Book review: ‘Boy Erased’ moved me because it felt real
The 2 most recent LGBT books I’ve read are strikingly similar, but could hardly be any more different.
Call Me By Your Name tells the first-person story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, and although it had me in floods of tears — which continued to return for weeks after closing the cover — it was at its heart a hopeful tale. It was a straight-up love story which explored feelings familiar to many of its audience.
Last night I struggled to contain my emotions after reading the acknowledgements at the end of Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased — the book that moved me in more ways than I thought 340 pages could. It too is the first-person story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality. It too fired my lacrimal glands into action. And in a weird way, it too is a story of hope. But it is also bursting with pain, with anger, with shame.
Conley tells the story of his teenage self, brought up as part of a strict baptist family within the USA’s deep-south Bible belt. The more he comes to term with his own sexuality, the more conflicted he feels about himself and his faith. That conflict is thrown outward violently when he is outed to his parents, who reject this part of him and pack him off to ‘conversion/cure’ therapy. This book describes both this experience, and the journey that led him to that point.
It’s a gripping read from the first line to the last.
If Call Me By Your Name struck a cord because it felt familiar, Boy Erased did the same because it’s so unfamiliar.
The big difference between the two is their respective sources. While Call Me By Your Name is one of the most beautiful pieces of fiction I’ve encountered, Boy Erased is a sharp reality. The true story of Conley’s past. A heartfelt and honest memoir.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that, such is the wonder of his writing. I wanted to comment on its gripping construction, but that doesn’t feel like the right term. Instead, I’d say it was more expertly crafted. Like one of the cars his preacher dad would sell at his car dealership; every part doing a meaningful job itself, but together each complements the rest intricately, delicate details fusing to produce a 900-horsepower force.
The magic of Garrard’s story is that this force is produced from the whole, not its constituent parts. There are no explosions, no blazing rows, no dramatic cliffhangers. At no point does he exaggerate his memories for dramatic effect, as might have been so easy to do. I was waiting for that one euthoric moment or revenge, or that one devastating moment where his world comes crashing together in an instant. His contempt for those who ran his ‘ex-gay’ therapy programme is explicitly clear, but there is no stinging throw-down. Also clear is the difficult relationship with his father in particular — but instead of a damning assassination, he is painted almost apologetically, a fully-rounded human being; attempting to understand why he behaved as he did, rather than distribute blame. Indeed, he signs off the book with a special thank you to his parents“whose love has made all the difference.”
It simultaneously paints a vulnerability — how can he go through this and not show unadulterated anger?! — and strength — how did he find the strength to go through this and not show unadulterated anger?!
Conley describes some of the incredibly distressing experiences he was forced to endure, but even in the face of individuals who threatened to fatally damage him, he opts to explain and dictate rather than explode emotion over the page.
And such is the effect of his storytelling, it’s this lack of angry zing which makes it so haunting. It’s this quality which reminds me throughout that this is a memoir, the real events in a real person’s real life.
Its descriptive style picks me up and throws me head-first into every moment, the characters I feel like I know, and the situations I feel I am encountering, created so realistically in my mind. A chaotic narrative structure jumping back and forth, in and out of his ‘secret life’. Although he acknowledges from the start that some memories have been ‘reconstructed’, it’s clear that too many are as clear as they moment they happened. His mum tells of the water bubbles in the washing-up bowl that she recalls so vividly, such was the emotionally-charged energy streaming through the room. And it’s notable that I had to keep reminding myself that it was a memoir and not a story, because that’s how much of it reads.
At its conclusion, there are threads left hanging. I’m longing to know the fate of certain characters Garrard meets on his journey, desperate to know how certain relationships developed in the years between then and now. In some way, I felt a sense of disappointment that those details were omitted. But on reflection, I feel this omission strongly contributed to the affected feeling that remained with me. It doesn’t matter what happened next. Perhaps Conley himself didn’t even know how in some cases— opportunities and connections lost. It’s fitting for a book focused not on sentimentality, not on looking forward, or backward, but on the events of a specific period of his life.
In a way, the specific events of his life are unimportant. The specific people he encountered are unimportant. Instead, what I was left with was an appreciation of the difficulties fellow members of the LGBT community were forced to face so recently, and that some will still face to this day.
It comes at an important time. Studies have shown gay ‘cure’ therapies to be more widespread than anticipated. Here in the UK, 5% of respondents to an LGBT study said they’d been offered such programmes, with 2% actually having taken them. In the US, President Obama ‘supported’ a ban on conversion therapies. Meanwhile, Conservative voices are rising worldwide, potentially amplifying the ‘ex-gay’ cause. This story is a timely reminder of the harmful power they cast over those under their jurisdiction.
Many groups, people, and events have shaped LGBT history and it is part of our work as historians to document the influences.
Conley’s ‘Love In Action’ handbook — so prominant throughout his story — was last year accepted by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. “Many groups, people, and events have shaped LGBT history and it is part of our work as historians to document the influences,” declared curator Katherine Ott. That statement seems to apply equally to the book as well as the museum piece.
“It‘s nice to feel like some of this work is paying off,” added Conley.
I usually skip over the acknowledgements page, but here I read it immediately following the epilogue, missing not a beat. After 300-off pages of difficult relationships, 2 of thanks almost felt like an extension of the story itself — a happy acknowledgement that those negative influences had been replaced by positive.
And after all that, I wanted to thank him for sharing his story with me.
Call Me By Your Name was a story of hope and acceptance.
Boy Erased is a story of pain, anger and shame. But also of love. And strength. And hope. And self-acceptance.