Souls of Silence

In 2012, in the wake of my first, life-altering trip to Spain, I wrote this book titled Souls of Silence, whose plot explores the intersection of homophobia, mental health, systemic corruption, workplace bullying, medical malpractice, immigration, and classism. That's a pretty complex sociopolitical background for what is, at its core, a love story, and it's that complex on purpose because it's realistic. Set in 2000s, it follows the story of romantic relationship between Pablo Velázquez, a Spanish professional football player in his twenties, at the outset of his meteoric athletic career, and Andrey "Andrew" Gordovsky, a Russian doctor eight years his senior, who, without realizing his sexuality ever before, struggles both emotionally, in a dysfunctional marriage with a woman, and economically, working in dead-end jobs in the underfunded public industry of his country. Meeting by chance on one of Barcelona's beaches, at the most vulnerable points of their journeys, the protagonists find love that with years keeps growing despite long distance, transcending the barriers of class, culture, and radically different existential experiences. While Pablo's journey in Spain represents the inspiring possibility of rising from a humble background through talent, commitment, and hard work, Andrew's struggle is defined by hitting the walls of interlocking systems of oppression and corruption, which make sure that whatever talent and effort he brings to the table and whatever career pathways he chooses, he can never reach even the basic level of economic security, professional growth, and self-actualization.

This story is not a fairy tale. Not only does it meticulously depict the trauma of homophobic oppression, common for the two, the chronic trauma of economic oppression of the Russian protagonist and its consequences for his mental health; but also, in the last part of the book, where a happily-ever-after ending is normally expected, Pablo gets diagnosed with a rare and fatal heart disease. In the absence of a compatible heart transplant, he dies within nine months, the same day his daughter is born via surrogacy. Three years later, in the epilogue, Andrew is seen single, raising his daughter along with Pablo's parents, without revealing if they ever became aware of the nature of his relationship with their deceased son.

The particularity of this story lies in explicitly encouraging critical thinking on the part of the reader. In each of nine parts, the story is told from a subjective perspective of either protagonist, like in a diary, which, on the one hand, creates the sense of intimacy and trust with the reader. On the other hand, this narrative structure, constantly alternating between Barcelona and Moscow, between the realities of middle-class life and economic struggle, between the patriarchy of Spanish professional sports and the systemic corruption of Russian academia and healthcare, prompts the reader to reflect why the same events in their relationship, and even the experience of internalized homophobia and self-acceptance, turn out to be so different for Pablo and Andrew.

There's a number of ways in which this story's design disrupts prevalent cultural mythology that leaves us at odds with reality, our common humanity, meaningful reasoning about the purpose of life, and genuine spirituality. They constitute the added value this book creates and are grouped by key topics of the plot below: mental health stigma, critical awareness about homophobia, and debunking the just-world fallacy.

I. Mental health stigma

Andrew's story of clinical depression profoundly depicts how the misunderstanding of mental illness, internalized from cultural messages, keeps people away from seeking proper treatment when it happens and at the same time make their closest ones unable to provide meaningful support. In particular, the following messages are integrated into the plot:

  • Depression is not an emotion. We routinely confuse it with sadness, grief, burnout, stress; however, those are all different experiences and there's no such thing as "feeling depressed". Depression is a clinical condition that includes bodily, cognitive, and emotional symptoms, the latter most of the time presenting as a pathological numbness of emotion, rather than its expression.
  • Cognitive symptoms of depression — the progressive impairment of memory, concentration, and the capacity for judgment — are the reason why it's becoming an increasingly common cause of disability (currently ranking third after diabetes and cardiovascular disease in developed countries). Because of the illness, depressed people don't get just excluded from parties and having fun, but also from workforce and education. This creates massive economic losses and enormous waste of human potential.
  • There's a crucial but widely misunderstood distinction between endogenic and psychogenic clinical depression. Both manifest with similar symptoms and involve similar neurochemical changes in the brain, but require radically different treatment strategies and have different long-term prognosis. While endogenic (bipolar) depression has a primary genetic underpinning and mostly benefits from life-long medical treatments, psychogenic depression results from external, prolonged, unmanageable trauma, such as exposure to abuse, violence, systemic oppression etc. Some cases of psychogenic depression also warrant medical therapy, but its role is palliative, while long-term goals include psychotherapy and removal of traumatizing factors. When the primary traumatizing factors are not removed, drug resistance develops sooner or later, and fatal outcome (suicide) becomes increasingly likely.

