In 2004, when Garrard Conley was 19, he entered a Christian fundamentalist program, Love in Action, to cleanse himself of homosexuality. “I was here by my own choice,” he writes, “despite my secret wish to run away from the shame I’d felt since my parents found out I was gay. I had too much invested in my current life to leave it behind: in my family and in the increasingly blurry God I’d known since I was a toddler.”
Conley, the only child of his devoutly Baptist parents in small-town Arkansas, had been dramatically outed by a fellow student during his first semester at a small liberal arts college. The timing couldn’t have been worse. His decision to enter the fundamentalist group (known as LIA) came as his father was becoming an ordained Baptist minister.
It’s a powerful convergence of events that Conley portrays eloquently, if a bit earnestly. Conley was full of confusing contradictions — as deeply embedded in the teachings of the Bible as he was in the prose of great literature. And although he paints a convincing picture of why the foundation of his loving parents’ religious faith made his fight against homosexuality vital, he leaves the reader wondering why an erudite and intellectually curious young man didn’t find more cracks in that foundation.
He does find cracks in the foundation of LIA, which uses a warped version of a 12-step program that replaces addictive behavior such as alcoholism with “sexual deviance,” lumping homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. As a 12-stepper for addictive behavior, I found LIA’s reinterpretation of the steps both disturbing and ironic. After all, the 12 steps were adapted from Judeo-Christian principles, but they were designed to bring one closer to a God of one’s understanding. LIA’s 12 steps, on the other hand, are designed to bring practitioners closer to the God solely of LIA’s understanding: Jesus.
Conley’s journey is wrenching, but it would have benefited from more shots of humor. He doesn’t take note, for instance, of the absurdity of reading, with his mother, two wildly divergent books. One has a title that sounds like a bad country song — “Where Does a Mother Go to Resign?” by a Christian mother coping with losing her son to the “sin” of homosexuality — and the other is a coded novel by Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Conley’s close relationship with his mother, who sits vigil with him in a depressing hotel room as he tries to weather the ordeal of LIA, is a tender portrait of that special bond so many gay men and their mothers have: “For the moment, it seemed like the two of us could go on this way forever, living only for literature and each other.” As for Conley’s father, he remains abstruse, despite Conley’s explorations of his abusive childhood. Ultimately their paths diverge. His father is ordained, and Conley rejects LIA.
“God’s voice is no longer there,” Conley writes. “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.” God erased. Let’s hope that the parents still reading “Where Does a Mother Go to Resign?” start reading “Boy Erased” instead.
Jamie Brickhouse is the author of “Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex, and My Mother.”
Riverhead. 340 pp. $27