Age of Unlearning: the Forced Narratives of Conversion Therapy

Reflections and a memoir excerpt from the author of Boy Erased

I wrote Boy Erased almost ten years after my experience in ‘ex-gay’ conversion therapy at a fundamentalist Christian facility called Love in Action in Memphis, TN. As many students of memoir know, distance is the secret ingredient to insight. We look back on our lives from a safer perch, and we do our best to render a clear-eyed account of the events that have shaped us into who we now are. It’s a messy process, and even at its best memoir is, to bastardize the oft-quoted Emily Dickinson, a truthful lie. We are lucky if memoir captures even one ounce of the doubt and confusion and contradiction that existed within us at any given moment in the past. Yet it is this attempt to represent nuance on the page that we most admire; it is this battle against personal and cultural memory loss that we applaud; it is this desire to recapture and reclaim the past that makes the reading and writing of memoir a worthy pursuit. Because the past really does repeat itself, and the lessons we learn in our past can be just as easily unlearned. Memoir is always a valiant defiance of unlearning.

We are lucky if memoir captures even one ounce of the doubt and confusion and contradiction that existed within us at any given moment in the past.

The political events of the past few months feel as though they have been lifted from the ‘ex-gay’ playbook. The boy of ten years ago is unsurprised, even if I on my perch have been taken a little aback by being thrust once again into this world of unlearning. Like most cults, Love in Action flourished best when critical thinking died. My counselors at Love in Action made us believe that any unsanctioned interpretations of the Bible or of sexuality were simply ridiculous. To read dissenting opinions was “of the Devil.” Don’t trust them; trust only me. Those other people are simply spreading lies. Sound familiar?

In 2004, the year Boy Erased charts, the country was also in a period of unlearning. We were unlearning compassion and attempting to justify the use of force in places it made no sense to invade. Many media outlets were helping to normalize George W. Bush’s actions, and any critically thinking individual had to decide for themselves whether or not they could trust what they were hearing from the executive branch. Take a boy who is just learning to think critically, throw him into a religious cult where his sexuality is demonized, and set it all within a larger cultural environment where an unjust war is praised as virtuous, and what you have are conditions ripe for character building. If the boy survives, he writes a book. If the boy does not (and the chances are indeed slim), the world loses a bit of insight.

Like most cults, Love in Action flourished best when critical thinking died.

Boy Erased was written during the first major crisis I had witnessed in my country, but it was written for the next one. How could I have predicted that the circumstances would be so familiar? I wrote it primarily for the young adults, the young critical thinkers, who would have to survive so much more than they think they are capable of surviving. I wrote it because literature saved my life, brought me out of the insanity that had been inflicted on me. Literature is still one of the best technologies we have for toppling fascism.

In the excerpt below, I chart my mental development within an oppressive environment. I hope it offers some insight for these times.

[Side note: the ‘genogram’ mentioned in the excerpt below is an exercise my counselors developed to chart “sexual sin” within my family. We were asked to draw a family tree on a poster and then to add “sin symbols” next to family members’ names. The sin symbols ranged from alcoholism (A) to drug abuse (D) to gambling ($).]

The abandoned Love in Action building in Memphis, TN

Age of Unlearning

It was seven o’clock in the morning, but the air-conditioning was already at full blast in the Hampton Inn lounge. According to my schedule, I had two hours to shower, dress, eat, and travel to the facility, but my mother and I were drawing out the minutes, dragging our forks lazily through the scattered mess of cold eggs on our plates, my hair dripping dry, the varnished wood of the table machine pressed, its edges sharp against my forearms. The world that morning seemed harder, as if overnight someone had removed a thin translucent film from the atmosphere, a soft focus I had taken for granted when my mother and I used to come to Memphis for weekends of shopping and movie binging, the city alive and glowing then, pulsing beneath our shoes. Two full days at Love in Action, and the city had already lost its shine, the back-and-forth trips between the Hampton Inn & Suites and the facility revealing only a gray stretch of interstate, its traffic beaming hot in the sunlight, each of its oversize suburban houses yawning with their water-timed green tongues.

