As you might imagine, this memoir is not a fun one to work through, but that fact doesn’t mean it is not a good or doesn’t have significance. I was drawn to reading it after just finishing a YA novel focused on sexuality in a majority Mormon community, only to see that the trailer for the film adaptation for Boy Erased just dropped. And watching it was a lot to handle at a moment where I was already emotionally compromised, but I figured it would be worth it to read the source material and see just how Garrard Conley’s story played out in his own words before being altered to suit a different medium.
Boy Erased: A Memoir focuses on a brief period of time for Garrard Conley when he was 19 years old and entered into conversion therapy for his homosexuality; the son of an aspiring Baptist pastor, living in the Bible Belt of the United States, Conley is shown through flashbacks struggling with his sexuality and the negative messages he has received throughout his life in regards to his identity. After being outed to his parents after leaving home for college, Conley is given the choice of being disowned or attending specialized therapy/treatment to cure him of his homosexuality. This is where we learn about the Love in Action (LIA) ex-gay program, and the type of treatment Conley was subject to there. These moments at LIA are interspersed with a great deal of Conley’s personal narrative at home, before he became subject to LIA’s treatment, which makes the actual setting of conversion therapy almost secondary in nature to the rest of Conley’s story about struggling to understand and accept himself in the environment of his upbringing.
Now, I know that I sometimes write reviews that are unnecessarily long: they don’t need to be in-depth analyses or my personal journal on what I experienced/thought about while reading a book. Yet this always seems to happen because as it turns out, I actually like articulating my thoughts through writing more than I realized. And for that I apologize because in this instance, I apparently have a lot to say regarding what this book make me think about.
In a way, because of the way this memoir markets itself, you would expect there to be a lot more about the actual conversation therapy that takes place, yet his experience there was simply during a trial assessment period that lasted all of 8 days: we don’t see any physical abuse that has become synonymous with the concept of conversion therapy, and we see other people who have been there for years. I can see this expectation of more falling short for some reader, but I ask myself, is that really something I want to read about? Why do I want to hear about that kind of suffering? We see other subjects of conversation therapy as presented by Conley, and we see the psychological strains of subjects being unrelenting told they are disgusting in the same boat as pedophiles in terms of sin. And that kind of mindset is damaging: just because something doesn’t hurt us physically doesn’t mean it isn’t doing irreparable harm inside of us.
Really, the events that Conley himself went through in conversation therapy are more or less a catalyst for this book to be written, and for a conversation about something bigger. Because while the stance presented on the harm done by conversion therapy is clear here, there is so much more to be said about Conley’s memoir and the experiences and struggles he allows us to bear witness to:
This book feels like it is in some ways a major outlet for release, processing, and catharsis for Conley… but for me, this book made me feel like I was suffocating.
The entirety of this novel (besides the tiniest conclusion at the end) has such an oppressive feeling of oncoming dread at every moment. It details a life of messages of wrongness, and we see Conley working through so many distorted ideas about himself and his faith and his family. These destructive thought processes continue throughout Conley’s life and experience at LIA, hurting him in such subtle ways that ultimately lead to a breaking point. They also compound with experiences of trauma, most significantly a sexual assault that I don’t know if Conley really had the opportunity to process fully before sitting down to write this: he says a line after explaining what he remembers of the incident that absolutely broke me, about feeling as if what was happening to him was punishment for what he was (not to mention what happens with his abuser after the fact which lays out his path to LIA). This kind of thinking was so painful to read, as he struggled to handle what happened and to know where to go from there, and it is a product of years of oppressive messages from his Church, community, and family.
The mood of this memoir is obviously not a fun one, and it was hard for me to want to get into at times. There were also some facets of the writing that I had a hard time with: the second portion of the novel seemed to drag in some ways, and the pacing was incredibly chopping, switching from one moment in the past to the next without a very coherent timeline. There is also less info given about his time at LIA that I think would be very beneficial for people to hear about. That being said, I think this memoir really came through to me as more of a process for Conley to work through what he himself needed to (even reading the acknowledgements at the back, this is the sense I get). So who am I to begrudge anything that he needed to express in writing. Having a background in studying art therapy (in addition to other expressive forms) I understand how helpful this kind of articulation through writing this can be when dealing with a trauma: as I mentioned earlier, it’s almost as if he never tried to deal with his sexual assault and how this affected his sense of self and the path it led him on either. So I accept and bear witness to what Conley is giving to us as the readers of this memoir. There is a power in words and in having our expressions and stories seen, and that is really what the purpose of this book is.
In addition, of course, there is the idea that it can present to people more knowledge of the experience of conversation therapy, counseling about sexuality, and even the oppressive messages of some religions. That said, I understand this and don’t per say need to read about it more. But that said, would the people who would benefit or should be privy to this kind of thing really want to engage in this novel or even listen? It’s hard to say.
Finally, I don’t want to express any hatred towards any religion, but I do have a lot of anger for those who hold unbending thoughts which can cause so much psychological harm to others, giving them messages of being unclean or not worthy of God’s love after being brought up to want to seek this very love. And yet, there is a beauty in Conley’s memoir in that he doesn’t seem to want to place any blame on one particular person or even the Church: maybe it’s not right for him anymore, but that doesn’t mean others can find love or comfort in religion, though sometimes that may be hard to remember when we see messages of hatred and unacceptance being spread.
Ultimately, Boy Erased: A Memoir is a book that is not per say enjoyable, in fact it is frustrating and disheartening at times, in addition to having some flaws in the way the novel is broken up in telling its story. But there is a power in how personal it is, and it really does seem like something Conley needed to do for himself and for his mother to really process his life and experiences. There is also a bravery in choosing to share that difficult and personal processing with others. So I will take what Conley has given here, and hold it gently to my heart, thanking him for what he has been willing to share from his life, and hope that perhaps some good will come from the sharing of these experiences for more LGBT+ people in the future as we live and grow in this complicated world of ours. Because even at the end of this book there feels like a weight has been lifted off of Conley in regards to these experiences. And for that, I hold on to my sense of hope.