    The clinical dilemma often arises when, because of depression's cognitive symptoms (distorted judgment, shame, self-blame), patients don't see the traumatizing factors in their past or current environment, or severely underestimate their impact. They may misreport their condition as "popping out of nothing" and thus mislead the helping professional into making a false diagnosis and administering ineffective treatments. The patient's high level of emotional intelligence, and the high capacity for empathy of people in his/her social circles, can effectively prevent this.
  • Depression is not a flaw of character or a sign of weakness. In fact, the disease often results from our misunderstanding of strength as the ability to endure suffering that may be unnecessary, meaningless, and unproductive. Therefore, the common "encouragements" like "Stay strong", "Don't give up", "Push through", "Don't lose hope" and other calls to stoicism and positivity, regardless of the intention behind them, are not only unhelpful — they're profoundly harmful to the clinically depressed individual. They further exacerbate the patterns of thinking and behavior that led the person into that condition in the first place. The key to meaningful support is not giving advice, but practicing radical empathy — listening, perspective-taking, and staying out of judgment.
  • Psychogenic depression is the final stage of the chronic corrosion of hope. According to Charles R. Snyder, hope is not a feeling; it's a way of thinking that includes goal-setting, pathways, and a sense of agency. Hopeful thinking is modeled by people who surround us; but it's also conditioned by our lived experiences. When we keep trying different pathways towards our clearly set, legitimate goal, but all end up leading us to traps or blocks, hope inevitably erodes. This is a common scenario in people trying to overcome entrenched systemic barriers, such as corruption or identity oppression, with the surplus of effort, talent, and perseverance. Meritocracy, stoicism, and the just-world fallacy — all being the staples of the Western culture — insist that we should be able to overcome the obstacle; however, when confronted with rigged systems, that is a recipe for hopelessness and despair.

    Andrew's story of chronically stunted professional growth in Russia, contrasted with the steady, well-deserved career of his loved one, represents the slow but steady corrosion of hope as a way of thinking and living. Along with the homophobic oppression he's experienced his whole life, it lays the groundwork for his mental collapse. That's why, unlike Pablo's acute mental crisis following him being betrayed by the club management in Chapter 6, Andrew's condition remains severe and progressive and eventually leads to full-blown suicidal ideation.
  • Ascribing "spiritual meaning" to a person's clinical depression is gaslighting, i.e. a form of emotional violence, in its own right. It's commonly related to rationalization of trauma and is pervasive in our culture. The worst thing, it's often done with the best of intentions — we falsely assume that by putting a "spiritual silver-lining" over another's experience we will make them feel better.

    The impact is the exact opposite: people drown in clinical depression further when we tell them "it's happening for a good reason" or "according to God's plan". Unfortunately, since the capacity for judgment is already impaired in clinical depression because of its inherent cognitive distortions, people readily buy into these arguments, no matter how absurd they are. As a result, they become less likely to seek help, less likely to critically reckon about their condition, more isolated, and more prone to self-harm and suicidal behavior.
  • No matter the severity of depression — even when people are literally on the brink of suicide — in psychogenic cases, which are the majority, the removal of traumatizing situation guarantees full recovery. It may not be fast and linear, but remains always possible. The bodily changes (including those induced by chronic elevation of cortisol), the cognitive impairment, and the emotional deficits are fully reversible, but when inside the condition, patients falsely believe they are broken beyond repair and therefore turn away from help.

    Andrew's story illustrates that, unlike cancer, psychogenic depression is not only treatable and curable, but also fully preventable. Prevention is not the job of psychologists and psychiatrists who work with individual cases — it's the job of educators, policy-makers, and cultural leaders. We can prevent depression at scale by a) debunking mental health myths; b) dismantling the culture of meritocracy, stoicism, and toxic positivity; c) cultivating our emotional intelligence and capacity for empathy; d) improving critical and contextual thinking to recognize systemic injustice that causes chronic trauma and subsequent depression in individuals.
II. LGBTQ+ Identity

In a straightforward way, Souls of Silence addresses the major historical myths about homosexual and transgender people that up to this day continue to underpin discriminatory policies and fuel homophobic and transphobic violence. Tragically, even in the most progressive Western countries that made huge legislative and cultural advances around LGBTQ+ equality, mainstream books and movies continue to heavily rely on these myths when portraying gay and trans characters. Writers and producers seem to cater to the public's confirmation bias and overlook very real ways in which these myths perpetuate the oppression and marginalization of sexual minorities.

  • The choice myth. The stories of Pablo and Andrew provide an extensive illustration of the scientifically established fact that sexual orientation is not a choice or preference that can be subject to moral judgment and voluntary or involuntary change. Instead, they expose the reasons why homosexual men and women may live for years in denial of their real orientation — and only find it out when they meet a partner with whom a strong, mutual connection develops both physically and emotionally. Lack of LGBTQ+ visibility, homophobia being embedded in policies, institutions, and public discourse, lack of accountability around hate crimes, and bullying in school and workplace are among those reasons.

    There's no such thing as "becoming gay", though. Your kid will not choose an orientation different from the one they were born with after seeing a gay couple holding hands in the street, kissing in a movie, or living next door. No one actually changes their sexual orientation because of fashion, wealth, or negative experience with their previous partner. All these stereotypes are debunked in the story.

