” he says. “Didn’t write a thing.” He left and got drunk. He had another session a few days later, and a few days after that.
Fearful that he would fail all his exams, he went to see the headmaster. “I said, ‘Can we delay this cure thing until I’ve finished my A-levels?’ He said, ‘No, now we’ve started, we’re going to carry on.’ There was no way out.”
Kept away from Stephen, Gavins managed to see him before the end of the exams and tell him what was being done to him.
“He said it’s fucking ridiculous,” says Gavins. “And I said, ‘I’m stuck with it, I can’t be expelled.’” Three days after the final exam, Gavins saw him again and, in case it would be the last time, asked for something to remember him by.
He reaches over to a box and fishes out a metal star. “It’s a pentagram, a Wiccan thing,” he explains, unsure why Stephen gave him the pagan symbol. “He just said, ‘It’s something I believe in and it might help you.’” With school over, Stephen and Gavins did not see each other, and Gavins started to realise why he hadn’t heard from Stephen.
“The doctors told me that he hated me,” says Gavins. And he began to believe it.
He failed all but one A-level, not enough to escape to Exeter. Instead he was stuck in Keighley, having to resit the final year of school, the threat of expulsion forcing him to continue with the aversion therapy.
In early autumn 1972 Gavins tried to see Stephen. He skipped a session at the hospital and instead made his way to Bradford, to Stephen’s parents’ address, and knocked on the door. His father answered and told him not only was Stephen not there but, to Gavins’ astonishment, that he did not know where he lived.
Gavins began walking home on the only road back to Keighley. A car pulled up next to him. It was one of the priests. Gavins believes Stephen’s father rang the school telling them he had shown up – and at a time the staff knew Gavins should have been at the hospital. “So they drove me to the loony bin and I went in to see Dr Milne,” he says.
That day Milne did not administer shocks, but instead asked Gavins more questions about his feelings for Stephen, and what kind of sexual activities they engaged in. It was only at the following session, the start of an even darker period in the treatment, that Gavins realised the purpose of these questions.
“There was a hospital bed and I noticed there weren’t any projectors. He said, ‘You have to lie down.’” Milne strapped him down and began to administer shocks. But this time, there were no pictures.
Instead, Milne posed a series of questions and commands, telling Gavins to imagine he was naked with Stephen. When Gavins said he was imagining this, Milne gave him a shock. Gavins makes a loud zapping sound to mimic the machine.
“He would say, ‘Do you have sex with Stephen?’ And I would say no,” says Gavins, trying to stop the shocks from happening. But when he denied anything Milne would play something back to him: a recording he had taken from the previous session where he had asked him about Stephen.
There was nothing Gavins could do to prevent the shocks: If he said yes to imagining something homoerotic, he would get a shock; if he denied it, Milne would play a recording of his voice and give him a shock anyway.
“He would ask, ‘Do you love Stephen?’” Unable to deny it, Gavins would admit it, prompting yet another shock. “They were trying to stop me from loving Stephen. I was scared shitless.” And so, he says, “I dissociated again.”
It was during this period that Gavins saw the accident. A blizzard was blowing that day in Bradford, he says. Gavins had just arrived in the town and saw Stephen from across the street step off a bus, walk round the back of it, and attempt to run across the road. But he slipped and was hit, the vehicle running over him, right over his head.
“I stood looking at him, thinking, ‘The only person I ever loved is dead… I want to go to him but I can’t.” Instead he found himself walking back away from the scene. “I sunk into the snow,” he says.
The sessions at the hospital continued regardless. Milne kept up the treatment for another few months until he was satisfied it had worked. Doubly traumatised from the loss of Stephen and from the electric shocks, Gavins failed his exams again. He never went to university.
Instead, the teenager stayed at home and found work in a local textile factory. With Stephen gone, and the threat of expulsion over, Gavins started coming out.
“My dad said, ‘You’re not gay; you’ve ruined a word that I like. That’s the last we’ll talk about this subject.’” It didn’t deter him.
“I came out with a vengeance. I joined the Gay Lib,” he says referring to the early activist movement. “I had sex with every fucking person you could have and I didn’t care.”
