A Conversation with Garrard Conley
Garrard Conley is the author of Boy Erased (Riverhead Books / Penguin, 2016). His work can be found in TIME, VICE, CNN, Buzzfeed Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and Elizabeth Kostova Foundation Writers’ Conferences and has facilitated craft classes for Catapult, Grub Street, Sackett Street Writers Workshop, and the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown.
After growing up in a small Arkansan farming community, heading to a liberal arts college a few hours away, completing service for Peace Corps Ukraine, and attaining a Master’s degree in creative writing and queer theory, Garrard taught literature in Sofia, Bulgaria at The American College of Sofia. He now lives in Brooklyn and teaches in NYC.
I finished reading Boy Erased one August morning at 4:30 am. To combat issues sleeping, I’d taken to reading the book before bed, a sort of half-therapeutic, half-thought provoking evening ritual. There was only one problem: on this night in particular, I found myself reading a quarter, then a half of the book. I simply couldn’t put it down. Following an (embarrassingly) long fan-boying email to Garrard, I had the exciting opportunity to sit down with him and pick his brain.
Thanks so much, Garrard, for taking some time to chat with me about Boy Erased. Though I’m sure you’ve heard it from many readers in the past couple of months since the memoir’s release, you’ve shared an incredibly powerful and moving story in these 340 pages. What aspect of the writing process did you find most rewarding, and what aspect of the process did you find most challenging?
GC: So much of constructing this memoir was difficult. As I say in my opening disclaimer to the reader, I wasn’t allowed to write down notes during my time at the ‘ex-gay’ facility. Therefore, most of my memories had to be reconstructed with the help of my 275-page ‘ex-gay’ handbook and my mother’s memories. As you probably know, social sciences are finding out so much about memory, especially traumatic memory, and what we’re discovering is that while the outlines of traumatic memories are often altogether accurate, details can be a bit difficult to pin down. The more times we reconstruct a memory, the more likely it is that that memory is going to be compromised. Because I was doing a lot of research about memory and also trying to dig into my memories, I would often feel overwhelmed and terrified. I didn’t want to join the ranks of those James Frey memoirs that Oprah calls out for lying (though I suppose I would love for Oprah just to say my book’s name, no matter what context). In addition to dealing with issues of accuracy, it was also incredibly difficult to re-enter these traumatic memories. I had to spend a lot of time with thoughts that had once tortured me. I had to really grapple, once again, with issues of self-loathing that I thought I’d put behind me forever. Not an easy task.
I suppose the most rewarding aspect of the writing process was learning that I could turn these terrible memories into something that, at times, approached an aesthetic beauty. I recall a scene from The Scarlet Letter when Hester Prynne, who has just exited the jail, stands in the sunlight and reveals the beauty of her scarlet letter, a badge of shame that she has made glorious. Writing the final page of Boy Erased felt defiant in this way.
One aspect of prose writing that often intimidates me is plot cohesion. The gradual unveiling of not only the major plot events of Boy Erased, but also the relationships explored (particularly your relationship with your mother) make a gripping story, in my view, even more gripping. What led you to reject conventional temporal order for the telling of your story through the memoir?
GC: I started off my writing career writing short stories for tiny journals no one has ever heard of, and I suppose some of that drive carried over into my book even though it was set to be published by a major publisher. When I started writing Boy, I wasn’t so certain I would finish the book. I mean, I was terrified. So I told myself that if I simply wrote it in self-contained chunks, I might be able to finish the book. This is what I did. Many of the more memoiristic chapters that feature my childhood can function as stand-alone essays. I think this has the effect of deepening the narrative.
I also knew that readers wouldn’t understand the goal of my book if they were only introduced to my parents through the conversion therapy timeline. I wanted readers to get a chance to understand where my father came from, what led my mother to agree to do this therapy, and how I was also complicit in my own enrollment. In other words, I wanted this memoir to be a historic document that charts this very bizarre, complicated moment in our history. These were all very complicated threads to follow, so I decided that the braided narrative worked best for demonstrating these complexities. I also wanted to show how the effects of childhood experience echo throughout the rest of your life.
There are so many reasons I love this memoir, but one of them has to be the unapologetic quality of the prose. Without spoiling anything, the memoir ends exploring the inherent tension between “the book I have to write” and the fact that the book, by its very existence, would potentially create challenges for your family. I think that this is a common tension present in the writing and sharing of work by queer authors, especially young ones who don’t necessarily have outside-of-family resources and communities to build up their confidence and strength. Since I imagine this was a struggle for you, and since we have a fair amount of young queer readers at The Adroit Journal, I was wondering if you could talk about how you wrote and ultimately shared your story in spite of this exact ever-present tension?
GC: I think the best writing, especially the best nonfiction writing, must feel urgent. After waiting ten years to tell my story, I began to feel an urgency that, if I had to put it into words, went something like this: “If you don’t tell the truth about what happened to you, more young people will end up in this situation. If you don’t tell your story, parents won’t see the effects of this therapy. If you don’t tell your story, other survivors might not have a mainstream narrative to follow. If you don’t tell your story, your family is going to fall apart.” I spent many sleepless nights worrying about what this book would do to my family, and whether or not my family would come to hate me, but I suppose the thing that finally led me to write the book was knowing that my limited experience as one human being was not as important as getting the story out and sharing it with the public. I simply began to see myself as part of a historical struggle for LGBTQ+ equality, and this made it easier to “sacrifice” my comfort. I put ‘sacrifice’ in scare quotes because it’s straight up New Testament. Like it or not, there was a Christian component to Boy, a kind of compassion for myself and my parents and even my ‘ex-gay’ counselors that at times can feel a bit radical in a true Jesus-y way.
