Future Meetings in 2019

Contact us to join our future meetings: bristolbookclub@hotmail.co.uk

  1. 22nd August Logical Family: A Memoir; Armistead Maupin (H)
  2. 30th September The Master; Colm Tóibín (B)

Future books

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About us

The group started off in 2005 and has members from a mixture of ages and backgrounds. The turnout varies between six and fourteen people, though we have about thirty people on  the list of members.  The books we read vary from ‘light’ to ‘heavy’, usually written either by or about gay men. Anyone is free to choose a book but they don’t necessarily have to introduce it themselves. Discussions are quite lively, and last up to an hour We meet monthly midweek at 7.30 for 8, in a member’s flat on Bristol’s harbourside or at the house of two members in Bishopston, and chat over a glass of wine, beer or cup of coffee. Some people turn up to every meeting; others choose which meetings to attend according to whichever book is being discussed at any given time. Either is fine. We currently have more members than chairs so people are advised to book early (a notice goes out 10 days before each meeting) to avoid disappointment. Ffi: bristolbookclub@hotmail.co.uk

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On the Move, A Life, by Oliver Sacks

Everyone generally enjoyed On the Move. It was good to read a biography of someone who lived life to the full, with an added fascination that the stories were all true. Some comments:

  • Sacks was a one-off — an important man in his field.
  • Admiration for range of his interests and experiences: made me think ‘what have I done with my life!’
  • Driven by compulsions, and this was overwhelming. He was obsessive about many things: e.g. body building and drugs
  • Amazing that he met so many famous people: that was kick-started by his time at Cambridge, and he has a good head start in life from his impressive parents.
  • Good to read a book about a positive experience of a man coming out in the ’50s, and he was brave to do that — meeting his first partner from an ad in a phone box.
  • He’s somewhere on the Asperger’s scale – he found it hard to empathise with people unless he was in his white doctors’ uniform.
  • Also,  disinhibited about introducing himself to people and maximising any opportunity.
  • Struck by his recall and the amount of detail in the novel. Was that from memory or his compulsive note taking?
  • Sacks didn’t discuss informed consent. He used video  of his patients which would not be allowed today.
  • He was more of a describer than an analyst in his medical career, which may be a reason why he was rejected by the establishment
  • He had lots of brushes with death, but kept on escaping with his life.
  • Didn’t talk down to the reader
  • Is it physically possible to drink 70 cups of coffee in 30 hours?
  • It was a pity he introduced Billy in only a few pages at the end of the book

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Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Views of Less from the group were quite polarised: on balance not finding much of note in the book, and a questioning of why it won a Pulitzer Prize. Similarly to Patrick Gale writing in the Guardian, several members drew similarities in style with Armistead Maupin, but felt that Maupin had the edge over Greer. Some quotes:

  • Quite un-American — written in a British tradition
  • Not engaging
  • Good to see a book covering the identity of middle-aged men
  • Bland, boring, dire…
  • Whimsical
  • Very funny
  • A proud assertion of intergenerational love
  • Poor character development — didn’t know anything about the characters other than Arthur Less
  • Refreshing lightness of touch
  • There was not enough emotional heft to make people care about Less or his relationships
  • Implausible that the narrator would know the level of detail revealed
  • An affectionate portrait of Less
  • Victimhood make Less not particularly likeable
  • Wanted the novel to be so much more
  • Get a feeling of the boy within the man:many of us feel we are not doing a good job of growing up
  • Superficial
  • An Odyssey for the modern age
  • Greer is great at one liners
  • Expectations were high because the book had won a Pulitzer Prize.

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Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Colm Toibin

On 23 April 24, 2019 we discussed ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ by Colm Toibin. Three essays about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B.Yeats and James Joyce; these were first given as lectures when Toibin was invited to give the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2017. They were subsequently adapted and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.  Ten members attended the meeting.

This is a well researched somewhat academic work, with a lengthy Bibliography, by an author who is a joy to read in both fiction and non-fiction.

It is fair to say that all members who had read this book found it fascinating and enjoyed the many links which Toibin established between each of the subjects and their fathers, including ways in which they surface in their works.

Toibin lives in Dublin, as did each of his subjects during the same period in the late  19th Century. The Introduction is a joyful and sensitive walk around  modern day Dublin, in which the author links each of his subjects to streets, buildings, hotels, churches, libraries, homes and even particular rooms.  

A modern day tourist, armed with these twenty pages of the Introduction as a guide book,  will discover statues, monuments, plaques and many homes and studios where the three authors are commemorated, lived and worked.

It is a literary love letter to Dublin which brings the city vividly to life.

Each of the three authors was, in their different ways, the son of an influential and successful father, but each very different characters.

