By John M. Becker Truth Wins Out
One of the doctor’s current patients told CTV Calgary that Levin was treating him for gambling addiction but began asking questions about his sexuality that made him feel uneasy. He said ”I didn’t want [Levin] to write anything negative about me” (the Calgary Sun reported that his visits to Levin were court-ordered) and that nobody believed him when he sought help, so he took matters into his own hands, donning a hidden wristwatch camera and recording the doctor’s actions during two subsequent therapy sessions. It was the footage he obtained that led to Levin’s arrest.
CTV Calgary also notes that Levin was often enlisted to conduct psychiatric assessments on patients facing criminal charges. The College of Physicians and Surgeons, which oversees mental health professionals, told the station that prior to these allegations, Levin’s record was completely clean since the time of his arrival in Canada several years ago.
However, the Guardian reports that Levin’s arrest has raised disturbing questions about why he was ever allowed into Canada and permitted to practice medicine in the country in the first place. Apparently, Levin was a member of the ruling, pro-apartheid National Party and a well-known practitioner of electroshock therapy, which he administered to white soldiers in the South African army in order to “cure” them of homosexuality. His use of this barbaric practice was so widely known that he acquired the nickname “Dr. Shock.”
In the post-apartheid era, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cited him for “gross human rights abuses.” The Guardian report continues:
Levin was a colonel in the South African military and chief psychiatrist at 1 Military hospital in Pretoria in the 1970s and 80s, where he was in charge of a unit where electric shocks were administered to “cure” gay white conscripts. Levin also oversaw the use of electroshocks and powerful drugs against conscientious objectors refusing to fight for the apartheid army in Angola or suppress dissent in the black townships, who were held against their will and classified as “disturbed”.
Levin, a member of the ruling National party during apartheid, had a long history of claiming to be able to cure gay people. In the 1960s, he wrote to a parliamentary committee considering the abolition of laws criminalising homosexuality saying they should be left in place because he could turn them into heterosexuals with electric shocks, known as aversion therapy. From 1969, he subjected an undetermined number of men to the treatment at the infamous ward 22 of the military hospital near Pretoria that catered for service personnel with psychological problems.
Levin encouraged commanding officers and chaplains to refer “deviants” for electroconvulsive aversion therapy, which consisted of homosexual soldiers being shown pictures of naked men and encouraged to fantasise as they were subject to increasingly powerful electric shocks until they begged for the pain to stop.
Some of the abuses were documented by the Aversion Project in South Africa (pdf). Its report quotes Trudie Grobler, an intern psychologist in the psychiatric unit at 1 Military hospital, who was forced to give electric shocks under Levin’s supervision.
“I know that [the psychiatrist] did aversion therapy with the homosexual men. I don’t know of a single case where it was successful … You know he would show the boys men, and then shock them, and then show them girls,” she said.
According to the Aversion Project report, Grobler also saw a lesbian subjected to such severe electric shocks that her shoes flew off. “I can only think that it was the same method and intensity that the woman had been given. And it was terrible. … I couldn’t believe that her body could survive it all,” she said.
According to the Aversion Project, some soldiers were subjected to hundreds of electric shock sessions. It said Levin “coerced conscripts into admitting that they were homosexual to their parents, and further coerced them to undergo aversion therapy.”
According to the Guardian article Dr. Levin also subjected conscripts with post-traumatic stress disorder and learning disabilities to treatments involving powerful drugs and electric shocks. He targeted marijuana-smoking soldiers and conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the apartheid-era military, allegedly injecting some of them with barbiturates before they were interrogated. A gay patient testified to the TRC that Levin had him chemically castrated, and the doctor’s electroshock treatments were blamed for driving at least one patient to commit suicide.
John M. Becker is Director of Communications for Truth Wins Out, a LGBTQ Advocacy group based in Burlington, Vt.