Boy Erased, by Garrard Conley
Growing up in small town Alabama in the 1990s/2000s is not exactly ideal for a young man struggling with the knowledge that he is gay, especially with a father who is soon to be ordained as a Baptist pastor. All Garrard’s friends, his relatives, everyone he knows, believes homosexuality to be a perversion, a transgression against God. It isn’t until Garrard leaves home to attend college that he feels the freedom to even entertain the idea that life could be different, that he might not have to hide forever.
That notion is fleeting, however; following a traumatic first sexual experience he is “outed” to his parents by the very person who assaulted him. Not long thereafter, he agrees to attend a two-week trial program run by Love In Action (LIA), a fundamentalist Christian organization that promises to cure LGBT congregants of their “sexual addictions.” After the trial, Garrard will be assessed as to how long he should remain in the program; most patients stay for at least three months, many stay much longer.
Garrard is torn – he doesn’t feel addicted to anything, but at every turn he is told that what he feels is wrong. Despite his misgivings, he checks into the LIA facility (in a rundown strip mall); as he makes his way down the narrow hallway to the meeting room, he offers up a prayer: God, I don’t know who You are anymore, but please give me the wisdom to survive this.
Author Conley’s description of his time in the LIA program is chilling. A Twelve Step Program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, a 274 handbook that was to be treated as gospel, a relinquishing of any privacy – these were all cornerstones of the process. The reinforcement that homosexuality is a sin, and that gay sex a type of unhealthy addiction was relentless. Patients were constantly pressured to publically share instances of sexual deviance (many of them admitting privately that stories were made up in order to impress the facilitators) and they were encouraged to report their fellow patients, not just for expressing unsuitable thoughts or exhibiting sinful actions, but even for posture that was not “manly” or showing mannerisms that were not appropriate for their gender. Genealogies were scrutinized to find sinful behaviors in families: promiscuity, alcoholism, drug use, mental illness, pornography, gang involvement, abortions, gambling. Nothing was off limits, nothing was sacred.
It truly is difficult to read, but author Conley keeps us grounded by his internal monolog, which allows us to focus on his confusion: he wants to be honest to himself but understands that to do so would hurt others he loves, he believes in God but cannot justify the God of his parents who would condemn him for something he did not ask for or take pride in yet which he cannot in honesty deny. He wants to do the right thing, but everything about LIA feels so very wrong.
What sets this memoir apart, however, is its lack of bile. While what Garrard goes through is hard to read in its insensitivity and almost reprehensible ignorance, he is careful to acknowledge, for the most part, that the people running the LIA program truly felt that they were doing God’s work. Yes, there is more unquestioning adherence to dogma than compassion, which is disheartening. But fortunately Garrard is able to lean on his own faith – and his ability to question that faith – as well as the knowledge that his parents, who did not believe or support his homosexuality, did believe and support him. His mother, especially, allows her love for her son to prove stronger than her religious convictions.
In Boy Erased, there is indeed right and there is wrong, and there is evil as well as salvation. But there are no devils, nor are there saints – there are just people, trying to do the best they can. Unfortunately, some of them are willing to be told what the best is instead of discovering that for themselves, and some of them are blindly led down a supposedly righteous path because it is comfortable, familiar and easy to not question. But there are also those who do not understand, yet are willing to believe that understanding is not necessary in order to embrace another person. Or that God’s love is deep enough to embrace us all. In the end, there may not be acceptance, but there is love.
And that’s a story worth reading.