One night at the local Catholic club – his regular drinking haunt where everyone knew him – Gavins showed up in a T-shirt “festooned with ‘Glad to Be Gay’ stickers”.
“I got comments like ‘queer bastard’, but a few people came up to me quietly saying, ‘I thought I was the only one.’”
He had just one fling, in 1977, but it only lasted a couple of months. “I called him Stephen in bed,” says Gavins. “I think that fucked it up.” By the following year, he had gone off sex and relationships altogether. “I just thought about Stephen all the time.” It was this that led him into his current work.
He was promoted and promoted at the factory until he was no longer doing anything physical, leaving him at a desk job and leaving his mind to dwell constantly on what happened – and on Stephen. It was unbearable. He took a job instead on the railways where, as part of it, he had to fix a dry-stone wall by a railway line. It was a revelation and triggered a new full-time line of work that he has practised ever since.
“I found that when I was building the walls, all I was thinking about was the stone,” he says, quietly.
But the damage to his mental health from the electric shocks was done; a destruction so pervasive it fractured everything. Depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and an array of chronic pain symptoms – physical memories of the torture – gripped him for decades. He first attempted suicide in 1981 by downing a bottle of whisky and deliberately sleeping outside in the snow.
A friend found him. But over the years he would repeat a variation of this, getting drunk and standing in the middle of the road. He was hit once.
Gavins had a breakdown in 1998 and received grief counselling to come to terms with losing Stephen. It worked, in part; he came to accept Stephen’s death, but still he missed him, longed for him.
It took a second breakdown in 2010 to trigger a series of events that would rip everything apart, exposing the truth about what really happened.
He was given another therapist to deal with the almost constant flashbacks to the aversion therapy. Her name was Shirley. As he talks about her, uttering her name softly, it seems that for the first time he had found someone other than Stephen who he could trust.
She encouraged him to begin transporting himself back to the sessions with Dr Milne. “I was shaking,” he says. On one occasion, walking down the corridor to her room, he began to mentally flip back to walking down the corridor in the hospital, and couldn’t go in. They started unpicking what was happening. Sometimes he would try to run out the room.
“She said, ‘I want you to imagine you’re in the room now – what’s happening?’ And I said, ‘He’s talking to me, and I’m getting shocks. I’ve got to escape.’”
It was during one of these sessions that Shirley – observing that at times it seemed as though Gavins wasn’t really there – explained the concept of dissociation and suggested that he might have been disconnecting like this when he was being shocked.
A few sessions later, in 2011, Gavins was back in her room, reliving the aversion therapy again. “All of a sudden, and I’ve no idea where the thought came from, a thought flew through my head. I said, ‘Shirley, maybe I didn’t see Stephen die.’”
He stops and tries to breathe, apologising as tears threaten to overwhelm him.
“First of all I couldn’t believe it,” he says. But as he worked through the thoughts and memories with Shirley, a realisation formed: Around the time that the sessions changed and darkened, Gavins had begun to dissociate so dramatically that he constructed a vision of Stephen dying, which became a false memory.
It was so real that it helped to ease the impossible conflict between his feelings for Stephen and the agony being inflicted.
“It was a fight between my body and my mind,” he says, trying to explain. “They made my love for him stronger because of the amount of pain I was suffering to keep him.” At the same time the message coming through the sessions was clear: “They wanted me to get rid of Stephen.”
It was, he says, an impasse. “What my mind did was to say, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ I had five or six memories in my head,” he says – things that had happened: He did used to go to Bradford and meet Stephen off the bus, and on one occasion it was snowing and Stephen did run across to the other side to greet Gavins.
“But I made them into a dream, a vision, and added one false bit where he got hit by a vehicle. I believed it 100%.”
The vision released him, to an extent, from the torture that pulled him in opposing directions, and demanded answers, all of which were met with electric shocks. Envisioning and believing Stephen was dead was the only way Gavins could psychologically escape.
But he had to prove it. He went online and scoured the death records for 1972. There were none for a Stephen Carmel Routledge.
Stephen did not die.
“I thought, ‘Waaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy!!” he says, whooping with delight at the discovery. He rang his friend Malcolm. “I said, ‘I’m going to find him. I don’t care where he is, I’m going to find him.’”