I had once heard someone call the city a trash dump, and I’d been offended at the time, but now I could see how they were right. It was the place where things came and went, home of the FedEx headquarters, the city with the most available overnight flights to other cities in the country, steel barges on the Mississippi floating right through the center of it — but the things that gathered and collected here, the things that stayed and took root, these were the things that gave the city its sense of abandonment. If you stayed long enough, you could see how it was perpetually reaching into its shallow past, hanging pictures of Elvis in its many diners, taping signed autographs to its walls, its many sex shops promising thrills that had once electrified the streets amid the buzz of jazz and blues.

Two full days at Love in Action, and the city had already lost its shine, the back-and-forth trips between the Hampton Inn & Suites and the facility revealing only a gray stretch of interstate.

“We’d better get going,” my mother said, though she made no indication that she wished to move, her small hands still flush against the table.

I unrolled my sleeves, the air-conditioning already freezing, my wet hair an icy helmet. Summers in this city meant freezing and sweltering temperatures, sudden changes of atmosphere that shocked the system, sent goose bumps rippling across the skin.

“Okay,” I said, not moving. We’d be late if we didn’t leave soon. Though I’d intentionally left my watch in the room, hoping to lose track of time in the facility, I could see from the plastic clock above hotel reception that it was twenty to nine.

An odd mix of families and business types poured out of the elevator opposite our table: navy blue and black suits and tight pencil skirts, pajamas and hoodies and unsocked feet, a light slapping against the tile as children circled their groggy-eyed parents. It was strange to think of these people going about their daily routines, drinking their morning coffee, staring into the face of a day that must have seemed to them much like any other. CNN droned on in the corner of the room, a streaming canopy of monotonous words spreading across the dining area, seeming to connect the morning to all the ones before it, the syllables almost indistinguishable amid the clatter of plates and silverware — “any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of unlawful combatants would violate the Constitution’s sole vesting of the commander-in-chief authority in the president” — people looking up from their tables every few seconds to anchor their gazes to the screen.

I felt lost in all of this, adrift, the daily patterns of life having come unstitched in only a matter of days, and so it seemed absurd to me, even at the time, that the “Guantánamo’ written across the bottom of the screen even existed, all that senseless torture going on somewhere overseas while glittery-eyed newscasters debated its constitutionality. I felt crazy. Wasn’t it painfully obvious that we shouldn’t be torturing people? And yet, at the same time, I thought I could easily be wrong. Hadn’t I been wrong before? Wasn’t this questioning, liberal attitude what brought me to LIA in the first place? If I had managed to stay secure in the Lord’s Word, unquestioning, I might have stayed with Chloe, well on my way to a normal life by now.

I felt crazy. Wasn’t it painfully obvious that we shouldn’t be torturing people? And yet…wasn’t this questioning, liberal attitude what brought me to LIA in the first place?

But I had allowed secular influences to shape me. The day before, one of the staff counselors, Danny Cosby, had asked us to take a long, hard look at our lives and draw a timeline that demonstrated our sinful progression into homosexuality, and I had realized, much to my horror, that most of my same-sex attractions had developed right alongside my love of literature. Sideways Stories from Wayside School: first gay crush; To Kill a Mockingbird: first gay porn search; The Picture of Dorian Gray: first gay kiss. It’s no wonder, I’d thought. No wonder they took away my Moleskine.

Reading secular literature was discouraged at LIA — patients could “only read materials approved of by staff,” our handbooks said, which usually amounted to only fundamentalist Christian authors — but even going a few days without reading had sent me into a nightly depression that made it difficult to sleep. During my high school years, I’d spent so much time and energy guarding myself against enjoying books too much, afraid that a compelling narrative might turn me into a heretic, send me rushing off on one of the sinful life paths I’d enjoyed seeing my favorite characters follow. My year of college had been so freeing, and reading so widely encouraged, that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to suspect a book of literal demon possession, like I’d believed when first reading A Clockwork Orange. Burgess’s electric language ran through my body so quickly my skin felt aflame, charged with what I could only then describe as demonic power. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to read so freely again or if I would have to stay here at LIA for as many years as the counselors had been here, learning to live with the side effects of my sin, keeping the rest of the world at bay.