Sir William Wilde was a famous doctor with many medical papers to his name, as well as procedures named after him. However, he was also a travel writer, historian, biographer and antiquarian.  At age twenty six, he was already a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the British Association and was appointed Census Commissioner for the censuses of 1851,1861 and 1871. Sir William and Lady Wilde were established members respectable Dublin society. In spite of his having fathered three illegitimate children before his marriage, all of who he acknowledged and provided for. Quite an act to follow.

Being more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde, may partly explain why several members found this the most interesting of the essays. Certainly the alleged misbehaviour of Sir William Wilde and the court case he faced was a fascinating foretaste of the court case which subsequently landed his son Oscar in Reading Gaol.

Yeats’s father was a brilliant and prolific letter writer as well as an impoverished artist who seemed unable to ever actually finish a painting. The story of his self portrait makes fascinating reading. For the last 15 years of his life he lived in New York and was supported by his son.

Opinions varied on this essay which contains long extracts from his letters. One member found it the most interesting, whilst others found the essays on Wilde and Joyce the most fascinating. Several members lamented our lack of knowledge of Yeats’s works.

The final essay, on Joyce’s father demonstrated how Joyce had modelled Simon Dedalus in Ulysses on his father who was a singer, a drinker and a storyteller unable or unwilling to provide for his large family.

Inevitable discussion turned to Oedipus complex.  Each of the three authors despised their fathers is some ways. Did they feel constrained by their them ?    To what extent did each feel the need to compete ? to be different ? to deny or to support ? Clearly each needed to make his own mark in a different way than the father.

Against the background of Dublin society at the turn of the century, issues such as Home Rule, the Anglo-Irish, the behaviour of powerful members of the establishment and the  links between influential families are threads which are constantly present and which help bind these three essays together.

It is a tribute to Toibin’s beautiful writing that following our discussion of this fascinating book, the group then chose another of Toibin’s novels as a future read.

GJB.

 

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Breaking the Code, Hugh Whitemore

The member who chose the book did so having not read the play; he had however seen the play on it’s original run in 1986. He noted that this was in a grim period of time for theatre, and pretty much everything else, due to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, adding that the play was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative time. Having read the play, he felt it was a very sympathetic portrait of Turing at a very poignant moment (I presume for both Turing and the time when the play came out).
The group agreed that the play ‘stands up’ still, with one member commenting that it scores on three levels: portraying Turing as a strange, but attractive character; providing an interesting and, as one other member added, accessible presentation of electro-mechanical facts, and how tragic the outcome of Turing’s life was.
A member who found the play to be enjoyable, emotional and funny compared it to the recent film, The Imitation Game; feeling that there was less focus on the war in the play, but that it discussed the real life impact of Turing’s work, which the film focused less on.
The naivety of Turing’s character, when in discussion with the police officer, was highlighted and his admission was thought of as unnecessary.  However; the member who raised this had read the play twice and, on second reading, considered the feelings he had himself towards the police when he was younger, which was implicit trust . He therefore sympathised with Turing’s naivety. The same member humourously referred to Turing as the ‘classic’ engineer; excellent with hands-on work, but incapable of managing an engineering department.
There was interest in how faithful the play was to Turing’s life, with one member stating that, whilst they appreciated the artistry of the play, they would have liked to have got to the facts of the matter, rather than any potential fiction. The member who chose the book pointed out that the play had been based on a novel, which some expressed interest in reading.
In addition to these points, how the character of Turing was presented was of significant interest, with people feeling he was personable, flirty on occasions, although exhibiting a touch of Asperger’s; especially with regard to his confession of his supposed crime to the police officer.
One member felt that the way in which the character was presented was very much as an expression of Turing’s work and theories; in opposition, almost. Where as the character is at times blunt, ordered and controlled (chaining his mug to the radiator being a prime example), like numbers (which he calls his friends), he is also rebellious (being unashamedly recognised as homosexual in his work place), questioning and disregarding of traditional rules (for example, when he bypasses the usual hierarchical steps and writes to Churchill directly to request the equipment needed for his work).  Turing challenged mathematical order and laws using a similarly anarchic approach.
This led on to a conversation about Turing’s mechanical brain and how it could learn from the results of innumerable binary computations; how essential electronics was to the advancement of mechanics and how this mechanical device could potentially write sonnets and compose symphonies with all the feeling of a human being. Before long, however, the discussion had branched off in to the realms of chaos theory…
Although Turing was the clear focus of the play, the other characters were not overlooked. Particular sympathy was voiced over Pat, who appeared at various times as an esteemed colleague, potential paramour and career-up-the-spout wife and mother, with particular emphasis on Turing’s imaginings of how his life would have panned out had he married Pat; there appears to be no question that Pat would have consented to such a proposal.
The exchanges between Turing and the policeman were, as one member pointed out, reminiscent of Orton and appeared farcical at times. Another member likened the policeman to the character of Truscott from Loot.
Turing’s mother divided the group, with some considering her reaction to the announcement of his homosexuality as liberal and accepting and others feeling it was dismissed as a nonsensical eccentricity. Similarly, her explanation of his death was considered both brushed under the carpet, due the shame she felt about his homosexuality, and dismissed out of hand as an accident resulting from his harebrained experimenting. Regardless, the parallel between the supposed cause of Turing’s death and Snow White’s momentary demise was duly noted.
Knox’s numerous references to his failing memory interested one member, who felt it was in reference to the superiority of the mechanical brain over the human brain; whereas the human mind grows old and withers, the mechanical brain, in theory, is not subject to such limitations and continues to learn and amass knowledge exponentially.
Despite being but a hundred pages of dialogue, the play provoked a hearty and interesting discussion which we came close to cutting short (there were M&S mini beef Wellingtons to be had…)