If someone had told me a few years ago that telling my own story would allow my mother to come to terms with her story, I would have laughed at them. But that’s exactly what happened. It turns out shining a spotlight on your truth can often help others find their truth. This is the essence of what it means when we “come out.” This is why we do it. Good memoir, and by good I mean honest and compassionate memoir, allows others to feel less alone. When I began telling the truth about my life, my mother began to tell the truth about her complicated relationship with my father and with religion. It has been glorious to watch. She will sometimes call and tell me how happy she is to have a gay son, how it’s a true “blessing” from God. And now she’s basically this hero to a lot of gay men. I think she’s on track to have more gay followers on Twitter than I do.
We meet many different sorts of men in Boy Erased—from your father to Brandon to Cosby to David to Brother Nielson to Caleb. As I read the memoir, I couldn’t help but follow these characters’ manifestations of masculinity. I’d imagine that you, as the writer, had an even more immersive experience, especially considering that all of these characters are rooted in truth. Did you find that in writing Boy Erased your understanding of masculinity—particularly in its relation to your world—deepened further upon the examination that writing memoir necessitates?
GC: I was very aware of how masculinity was being portrayed in Boy. The chapter that most comes to mind is “The Plain Dealers,” in which masculinity is described as speaking as plainly as possible. The title takes its name from a popular 18th century play that mocks these kinds of men. I wanted to be a little friendlier to them, but I also wanted to show how this brand of masculinity can be toxic. In an environment where complication and nuance is discouraged, the range of emotion available for a man is extremely limited. It can lead to mistakes. For example, my father believed there was no life for me as an openly gay man, so he decided that there was only one solution: send me to conversion therapy. “There is no neutral,” my father says in one of his more popular sermons. “There is no gray area. No in-betweens.” Much of the country has been held hostage by this idea of masculinity, and you can see it playing out in the current election cycle, these people who are unwilling to listen to the often messy and complicated truths of our society.
Caleb, the first boy I ever kissed, was meant to function as a kind of corrective. He’s queer, an artist, and truly open with himself. In the “Self-Portrait” section where he’s featured, I show how I had absorbed my father’s “plain dealing” masculinity, and how Caleb resists it and very delicately tries to steer me out of my inner turmoil. All throughout the narrative I constantly try to show how most of the men are under the spell of toxic masculinity, and how there are opportunities for us to escape at any moment. Most of us don’t. Most of us don’t get out of these toxic situations. Whenever I go back to my hometown in Arkansas, it’s like walking in mud, everyone is so incapable of expressing complexity. I feel sorry for the queer kids that never make it out.
My understanding of religion—and this is admittedly based on distant childhood church recollections and a quick Google search—is that it can manifest in many forms, as belief in a god or gods, as belief in relevant supernatural beings and qualities, or simply as elements of the world that give meaning to life. Do you think queerness itself can be interpreted as a sort of religion?
GC: I do think queerness can be interpreted as religion, yes. I think camp, drag culture, expressions of gender fluidity and the non-binary, can all be part of this religion. There’s such a rich tradition of queer literature as well, and I’m not only talking about writers who identified as queer but also books that can be read as queer (all of them can, basically). Being queer opens up a way of seeing the world in a much richer, much more complex way, and this should be the goal of any functioning religion.
How did you settle on the title Boy Erased? And, to close, here’s a perhaps deceptively complicated question: how, through writing or otherwise, do you think those of us who have been erased become visible once more?
GC: Boy Erased came out of a process of brainstorming a title for over 3 days. My friend Ashley and I walked up and down the aisles of a Barnes & Noble and tried to come up with a formula for catchy titles. The original title was Signs and Wonders, but my agent at the time didn’t like it, so I tried everything. I would flip through the Bible and search for inspiration. I would call my mom and ask her to tell me the first thing she thought up. Eventually, I wrote down the title, Boy Erased, after discussing the topic of erasure with Ashley. I wanted to know how much of me had been erased through the process of conversion therapy and how much had remained. And in the process of reconstructing a queer identity, what had been sacrificed? I found this to be an incredibly complex question, and one that I believed might drive the narrative forward.
I think the process of becoming visible takes a lot of time. I always say to my students who are struggling with identity that they should feel comfortable before deciding to come out to family and friends, because you never know what the effect will be. We still live in a culture that is very unfriendly to queer people, especially in small towns. I think we often forget that LGBTQ youth make up 40% of all homeless youth, a statistic that says a lot about where we are as a country re: equal rights. I think part of what we have to do as advocates is insist on not simplifying our identities, and when people tell us who they are, we should believe them. Gay men, especially white gay men, have a tendency to roll their eyes at new queer identities, and I think this is so incredibly harmful. We have to remember that we are still learning about identity, and it’s up to us to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.