“I came to therapy thinking that my sexuality didn’t matter, but it turned out that every part of my personality was intimately connected. Cutting one piece damaged the rest.”
This book had been on my TBR since 2016 and I never got to it despite always being very interested, so when I heard it was being adapted into a movie starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Troye Sivan that’s due out this fall, I knew I had to get on it, since I’m predicting Boy Erased will start popping up on podiums at bookstores and libraries once the movie comes out.
Boy Erased is Garrard Conley’s deeply compassionate yet deeply disturbing memoir of dealing with his homosexuality in an ultra-religious and Christian fundamentalist town and family in Arkansas, right in the middle of the Bible Belt. He writes about how, after he was outed to his parents in college, he was given the choice of either attending mandatory ex-gay conversion therapy, or lose emotional and financial support from his family. He also writes about and examines his father, a Baptist pastor, and disappointing his family and church as a whole. Though he tells his story in a consistent personal narrative style, Conley also indirectly addresses the intolerant and repressive environments that countless LGBTQ youth have had to endure, specifically those raised in the deeply religious and socially conservative American South.
There are many things to enjoy about Boy Erased, mainly the point of view that Conley expresses throughout his storyline and emotionally painful journey with conversion therapy. One who has endured such pain at the hands of people so riddled with homophobia that they mask it with religion and call it love might be angry for the rest of their lives, but Conley expresses such neutral love and understanding to the influences he grew up with, without sacrificing the severity of what they put him through to “convert” him to heterosexuality. Instead of stooping to their level, he humanizes them and paints a vivid picture of their perspective, as well as his own perspective therein. It isn’t so hard to perceive the fact that Conley willingly participated in “ex-gay” conversion therapy at first, given that he had been raised his entire life on morals and values that vehemently rejected anything but conservative gender roles and heterosexuality, not to mention such an extreme religious presence in his life from his father and their church. But still, Conley attempts to understand the people who rejected his identity without minimizing his own pain or the deeply disturbing and dark emotions that were instilled in him by bigots from the time he was a child. The fact that he could find it within himself and his writing to understand people who rejected him so deeply and tried to turn him into something he’s not is quite extraordinary. I gained a deeper sense of empathy towards people who grow up in deeply religious households, as well as the people who raise them. What I also quite enjoy is the fact that Conley humanizes those who rejected him instead of romanticizing them – something a lot of writers tend to do in memoirs without realizing it and it takes away from the compelling nature of their narrative (example: The Glass Castle).
Another thing that Boy Erased brought to light, at least for me, was the harsh realities of ultra-religious households in Christian fundamentalist communities. I have of course heard of all kinds of Christians having such internalized homophobia that they say they can’t support their family members’ alternate sexualities since it apparently conflicts with their faith, but this is all taken to a higher level of rejection and interference in Christian fundamentalist areas. As a fairly non-religious gay person, I admittedly tend to roll my eyes at people who place such a large part of their identities and beings into their religion, only because I know from my point of view that even the most liberal and welcoming religions don’t have a place for people such as myself (the gays). I do believe in God, but I also have atheist tendencies – I believe in a higher power, but I don’t think God and Jesus are responsible for everything from the green leaves on the trees to the heavens, the earth, and human beings. All of this to say, while I have most definitely observed intense religious people in both fiction and real life who reject the simplest of things because they go against their faith, reading Boy Erased showed me that I am fairly uneducated when it comes to Christian fundamentalists in the Bible Belt of the Southern United States. It’s pretty much a cliché in contemporary popular culture that people in the American South are deeply religious and think Harry Potter is satanic, but only once you apply that perspective to a young man struggling with being something other than heterosexual do you realize the lengths that Christian fundamentalists will go to make sure people in their community satisfy their definitions of decent human beings. And as Conley writes of the many things wrong with conversion therapy, as much as you can’t pray the gay away, you can’t eliminate one part of yourself without damaging the rest. Every part of yourself is connected, and to think that it is more acceptable to damage yourself trying to “convert” to another sexuality than to be loved and accepted for who you are is even more baffling than I thought. Several times while reading Boy Erased, I thought to myself that not only does “ex-gay” conversion therapy sound like a cult, Christian fundamentalism sounds like a cult (Conley even details recurring nightmares he had as a child from the intense religious beliefs instilled in him), and I was so happy to see that even Conley compared both conversion therapy and the religious tendencies in his town to that of a cult towards the end of the book (spoiler).
If I had one complaint about Boy Erased, it would be that the narrative jumped around a little too much, but I also understand that he would not have been able to tell his story of enduring conversion therapy without painting a picture of growing up with conflicted sexual feelings, so that didn’t bother me too much. I did, however, find the prose to be a bit too lyrical and heavy on the metaphor for my taste – I’m all for lyrical writing, especially in memoirs and biographies, but you can tell that Conley recreated his story with a novelist’s flair (I’m sure he is one hell of a fiction writer), and it seemed a bit like he was trying too hard to be fancy with his words at times where he just could have told what happened without deep metaphors or lyrical prose. Boy Erased is still very well written, but I just think that its subject matter was already heavy enough that the author didn’t need to go so hard with lyrical writing because it made it even harder to read at times. Once I finished the book, I was left with a bittersweet feeling; happy that Conley survived conversion therapy somewhat intact (there are much worse horror stories in that department), but also sad for the possible relationships ruined by internalized homophobia as well as the fact that he was met with such rejection by people who are supposed to love him exactly as he is. Overall, I definitely recommend reading Boy Erased regardless of the difficult parts, because it is a story that needed to be told and I’m glad Conley found it within himself to put it down on paper. 4/5 stars.