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History of Violence – Édouard Louis

A History of Violence by Edouard Louis

  1. His previous book was a 2017 favourite of the bookgroup.
  2. As before there was some discussion/dislike of the form of Louis writing (autofiction) and whether one could believe in the veracity of his narrative. Moreover, there was some questioning over the value, and certainly the pleasure of a narrative so unrelentingly bleak.
  3. Some questions over the meaning of the title.
  4. Some readers found the narrative structure (Louis listening to his sister recount the story of his rape to her husband) to be unrealistic and the voices of these characters to be impossible to distinguish. Other readers did not agree with this assertion and found the sister to have a distinct voice, and that her provincial view on her brother’s assimilation into Paris provided one of the few parts of humour in the novel.  It was argued that this narrative device was perhaps necessary in order for the author to transmute the trauma of his experience into a narrative: a way for him to view the experience from the outside.  It was also felt that the gaps between the sister’s narration and the narrator/author’s recollection of it was a dramatic device to highlight the fallacy of memory.
  5. Some readers felt that the book was a political discourse and that it engaged with Foucault and Baudrillard in trying to ‘voice the margins’. Perhaps what the novel is concerned with is power and the abuses of it.
  6. It was felt that the scenes with the police were moving and that one could imagine the character’s suffering and humiliation at having to relive the experience.
  7. It was noted that the physicality of Reda is not really delineated although there were no real conclusions as to why this was so.
  8. Overall, many readers felt it was ‘unrelentingly claustrophobic’, humourless and self-obsessed and most readers said they would not choose to read it again.

As we know from The End of Eddy, Édouard has criminal elements in his own impoverished family; he feels both frightened by and sympathetic towards Reda, with a deep ambivalence towards the man who nearly murdered him.

It is about the tension between desire and danger, between passion and destruction, and about how individuals heal from trauma without allowing themselves to remain perpetual victims.

The opening is very visceral.

We get the usual long paragraphs, e.g. 4 pages at the end of chapter 6.

Quotations:

On days when I felt calmer I would imagine myself picking out someone I didn’t know in some public place, on the sidewalk or in the aisle of a supermarket, and telling them my whole story, everything that had happened. In these visions, I would walk up to this unknown person, who would shrink back, and I would just start talking, as casually and routinely as if we had known each other forever, without telling them my name, and what I would say to this person was so horrible that there was nothing they could do but stand there and listen until I was done; they’d listen and I would watch their face. I’d spend my time fantasizing about scenes in which I’d do this. I didn’t tell Clara, but this fantasy of shamelessness and self-display kept me going for weeks.

The fact is that I was unable to stop talking about it. I had told what had happened to most of my friends during the week after Christmas, but not only to them; I had also told people to whom I was much less close, acquaintances, or people I had only ever spoken to once or twice, sometimes only on Facebook. I would become annoyed when people tried to respond, when they would show too much empathy or offer some kind of analysis of what had happened, as when Didier and Geoffroy speculated that Reda wasn’t really his name. I wanted everyone to know but I wanted to be the only one among them who could see the truth of it, and the more times I spoke about it, the more I said, the stronger my feeling was that I was the only one who really knew, I was unique, in stark contrast to what I considered to be the laughable naïveté of everyone else. It didn’t matter what the conversation was about, I would find a way to bring Reda into it, to have him appear, to bring it all back to him, as if any topic of conversation had logically to lead back to my memory of him.

