If there’s anyone who can be considered the villain in Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased—his account of the reparative therapy he underwent to eliminate his homosexual tendencies—it’s John Smid, director of Love in Action, a ministry in Memphis, Tennessee that claimed it could cure teenage males and females of their homosexuality and restore them to heterosexuality. To my mind, Smid should be in prison, since he not only inflicted terrible damage on his so-called “patients,” but some of them became so conflicted that they committed suicide. So what happened to the Bible belt fanatic? A few years after Conley was one of his patients, Smid resigned from Love in Action, recanted (sort-of) his reparative philosophy, divorced his wife, admitted that he was gay, and said that he had “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.” To my mind, that doesn’t get him off the hook. I wish he were dangling from it for the rest of his life. If you Google the creep, you can see smiling photos of him with his partner, even though they may make you gag.
I didn’t know anything about Boy Erased until I received a review copy in the mail. So I did what I always do with an unexpected book. I read some of the flap copy to see what it’s about, but never all of it, because if it’s a novel I don’t want to learn how the story is resolved. Boy Erased is described on the cover as “a memoir,” so I realized the magnitude of the account I was going to read about a young man who grew up in Arkansas. Then I skipped to his brief biography on the back flap and read the final sentence: “Conley currently teaches English literature and promotes LGBTQ equality in Sofia, Bulgaria.” That’s a pretty drastic move, about as far away from America’s Bible belt as possible. Thus, I knew that things hadn’t worked out for him as Love in Action had intended and that a young person’s life had probably been ruined by bigots—as I subsequently learned—who believe they are living in the End Times and the Rapture is just around the corner.
God, what a mess. Poor Conley and thousands of others like him. The end of the world is so close that you don’t have to take responsibility for any of your actions. Is that what Christianity (at least one of its branches) has morphed into? With all the problems the world has, is this the way you try to fix those problems? What’s the difference between believing in the End Times and burying your head in the sand? You can see that I’m pretty worked up about this, as you will be when you read Conley’s painfully, sad Boy Erased. Needless to say, the memoir is also a brave account of one young man who visited hell and actually returned.
Conley was nineteen years old when he began treatment at Love in Action. He had been a freshman at a near-by university that he does not identify by name. In the summer before that academic year, he abruptly stopped dating a girl his own age, in part because she
wanted to have intercourse with him and he knew he was more interested in males than females. His father, who had a successful automobile dealership, had recently discovered religion and would soon become an ordained Baptist minister. It’s not from his father that Conley’s worst fears (exposure of his homosexual interests) arose but from the other End Time fundamentalists who worked for his father and constantly browbeat him with questions of his religion, his sexuality. Fortunately, it’s not his father (or his mother) who were the greatest obstacles in his life but, essentially, the community’s reaction to his sexuality should they discover that he is gay.
It’s even difficult to regard him as gay at that time because his actual sexual experiences had been almost non-existent. He was simply aware of his fantasies, not yet fulfilled by actual encounters with males. His father’s workers constantly taunted him with references to God, Jesus, and Satan. Religion appears to be a full-time obsession with these people, and Love in Action was designed to restore his life to Jesus. Moreover, when the preliminary sessions at Love in Action begin (after his own decision to try the therapy), he felt an emptiness, a vast nothingness about what were expected to be his responses to the questions, the group sessions, and the direct provocations of his “repressed homosexuality” from Smid and his co-workers who devised a twelve-step plan similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
The problem is that even at Love in Action, Conley felt a strong attraction for one of the other male teenagers. Ditto young men he met at the university, including one disconcerting and actual physical action forced on him by another student. Yet, finally—in large part because of his mother, who never appeared to be sold on the idea of reparative therapy—Conley was able to make his own break with the organization. Initially, he felt that a year of his life has been taken away from him, but in a strange empowering moment when he once again feels the attraction to another young man, he states, “God was watching, too, and for once I didn’t care.” This is his final perspective on Love in Action: “all of it was as horrible as we remember it, and because it will never really go away, we will never be completely okay. Our family will never be what it otherwise might have been.”
The sorrow and the agony—how do you ever get beyond that? Will we live long enough to see a time when hypocrites no longer try to change the way we live?
Garrard Conley: Boy Erased
Riverhead, 340 pp., $27