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81 Words is an episode of the popular National Public Radio program, This American Life, which is broadcast from Chicago Public Radio. This episode was originally aired January 18, 2002. The episode is narrated by Alix Spiegel, who was the recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award, the Livingston Award, and the Dupont Award. She won the 2002 Livingston Award in National Reporting for the 204th episode of This American Life, 81 Words[1]. The program is hosted by Ira Glass who gives the introduction for the episode stating,

"It's just uncanny, I think that's the word. It's just uncanny when something so small, for a moment, for the length of time it takes to sign (he is referring to a pen used to sign major U.S. legal documents) can carry the entire weight of history of a nation. Today's radio program is about something small like that, that was at the epicenter of massive social change in our country for a brief moment."[2]

This narrative tale falls into the category of healing narrative. It is the healing narrative of Dr. John P. Spiegel, Alix Spiegel's grandfather. Dr. John P. Spiegel was a psychiatrist and the former president of the American Psychiatric Association[3].


The episode is split into two acts. The first act explains that, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declared that homosexuality was not a disease simply by changing the 81-word definition of sexual deviance in its own reference manual. It was a change that attracted a lot of attention at the time, but the story of what led up to that change is one that we hear from reporter Alix Spiegel. Part one of Alix's story details the activities of a closeted group of gay psychiatrists within the APA who met in secret and called themselves the GAYPA ... and another, even more secret group of gay psychiatrists among the political echelons of the APA. Alix's own grandfather was among these psychiatrists, and the president-elect of the APA at the time of the change[4]. Alix Spiegel states in the beginning of the story that, "...I know this story not because I read it in a book or learned it in any class, but because it's one of those stories that my family uses to explain itself." The story begins with a recording of John P. Spiegel interviewing himself in which he talks about how he has been asked to travel to Ireland to work with a gay activist who is trying to change the Irish constitution. Spiegel was asked to testify as an expert in mental health. Dr. Spiegel was asked to testify about the mental health of homosexuals. Oddly enough he was himself a homosexual who had not come out yet. He was asked to do this because he was the president elect of the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. It stated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that homosexuality was termed sexual deviance and that homosexuals were pathalogical[5]. This gave the country the right to treat homosexuals differently[6]. Alix Spiegel's family had always told the story of Dr. Spiegel as one that expressed him as the sole person to abolish the 81 word definition of homosexuality from the DSM, until a family vacation after Dr. Spiegel's wife had died when he emerged from a beach bungalow with a man that was later introduced to a shocked family as his lover. The second act of the radio program explains the history of homosexuality in psychological terms and gives the conclusion to the story. At the same time that Dr. Spiegel is working in Ireland, a few gay activists began to make protests to try to get the designation of homosexuality changed. The story from this point gives a history of homosexuality, from it's original state as a crime against the will of God, to it being a from of insanity, then to stating it was just faulty wiring, and so on. The story then talks about a Dr. Bieber who started doing a lot of tests on homosexuals. Dr. Beiber tried to find the cause for homosexuality in a psychological sense. The story contonies to talk about the group of gay activists that worked inside of the APA, that had a large part to do with the changing of the 81 word definition. The GAYPA worked in the APA to get Ronald Spitzer (the head of the APA) to rewrite the 81 word definition. The story ends with Dr. John P. Spiegel accepting the new definition of homosexuality, seeing as he is the president elect of the APA.


Illness Narrative: Illness narratives are mostly thought of as sick people's narratives about their illnesses and the effect on their lives. Illness narratives can also include the narratives of relatives about the effects the illnesses have had on their relationships with the sick people and on their own lives. They often occur as oral narratives in everyday conversations with family, friends, and colleagues. They can also appear as written and published biographical or autobiographical accounts of illnesses or pathographies. Both oral and written illness narratives help to configure and articulate experiences and events that change one's life and its prerequisites as a result of illness[7].

Homosexuality and Psychology: Psychology was one of the first disciplines to study homosexuality as a discrete phenomenon. In the late 19th century, and throughout most of the 20th century, it was standard for psychology to view homosexuality in terms of pathological models. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The American Psychological Association Council of Representatives followed in 1975[8]. Richard von Krafft-Ebing described homosexuality as a degenerative sickness in his Psychopathia Sexualis, but Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis both adopted more accepting stances. Early in the twentieth century, Ellis (1901) argued that homosexuality was inborn and therefore not immoral, that it was not a disease, and that many homosexuals made outstanding contributions to society[9].

Homosexuality in History: The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the late 19th century by a German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert. Although the term is new, discussions about sexuality in general, and same-sex attraction in particular, have occasioned philosophical discussion ranging from Plato's Symposium to contemporary queer theory. Since the history of cultural understandings of same-sex attraction is relevant to the philosophical issues raised by those understandings. Arising out of this history, at least in the West, is the idea of natural law and some interpretations of that law as forbidding homosexual sex. References to natural law still play an important role in contemporary debates about homosexuality in religion, politics, and even courtrooms. Finally, perhaps the most significant recent social change involving homosexuality is the emergence of the gay liberation movement in the West. In philosophical circles this movement is, in part, represented through a rather diverse group of thinkers who are grouped under the label of queer theory. A central issue raised by queer theory is whether homosexuality, and hence also heterosexuality and bisexuality, is socially constructed or purely driven by biological forces[10]. Before the High Middle Ages, homosexual acts appear to have been tolerated or ignored by the Christian church throughout Europe. Beginning in the latter twelfth century, however, hostility toward homosexuality began to take root, and eventually spread throughout European religious and secular institutions. Condemnation of homosexual acts (and other nonprocreative sexual behavior) as "unnatural," which received official expression in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and others, became widespread[11].

External links[edit]

  • [1] This American Life Episode 204

[2] Transcript of Radio Program


  1. ^
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  5. ^ Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Merikangas KR, Walters EE (June 2005). "Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of Sexual Deviance DSM disorders". Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 62 (6): 617–27.
  6. ^ Stuart H (September 2006). "Mental illness and employment discrimination". Curr Opin Psychiatry 19 (5): 522–6.
  7. ^ Arthur Klienman (1989). "The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition". Basic Books: 12-14.
  8. ^ Bayer, Ronald (1987). Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02837-0. 156-157
  9. ^
  10. ^ The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality in volume 1,French Polynesia(Anne Bolin, Ph.D.),5. Interpersonal Heterosexual Behaviors,A. Children, edited by Robert T. Francoeur publish by Continuum International Publishing Group
  11. ^