When Garrard Conley was outed at nineteen, he was given an ultimatum: attend an ex-gay conversion therapy program, or be cut off from his family, his friends, and his college fund. He agreed to enter a two-week outpatient program known as Love in Action, where he was taught that his homosexuality was a result of intergenerational sin, and equated with bestiality and pedophilia.
Like Conley, I also grew up fundamentalist in the deep South. When I was fifteen, I was sent to an evangelical Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Like Conley, my school had been recommended to my parents by the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, and was focused on controlling our thoughts, our dress, and our behavior. Books, music, and journaling were also deemed a distraction, and all communication was controlled among the residents. Like Conley’s, my program required us to make a daily inventory of our flaws.
I spoke to Conley a few weeks ago about Boy Erased, in a conversation that at times veered into mutual therapy. We discussed growing up in the deep South, writing for change, dealing with survivor’s guilt, and using empathy to write about fundamentalist Christianity.
The Rumpus: In Boy Erased, you write of a world that your liberal professors had no idea of existing, a world similar to where I’m from. Why do you think it’s important for people to be aware of this world?
Garrard Conley: One of the things I discovered in writing this book is that I don’t really have an option in terms of where I stand in the culture because I grew up in the South, drinking the Kool-Aid, and then I had this sudden switch after ex-gay therapy to a very obvious liberal stance that I have to take whenever I encounter current events.
I always see both sides. You know with HB2 [also known as the North Carolina bathroom bill], it sometimes people will say how can it have ever happened? And that sort of makes me frustrated because the answer is very clear to me, and I know that that frustration is unfair, in regards to people outside of these areas. I feel like I’m pretty good at articulating both sides.
Rumpus: I know. It’s so aggravating to listen to politics, and to hear the correspondent be shocked to discover people with strong fundamentalist beliefs.
Conley: Right after the book sold, my mom and I were going to Savannah, Georgia, just passing through. It was on the Fourth of July, and we were on this rooftop, having fun, and this woman saw the two books that I had on the table in the restaurant. And she was like, “Are you a writer?” I had just sold my book and I was really excited, and so I told her what it was about, ex-gay therapy, and she did not know my mother was sitting there, and she said really coldly, “How the f*** could a parent do that?” And my mom just started sobbing.
I get that reaction that this woman had. And sometimes I’m happy that people have a reaction. But also that she’s saying the question is so frustrating! Do you not realize the America that created Trump has always been there? That in 2004, we believed in WMDs? This is not a new thing. It’s an ongoing continuum of the way people view the world. I hesitate to call it a legitimate viewpoint because I no longer believe in that stuff, but it is a viewpoint that exists as much today. And it annoys me that people refuse to knowledge that exists.
Rumpus: Don’t get me started! You talk about your growing distance from your faith in this book, the majority of which was set in 2004. Can you discuss what was going on politically which contributed to your disillusionment?
Conley: Yes, in 2004, there was a sense of disbelief and a detachment that I felt whenever I watched the news, because even in my fundamentalist training, and even with the president who loudly proclaimed to be following God, I remember thinking why are we attacking Iraq? What does that have to do with what just happened? And being confused by the whole thing. It was clear it was a mistake. And all the Guantánamo stuff. None of it made sense to me. It was a really strange time in American history, not that it hasn’t had similar instances before—we’ve been sort of the war mongering country—but I remember wondering: is this really how the world works? And if that’s how the world works then, and this is what people believe, then there has got to be something wrong here.
There’s a whole history of doubt, that is ignored when you’re fully fundamentalist Christian, that I’m sure you’re aware of. Where you may doubt and may consider other alternatives to reality that you believe in, but that history is sort of oppressed until there’s a moment where multiple things trigger.
If you’re lucky you get out of there. “Oh wait, this whole doubt that I’ve had this whole time is actually valuable tool, and I should listen to it.” And I think that whole political awakening occurred along with everything that was going on at the time.
Rumpus: It was really heartbreaking to read that part of Boy Erased where your mom can’t finish that anti-gay book Where Does a Mother Go to Resign? A book which is touted as a human story where a homosexual child is forced to admit that his “affliction” is a sin. Do you think such literature, which refuses to acknowledge a child’s sense of self, is reflective of fundamentalist teachings at large?