    This had immediate implications for eliminating homophobic violence. If sexual orientation is not a choice, it cannot be construed as a sin. If we see the sexual orientation diversity in non-human biological species — from insects to birds to lions — we can no longer see homosexuality as unnatural. Corrective rapes or lesbian women, the expulsions of gay teenagers from their homes by their own families, and conversion therapy no longer make sense once we finally acknowledge what science has established fifty years ago — just like with a minoritary blood type, there's no choice and no mutability involved in sexual orientation.
  • The emasculation (gender deficit) myth. The narrative that homosexual men have effeminate mannerisms, traditionally female interests, and even personality traits associated with femininity is massively trashed in the book. It represents gay men the way they commonly are, doing justice to their lived experience, and explains why the false messages about their supposed feminine tendencies make them unable to understand their real identity, leaving them with the choice to either orphan their masculinity or to orphan their homosexuality. The phenomenon of toxic (hegemonic) masculinity frequently results from this unresolved conflict, which is shown clearly in Pablo's story.

    In reality, gender expression and gender identity of a person are independent from their sexual orientation and represent a diverse continuum of individuality traits. Whether you want to play football or play dolls has a weak correlation with who you will feel sexual attraction and romantic feelings towards.

    This truth absolutely debunks the idea of conversion therapy — a harmful, pseudoscientific practice of changing a person's sexual orientation by allegedly repairing their broken gender self-image.
  • The shallowness myth. The notion that non-heterosexual people are unable to develop functional, committed, monogamous relationships and experience the fullness of love — and only engage in "deviant sex" instead — has for decades fueled bans on gay marriage and gay adoption. There's no evidence to support it. Unfortunately, most mainstream narratives still portray gay characters as promiscuous and sex-obsessed compared to their straight counterparts, thus reinforcing the stigma.

    Souls of Silence stands out remarkably in this regard: the protagonists only have sex once over years of their predominantly long-distance relationship, but their feelings persist and only grow with time. As shown in the epilogue, on Andrew's part, they continue to exist his loved one's death.

Overall, the story shifts the focus away from the sexual orientation of the characters and puts it on their love, which is exactly where it belongs. Experiences that inform love — vulnerability, joy, belonging — are portrayed in a way that's fully relatable to heterosexual readers. It builds empathic bridges straight into their hearts and communicates the truth about our shared humanity without distractions and noise. Thanks to this storytelling approach, based on my decade-long research on the inner workings of empathy, over the years I've seen hundreds of straight people discover my work on social media and then email me about how they were shaken by the story's synopsis and epilogue published on my Website. This effect didn't happen by chance but by design: Souls of Silence isn't a niche production targeted at LGBTQ+ people or progressive echo bunkers. It's a story that resonates with people across the differences in sexual orientation, but without erasing those.

Another reason why the plot strikes such a massive chord is because it contextually portrays homophobia along with corruption, classism, nativism, and other social issues most people are painfully familiar with. The experience of injustice, just like the experience of love, is one of the most profound within our common humanity. By highlighting contrasts in the political climate of Pablo and Andrew's countries, the book also reveals how all kinds of oppression are related to our cognitive paradigms of power — in particular, whether or not we see power, i.e. the ability to effect change, as a finite resource that has to be hoarded in the hands of the few. If that paradigm is at play, then sharing power — by giving voice, freedom, dignity, and opportunity to others — is seen as inherently diminishing the power of who possesses it and therefore violently resisted. The massive shift in society's views on LGBT equality in Spain — since the last days of Franco's dictatorship to modern days of coalition government — illustrates this trend, while the situation in Russia remains the opposite.

III. The just-world fallacy

The story of Andrew's and Pablo's relationship involves an inherent conflict between their existential experiences. Although Pablo grew up religious and Andrew didn't, both were raised to believe that every person in life eventually gets what they've worked for and deserved — in other words, that our outcomes rightfully reflect our merits, abilities, and effort. While this meritocratic narrative indeed makes itself manifest into Pablo's life and gives rise to his meritocratic hubris, Andrew doesn't have the same experience, no matter how hard he tries, because of systemic barriers in his country. Despite their growing emotional connection, Pablo doesn't seem to understand Andrew's struggle — and, importantly, Andrew doesn't understand it either, instead doubling down on cultural mythology about the world being just and pushing himself more. This contributes to his growing feeling of being unlovable and undeserving of his loved one, and eventually results in his full-blown, multi-drug-resistant mental collapse.

The absence of conventional happy ending, and Pablo's death from a rare hereditary disease, not only reveals the great, and sometimes brutal, randomness of life. More importantly, it exposes the contrast between natural tragedy and man-made injustice. While Pablo's dilated cardiomyopathy was written in his genetic destiny and therefore inevitable, his separation from the person he truly loved resulted from oppression, stigma, and the confinement of his celebrity life — none of which was natural, inevitable, or immutable. This leaves the reader with a massive question to reflect upon — how does faith in an allegedly just world make us insensitive to man-made injustice, and even worse, oftentimes complicit in it?

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