You know how sometimes you feel that you’ve become inured to the world’s cruelty, and you realize that consuming the news every day and hearing about humankind’s fundamental inhumanity has turned you into a person who doesn’t flinch at each successive news story that comes on Morning Edition, and yes, sure, that’s good and necessary for your own mental health, but on the other hand, are you possibly becoming a robot person incapable of empathy because, like, what kind of human isn’t shattered anew every time they hear about what’s going on in Syria?
You know that feeling?
Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s memoir of his time in gay conversion “therapy” a decade ago, is so fucking shredding that while reading it I experienced the thought “so then this election season has not beaten out of me the capacity to feel.” Consider this paragraph your content note for some stuff: Conley was raped at college and subsequently outed (by his rapist) to his parents, after which he went to a gay conversion therapy clinic for treatment. Boy Erased is about all of those three things. So if any of them are baseline hard for you to read about, be aware going in that Conley portrays the pain of all them with extraordinary vividness. Which makes his talents as a writer obvious, but it also means that this book can be really, really hard to read.
“You are not selling this book very well considering you gave it five stars,” says the attentive reader, so let me get to selling this book well. Boy Erased made me feel desperately raw and sincere the way you do when you’re in high school and you haven’t yet realized how unoriginal and simplistic your passion for Justice is. That isn’t to say that Conley is simplistic. He isn’t, and part of the reason this book is so shredding to read is that Conley does not ignore or minimize his parents’ genuine pain at learning their only son is gay. Here he is talking with his mother (almost a decade later) about the pamphlet she brought home for the gay conversion organization he attended.
I will force myself to hear her side of the story, listen for her voice amid the buzzing of harmful memories I thought I’d buried for good.
“His eyes [the boy on the pamphlet’s] were so sad,” she’ll say. “They were calling out to me.”
“Take your time,” I’ll say.
“I wanted to save the boy in that picture. I wanted to save you. But I didn’t know how.”
Both of these things are true: Conley’s parents love him (the sinner) desperately and utterly, and Conley’s parents’ beliefs (hate the sin) are killing him. He thinks frequently of suicide and goes on punitive diets (500 calories a day) to force his body to do what he wants it to do. It’s genuinely fucking devastating to know that this type of slavish commitment to the morals of thinkers who lived thousands of damn years ago continue to destroy (literally and figuratively) the lives of queer children and adults.
I had learned by now that there was a cumulative effect to beauty. If people already saw something as beautiful, the object of their affection would continue to receive all possible praise and attention. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein, my new favorite poet, quipped. Naming something beautiful made it so. . . .
Naming something ugly had a similar effect. The sound of my mother’s vomiting the night she drove me home had taught me that lesson better than anything else ever had. I was gay, had been named as such, a fact that, once ingested, had to be immediately expelled.
Boy Erased is rarely leavened with lighter notes, so I do recommend having something fluffy on hand to read when you’re finished. Conley perfectly captures his past self’s despair in these years when he was trying to reconcile his faith and his identity. It’s a painful and wonderful book.
Look, not to wear my heart on my sleeve for too much longer, but let’s build a better and kinder and more deliberate world for the next generation, okay? The next generation of kids should have better than what we had. Let’s make that happen. Vote on Tuesday.