Conley: I think that fundamentalist teaching has a history of tragically ignoring its children, of thrusting upon its children these crazy responsibilities and these expectations. And so I think that anyplace that has those expectations is going to be extremely dangerous for some people, especially highly sensitive kids, who just aren’t able to cope. And so, yeah, I think there’s something inherent in that.
I don’t think that it has to be, because the South has an alternate history that is not spoken about very often, of people accepting difference in ways that are not necessarily identity-affirming. You know, the stereotypes of those two old ladies lived down the road together—“they’re just old maids”—and then there’s people who are just like, “oh, he’s a decorator,” stereotypes which are harmful to people in some ways.
The South is just really good at denial and also love at the same time. Let’s put this person in a box that is going to work for the community so that they’re not harmed, and that our definitions and boundaries are not harmed by them.
Rumpus: In the South, there’s this huge taboo about talking about your family. Something a friend described to me as learning early on “Don’t talk about your kin or your kin’s kin.” What challenges did you have writing this book as a Southerner?
Conley: I was so terrified when I first started because I thought “Everyone’s going to hate me.” And at my first workshop for this book, I said, “I’m going to give you this piece, but the guiding question I have is what do you think about my dad?” And it was the second part of the book, where I started to introduce my dad. And the response was overwhelmingly, “I’m confused. I don’t hate your dad, and I feel like I should. He’s larger than life and fascinating.” And that was what I was really worried about. Aside from the taboos I was really worried about hurting these individuals. I didn’t want to hurt them or misrepresent them in some way.
Another writer said to me, “The people who are going to hate you because of this book, they’re going to hate you anyway. So you can either be fabulous and do something that’s going to help other people, or you can give into that sort of thinking and they’ll hate you anyway.” And I’m like, “You’re right. The parts of my family that don’t accept me will not change their minds if I don’t write a book.”
What I’m doing is so controversial in the South.
Rumpus: Existing? Right?
Rumpus: A big portion of your book is your relationship with your father and how, according to his faith, it didn’t leave much room for you or your mother to grow or to be your own person. Do you want to discuss writing that?
Conley: One of the big surprises of writing the book is how much focus was on my father, especially in the first chapters. I just kept thinking, okay, if people are really going to understand how he ends up at Love in Action’s doors, I need to explain how my father is. It was an endless explanation that kept deepening and I just followed it because I thought this is some sort of truth that needs to get out. The parallels that are obvious but are false parallels in a way are my father and Smid, the director of ex-gay therapy. At first you might see them as similar figures, but what I wanted to show was that there was a pretty huge difference between the two. It became how could this man, Smid, the director of Love in Action, do this and how could this man, the father, do this as well, and the answer is never quite answered. It’s an interesting frame.
Rumpus: I thought you did a great job of setting up where your father is coming from. It made him understandable and someone you could have empathy for. I completely get people like Smid; they were at my reform school, Escuela Caribe, but because they were cloistered they got even crazier. You’re so lucky you didn’t get sent away long-term treatment!
Conley: I know. I thought that too. I have a lot of survivor’s guilt. In some ways I had to be at that place a short period of time. Other people, yourself included, are sent to much worse situations, and a lot of people die. For a long time I wondered, why am I writing this?
Rumpus: Because you survived! I mean, I have survivor’s guilt. I’ve never been super self-destructive. I married really young to a really good person. A lot of people who went to my school weren’t that resilient. But, you know, how situations like this affect people, I think it’s all relative to the person experiencing it. And why do you write this? Because you survived it.
Conley: That helps me a lot.
Rumpus: Seriously! Because I go through the same thing too. Who am I to write this? Because some people I went to school with went through so much more worse than me. Even though I went through a lot of terrible stuff. But at the same time you have to give voice to it because otherwise people don’t know that it exists.
Can you talk about why you write? What were you trying to accomplish?
Conley: I didn’t talk about it for nine years, almost a decade, for a lot of reasons. I was flippant about the subject. I wasn’t thinking about what led up to it. I also didn’t want people to take pity on me. I was very much like I have wasted a lot of time in my life trying to play catch-up to people who have more normal childhoods and didn’t have to deal with the crazy. I just didn’t want to talk about it.
