“When did you realize you were gay?”
It’s a common question, and often well-meaning, but anyone who has had to grow into a marginalized identity knows the answer is rarely that simple. For Garrard Conley, author of the wrenching memoir “Boy Erased,” self-discovery came bound in a straitjacket of religion, trauma and shame. Conley grew up in rural Arkansas, the only son of a devout car salesman turned missionary Baptist preacher. He did his best to suppress the urges, interests and mannerisms that would condemn him in the eyes of his parents, neighbors and a God who had no place in His Kingdom for gay boys. But the option of privacy was taken from him when his rapist, a college classmate, outed him to his parents. In the summer of 2004, threatened with excommunication, the withdrawal of his parents’ support and eternal damnation, the 19-year-old agreed to enter Love in Action, a Christian “ex-gay” ministry. The book alternates between Conley’s time at the facility and the events leading up to it to form a searing and timely coming-of-age tale.
Conley and his fellow clients at Love in Action were compelled to work a version of the Twelve Steps used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery fellowships, twisted to equate sexual orientation with sexual addiction. Watching Conley delve into this program, we see the recovery narrative, familiar from memoirs of alcoholism and drug addiction, turned on its head. Here is a story where the treatment is the disease. The true recovery begins as Conley recognizes the cracks in this ideology.
The details of Love in Action’s program are disturbing enough, but what makes “Boy Erased” so unsettling is the closeness of Conley’s voice. Rather than address his experiences at Love in Action from the distance of the 12 years that followed, Conley gives us the raw thought process of a young man convinced his identity is innately sinful and yearning for a cure. The prayer, “Lord, make me pure,” runs throughout the book like an urgent heartbeat. Few writers are brave enough to work from a place of such deep internalized shame. Conley does a vital service to the conversation on conversion therapy by taking us there.
Conley’s writing is consistently lovely, but lingering descriptions – of light coming through a screen door, his mother’s hair, layers of wood on a chair – often clutter an otherwise powerful scene. Still, the poignancy of the material and the resilience of the narrator shine through.
The book’s greatest feat is its capacity for empathy, especially toward Conley’s parents. Conley paints his mother and father not as homophobic monsters, but as flawed, loving people who tried to cure a son who wasn’t sick.
“Boy Erased” is a generous and forgiving book, but it is fierce in its gentleness. That Conley attended an institution of hatred and fear, and survived to write about it so beautifully, can surely be called a miracle.