The son of a car salesman turned Missionary Baptist minister, Gerrard Conley grew up deeply embedded in the Christian faith. From the time he hit puberty, he knew he was attracted to other boys, but because of the church's stance on homosexuality, he found himself extremely conflicted. It was something he kept to himself until, as a nineteen-year-old college freshman, a fellow student he thought he could trust abused him and then outed him to his parents. Gerrard then found himself with the untenable choice between attending a gay conversion therapy program or losing everything he loved including his family, his friends, and even his faith, which had been a big part of who he was all his life. Feeling like there was no other option, he agreed to the program, which through intense Bible study and therapy was supposed to "cure" him of being gay, cleanse him of his impure thoughts, and make him stronger in his walk with God for having gone through it. Instead, as he traveled the harrowing steps of this emotional journey, Gerrard found the strength to break free and begin searching for his true and authentic self.
Boy Erased isn't the type of book one says they enjoyed. Instead, it's the type of book that the reader should savor and contemplate, turning it over in their mind to glean all the important pieces of information and to appreciate its artistic beauty. As a writer myself, I walked away from reading it impressed with the author's ability to use words to paint a vivid self-portrait of what it was like for him as a young man growing up in the conservative American South in a devout Missionary Baptist family, knowing that he was gay and then later being sent to what has commonly become known a gay conversion therapy. It's not a pretty picture but it is one that resonates with honesty and genuineness that drew me into his world and made me empathize with his experiences.
The author details his time at Love in Action, the ex-gay ministry where he went for "treatment," but he doesn't tell his story in a linear fashion. The LIA scenes are in chronological order, but they're interspersed with lots of flashbacks when something came up at LIA that reminded him of another time in his life. I didn't have any trouble with it, but this might not be the easiest style for some readers to follow. I would also estimate that the non-LIA scenes outweighed the scenes as LIA, which may be because Mr. Conley's stay at LIA was relatively short compared with some others who went through the program. Rather than being in their residential program, he was an "out-patient" able to leave and stay at a hotel with his mom in the evenings. He was also only there for nine days before he decided he couldn't take it anymore and was on the verge of committing suicide. IMHO, this alone should say something about these programs and just how misguided and in many cases downright abusive they are. I may be straight, but I could relate to the author in the sense that I've always been different from other people. So, it's not too much of a stretch for me to imagine how torturous it must have been to sit through classes that are presented under the guise of counseling. This must be especially true when they're based on the erroneous premise that the "patients" are somehow broken and need to be fixed and are told every day how sinful they are, when deep down they suspect that there is no fix for what they're experiencing.
In this way I could feel Mr. Conley's deep sense of confusion and frustration. Because of the way he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment, where there's no room for a person to be anything but the way they think you're supposed to be, he honestly did believe for a while that he was a sinful person who needed to be fixed. Yet at the same time, he had his doubts, as nothing he was being taught in any way mitigated his attraction for other men. There's always a sense of him being pulled apart at the seams, wondering exactly what's right and what's wrong. That being the case, it wasn't surprising to me at all when he finally reached a boiling point. I also felt a deep sense of depression and melancholy running throughout the narrative, which again didn't surprise me, considering what he went through. However, despite me feeling these emotions while reading, some other members of my book club felt it wasn't as emotional as they expected it to be. After giving it some thought, I understood what they were saying. Many of the events are related in a somewhat matter-of-fact way without necessarily delving deeply into the feelings he might have been experiencing at the time. Mr. Conley also mentions toward the end of the book that in order to write it, he had to relive emotions that he really didn't want to, so I felt that perhaps he might have been holding back a little for that reason. Lastly when a person is experiencing melancholy or depression it can stunt some of the other emotions, so for me the black cloud that hangs over the bulk of the story was the emotion for me.
I empathize deeply with all that the author had to go through, and I was impressed with his seeming ability to forgive many of the wrongs done to him. Even though his parents were to some degree complicit in it, he still states his love in the acknowledgements and as he was leaving LIA stated that he wasn't angry with them. In reading some of Mr. Conley's blog posts since the book was published, I was glad to see that at least his mother has come around and now totally accepts him as he is. Throughout the book, she always seemed to be an ally for him even when she was having trouble dealing with the revelation that her son was gay. I appreciate not only the author's transparency in telling his story, which is something that's much-needed in order to put an end to these "therapies" that are misguided and abusive, but I also appreciate his ability as a writer. His prose is vibrant, lush and evocative, expressing a sense of time, place, and emotion that was very nearly poetic. At one point late in the story, an artist friend told him he should be a poet. His response was that he didn't want to be a poet and later he stated, "I'm actually not very good with words." Although that might have been how he felt at the time, IMHO, that's a gross misstatement. In fact, Mr. Conley is very good with words, painting pictures that filled not just my mind but my senses as I read his story. His friend rebutted with, "You've got a poetic mind," and that pretty much sums up how I felt about reading this book, like I'd taken a trip into the lyrical and eloquent mind of a poet. I was pleasantly surprised to find out from my fellow book club members that Boy Erased will soon be released as a motion picture (Sept. 2018), and I very much look forward to seeing it.
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