I stumbled upon a few ex-gay survivor narratives and message boards and read all this stuff they went through, and had so many flashes of recognitions and triggers, and realized I have not dealt with this. And I realized that if I haven’t, these other people probably haven’t dealt with it either. Then we all sort of found each other on these secret groups on Facebook. We also discovered each other. It’s really painful to dig up the past because you’re ashamed of a lot of it.
And I thought five states have banned ex-gay therapy for minors, only five. And I just started getting angrier about the fact that it wasn’t illegal, and that it was a story that wasn’t being told, because the ex-gay counselors who gave up what they believed—now my counselor is married to a man—they got a lot of the spotlight. John Smid was on This American Life as a center-of-attention story. And another guy, John Paulk, who ran a lot of the Exodus International Conference Circuit, he was on Politico writing his own article. I kept finding these people, hearing them, thinking, this is not the story. The story is the families involved, the people involved, the fact that you don’t get over it, that some people don’t ever get over it, and that some people don’t survive. The story’s not just this fallen man and look, he became a loving compassionate person and he’s married now and living in Texas. That’s not the story for me. The story is how did these people survive? And how did their families survive? And what was the effect on their culture?
Rumpus: When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a writer, but I couldn’t write for about ten years after I got out, because they read everything I wrote there. That whole thing, them taking away your notebook and everything, that’s so what I went through. But I felt like literally I had to write myself sane. Did you feel that way?
Conley: I did. And literature was the thing that actually saved me. I’m not being hyperbolic. The right books at the right time, that saved my life. I always wanted to write, from the age of six or seven, I remember going to my parents’ living room and being like, “I’m going to be a writer,” and them saying “Okay, great,” and so I always wrote these little stories. And just like you, after, I didn’t write. I couldn’t, I tried, and everything just felt false, like I was being watched all the time, and you know being a writer there are plenty of critics in your head anyway.
Conley: All those ex-gay counselors. And I think that quote from Foucault in the second half of the book, you can use the rules that the original rule-makers used against you. That’s a bad paraphrase but basically you can take those rules and invert them and use those rules against the people who imposed them. I had to tell myself I’m not writing fiction: I’m writing memoir. I’m writing it in some ways to the same people who are perched on my shoulder watching me and criticizing me. That was my way out to tell myself if they’re watching, here’s my letter to them.
Rumpus: I’ve written similar things in my notebook. I was flipping through one from a while ago where I’d written something like, I know they’re going to say this is a lie, but I don’t care, it happened and they really did do this.
Conley: And I spent a lot of time worrying and wondering, oh are they going to go against me and say that the ladle was not silver, it was blue, but then I just realized that anybody who is focused on a tiny detail like that is probably insane and not worth my time and probably no one is going to believe them, because they are just crazy. So I just told myself I’m going to write what I know to be the truth, and I’m not going to contact those ex-gay counselors to find out whether or not the kitchen was in the righthand corner of the room.
Rumpus: Love in Action is affiliated with affiliated with American Association of Christian Counselors, an offshoot of fundamentalist organization Focus on the Family. Many of the programs recommended by FOTF place an emphasis on Biblically-inspired healing. They require total submission to their methods, including recapturing repressed memories. Many of these programs operate tax-free and are often not subject to federal oversight. In 1999, there were 15,000 programs; now there are more than 50,000. Should the public at large be concerned?
Conley: I think that with a lot of these organizations, their practices are going underground, and that’s what the concern should be. I’m very adamant that the laws should change and that it should be illegal to practice ex-gay therapy in any format, because it’s been proven to be extremely harmful and has caused multiple suicides. But with that comes the risk that a lot of these practices will go underground. If you look at the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, that came up because of a few conferences that some fundamentalists held. A direct result of those conferences was that bill. And you can see a lot of that happening today, and a lot of these stories don’t come out.
