It feels a bit like cheating to declare a book a favorite after only reading it once, but that is what I am going to do. Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased resonated with me on multiple levels, and I am sure that it is one I will come back to often. Conley grew up in Arkansas in a very religious Baptist family. As a teenager, his father accepted a calling as a pastor.Everyday secular activities and attitudes were considered to be of the devil, so his parents took his homosexuality particularly hard. When Conley first goes off to college, he is relieved. He can and does read all the books he wants, even sharing his favorite, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with his mother, with whom he is very close. He makes friends who know nothing about his very religious upbringing, and they do normal things like discuss literature, watch movies, and explore their campus. Most importantly, however, he can start to digest and accept his homosexuality outside of the confines of his small town and conservative family. After he is sexually assaulted and the assailant outs him to his family, he is sent to Love in Action, a conversion therapy program. It is just as terrible as you might imagine. At this center, homosexuality is compared to awful things like pedophilia and diseases like alcoholism. Conley is encouraged to blame his homosexuality on his parents or grandparents, and he is forced to give up all wordly interests, including his love of literature and writing.
Conley’s story is not just a cautionary tale of conversion therapy, although it serves this purpose well. It also explores the concept of identity as a whole and what makes up a person. We are not just our families, our religion, our friends, or our interests. All of those things are integral and intertwined in making a person, and Conley explores those themes beautifully. We are also not what people say we are, but it takes a lot of courage to dig out from under those expectations and stereotypes to become who we actually are. This does not just apply to the counselors and his family, as Conley makes it clear that faith also defines him in some ways. Conley writes so poetically that it made the hard parts even harder and the more illuminating parts even more so. I also really loved Conley’s relationship with his mother, as it shows that good people sometimes make bad decisions because they are trying to fill others’ expectations as well. I recommend this book to all the people in the world. Amen.