Review by: Kristin Lang
University of Iowa
Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, centers on his experiences before, during, and after attending an “ex-gay” therapy group at Love in Action (LIA), which Conley describes as “a nondenominational fundamentalist Christian organization”. Conley begins his memoir with a timeline of the “ex-gay movement.” In 1973, the American Psychological Association declassified “homosexuality” as a mental illness. That same year, LIA was founded with the promise to “cure LGBT congregants of their sexual addictions” (p.1). In 2004, as a 19-year-old student at small liberal arts college, Conley was outed to his Missionary Baptist parents. His preacher father provided him the choice between being openly gay or remaining a member of his family, who were also paying for his college education. Conley chose the latter and agreed to enter a two-week trial program at LIA in order to determine the length of his conversion, or “ex-gay” therapy.
Boy Erased moves between Conley’s time preparing for and attending both LIA and his first year of college. After he is outed, Conley begins spending weekends at home but does not reveal the reason why to his college friends or professors. Conley constantly negotiates these two different worlds:
Both sides seemed to suggest the same efficient solution: cut ties. Either abandon what you’ve known your entire life and your family, or abandon what you’re learning about life and new ideas. I began to see strong evidence in favor of the latter, though I didn’t think it would be easy to forget the sense of wonder I’d experienced in my Western Lit class while learning about what the church referred to as a sinful pagan past. (pp. 165-166)
In academic advising conversations, new students may bring up their identity development and changing world view as part of their transition to college. For some students, the college environment is vastly different from past experiences, or as in Conley’s case, in direct opposition to their families’ beliefs or values. What meaning do students make around their perceived conflicting identities? Conley wrote, “one year of college had done exactly what my father and the church had warned me against: turned me into a skeptic, a heretic, someone who second-guessed everything he felt or saw” (p. 139). Advisors can help students make sense of their identity development as they negotiate these feelings, questions, or concerns and prepare to navigate family and other community relationships.
Conley’s strengths as a narrator rest in his vivid descriptions and observations from LIA, college, and experiences with his parents. As Conley becomes more aware of his own changing identity, his parental relationships develop in different ways. Instead of presenting a chronological account, Conley weaves together the narratives of his time at LIA and college. The result of Conley’s stylistic choice is that his memoir can feel disjointed at times as it quickly moves through different time periods and life experiences. As Boy Erased progresses, though, the pieces of Conley’s story begin to fall into place.
Boy Erased is recommend reading for any higher education professional that engages students around the topic of identity development. As students are navigating multiple identities, advisors can play a valuable role affirming and normalizing their process. Conley shared, “I came to therapy thinking that my sexuality didn’t matter, but it turned out that every part of my personality was intimately connected. Cutting one piece damages the rest” (p. 294). By engaging with Conley’s experience, advisors can deepen their understanding of how intersectional identity development impacts the college experience.
Book Review #1727. Boy Erased. (2016). Garrard Conley. New York: Penguin Books, 340 pp. $27.00 (Hardback). ISBN: 978-1-59463-301-0. http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/316194/boy-erased-by-garrard-conley/