My year of college had been so freeing, and reading so widely encouraged, that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to suspect a book of literal demon possession.

Lord, make me pure, I prayed, looking through my water glass at the blurry newscasters, “Guantánamo” morphing to something like “Gargantuan.” I wanted to join all these other people in their obliviousness, in their laughter, in the casual flip of the newspaper, digest the morning the way I had so many other mornings. But the LIA lingo had already taken up permanent residence in my thoughts, and I had no room for the habitual comforts that usually quieted my mind and made the world seem like a normal place. The night before, lying on the foldout bed in our suite, my mind buzzing with the LIA handbook’s rules, I’d wanted more than anything to take up the plastic Nintendo 64 controller attached to the hotel television and play a few levels of Mario or whatever — anything to stop my mind from its infinite blame loop — but this was forbidden as well.

The Moral Inventory (MI), another piece of AA borrowed by LIA, took the place of my regular reading and writing schedule. Every night I was to focus exclusively on my sinfulness. Every night I was to find an example of sinful behavior in my past, write about it in great detail, share it with the therapy group, and put faith in God that I could be absolved of it.

Lord, make me pure, I prayed, looking through my water glass at the blurry newscasters, “Guantánamo” morphing to something like “Gargantuan.”

MIs helped us recognize our FIs, the development of which we could now trace clearly in the As and Pos and $s and Ms of the genograms that were designed to chart our families’ sinful histories. Though I’d barely revealed any of what I’d learned each day at LIA to my mother, the small amount of terminology I’d let slip through was already too much for her to keep track of — so much so that, speeding down the interstate as I tried to fill her in, she almost missed our exit, another set of numbers and symbols crowding her periphery, demanding her attention.

“Which step is the MI in?” she said, turning sharply toward the exit. A mall on our left, a shopping center on our right, morning light sifting through the leaves of an occasional tree.

“They use MIs for all twelve steps,” I said, the handbook open in my lap, my homework on top. I was rereading the page quickly, scanning to see if I’d written anything too embarrassing to share in front of our group — but, really, all of it was embarrassing. The whole purpose of the exercise was to realize how shameful these memories were and refashion them to fit God’s purpose. My therapy group would provide the necessary feedback to help the transition go smoothly. The whole thing reminded me of a poetry workshop I’d taken in my second semester of college: how I’d felt as I listened to my peers’ contradictory opinions, that the whole point of writing seemed to be to fashion a product that offended no one, supported nothing but the officially accepted dogma.

The whole thing reminded me of a poetry workshop I’d taken in college: how I’d felt as I listened to my peers’ contradictory opinions, that the whole point of writing seemed to be to fashion a product that offended no one.

Perhaps this was the entry fee for the Kingdom of Heaven: cleanse yourself of all idiosyncrasies, sharp opinions, creeds — put no false gods before Him — become an easily moldable shell, a vessel for God. The Bible speaks plainly of what is required. Concerning God’s commandments, The Book of Proverbs says, Bind them about thy neck, write them upon the table of thine heart. If I could have done it myself, I would have already done it: pried open my ribs and etched the Word onto my heart’s beating chambers. But it seemed my ex-gay counselors were the only ones with enough skill and experience to wield the scalpel.

Perhaps part of the reason I couldn’t sleep well at night was that I’d never, before this moment, truly emptied myself of all sin. Without my Moleskine or my books or video games, stripped down and without distraction, I was forced to confront the ugliest, most shameful parts of myself. In order to be filled with the Holy Spirit, I had to be emptied of the human one. Sitting in the car with my shameful past open in my lap, I had no idea if this was even possible.

“How often do you have to do an MI?” my mother said, hands gripped at ten and two on the wheel. I’d never seen them stray from this, not in all her years of driving. Trees passing at perfect intervals; high-line wires dipping and rising; signs along the side of the road all at the same regulation height and width; my mother’s hands never moving.

“Every night.” Despite how pointless I suspected many of LIA’s activities were, I took pride in knowing them so well after just one day, in being the first of the newbies to memorize all the steps. It was a role that felt comfortable, being the good student. It must have been comforting for my mother as well, seeing me act the way I’d often acted in high school.

