8 November 2018

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley

I was really excited to read this book when I heard that Joel Edgerton was doing the movie and it was starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Stories about gay conversion camps are terrifying to me and I was interested in reading a first-person perspective on this. Earlier in the year Ben and I drove to Halifax to see four movies and one of them was The Miseducation of Cameron Post (a similar storyline but starring Chloe Grace Moretz), and as of right now the reviews for MCP are much better than Boy Erased. Oh well, the book was still worth discovering.

In the beginning of this book, author Garrard Conley describes the "ministry" that spends their time telling gay people they are sick and full of sin. There are a few different factions but one of the most commonly known, and the one his experience is with, is called Love in Action (LIA).

He gives a brief history of LIA's work and how their practices ranged from arranging mock funerals for gay pupils or telling them it would be better if they killed themselves than it would be to live as a "gay sinner." Truly disgusting stuff to read about. I'm only going to do this once, but there was a line in The Miseducation of Cameron Post where the titular character is trying to describe LIA's malpractice. The social worker keeps looking for signs of physical abuse, and Cameron Post insists that while there is no physical abuse, and that the group technically "cares" for them, the patrons are constantly being emotionally abused - being told they are sick, that their "same sex attraction" is a sin and a disease. I think this was a really powerful scene and an excellent way of describing the kind of mental torture these "patients" have to go through.

You cut out what was once dear to you, ignore the ache in the back of your throat, erase the details you want to forget. Toss the first half of the story in the trash, as my counselors had. I've lost so many friends in the years after LIA, gone without talking to old boyfriends for years just because it came so easy for me to ignore something I'd once felt. I've been so heartless without even trying. The truth is, being heartless came so easy for post-LIA me that I didn't even have to think about it."

Garrard Conley
I also DESPISED reading about LIA because they always try to compare themselves to Alcoholics Anonymous which I find so offensive. I am fascinated by AA and I find it so repulsive that LIA would suggest they are a similar "support" group. They even get a teacher in Conley's program that was an ex-alcoholic who went through the program because they believe they use similar "teachings." Blech.

Essentially the story begins with Conley describing his family dynamic, how close he is to his religious parents and how big a role Christianity played in his everyday life. One thing I liked was that he constantly grapples with his belief in God regardless of the way he is being treated by his Christian peers.

Conley did a great job in describing his upbringing and Christian surroundings. He is from a small town in Mississippi (which I'm sure is hell enough when you're straight, let alone struggling with coming out) and describes it perfectly:

If you stayed long enough, you could see how it was perpetually reaching into its shallow past, hanging pictures of Elvis in its many diners, taping signed autographs to its walls, its many sex shops promising thrills that had once electrified the streets amid the buzz of jazz and blues."


His struggle with his relationship with his parents is also really compelling. It is so easy to read or watch this kind of subject matter and be so full of hate for those who discriminate, but it's often not that easy for those who are close to their discriminators. Conley loves his parents so much and doesn't want to cut ties with them even though they are sending him to a conversion camp.

He talks a lot about a fantasy he had when he was younger, when he was still struggling with his identity. He remembers how he used to try and violate the house he grew up in in some way, whether that be by peeing on the floor or constantly imagining it burning to the ground:

It wasn't that I thought violence would solve our problems. It was just that the need to tell my parents something - anything - was overpowering, and at the time I didn't have a proper language for it."

I thought this was a really great line because you kind of understand how confusing this time in his life must have been and how difficult it can be to express ourselves.

a scene from the film adaptation starring Lucas Hedges
The other interesting thing in Boy Erased was how Conley saw his growing love of literature in parallel with being gay. He talks about all the books that were so meaningful to him like The Portrait of Dorian Gray:

[...] after I had first experienced in Wilde's seductive language a justification for the sensitive side I was discovering during my freshman year of college, years before I learned that this book carried weight in the history of LGBT literature."

I'll wrap up by saying that my only problem with this book is that there's just nothing else to it really. Conley had to go through something horrible, and while you're full of sympathy for him it just never extends past that. I thought The Miseducation of Cameron Post made some better points about these facility groups like LIA.

**Garrard Conley's Twitter username is perfect btw ... follow him at @gayrodcon **

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