He went online again, using 192.com to try to find Stephen’s address but the unusual name did not materialise in any searches. For three days he looked and found no mention of him. He wondered if he had gone abroad. But before widening his search he looked at death records for other years, just to make sure.
There were two results under Stephen Routledge. The second one was his Stephen.
“He died on 20 October 1983,” says Gavins – 11 years later than he had previously thought. “I went from high to low in three days. One minute he was alive, and then dead again.”
Gavins picks up a diary from 2011 and reads the entry he wrote that day: “My Stephen is dead. I love him and I’ll love him forever… I need to find out how he died… I need a reason not to kill myself. I’ll just have to keep thinking of Stephen. That will keep me alive.”
Determined to uncover the circumstances of his death, Gavins rang a local priest back in Keighley who would have known the Routledge family. “The priest said, ‘The only thing I know is Stephen died in a car crash, on the M6.’”
Gavins began pouring through local newspapers in case the death had been reported. He found an article.
“He was driving back from Bolton to Blackburn,” he says. “A police car started following him and flashed him to stop. Stephen thought he was over the limit, so instead of stopping he drove away. They police chased him, and coming into Blackburn there’s a curve. He lost it. The car rolled. There was another car coming the other way. He died in hospital.”
The similarity of the circumstances of Stephen’s actual death to how Gavins had envisioned it during dissociation is, he says, a horrible irony. He stops again and looks out the window at the drizzle now falling over the Cumbrian hills. After the news of Stephen’s death, so soon after thinking he was alive, Gavins fell into another depression.
He never found anyone else to love.
“If anyone comes near me I back off completely,” he says. “I just don’t want closeness at all.” Sometimes he goes to gay clubs, but he can’t cope with much more – the aversion therapy made him anxious all the time, he says. He hasn’t had sex in 15 years.
In 2015 his mental health began to improve thanks to a new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder he received on the NHS called eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming (EMDR). The technique, now widely recognised, uses back-and-forth eye movements during sessions to sever traumatic memories from intense feelings.
He has also learned about the theory of body memories, whereby experiences are believed by some to be stored physically rather than mentally. Understanding this concept helped alleviate the shooting pains in his arm and shoulder, and the shocks he would feel when lying down. He also came to realise how widely the trauma had spread across his life.
“I never knew why I don’t use slippers, I don’t own a dressing gown, I don’t wear a watch, and every single shirt I have is either a T-shirt or very loose cuffs,” he says. He could not bear anything around his wrists because it invoked the feeling of being strapped down. Slippers and dressing gowns take him back to that room, too.
But now, he says, “I’m in a different world.” He walks a lot, and goes climbing across the Lake District. The instinct to end his life has gone, in part from a recent ice-climbing accident where he was faced with a choice: to let go and die or to cling on and fight. He chose the latter, and continues to do so. There is a phrase he repeats to himself that helps to keep him going if he becomes overwhelmed: “I want to see what happens next.”
What he wants is for someone to say sorry. The NHS, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Catholic church, someone. A solicitor has already told him there is no chance of compensation.
Gavins has also written a book about his experiences that he hopes will be published, so people will know exactly what aversion therapy does. With the more modern version of it – conversion therapy – back in the news recently, he’s frightened it will be brought back.
His concerns are justified: There are still proponents of conversion therapy in Britain today, backed by well-funded Christian organisations and given prime-time media exposure. An investigation in 2015 revealed aversion therapy, using both drugs and electric shocks, was still being used in China. And in the US a version of it, using elastic bands snapped on the wrists whenever homoerotic thoughts occur, has been reported.
Despite everything, says Gavins, another relationship is not impossible. “You never know. Maybe someone out there is thinking, ‘I’m just after a fat waller!’” With this he howls with laughter.
Behind us there is a huge map of the Lake District tacked on to the wall, with black lines drawn all over it, marking all the routes he has walked. Where is the most beautiful spot in the whole area?
He thinks for a while, eyes scanning over the map, as if transported on to the hillsides that make this region so loved.
“Duddon Valley,” he says, explaining that it’s quiet and the tourists rarely venture that far. He smiles gently, arms clutched around his chest. “I can watch the trees grow there.”