Perhaps part of the reason I couldn’t sleep well at night was that I’d never, before this moment, truly emptied myself of all sin.

“What happens if you don’t have anything else to write about?” The whine of her lotion-scented skin against leather. She wanted to know what I’d written but was too afraid to ask. “What happens if you run out of material for your MI?”

MIs were designed to bring about personal awareness of an instance when you had sinned against God. In our group’s case, an MI always explored a moment of sexual impropriety, either a physical act or a temptation. What my mother didn’t yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material, that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine — this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness. I could never count the number of times I’d sinned against God. If I wanted, I could fill out a new MI every night for the rest of my life.

“We are under the control of a sovereign God who reigns over all aspects of our lives,” Smid said, quoting the Moral Inventory Flow Chart in our handbooks, a page that featured two black-lined text boxes, one with the word “God” centered in it, the other below it with the words “World,” “Flesh,” and “Satan” equally spaced at full justification. The idea was that, as Christians, we were all under God’s control, but as human beings, we were also subject to Satan’s temptations, a fact that Smid pointed out a few seconds later: “We are affected by a sinful world system, our sinful flesh, and the manipulative attacks of Satan.”

I could never count the number of times I’d sinned against God. If I wanted, I could fill out a new MI every night for the rest of my life.

Smid continued reading the worksheet aloud. The MI was based on the following set of additional assumptions, ones I needed to swallow whole if I was to be cured.

1. We are constantly faced with various challenges in life.

2. We experience the consequences of our decisions as a result of the challenge.

3. We receive strength from God both to desire changes in our lives and to take action based on our goals to achieve these changes.

4. We can find a blessing and see God’s goodness based on scripture for each aspect of our lives.

I was sitting on the far right of our group’s semicircle, the kitchen at my back. I could hear someone washing dishes behind me, a steady stream of white noise followed by the occasional clatter of silverware, metal hitting metal, the rustling of a trash bag. J sat beside me. Every few minutes he would start chewing his pencil, white with a blue logo of his home church’s name. Something Something Something Calvary Baptist. Then he would stop midchomp through the church logo and hold the half-chewed pencil tightly in his grip, this wedge of cratered moon in his hand: a piece of the remote, floating world he’d broken off from all those late nights he told me about, hours spent in isolation and low gravity reading the clobber passages again and again. His hair, slicked back with wax, fell to one side of his face and covered one of his eyes. I was grateful for the shield between us. I kept my MI folded beneath my right thigh, dreading the moment when I would have to stand in front of this group and share my shame. I was especially worried about sharing this story with J, who seemed to have developed a great deal of respect for me in only a few days.

I kept my MI folded beneath my right thigh, dreading the moment when I would have to stand in front of this group and share my shame.

“I think you really get it,” he’d said during one of our patio breaks, scraping his shoes against the blinding concrete. “You get how difficult it is here. You can’t just believe in change. You have to actually work through it, you know? If you want the treatment to last, you really have to allow for the doubt.”

“It feels like that’s all I’ve been doing,” I said. “Doubting.”

“So many people, when they first get here, they don’t really let themselves doubt,” J said, his voice lowering to a whisper. Most of the other group members were still inside, so it felt safe to talk. Only T remained, hunched on a bench with a package of unopened peanut-butter crackers in his hands, the sleeves of his black cardigans still rolled down despite the heat of the afternoon. It didn’t look like he was going to open the package anytime soon, much less engage in conversation. “Doubt isn’t all that encouraged here. People here are too desperate for an answer. But you seem to be all about it.”

I liked being analyzed this way, like a character in a book, like someone with a rich inner life. The only therapy I’d experienced was the ex-gay therapy I’d had during the few intro sessions I’d taken before coming to LIA, and most of those sessions had been conducted under the assumption that the therapist already knew what was wrong with me, a process that felt like the opposite of how I felt when reading a book. Regular therapy was discouraged in our family’s church, our pastor believing that prayer was all you needed to dispel any mental and moral confusion. But J seemed to be a natural at this. He seemed to believe that people could also be understood by their complexities. I wanted to ask him what books he’d read to see if we shared the same loves, but it was against the rules to talk about non-LIA literature.

I liked being analyzed this way, like a character in a book, like someone with a rich inner life.

