When I think of Garrard Conley, there is a specific quote that always comes to mind from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it is the best description that I can give of him – that he is someone who “understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.” I knew Garrard Conley first as my English literature and Creative Writing teacher, and then, I had the great luck, after graduation, to also graduate to the status of friend.
Reading his memoir, Boy Erased, which came out on May 10 this year, and which I had pre-ordered via Blackwells, was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I finished it the same evening that I started reading it, burning the midnight oil, so to speak, as I flipped through the pages, hands shaking – I already knew how the story would end, had heard it from Garrard, had sat in his sun lit classroom in the American College of Sofia, only a little over a year ago, listening to him talk to a small class of Creative Writing enthusiasts about this book, about his story, about being afraid, and learning to grow from it, learning to be brave.
I had heard so much about the book in the abstract, I had started thinking of it only as a concept. Holding it in my hands, the real product of work I had witnessed at school, of a process that had been patiently explained to us, over and over, until it felt like we, the Creative Writing students at the college had somehow become accomplices in this great triumph, felt like a personal achievement of the highest order. I had witnessed it come to life, and it was here, and I wanted to read it, and I was terrified, because I knew that it would be everything I needed it to be, just like Garrard, as a teacher, had been everything I needed him to be in what I now look back at as the hardest year of my life. \
I started reading this book afraid. Afraid, that I would somehow come on the other end thinking of him differently, having seen something that perhaps would change how I think of him. The literature student in me was afraid of having to reconcile Garrard-my-teacher with Garrard-in-the-book. Reading those pages, I saw Garrard-my-teacher, whom I knew to be so strong, so unshakeable in his confidence that things-will-get-better and that good-things-will-come. I was afraid that I would lose my faith in him, if I ever had to read about him being afraid. My apprehrension was in vain. What I found on those pages was someone I could recognize. Someone I could reconcile with- not as Garrard-my-teacher, who was always ready for us with his smile, and his wisdom, and his kind, inspiring words, so honest about who he was, so secure in his being that I couldn’t help but envy him, but with myself. I saw someone who was conflicted and afraid, and I wanted to say, so badly, me too, I wanted to talk to the boy I read on these pages and say “I know it will get better because I have seen the version of you that has survived this.”
Boy Erased is not an easy book to read. It’s a memoir about surviving ex-gay therapy, and growing up gay in the Bible Belt. It’s a memoir about dealing with things most people haven’t ever thought about having to deal with. And it’s real, and it’s painful, and it’s raw, and despite all of that, it manages also, to be triumphant. Hopeful. Strong, and brave, and honest in the best ways possible.
It’s is a powerful book. Necessary and important, and uncomfortable in the way it so frankly addresses things we, as a society, would rather brush under the rug. In this time, in this age, that we live in, when LGBT issues are becoming more and more talked about, ex-gay therapy is something mentioned only briefly, in passing, rarely addressed seriously, and more spoken of as “the scary Christian places”. With a clarity of vision, and a beautiful, delicately familiar writing style, Garrard Conley weaves a story that is true and familiar to many people – the story of struggling and trying to change, and trying, trying, trying – to be the version of yourself people will love the most. Trying to not be gay, trying to be stable, to have faith, to do the things people expect you to do. With his candid, at times heartbreaking, but always, always affirmative, and hopeful, tale of his own experience, Garrard Conley adds to what he refers to, in the last pages of his book as “the chorus of voice […] revealing decades of pain, decades lost, families torn apart, relationships ruined because people outside the ex-gay world can never understand what patience go through”.
Even before this book was a reality, I believed in it. I believed in its success, and in the dialogues it would open, in the issues it would address. And I want to believe, now, more than ever, that things will change for the better, as they already are. That progress will be made, less haltingly, and more in leaps and bounds, and I believe that with his honesty, with his beautiful brve writing, Garrard Conley has secured a place in the pages of his progress’ history.