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.

conquering death to spite english | 2019.01.21

Census by Jesse Ball | Review

Ball, Jesse_Census

Publication: New York, NY : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2018]

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Pages: 241 | 4 hours 54 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

What thoughts wash through a person’s mind as they approach death? What we usually think of and what’s presented in most literary explorations of the end stages of a human life are of course memories, albeit cautiously viewed only through the lens of backward looking. Yet unlike Granny Weatherall and many others, the unnamed main character of Ball’s novel does not seem to be plagued by these all-too-common shackles of regret.

Instead, Ball’s narrator completely embraces the more pleasant-leaning memories of what he, his recently deceased wife, and their son have accomplished as a family unit during their life together. At the same time, the main character makes the very conscious decision to turn his family’s last hoped-for accomplishment into a reality, and this in the shape of a long car trip with himself and his son in the flesh, while they both carry his wife along for the ride in their memories. As a result, the narration artfully traces the characters’ journeys of standing still in the contented contemplation of the past while they simultaneously strive to take one last brave step forward together both in life and in death.

In Census, the narrator is newly diagnosed with an undisclosed terminal illness sometime after the death of his beloved wife. In response to the news of his impending passage off this celestial plane of consciousness, the main character, as mentioned above, decides to spend the remaining weeks of his life taking his son on the very road trip their little family had always longed for. Yes, very much yes, the writing captures well the bittersweetness of the main character and his son (who we know from the author’s introduction has Down syndrome like the author’s own brother) having missed this road trip opportunity while the main character’s spouse was still able to join them in the flesh. However, it is this melancholy that embodies the backward and forward sway of pushing would-be regret toward fulfillment. The book struck me as the subtlest portrayal of time travel in this way. And, this is exactly how the book is able to relate the essence of calm reflection at its core.

To call a road trip where the journeying duo task themselves with the solemn duties of tattooing census marks on various citizens may seem an odd choice at first. But this is where the novel distinguishes itself from the usual verge-of-death stories we often find in literature. For not only is the narrative filled with memories, it also offers a view of the lives being currently lived within that same narrative of the father and son being featured, as well as of the many varied people they meet (and tattoo) along the way.

I loved the other reviews I found of this book. They pointed out Ball’s literary echoing of the writing styles of Kafka, Calvino, and Whitman, each in turn, with which I agree on unrealized-until-now reflection. The landscape being described is vast and unknowable except through the people who populate it in turns with excitement and apprehension at the idea of being “counted” with the unexplained tattoo ritual associated with the census taking task. In the midst of these literarily gorgeous descriptions, Ball straddles memoiristic and fantastically-almost-science-fictional prose. Not a small accomplishment, to be sure.

And then there are the repeated references to the writings of the fictional Mutter and her sweet obsession with cormorants. Ball explains this inclusion as his solution for relating to his readers the philosophical highs and lows of his main character’s emotional states. In an interview with Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, Ball states that “having Mutter allows for emotional peaks of various sorts to be reached by reference,” instead of leaning all the weight of philosophical pondering on the main character.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the above-mentioned Down syndrome of the main character’s son and Ball’s normalcy-demanding handling of this topic. This, I feel, is too huge a part of the novel to be ignored. How do we respond with adequacy to the categorically “abnormal” when abnormal is really where everyone lives constantly if we are brave enough to admit it? We use, clumsily as they come, the words available . . . but even these efforts so tragically fail, it seems. Ball has the firsthand experience, in his relationship with his now deceased and very much-loved brother, to tackle such a topic, however. He knows enough about the failings of our English language to still convince his book’s prose to give praise to the beauty inherent in an “other’s” perspective of seeing the world. Pulling again from the Powell’s interview, I deeply appreciated Ball explains the following:

“It’s difficult to speak about subjects who do not participate in a substantive way in the creation of the language that you’re going to speak about them in. I had to find a way to write about people like my brother in English, when the language itself is an enemy. That was one of the reasons for writing the book, and one of the problems that I had to navigate in writing it.”

Because the English language, the language in which this book seems to be apolitically written, is the language of the historically oppressive. If you feel this book review is a little tiny bit judgmental then perhaps you’re ready to take another look at what really matters, with a simultaneously backwards and forwards glance.

the art of relatability | 2018.06.26

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen | Review

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2013]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 353

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover

Source: MCL

I’ve been thinking a lot about the attraction of the memoir. This year’s Wordstock (rebranded as the Portland Book Festival) a couple weekends ago gave testimony again to our culture’s currently heightened obsession with this genre. There were endless sessions it seemed with writers talking about their latest memoir or autobiographical work of fiction. We are a people who need to tell our stories, and we need them to be heard.

So, I began thinking about why our culture has been feeling so egocentric lately. But then I realized that a memoir, a really good one that is actually doing its job well, while it may be about the author, sure, is probably not so much for the author as much as it is for the readers. Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special, in this way, probably carries more significance for some of its audience members than even for Christensen herself (which, I understand, sounds ludicrous since the book is after all about Christensen’s very personal experiences).

What I’m talking about is the power of relatability. When a reader reads about an author’s experiences that mirror that reader’s own experiences, this means that reader is suddenly not alone anymore in their experiences. I deeply feel that some of the topics Christensen’s book addresses (such as domestic violence, relational infidelity, and childhood molestation) are the ones that so often need the voice of solidarity.

The book uses the author’s endless love of food, flavors, and cooking to find touchstones amongst the harsher topics that the author deals with throughout the story. I loved the imagination of the recipes at the end of many of the chapters. They felt like exemplifications of personal victories in the realm of self-actualization.