Conley, Garrard. “Boy Erased: A Memoir”, Riverhead Books, 2016.
Identity, Love, Understanding
I lived in Arkansas for seven years and learned the mentality and the perspective of many Arkansans yet to this day how I survived those seven years. I still cannot imagine how a young man could deal with being gay in a state filled with born-again Christians. Garrard Conley managed to do so and he was raised in the small town of Mountain Home. Living in Little Rock and/or Fayetteville would have easier no doubt but he did have that opportunity. I think what surprised me the most was that when I would sit and speak with many of the gay population was that they knew nowhere but Arkansas. That was why I began reviewing. I wanted the gay community to know that there was a big gay world out there but since they would not go to it, I brought to them.
Conley was the son of a Baptist pastor and therefore he was deeply into the church life of small town Arkansas but as a young man he knew who he was and he was filled conflict and fear. He tells in raw but compassionate prose about being outed to his parents as a college student. He had to decide whether to go through conversion therapy from a church-supported program that supposedly would cure him of his desire to be with men or lose his family and friends as well as being told that God would longer find favor in him.
He tried the therapy that consisted of an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program that concentrated on Bible study. When he finished it, he and his parents were told that he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay. All impure urges would be gone and he would have stronger faith in God because he had chased sin away. Nonetheless, he found the strength to break away and look for his true self elsewhere. He first had to face his past and in doing so was forced to deal with having lived in a dark world and try to find a way to face his family, his friends and his faith. It is very difficult to read this with dry eyes—we feel his pain throughout. I thought to myself that if it is so hard to read this, it had to be unbelievably difficult for Conley to write it. Yet he has managed to do and in the process write in all in beautiful prose. (That is also something for someone from Arkansas. I taught several writing classes at one of the universities near Little Rock and I was constantly amazed at the lack of ability of many of my students to write a decent sentence. Should I have expected more from a state that elected Mike Huckabee as their governor? I know, I know, Bill Clinton had also been governor but his education took place past the border of the state).
The description of Memphis’ “Love in Action” conversion therapy techniques made me sit up straight and try to understand how anyone thought this could possibly work. It has been a long time since I read something with such emotional vulnerability. The boys there were told by their counselors that they were broken inside and something very important was missing from their lives. It is hard to imagine how this sounds to someone who feels that something is not right. The twelve steps that they had to deal with involved sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality as well as addictive behavior, such as alcoholism or gambling. The guys were already broken and adding this to their problems had to really devastate them. They were told that God was angry with them because of their homosexuality. Conley shares what they were to do in group sessions and taught to take a moral inventory of their lives. They were given statistics about LGBTQ teen suicide and rejection by parents as if this was what they need to know.
In his group were guys from all over the south and they had all been given ultimatums—to change or else and that “else” depended on person and situation. The ultimatum caused fear and Love in Action became known for the use of fear. There is one story that I have to share:
“In fact, several years before I arrived, the facility had been responsible for staging a funeral for a would-be ex-gay defector, a young man of nineteen or twenty who felt he might benefit from an openly-gay life outside the facility. The other members of his group were instructed to stand before his reposing body, read mock obituaries that described his rapid descent into HIV, then AIDS, and cry over him, until he was fully convinced that his sinful behavior would lead him to a death without any hope of resurrection, his only consolation that he might be buried in his Sunday Best with a Bible tucked beside him, no other traces of his former self preserved. It was our fear of shame, followed by our fear of Hell, that truly prevented many of us from committing suicide”.
There is not much that I can say after that.
Conley reminds us of how much work there is left to be done and we have to make sure that his words are believed and used. This is one of the most enlightening books that I have read in a very long time and it really brings home what we have to know about this bogus therapy that has been outlawed in this country. That does not mean that we do not have to know about it.
It is not enough just to read this book—we need to think about it. We are lucky to have it and to have it so beautifully written is a blessing. (Yes I use the word blessing because I still believe like so many others that there is good in people—we just need to find it).