I don’t have any hard statistics because statistics are really hard to come by, because once Exodus disbanded and Love in Action shut down, all these little groups started operating on their own, and I just feel like that’s what we should be concerned about, this sort of home-brewed terror which is what America has always specialized in when it comes to fundamentalism. There’s no doubt in my mind that these little groups are going to do something disturbing again if they aren’t already. I don’t have enough information on this and one of my frustrations with this whole research process is that I just couldn’t find accurate information. There are blog posts and rumors and personal emails with people but it’s hard to get the information because no one is doing any studies about it.
Rumpus: Right. It’s the same thing with residential teen treatment centers. My school changed its name three different times. And the type of therapy you write of is similar to some of the most damaging stuff they did at my school to me.
Which brings me to this. At Love in Action they separated you from your community, controlled all communication, criticized you and forced you to criticize yourself, forced you to confess to sins real and imagined, and forced you all to monitor each other. All are hallmarks of mind control. Do you consider what happened to you to be brainwashing?
Conley: My gut says definitely, but I don’t know enough. My gut says it was intentional. I feel like when I try to think about the steps they used, they were AA steps, but they’d been modified. I always felt like each step was a narrowing down of experiences and pain. Each step was like we’re going to shrink it a little more, until by twelve you are no longer really a person at all. If I were to gauge it by that feeling and that sense I would definitely say it was brainwashing. I don’t know what to call it. We were steeped in it, our family was; we felt like there was no other option; we felt like this was the only thing we could do. And each time when you’re in a situation where you don’t hesitate to do what an authority figure tells you to do, even if it might feel extremely harmful, that’s probably some version of brainwashing, I’d imagine.
Rumpus: Extreme anti-gay legislation was recently passed in North Carolina and Mississippi. How do you see the dogma in the church contributing to the passage of such legislation, and how does it feel to have this legislation passed at the same time as your book is being released?
Conley: I feel like it’s the same old story with the church and legislation. I don’t know how this particular bill came about. I do know Arkansas had a similar one a few years ago that didn’t get as much attention but was geared in this direction. I feel like it’s inevitable there’s going to be some pushback with marriage equality, and this seems to be some of the last dying cry on this particular subject. I think the fundamentalist church will always find a way to be bigoted, just in the way that a lot of evangelicals have celebrated Trump. It’s the same old same old.
In terms of my book, I’ve always thought of my audience as gay people. Even writing this letter back to my ex-gay therapist as gay people, people who are trapped in these places and are wavering on the edge.
Garth Greenwell and I are going to North Carolina for three stops on our book tour. His book just came out. It’s called What Belongs to You. It’s a big gay book. And so we’ve decided, instead of boycotting, we’re going to go to these areas and gay it up. And that’s our response, because that’s who we care about. Garth will openly say he wrote his book for queer audiences, and I find that to be a really beautiful statement. He’s not being apologetic. He’s like this is who my audience is. If straight people like it, I’m glad, but I wrote it for queer audiences. I feel the same way about mine. I didn’t dumb it down. I didn’t apologize on any front in the book. I feel like this is the place where my book could actually do some work. I’m not happy this is happening. These sorts of things are going to continue happening. Progress is not a straight line. I don’t see it as anything new. But I know it’s gotten more media attention than other stories.
Rumpus: It is important right now. Recently I was in Mississippi. I went to this Juke Joint Festival. And there was this trans woman walking to the restroom at the same time as me. And she paused at the door and said, “You can wait,” and I said, “Oh, I don’t care,” and I went into the bathroom with her. And I’m sitting in a stall, and this lady comes in as the other lady is leaving, and I hear her say, “You shouldn’t be in here!” And she was so mean to the other lady, but I’m sitting in the stall, frozen, and I can’t really say anything. And even though the festival’s website says everyone is welcome, that one lady’s just so empowered, because of this legislation, to be non-compassionate. Which again is against the tenets of everything that Christianity is supposed to teach.
Conley: That goes back to my original quote. If I really want to reclaim compassion, I felt like I had to use both schools against them. What if I went there, and I was compassionate, and I was loving, and did that Christian act, but not from a Christian perspective, and that was empowering for me. I can use this tool that you can only talk about, and it’s pretty easy for me, and I don’t have to be Christian to do it. It’s called empathy. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Author photograph © Colin Boyd Shafer.