“Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life: Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer” by Kerry Ashton— Becoming “Unshamed”

Ashton, Kerry. “Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life: Healing From the Shame of Religion, Rape, Conversion Therapy & Cancer”, Lynn Wolf Enterprises, 2019.

Becoming “Unshamed”

Amos Lassen

In the first paragraph of Kerry Ashton’s memoir, we learn a great deal and therefore am quoting it directly.

“I told this story once as fiction in the 1980s, but this time I tell the truth. I even tell the truth, in #MeToo fashion, about being violently raped by another man when I was 18, with a knife held to my throat–a secret I kept from everyone, including myself, for over 40 years. The rape, like other experiences I endured while a student at Brigham Young University, where I came out in the early 1970s, had a profound impact on my later life. But this story is not so much about my rape or my coming of age at BYU, as it is about the lifelong effects of shame itself, not only about how I internalized and inherited a wounding shame from my Mormon upbringing, but also how I eventually unshamed myself. It is about a lifetime journey of spiritual growth, self-discovery and healing, including many miraculous events along the way that pushed me forward through the darkness toward the light.”

Lately we have seen a great deal written about gay shame and I have often wondered why it took so long for it to surface. Then I read this and totally understood. We have all, to some degree, felt it but few of us have ever verbalized it or even wanted to do so. Kerry Ashton shares his experiences during his four years at Brigham Young University including the rape, falling in love for the first time, police surveillance, harassment and arrest, and going through three years of conversion therapy that included two years of electroshock treatments. He also writes of growing up Mormon in Pocatello, Idaho, and stories from his adulthood. His stories are poignant, some are quite graphic, some are dramatic and some are very, very funny. I was mesmerized by them all and found myself falling in love with Kerry as I read his stories.

Ashton has had a professional career as an actor and writer, both in Los Angeles and New York City and he describes his personal encounters with stars like Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and Julie Harris, while sharing his experiences with writers Tennessee Williams, James Leo Herlihy, and John Rechy and his affair with Steven Sondheim. It was a long and arduous road he traveled— years in therapy, a battle with cancer, kinky sex,  S&M, the leather scene and finally the loving monogamous relationship that he is part of today. He also shares the shame that he has had to deal with all along the way and how he was able to deal with it and  “find a way out of a culture that would silence him.”

Ashton sees shame as “an insidious disease that threads through the body and the psyche, slowly destroying and devaluing everything it touches.” It came to him early–from his parents, from his Mormon faith, from his burgeoning understanding of his own sexuality and we soon understand that we are not only reading  Ashton’s story, but also the stories of many gay men who struggled with their sexual identity and health during the end of the twentieth century. It took Ashton a while to  understand a lot of what he had been through and now can speak about what he  spent many years trying to achieve. This included being shamed by his family for being effeminate and the hell he went through at Brigham Young University and the electroshock therapy that forever damaged his nervous system and a disturbing and violent rape.

Ashton also writes about friends who lost their lives, including gay men to suicide, to HIV/AIDS or who lost themselves in heterosexual marriages. He shares his opinions on cruising for sex, rest stops and their necessities and dangers they represented. Ashton also writes of his religious and family life. Strict Mormon laws regarding sex, from masturbation to intercourse to anything in between were responsible for much of Ashton’s suffering, but if he were to deny his religion, he would have lost his family, his faith, and, in many ways, his identity as a young man. The book introduces us to a generation of Mormon men who were hurt and sometimes destroyed by the church’s positions on their sexuality and to a man who grew up gay and Mormon in a small Idaho town. 

Religion and sexuality crash into each other and the painful result comes to us through Ashton’s beautiful and painful prose. I cannot say enough about this book aside from it must be both read and experienced.

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