This was harder to read than I thought it would be. Not because of anything I’ve personally experienced, but because it kept hitting me over and over that what was happening in this book was not happening in the 60s, 70s, 80s or even 1990s.
It was happening in the mid-2000s, the same time I was coming to terms with my sexuality and learning about the wider LGBTQ+ world. It was also incredibly eerie how many of the thoughts Conley had mirrored thoughts I had myself and I did not grow up religious, just southern!
What I found to be most enthralling as I read this book was the sheer amount of internalized homophobia Conley had to overcome and the repressive policed heteronormativity/masculinity that Conley, and many LGBTQ+ (and straight boys and men) faced—talk about toxic masculinity. But before I even get to that, I have to share this quote:
“On some days, it’s hard to believe that I ever lived in a world that operated on such extreme notions of self-annihilation. But then I turn on the news, read a few articles, and realize that what I have experienced may have been unique, but in no way was it disconnected from history. Minorities continue to be abused and manipulated by both nefarious and well-intentioned groups of people, and harmful ideas continue to develop new political strains all over the world.” (327)
It is heartbreaking to think that this story took placed barely 15 years ago. It’s heartbreaking to think that since the conservative religious right can’t seem to get over the culture war in the US that they are exporting this bigotry, this misogyny, this toxicity to countries around the world. If anything needed to be done about this book, and maybe it has been done with the new movie tie-in edition, there needs to be a better forward or introduction or epilogue or something. There needs to be a call to action.
What I can’t get over, and probably never will, is the lack of understanding around internalized homophobia and fear of coming out even in the “safest” of settings so many individuals are so afraid of coming out or being gay that they suffer from long term psychological and social damage.
“What my mother didn’t yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material, that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine—this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness. I could never count the number of times I’d sinned against God. If I wanted, I could fill out a new MI every night for the rest of my life.” (86)
“That night, I made the quiet decision to agree to whatever they had in mind, the shame and rage setting in my chest, filling up spaces I had previously reserved for love, spreading beneath my skin like invisible bruises.” (161)
“There seemed to be no branch of psychology, philosophy, or literature I read that couldn’t be bent to prove my guilt. By that same token, there seemed to be no idea I’d encountered that didn’t complicate my understanding of Christianity, that didn’t call into question my parents’ God-given right to dictate my beliefs. I decided that this was what it was like to be truly insane, that only insane people clung to both sides so doggedly, refused to let them part ways, let them battle inside the mind.” (174)
I remember when I first got to undergrad I read EVERYTHING I could find about LGBTQ+ individuals from psychology journals to fiction, nothing was off limits. I wanted to know who, what, where, when, and why about myself and those who came before me. I wasn’t looking for a solution or a cure, just knowledge. I’m glad I didn’t have the additional weight of religion added to my confusion and searching. Quotes like the three above and a few below in the quotes section, liter Conley’s novel almost offhandedly. It’s sad because although Conley hints that he goes on to bigger and better things, there’s nothing explicit. Even as an adult man almost exactly the same age as Conley (if the 2004 date is correct) I needed this sort of wrap up in this novel. Sure, I can seek out what he’s done with his life and see that he’s married and his mom is still there, but having it in the book is a crucial piece of successfully surviving this ordeal.
The policed masculinity and heterosexuality was almost as overt, but not quite as damaging. I debated between talking about that or talking about Conley’s relationship with religion (read Christianity) and my observations of religion growing up in the south. I figured the masculinity/heterosexuality was less controversial and a bit more universal.
“Though he never said it outright, each summer he required me to do the kind of manual labor that would help me turn out to be a normal red-blooded Southerner, the kind that would offset my more bookish, feminine qualities.” (38)
“I wondered what it felt like to see yourself reflected in every movie, to have friends and family constantly dropping fun little hints about your love life, to have the world open up to you in all its magnificence. What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move, to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day? In my most stubborn moments—the moments that must have accumulated to such a degree that the blond-haired boy distrusted me—I told myself that it must have felt really dull to be straight. When I was my most stubborn self I thought, This affliction is what makes me smarter. This disadvantage is what gives me ambition. This is what first inspired me to write.“(148)
“Intimacy is a parlor trick, an illusion. But what was one more illusion when it seemed the whole world operated on so many of them? With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn’t want to see.” (217)
“She was no Dolly Parton, as many Northerners erroneously assumed, with the heavily pronounced , heavily mascaraed optimism of a South no one would recognize in daily living; instead, she was fierce and determined, like many Southerners, if only you looked beneath the smile and the lace, a woman whose situation had changed for the worse in the past decade—first after losing her parents, then after becoming a preacher’s wife, and now after finding this stain on the family that must have been there all along, right under the small nose she’d inherited from her mother’s side. Nevertheless, she’d been taught to persevere, to wait it out within all of the glory she could muster. And what could she say now, sitting across from Dr. Julie, when she hadn’t even admitted to herself that the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ might actually have currency in her life.” (267)
It was amazing how far Conley AND his parents were willing to go to ignore and then later attempt to cure his sexuality, but what was more shocking was the matter of fact way in which Conley, his parents, and so many people in the south automatically policed sexuality and gender. The memoir was dripping with questionable descriptions and passages of the reinforcement of toxic masculinity and misogyny. I don’t think the book would’ve been as powerful without it, but it was still hard to read and to realize that it still exists.