“I guess you’re right about doubt,” I said. “I don’t want to take the wrong step. I’ve already taken too many bad ones.”

“No,” he said. “You don’t look like you’ve ever done anything too bad. There’s a look people have here when they’ve done something they don’t want to share.” Though we knew there were former pedophiles in therapy, no one talked openly about it, and it was only vaguely hinted at by our most dull-lidded members.

“I don’t want to share any of this,” I said. “It feels too personal.” It wasn’t that I was afraid of my role in the production of sin. It was that I was ashamed of the lack of experience I actually had, or at least the lack of agency I’d had in my experience. How could I let J know, in front of everyone, that my first and only time had already been taken from me against my will?

“You’ve got to share with people,” he said, walking back to the sliding glass door and pulling it open, a gust of cold air hitting my arms. “It’s the first step in the right direction.”

“But what if none of this works? What if it only makes me more confused?”

“Good question,” J said, turning for a second before heading back, as always, to our semicircle around Smid.

It seemed confusion was a key feature of Step One. Out of our confusion we would come to see that we were truly “out of control,” that we needed to rely on God’s and the counselors’ authority. The day before, Smid had asked me to think back to a time when my father and I had played sports. Had I felt uncomfortable? Had I received enough masculine-affirming touch from my father? Had I sought out love from him that he didn’t want to give? After only a few questions, I no longer remembered what I felt. It was true that I was never any good at sports. It was true that I never liked to toss the ball with my father in the front yard. Yes, I might have caught my father’s initial pitch, but I’d eventually thrown down the baseball glove and let the ball roll out of its leather grip. But did that mean I hadn’t enjoyed the way the grass felt beneath my toes? Did that mean I hadn’t loved the feel of the hot sun on my face — hadn’t felt my father’s voice as a warm vibration passing through my chest? I could no longer be sure.

Smid had asked me to think back to a time when my father and I had played sports. Had I felt uncomfortable? Had I received enough masculine-affirming touch from my father?

The Bible often spoke of sacrifice, of how the world wouldn’t understand you once you took up the cross and followed Jesus. “You’ll seem boring to a lot of people,” my father had said on the day of my baptism. “They won’t understand the deep joy in your heart. To them you’ll seem crazy.” But did that mean my father and I would no longer understand each other? Jesus spoke in Matthew: For I am come to set a man at variance against his father. And though I’d read those words dozens of times, I didn’t know if I wanted to give up on experiencing in real life the beauty of the messy, complicated relationships I’d read about in my literature classes. Lord, I prayed in those first few days, help me to know the difference between beauty and evil.

LIA was clear on the difference. On almost every page of our 274-page handbooks lay some iteration of the following: In order to be pure, we had to become a tool, something God could use for the greater good. That meant there was no room for beauty as we had once known it. Any habitual behaviors that made us more than tools were considered addictions that developed out of the harmful messages we’d received in our childhoods. All of this was laid out clearly in the Addiction Workbook.

Addictions stem from a severely distorted belief system. Our minds were fallen from birth, naturally leaning away from truth. This problem is common to everyone. However, when we received confusing or hostile messages as kids, we became vulnerable to developing addictive patterns.

In order to be pure, we had to become a tool, something God could use for the greater good.

The Addiction Workbook went on to say that everything in our sinful, sexually deviant lives had been co-opted by the world, by Satan. In a section titled “You Are a Product of the World (and the Devil!),” we were told that “Satan is the god of this world,” that he has free dominion over everything not directly issued from the church or the Bible, that “it is actually this world that is out of order and upside down, not God,” and that we needed to be willing to test what we think and believe. But it wasn’t enough simply to question our beliefs. We had to be willing to undergo extreme changes, leave people behind who were harmful to our development, who reminded us of the past. We had to be willing to give up any ideas about who we were before we came to LIA: “Also remember that now, as a Christian, you are NOT YOUR OWN, but you have been bought for a price (1 Cor. 6:19), you must see Jesus as Master.” We had to give over our memories, our desires, our ideas of freedom, to Jesus our Master. We had to become His servants.

“It’s up to us to ask God for help,” Smid said. “It’s up to us to beg for forgiveness.”

