QueeReads: Boy Erased by Garrard Conley

Welcome to QueeReads, our monthly review of the queer books I’ve been reading. I’m frequently asked about books that feature LGBTQA+ protagonists, themes, or authors so I’m here to share what I’ve found and what I thought. If you have a suggestion for future #QueeReads, please reach out!

Alright y’all, I’m gonna be real with you. I did not like this book.

For a while it felt like everyone was reading this. It was on the store shelves, the movie was out, the bookstagram was a-buzzin’. Although the facts about gay-conversion therapy are crucially needed to be spread, I found that this memoir is not the best vehicle for that mission.

Boy Erased is Garrard Conley’s debut memoir about his experience with coming out to his deeply conservative southern family and his brief stint with the ex-gay therapy group Love In Action (LIA).

For me, this memoir was underwhelming. It’s terribly overwritten and poorly structured. At times it felt like expanded journal entries, often moving in between events without warning, which made the story difficult to follow. Art critic Glenn Sumi said it best when he wrote in his review, “Conley can’t walk by a piece of grass without describing it in faux poetic terms and telling us how it reminds him of something that happened to him when he was younger.”

Conley’s coming to terms with his homosexual desires leading up to his time in LIA are harrowing as he wrestles with his parents’ ultimatum: act straight or leave. And so, the most surprising part of this memoir for me was that his brush with ex-gay therapy was relatively short. Conley spends only eight days in an outpatient program, where the activities he partakes in are mostly group discussions, art projects, and journaling—none of the literal Bible thumping seen in the film trailer. This isn’t a critique on his experience, his trauma, and resulting baggage, (and thank God he didn’t experience more!) but in comparison to the other patients he describes that spend years in a torturous cycle of progression/regression in this scientifically disproven program, his experience as the impetus of this 350-page memoir feels a little flimsy.

In addition, I found some of the descriptions of the other characters felt cruel and shortsighted, such as describing a self-harming patient as an attention hog. Some of the assertions the author made about the “elite,” outside readership also came off as presumptive.

Of course, there are somethings I did like about the book! There are beautiful passages where he talks about his unwavering faith that offer an interesting perspective of what it is like to reckon with ones beliefs when they contradict who you are. He also paints a vivid, multi-faceted portrait of his father.

Ultimately, this story and the acclaim it and its movie has received is important on its own in fostering an awareness of the over 700,000 American LGBT folk who have undergone these programs, and how gay conversion therapy for minors is legal in 35 states (and for adults it is legal nearly everywhere).

And so, if you are interested in learning more about gay conversion therapy, here are some books, articles, and films I recommend in lieu of reading this book:

  • Read another memoir by someone who spent more time in these dangerous, traumatic centers, such as The Inheritance of Shame or Saving Alex.
  • Read this article about the downfall of the ex-gay movement, focused on the now-disbanded organization called Exodus.
  • Watch But Im A Cheerleader (1999), which is a satirical film but a very important queer artifact about this topic (starring Natasha Lyonne and featuring RuPaul Charles).
  • Read The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (or watch the film by the same name) which is a YA Fiction novel focused more on the relationships the protagonist makes at the conversion camp.
  • Watch the movie version of the film, Boy Erased, which goes more in-depth in their dramatization of Conley’s story to include elements of these other patients’ experiences.

Find Boy Erased on Goodreads:

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family

Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family by Garrard Conley

Overall rating: ★★★☆☆ (3 stars)

View all my reviews on Goodreads!

If you have a suggestion for future #QueeReads, leave a comment!