Recommendation: If you are looking for something to learn more about ex-gay therapy this is a great introduction, however be warned that the take down and critique of it are not nearly strong enough. This book is a memoir (often times feeling sugar-coated) of one individual’s experience. This is not a dismantling of ex-gay therapy, nor is this a tear down of homophobia (internalized or otherwise), it is an honest look back on a gay southern man’s experience over a very short time period with plenty of flashbacks and very few flash forwards.
Opening Line: “John Smid stood tall, square shouldered, beaming behind thin wire-rimmed glasses and wearing the khaki slacks and striped button-down that have become standard fatigues for evangelical men across the country.”
Closing Line: “And I will believe him.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)
Additional Quotes form Boy Erased
“We were learning Step One of Love in Action’s Twelve Step program, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for what counselors referred to as our ‘sexual deviance.'” (4)
“I flipped through the pages at random as my mother peered over my shoulder. I wanted to close the book the minute I saw the obvious typos and clip-art graphics. I wanted my mother to think the best of the place before she left, not because I felt like defending the poorly designed handbook, but because I wanted the moment to pass as quickly as possible without any more of her overly polite interrogations.” (12)
“According to Family & Friends, a Memphis newspaper, Smid had told the man that it would be better for him to kill himself than to live as a homosexual.” (24)
“It was our fear of shame, followed by our fear of Hell, that truly prevented us from committing suicide.” (25)
“I had never assumed I would want to go this far, that I would break one of the cardinal rules in our church. When I had fantasized about men, I’d always shut down the thoughts before I imagined myself entering the fantasy. It had always been one body, performing alone, performing only for me. What would it be like to do something with another person, a person you’d have to face for the rest of your life, both of you living with the knowledge of what you did in your most desperate moment? Would you ever be able to make it up to God? And what if it didn’t work? What if the transgression led to failure, and you were left alone to rot in your sin?” (62)
“The day before, one of the staff counselors, Danny Cosby, had asked us to take a long, hard look at our lives and draw a timeline that demonstrated our sinful progression into homosexuality, and I had realized, much to my horror, that most of my same-sex attractions had developed right alongside my love of literature. Sideways Stories from Wayside School: first gay crush; To Kill a Mockingbird: first gay porn search; The Picture of Dorian Gray: first gay kiss. It’s no wonder, I’d thought. No wonder they took away my Moleskine.” (82)
“If I didn’t say too much, if people didn’t notice me, then I might also escape God’s roving Sauron eye.” (115)
“Added to all of this shame was the knowledge that I had secretly pined for the opportunity to be this close to another man, and it was extremely difficult after my experience with David to consider gay sex as anything other than rape.” (117)
“I felt like running all the way down to the ink black Mississippi and daring myself to jump in, to surrender myself to the pull. Though I wasn’t suicidal like T was, I liked flirting with death. The glamour of Ending It All, and so suddenly, wasn’t much of a leap up from the End Times sensationalism of our family’s church. There was also pleasure to be had in knowing that the end could come at any time without warning. You might be going about your daily life, thinking everything is fine, when suddenly—boom!—the levees break, the waters rise, and every hateful object you know becomes treasure you know ” (139)
“I began to look forward to the idea of a needle pricking my skin, to blood funneling into labeled vials, to anything concrete that might tell me what was wrong with me or why I couldn’t preform what seemed to me then the simplest of tasks: a humble exchange from one hand to another, the passage of Jesus’s Word between two people.” (198)
“When I first read the Harry Potter books and learned about the lightning bold scar on Harry’s forehead. I thought, Of course. Of course love worked that way. Of course it left its mark on the beloved. This secret mark protected you, kept you safe from harm, reminded you of who you are. All it took was the smallest symbol and you were safe. As I grew older and discovered my love for literature, I externalized the markings, wrote them down in my Moleskine, kept my notebook close—so much so that when the LIA counselors took away my notebook years later, they took away much of this protection. But they didn’t take all of it. The empty pages still carried ghosts.” (231)
“It was getting late, but I wanted to finish my homework before we ordered dinner, and though it was still painful to look directly at each of my sins, I was beginning to find enjoyment in the simple act of writing, in putting everything down in longhand. My cursive looped in arabesques, nearly diving off the edges of the pages. I practices making each line perfect. Looking down at my yellow tablet notebook, I could squint until the words blurred into a single lead-colored tapestry. LIA’s standard phrases—We are affected by a sinful world system, our sinful flesh, and the manipulative attacks of Satan—became an exercise in wrapping each of my slopping f‘s beneath the letters preceding it in the word.” (277)
“This is what my father gave me: a deeper appreciation for my isolation, an understanding of the work and sacrifice others often make for my own personal comfort. The process of accommdation takes time. I never expected my father to accept every shifting detail of my life overnight, nor I his. Our moments of misunderstanding, though often damaging, were still far from abusive. This was something LIA could never understand.” (316)
“And God. I will not call on God at any point during this decade-long struggle. Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there. What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing. My ex-gay therapists took Him away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life. I will continue to experiment with different denominations, different religions. I will continue to search. And even if I no longer believe in Hell, I will continue to struggle with the fear of it. Perhaps one day I will hear His voice again. Perhaps not,. It’s a sadness I deal with on a daily basis.” (337)