reclaiming personal identity| 2019.05.10

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

Conley, Garrad_Boy Erased

Publication: New York, New York : Riverhead Books, 2016

Genre: Memoirs, Autobiographies

Pages: 340

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

In some ways, this book hit close to home for me, as it illustrated how religion can influence not only people’s struggles for individual identity, but also their striving to find a place to belong within society. The story captured in this book is about Conley’s experiences while in the Christian reform program known (ironically, I’d like to argue with my fist planted firmly in the pavement of my frustration at this type of misnomer) as Love In Action (LIA), a kind of pray-the-gay-away organization founded in 1973.

It’s funny (not funny) to me that this organization is the foundational backdrop for this book, as Conley’s initial mention of it immediately invoked memories of my own from when I attended a conservative Christian university back in the early 2000s. There I was in one of the many semi-required chapel sessions, and suddenly the proud college leaders were marching onto the stage a troupe of advocates for a program that we conservative students needed to know about. While the name of that particular program now sadly eludes me, I remember distinctly the focus of the program was to help “poor homosexuals” reject their sexual deviances and come back into the fold of the Jesus freaks (I’m not trying to be disrespectful by using that term, by the way, as Christians have codified the phrase as their own way of reclaiming the would-be insult).

I remember thinking that the program visiting my college that day was proclaiming a rather uncomfortable premise. I remember being even further confused at the, once again, staunch rejection of anything outside the Christian circle. The saddest part of this type of program, which sets itself up to “deprogram” groups of individuals (therefore inherently boxing people into singular and often quite binary definitions of identity), is that, when seen from a non-Christian perspective, it paints religion in such a negative light of intolerance. If your identity is wrapped tightly inside a group-security that demands complete sacrifice and ultimate servanthood to “a higher power” that is constantly being interpreted only by the leaders of that security group, how can anything “other” be allowed room to voice any kind of alternate, personal experience.

As a memoir, personal experience is certainly what Conley’s book brings to light. His story pulls out all the stops and forces the reader to deal face-to-face with the dangers of group-think-identity as driven by religious mantras. I find Christianity’s rejection of personal identity (like whether a person identifies as being gay) to be pretty ironic, because Christianity proclaims itself to be built on individual experience, with all of its praise for the personal testimony (a phrase in the Christian realm defined as a person’s individual “coming to Jesus” story). Christians often pride themselves on being part of a religion that is based on personal relationships with God and Jesus. However, ultimately, the strict code of conduct they ascribe to seems to simultaneously encourage a perspective that says the only experiences (translated as “testimonies”) that seem to matter to the Christian group-think mentality are those that align to the interpretations of Christ’s teachings as proclaimed by the Christian leadership in vogue at that moment in history.

At the risk of turning this book review into my own personal rant against the Christian faith, I’d like to point out a detail that Conley also discusses toward the end of his book, namely the fact that LIA found it had to rebrand itself in 2012 as Restoration Path and had its leaders make multiple public attempts to try and clean up the mess its former leaders had made in the wake of their antigay therapy practices because too many of their students were ending up either victims of suicide or recovering from multiple attempts of suicide. But it should’t surprise us that if we are taught to believe that such an integral part of our identity (such as our sexual orientation) has zero chance of being accepted, the ultimate result will be the deepest kind of inescapable despair.

Conley explains in his book that LIA was very good at isolating its students into a place where they “had to [. . .] leave people behind who were harmful to [their] development, who reminded [them] of the past.” This drips of addiction counseling, as if a person’s “gayness” is linked to some kind of illicit drug that initiates continuous “bad” behavior. To combat addiction, you take away the triggers, as any former alcoholic or smoker will tell you. With LIA, the leaders encouraged its students to demonize past relationships, along with their own sex-drives, in order to isolate out these “masters” of purported deviant behavior. Conley writes of himself and his fellow LIA students, “We had to be willing to give up any ideas about who we were before we came to LIA.”

It took Conley eight years after he left LIA before he felt finally comfortable enough to write about his personal experiences while inside LIA’s teachings. This is perhaps a telling illustration of the despairing power that can be obtained by isolating, so as to then inculcate, individuals into a belief system. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book is that we need to do better at seeing individuals first by accepting them with all the complexities of the intersectionality that makes up their personal experiences and ultimately their individual identities.

magical memory carpets | 2019.01.07

Among Others by Jo Walton | Review

walton, jo_among others

Publication: New York : Tor, 2011, ©2010

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 302

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

This is going to be long and obnoxious, however . . .

“It makes me melancholy to remember, but a little bit of the security and excitement comes through from the way I was feeling in the memory. Memories are like a big pile of carpets, I keep them piled up in one big pile in my head and don’t pay much attention to them separately, but if I want to, I can get back in and walk on them and remember. I’m not really there, not like an elf might be, of course. It’s just that if I remember being sad or angry or chagrined, a little of that feeling comes back. And the same goes for happy, of course, though I can easily wear out the happy memories by thinking about them too much. If I do, when I’m old all the bad memories will still be sharp, because of pushing them away, but all the good ones will be worn out.”

As my dearest friend and I met last weekend to muddle through drafts of our memoiristic essay collection that we hope will manifest itself into something someday worth sharing, I asked for her thoughts on this quote. We’re writing our book together to wear out the less pleasant memories, she agreed with another cheers of our glasses. Of course, there’s always melancholy when it comes to memories, and the writing seems to encapsulate the cringing in a type of sainthood sometimes. I love Orwell’s caution to fellow writers in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” where he states simply that “whoever writes about his [or her] childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity.” Because memories are slippery, and if we try to rush to the climax, we’ll miss the ecstasy of orgasm that often mirrors revelation.

