Book Review: Boy Erased: A Memoir

Between The Covers | January 2017 Web Exclusive

Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley. Riverhead Books, 2016 | $27.

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, January 2017 Web Exclusive.

Some things, you never forget. You’ll never forget your first kiss, for instance. You’ll always remember your favorite teacher and lessons learned. The day you got your pet, a delicious meal eaten, a great vacation, all burned into your mind. And, as you’ll see in Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley, you’d never forget the ultimatum your father gave you.

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Author Garrard Conley. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer.

From the time he was in fifth grade, he understood that he was a sinner.

It became apparent with the thrill he got looking at men’s underwear, and the fantasies he had about other boys. Those things made his stomach flip-flop, and chilled his soul: “the increasingly blurry God” he’d known all his life would surely send him straight to Hell for being a homosexual.

Or, at least that’s what his parents believed. Being gay was one of the worst things imaginable in Conley’s Baptist church; his father had received a call to serve the Lord, making homosexuality an even worse “stain” on their family.

Conley tried to will his sexuality away by having a girlfriend, a God-fearing “girl of his dreams” who came from the same Ozarks church community. Somewhat repulsed by her, he tried to ignore his gayness, begging God to take it away.

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But it didn’t work. At college, Conley met a boy who outed him, then left him with his shame. Told by his father to accept a “cure” or leave his home, family, and education, nineteen-year-old Conley finally agreed to check himself into Love in Action (LIA), a Memphis “nondenominational fundamentalist … organization” affiliated with Focus on the Family, a “treatment” facility that would “fix” his sexuality.

“I could never count the number of times I’d sinned against God,” Conley said, but LIA made him do it; he was asked to investigate family sins, and remember things he needed to forget. He knew he was facing years of constant prayer and shame without his journal, literature, or worldly ideas he’d begun to embrace in college; he was suicidal, angry, and he was still gay – but suddenly, with an unlikely source of support …

Boy Erased is one of those books that’ll make you think. And think, and think.

There are so many nuances, so many things about this book to dislike: author Garrard Conley says that he recreated from memory much of what happened because of confidentiality rules at LIA. Then again, he admits that there’s a lot he can’t remember, or has blocked out. Even his mother refuses to talk about what happened, but what they do remember is painfully near-incomprehensible.

And yet, Conley shows so much emotion in this memoir that it’s impossible to look away – and that includes a vibrant cord of anger that coexists beside a dawning realization that changes the course of this book. Absolutely changes it.

While it starts slow and the pace remains uneven, this is a story that will niggle at your brain for days and days. Ultimately, love it or not, “Boy Erased” is a memoir you won’t soon forget.


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