Boy Erased is an honest, eye-opening memoir that could have been written better
Boy Erased by Garrard Conley is a memoir about Garrard Conley’s experience in a religious gay conversion therapy program. Heralded by reviewers as raw, compassionate, and harrowing, this book gives deep insight into the mind and motivations of a gay man as he is repeatedly taught that his identity is a sinful mistake.
Throughout the course of the book, we are given firsthand accounts of the horrifying tactics used by religious gay conversion “therapists.” We are also presented with the type of confused, deeply pained thinking that comes as a result of being brainwashed to believe that everything you are is wrong. The book is difficult to read, not necessarily because the writing is poor — which it is in some areas — but because the events described within it feel so distant from what our community in Victoria finds acceptable. It is incredibly alarming to understand just how horrible religious — or any — gay conversion programs are. This book provides the sort of deep look that society needs in order to understand this type of abusive program and the various effects it has on gay youth.
Throughout the course of this memoir, I struggled with processing what I was experiencing. While the content is deeply honest and thoroughly disturbing, it was difficult for me to wade through the structural problems which pervade the entire book. Many scenes which might have been incredibly powerful are not fully formed enough to support a narrative arc. Others are fully fleshed out, yet they stand out almost too much because the surrounding scenes do nothing to support the ones which are more substantial. Due to the subject matter, and the knowledge that these events occurred in real life, I found it almost impossible to be honest with myself about how much the technical issues bothered me. I so deeply wanted to pay close attention to the story being presented, as I fully appreciate its weight and importance, yet I was consistently distracted by the technical problems within the text.
Often, it seemed that more time was spent listening to Conley wax poetic about setting than was spent digging deeply into the emotional issues the story seemingly intended to tackle. Despite my curiosity and emotional investment in what Conley was facing throughout his time in conversion “therapy,” I began to get bored. I found myself tuning him out from time to time while I waited for the next important event to take place. While I am generally a fan of detailed setting in novels and memoirs, and I do believe that it is important to create a sense of place where readers can anchor themselves, so many other important details — such as what it was like during the initial stages of Conley’s discovery that he was gay — were not shared. There is ample room to expand on that topic, and yet it seems as though inconsequential details were prioritized over emotional and psychological exploration.
Though I knew about Conley’s background as the son of a pastor, and that the attempted conversion took place within a religious context, I didn’t expect that Conley’s relationship with his faith would take a front seat while his experience of being gay rode along in the trunk. There are very few scenes where we get any insight into how he felt about his own sexuality outside the conditions of the “therapy” program, and even fewer where we see his connection with other men or his attraction to them. Instead, Conley goes very in-depth into how he sees his relationship with God. He does successfully inform the reader about his deep faith in his religion and its teachings. Unfortunately, this does little to show readers what it is like being someone who struggles with their relationship to God while they grapple with their sexuality at the same time. As this is what I went into the book expecting to learn about, I did feel genuinely disappointed about how little focus was placed on this topic.
The situations Conley describes regarding specific actions of the conversion “therapists” are troubling and eye-opening. However, most of them are only touched on briefly. Instead of forming the events into full scenes, they are described in half-scene or exposition, giving them a distant quality that left me feeling somewhat emotionally unmoored. Some may explain this away as a method of protecting readers from the more gruesome details of these programs, but I believe the book would have been much more memorable and useful for gaining insight into the horror of these events if they were shown rather than told.
In the end, this book does a good job with a few specific things. It gives some exposure to the problems surrounding religious gay conversion, as the memoir was made into a widely released film. It also allows people to hear the voice of a survivor, which is an important element of ending stigma and putting a stop to conversion programs. However, when it comes to structure, the book suffers from some overwriting and general pacing problems. It also lacks dramatization — which is to say that Conley does a less-than-stellar job with the old “show don’t tell” rule so many writing teachers are fond of sharing. Though many of the events in the book did shock me, I found it hard to connect emotionally with the text, as the technical problems are — as mentioned previously — somewhat distracting.
Though I want to give this book a higher rating, as I believe Conley has a valuable story to tell, my assessment is three out of five stars. It could have been written better.