If this book had been available when I was fifteen, I think my life might have turned out different, but that’s what we say, I’d wager, whenever we find a text (or any type of artist endeavor really) that resonates. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower before the repressed memories of my abuse-filled childhood came back, and it didn’t jar those memories loose or change the forefront (a.k.a. consciousness) of how I saw the world at that time. But the change was probably there, brewing just beneath the surface. Maybe it’s not that a life’s course can necessarily change in its subsequent curves between this or that circumstance, but that a person’s perspective of those twisting paths might be turned ever so slightly aside to better perceive the options inherent to living in and of itself. Perhaps this is the magic of books particularly, in that they provide a kaleidoscope through which the reader (and sometimes the writer) can view and, hopefully, understand better the intricacies of not only the lives of others but of himself or herself. Any book or piece of art that accomplishes this depth of wondering introspection possesses the magic of time travel, which rings of both science fiction and fantasy together (I think we’ve found your magic carpets, Walton, huzzah!).

Yet such a journey is not to be rushed, I’ve become convinced (as I’ve stated above with probably too much boldness). Among Others took me just over six months to finish. I savored each fictionalized journal entry, not wanting the music of Walton’s reflective prose to end. While some reviewers expressed being overwhelmed by the endless stream-of-consciousness references to all the science fiction and fantasy books a mind could possibly hold, I’m excited to have Walton’s book on my shelf as a kind of experiential reading list. Not only does she give recommendations of authors and titles (some recommendations more flattering than others . . . Le Guin, Heinlein, Delany, and Zelazny seem to be among her favorites), but as I worked through Morwenna’s lists of her and Walton’s choice literary pieces while taking intermittent breaks from Among Others, I found the storyline of Walton’s book grew in depth and richness. Because reading is an experience that the reader can hold in his or her mind for eternity if the right notes are struck. Sharing those experiences through the sharing of great, or even just memorable (some might say you can’t have one without the other) books and writing and art in general can calm the anxiety of loneliness.

And loneliness is what Walton’s book is all about. This theme comes up again and again. The main character even chides herself for wishing (to the point of magic) for a group of likeminded friends, fearing that comrades gotten by selfish wish-making might negate the authenticity of such meetings of kindred spirits. So I found the book to be more than a collection of the author’s favorite sci-fi and fantasy recommendations. It’s immovably rife also with coming-of-age motifs, including the finding of the self in the face of mother-daughter relations, rumors among classmates, the desperation of trying to capture fresh memories before they go stale, and magic . . . always the magic of youth and what it means to hold onto that while the years gather.

ulysses’s evil twin | 2018.12.22

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany | Review

delany, samuel r._dhalgren

Publication: Bantam Books 1975

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 801

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

Last summer, a lowly, long-distance sci-fi book group picked this one out their usual scramble for fodder to inspire great, or at least amusing, literary and scientifically-charged discussion. At the book’s half-way point by late October, two out of the three members were ready to throw in the towel. This is not an uncommon response, it seems. A good number of the book reviews I found online that tackle Delany’s masterpiece (I’m just going to boldly put that out there) focus, much like my book group in our initial stages, on the difficulty of this book.

Yes, it’s 800 goddamn pages. Yes, the writing tends toward the experimental both in style and format. Yes, the sex is explicit and detailed without the familiarity of superfluous erotica expectations, and, yes, the plot is as shadowy as Bellona’s cityscape, which Delany describes with the repetition of a rower’s oar trying to surge its owner’s escape through a haze of on-the-verge-of-continuously violent friendships that seem to offer little to no edification. (That last one was a terrible attempt at emulation, by the way. More practice needed.)

By mid-December, my book group agreed (or perhaps we agreed to disagree after we’d quit towel-tossing and got back to the business of intellectual debate) that to ask, “What happened?” in the midst of this book’s circular-reasoning mire of philosophical quandaries was to miss the point of the book completely.

Instead, we found this is the type of book that pulled out all the stops, tackling race, sexual expectations, social norms, the sham of economics, the impenetrable fortress of humanistic religion (is there any other kind . . . really?), identity, gender, ageism, literary form, and every other stereotype imaginable. Perhaps there is a way to scale this type of philosophical mountain other than with experimental prose and plot structure, but in reading Dhalgren, I came back to my old prejudices about this topic. Clockwork Orange couldn’t have the same gut-punching impact if it used the language of the average Joe Schmo. It is in the poetry of language that the soul, or whatever you want to call the intangible element of sentient beings, finds its true voice–to be too clear is to put the potential of interpretation in a straitjacket.

Let’s not forget also that Delany was writing Dhalgren on the heels of multiple cultural revolutions that drastically changed the face of the United States, or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves over and over again. Reading Delany’s giant, which has been called “Ulysses’ evil twin,” made me wonder if the author had left the 1960s with bittersweet regard.

To say this book is a metaphor for the mayhem of American culture, with all its self-absorption, inescapably demoralizing money-grubbing, overly-concerned religious frittering, and endless identity crises, seems a bit on the nose. But to hell with it: I’m pretty sure this book is a fucking metaphor. If you’re not into metaphors or allegories or lyrically gorgeous philosophical wonderings, well, there’s always Rocky Flintstone.