We had to be willing to undergo extreme changes, leave people behind who were harmful to our development, who reminded us of the past.

When I looked at Smid from this angle, I couldn’t help but notice his striking resemblance to Jeff Goldblum, the actor I’d most often seen in repeated viewings of Jurassic Park: narrow nose, wide smile, sharp eyes accentuated by sharp glasses. But when Smid cocked his head at another angle, his face grew flat, lost its Goldbluminess. One second it was there, and the next it wasn’t. I wondered if Smid had practiced this effect, if he’d figured out the proportions: one Jeff Goldblum for every five boy-next-door, good-ol’-boy Smids.

I tried to keep from smiling. It was absurd, really, how much Smid could look like Goldblum. Afraid I’d start crying otherwise, I relaxed my face into an idiot smile. I wondered if J saw Smid’s Goldbluminess, too, if his parents had even allowed him to watch Jurassic Park as a kid.

J seemed like someone who’d been homeschooled, his concentration too intense to maintain an active social life, and most of the homeschooled kids in the Bible Belt were heavily policed by their fundamentalist parents. Still, I wondered how similar our childhoods had been, though I never asked. No one in the program was allowed to talk much about the past for fear that it would unearth up some sinful pleasure we’d once experienced. This was how I imagined it would feel to meet someone you once knew on earth in Heaven, all the things that had been so familiar completely absent, with only the essence, or the aura, remaining. Death shall be no more, the Bible says, for the former things have passed away. But J and I were still far from Heaven, the white-walled facility only a simulation, and I could still feel the weight of my sin in the bottom of my gut.

No one in the program was allowed to talk much about the past for fear that it would unearth up some sinful pleasure we’d once experienced.

“We can find a blessing and see God’s goodness based on scripture for each aspect of our lives,” Smid repeated. He said it so quickly, his words came out as a string I had to unravel: “We-can-find-a-blessing-and-see-God’s-goodness-based-on-scripture-for-each-aspect-of-our-lives.” It reminded me of the prayers my parents taught me to recite every night as a kid, the words automatic, coming out in a sudden, desperate rush to make contact with an impatient God:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I-pray-the-Lord-my-soul-to-take. Amen.

I no longer knew what time it was. I was staring at the strip of pale skin on my wrist where my watch had been. Smid’s words continued running together, and before long the sunlight was slanting across the room, cutting the carpet into polygons. Smid circled our group, stepping around the light. I thought of a game my friends and I used to play after church as kids: one wrong step and you were dead, liquefied by lava; one wrong step and you had to sit it out on the sidelines and watch the other kids play. I angled my foot into the light, the plastic tips of my shoelaces glinting. If only it were that easy.

The handbook felt heavy against my knees, the MI ready to burn a hole through my thigh. Would I eventually learn, like many of the veteran members of our group had, to speak casually about a subject that terrified me? Perhaps it would be a change for the better, getting it all out in the open. I’d already read the sample MI included in our handbooks, and I’d been shocked at the language surrounding the writer’s instance of sexual sin, at the near-constant therapeutic language that seemed to blanket each statement, render it almost unidentifiable in the physical world, all of the speaker’s FIs removed until there seemed to be nothing left but pure godly repentance, a platonic form of recovery, all identifying features already erased.

I’d already read the sample MI included in our handbooks, and I’d been shocked at the language surrounding the writer’s instance of sexual sin, at the near-constant therapeutic language that seemed to blanket each statement.

It reminded me of how I’d felt after I finished my genogram the day before. Standing up from the poster, I’d thought, There they are, as though my family had gathered together in front of me for the singular purpose of revealing my place at LIA. Oddly, it was the first time I’d felt truly comfortable with all my relatives in one room. They were innocuous, staring up at me from their little patch of Berber carpet, surrounded by their labeled sins, stripped of their judgment. And though the grammar needed tidying up, the sample Moral Inventory I’d read promised the same: a life with God; a restoration to our purest presinful selves; the “spiritual awakening” Step Twelve promised we would all eventually experience if we stayed in the program long enough, the world growing dimmer and dimmer until it disappeared from sight. The sample MI felt like a dispatch from another world.

