This memoir should have started at least ten years later and told us how the young man who once signed himself up for "ex-gay therapy" (which we all know is pure bullshit) turned into a person who at least calls himself a gay man. His epilogue and bits of the memoir proper hint at the real story, but sadly it's just a sketch. I understand being so traumatized that you can't hold memories or be sure what is your memory and what is your intellect saying "this must be the way it happened," but I'm not entirely sure that's why this memoir is sketchy.
Ten years after an 8-day outpatient visit to Love In Action, the author hears his one-time group leader on a book/apology tour admitting that the therapy was nonsense. This, understandably, raises real anger. How can this guy with his vanity press book be on NPR and so cavalier about the lives he played havoc with? And this brings an aspiring novelist to write a "memoir" about those eight outpatient days. One gets the slight feeling, after reading the book, that part of the anger was that this guy was able to hawk his book on NPR while Conley was still struggling in various ways with no book or tour, but that's not the whole story, just a thought.
As someone who has done many outpatient stays (and several inpatient, locked ward ones too,) honestly, I doubt I could write a book about any of those visits. Now, my stays were overall more of a plus than a minus, and only rarely were they more traumatic than what brought me in. They also weren't trying to erase my person or self. Could any of us write a memoir about eight days? Maybe. There's just very little to recommend this book because nothing much happens and the author does very little to help us understand what exactly, beyond the horrific idea of conversion therapy -- which we already get -- what exactly traumatized him.
He makes a point in the epilogue that liberal America may not understand what would push someone to deny their sexuality just to "fit in." (He doesn't say that, but that's the truth I think he was pushing toward.) Many liberal lgbtq people have just as much trouble coming out. They don't typically seek this particular type of therapy, but many a liberal kid has gone into therapy at least to work through the fear and other emotions involved in coming out. Many kids are dead today rather than face up to our cultural disdain of anything less than toxic masculinity. You don't have to be an Evangelical to understand this is a tough time for many people, and only in recent years has coming out become slightly less than terrifying and often traumatizing.
As trite as this sounds to me: change is tough. When we finally allow our "outsides" to match our inner selves, to become more authentic, that can be excruciating even while it's healthy and holds the promise of a much better life - eventually. And that's true for anyone. It inevitably involves losing people and places that were comfortable and often affirming in other ways, not to mention our homes. Very often it involves estrangement of sorts with at least some, if not all, family members. I wanted to hear about the growth, or if not that, at least understand what created a traumatic reaction so bad that he's blocked it out. What I read was a family based in love. If they didn't express it fine, but they were there -- before, during and after (the final sentence in the epilogue is wonderful in showing this purely,) for this young man. When he finally left mid-eighth day, his mother didn't question him, she simply drove the two of them away. (She'd been staying with him in a hotel during the outpatient assessment.) That's a serious blessing, having your family stick by you, especially when their religion, culture, job (his father is a pastor) and upbringing tell them to do something very different.
My impression was that a lot of the trauma involved expectations -- both perceived and real -- that he'd internalized and struggled coming to terms with. That anger was displaced onto the therapy he sought out and willingly subjected himself to. He wanted to be someone other than who he was/is. THAT is the trauma. And that would make a much better memoir than incredibly florid, rambling prose and unstructured random memories (not about the therapy) ostensibly about an 8-day outpatient assessment. Also a serious thanks to his God that he was strong enough to see through the bullshit and walk out before someone compelled other drastic and inhumane measures we've now learned happened in many of these places.
One final thought, Love In Action and its parent corporation is, thankfully, now gone and very few similar programs exist in the US, but worryingly, they've taken their circus on the road to other countries (notably Uganda, complete with laws and real danger for lgbtq people) - something the author mentions in one sentence and doesn't seem to see as a problem. "At least it's not me anymore" is not a pleasant trait in anyone, no matter their story.
I believe Garrard Conley has a real story to tell, about how he started hating himself, how he couldn't see a way for his authentic self to fit with his family and community, the fear and existential dread that must have accompanied many days, how fundamental Christian beliefs offer no room for difference or questions of any kind, how the fear of ruining his "eternal soul" has haunted him long past his heroic walk out of the treatment center's doors, how his family managed to overcome pressure from their church and community and whole lives to come to a place where this book could be written with his parents' blessing, how he functions as a gay man in the world when he was a kid from a very restrictive and fundamentalist background, etc etc: both the logistics and the emotional sides are interesting and important -- these are the types of stories that save lives. While I think the promise of a horror-show called "ex-gay therapy" is probably what gave this book the juice to get published, the real story still hasn't been told.
I really wish this man well. I know he's lived through some very tough things, but I don't know any of that from reading this book, and there's the rub. We shouldn't require people to morph bad moments into freak shows for them to tell their stories. He will write another book. I'm betting my life on that one. I'm sure he's writing as I type. He's wanted to be a writer and has an MFA in creative writing. I just want him to write from a more fearless place next time.