I sought an encounter and used and manipulated another person to medicate me from the pain of my life. I used fantasy as an escape, but when the fantasy was over, reality was even more painful. I believed that he would offer me hope and freedom, but all I found was more guilt, condemnation and hopelessness. I lied to my friends and family about my struggle and attempted to hide from it. My struggle only intensified — my life became more out of control. I believed many lies that I was worthless, hopeless, and had no future. I rejected the people who could help me and embraced the things that were hurting me.

Though the grammar needed tidying up, the sample Moral Inventory I’d read promised the same: a life with God; a restoration to our purest presinful selves.

“Let’s start here,” Smid said, pointing to S, who was sitting on the far left of our group. “But first, let’s remember a few ground rules.” As he recited the rules, he ticked each one off with a finger until he opened his white palm to us: “Nothing illicit. Be respectful. No glamorizing, rationalizing, or minimizing what happened or how you felt.”

The kitchen behind me was quiet now, the main room filled with the sound of hushed breathing, the sunlight so bright against the carpet that it seemed to give off an audible buzz.

S stood and made her way to the center of our circle. Today she wore a long denim skirt and no makeup, her hair pulled back in a frizzy ponytail. She looked like one of those Mennonite women who sold brownies and various baked goods in small-town thrift shops all over Arkansas.

“It started with a kiss,” she began. “I’m not going to go into the details, but that’s how it started. I thought it was innocent, but I was wrong.”

I looked at J out of the corner of my eye. He sent me half a smirk. Get ready, it seemed to say.

“I did . . . horrible things,” she continued, reading from a wrinkled sheet of wide-ruled paper that trembled in her hands. “I felt so much shame. I knew God was disappointed — more than disappointed. I turned my back on God. I entered into a sinful relationship with another girl. It was disgusting. Now that I look back on it, I realize how disgusting it was.” S looked down at her skirt. She closed her eyes.

“Don’t be afraid,” Smid said.

“That was why — that was why — ” She kept her eyes closed. “I think that was why I ended up with the dog.” The word “dog” sounded like a curse, something that had been boiling up inside of her for years.

She was in the Consequences section of her MI, well on her way to the Changes section — “I want to change myself. I’m tired of feeling empty inside” — the whole MI outline designed to lead her to redemption. The rest of her account was rather straightforward, with a string of stock phrases supplied for each section. Her voice, when reciting the phrases, swelled with a kind of pride that hadn’t been there only a few minutes before.

Her voice, when reciting the phrases, swelled with a kind of pride that hadn’t been there only a few minutes before.

Strengths: “I’m learning to rely more on God, to trust in His grace.”

Goals: “I want to read the Bible more every day, really listen to God’s voice.”

Blessing: “I see now how much love I’ve been given, how many blessings God has bestowed upon my life. I see how truly ungrateful I’d been in the past.”

Step Application: “I think this experience, and the memory of it, applies most directly to Step Three. I’ve made a decision to turn my life over to the care of Jesus Christ.”

Scripture: “I took my scripture from John, Galatians, and Psalms. We can never trust ourselves. Every bit of our trust has to be turned over to God.”

Three, four, five more people had gone, their stories fusing together into one long string of repentance. The room was freezing now. I rolled down my sleeves again, buttoned the cuffs.

“One of our new members is going to share for the first time,” Smid said, walking toward me. I could feel J’s eyes on me. I could tell he was trying to encourage me, but it only made me feel worse. I pulled out my MI from under my thighs, my hands shaking.

“One of our new members is going to share for the first time,” Smid said, walking toward me. I could feel J’s eyes on me.

“Would you mind going?” Smid asked me. His voice was soft, polite, encouraging.

I stood up and made my way to the center of the group. I coughed. I wanted to tell everyone how cold I was, how I wasn’t shaking from fear but only shivering.

“Take your time,” Smid said.

I could make a run for it, I thought. I could push open the sliding glass door and run down the streets until I made my way to some public park where I could hide.

A clanging of metal on metal from the kitchen. I coughed again, and added my voice to the chorus.

[Boy Erased is out in paperback now. Garrard Conley ’s memoir workshop at Catapult starts March 20th, and is currently accepting applications.]

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