The first week of February—barely a month after Christmas—I went out to meet an author who had written to me and proposed that we have lunch together. I didn’t know him, but I said yes, and I knew why I had done that. He wanted me to write a piece for a special issue of a literary journal he was editing (a few days later, I sent him a really poorly written text, for obvious reasons), and I behaved in exactly the same way with him. This was a period in which I really wasn’t in touch with the words I spoke. The author arrived at the restaurant where I was waiting for him, where I was already quivering in my seat obsessively playing with the eraser on the pencil that happened to be in my pocket; he sat down, he took off his flannel jacket, he shook my hand and was barely settling into his seat, yet already my lips were burning to speak to him about Christmas. I thought to myself: No, you can’t speak about that right now. Wait a bit. Not right away. Be polite. Wait a bit. At least pretend to talk about something else. The reflection of the gray-blue sky outside could be seen on the walls of the buildings, something I remember not because the sky interests me, but because I wasn’t listening and instead gazed out the window, distracted and uninterested, whenever I wasn’t the one who was talking.

“This was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude.”

We had exchanged a few sentences and for about ten minutes I held my breath, barely able to contain myself; I could feel Reda’s name on my lips. I held back, pretended to engage in the usual kind of conversation for a meeting like this, I played my role, got him to talk about his work, his books, his projects, but I didn’t listen to anything he said. I replied to his questions on the same topics but I no more listened to my answers than to his; making myself stay calm was all the more difficult in that everything he said and everything he got me to say with his questions, any observations he made, felt like an indirect invitation to speak about Christmas. What I mean is that I found connections everywhere, that everything I perceived and therefore my entire view of reality was conditioned by Reda. So I spoke fearing that the words Reda or Christmas might slip out, too early, against my will.

Then I did speak. It felt to me that the time had come, and I thought Now I’ve held back for long enough, now you’ve earned the right to speak and I did what I’d been waiting to do since he arrived at the restaurant: I monopolized the conversation, only I spoke for the rest of our lunch, and he barely got in a few brief comments between two mouthfuls of food: “That’s terrible, how horrible, oh my God, etc.,” which only added to my exultation. At the end of the meal I begged him not to repeat anything I’d said; on top of all that I couldn’t figure out why, and I said I was sorry for this too, this was something else I went on apologizing for, why I had told him everything, why him, someone I barely knew, how could I have behaved so inappropriately, as I knew I had, how could I have been so rude. It’s along those lines that I existed, that I spoke, that I acted during the weeks that followed the assault.

This mad flood of speech had begun at the hospital. It was only an hour or two after Reda had left, and I had run to the emergency room close to where I live to get a postexposure prophylaxis against HIV. The hospital was nearly empty on Christmas morning; a homeless man was walking up and down in the waiting room. He wasn’t waiting but simply wanted to be inside out of the cold. He said, “A very Merry Christmas to you” when I sat down a few feet away. That A very Merry Christmas to you, so odd, so improbable in these surroundings and after what had just happened, made me laugh. An uncontrollable burst of laughter took hold of me, a laugh that was loud and full and that resonated in the empty waiting room, as I remember it, a horrible laugh that bounced off the walls, as I bent forward, holding my stomach with both hands, unable to breathe, and replied between two bursts of laughing, all out of breath, “Thanks very much, thanks, and a very Merry Christmas to you too.”

I waited. No one appeared. I went on sitting there. I had the feeling I was playing a role in a story that wasn’t my own. I applied myself relentlessly to remembering in order to stop myself from thinking, not that nothing had happened—how could I have thought that?—but that it had happened to someone else, to a different person, and that I had watched it all from the outside; I thought to myself: That’s where your obsession comes from. That’s why you are always obsessively asking yourself what the child you used to be would have thought of the adult that you’ve become. I thought: Because you’ve always felt like this, that your life is taking place outside yourself, in spite of yourself, that you’ve watched from the sidelines as it’s been constructed and that it’s not at all suited to you. Today’s not the first time. When you were little and your parents took you to the supermarket you would watch the people go by with their shopping carts. You’d stare at them, a strange habit you’d acquired from who knows where. You’d take in their clothes, their way of walking, and you’d say to yourself: I hope I end up like that, I hope I don’t end up like that. And you’d never have imagined becoming what you are today. Never. You’d never even have thought of not wanting to turn out this way.

If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry.

I craned my neck to try to see through the little windows all around the waiting room; it was a way of passing the time. Time slowed to a snail’s pace. I was waiting for one of the security doors to open, I was waiting for a doctor to appear, I coughed, sniffed, I pressed the red button of a little buzzer that was on the reception desk, and a nurse arrived, twenty or thirty minutes later. That’s when the torrent of words began. Its first manifestation, let’s say. I had already had to restrain myself from talking to the homeless man, who was obviously drunk, once he had said Merry Christmas, from replying to him that what he had said to me seemed a bit ironic given that here it was December 25, and I was at the hospital, which is to say at a moment when I should have been somewhere else, just like him, I had to restrain myself from beginning to tell him everything that had led up to my being there, in the emergency room. But this time I didn’t hold back, and so I told everything to the nurse, who only wanted to know which department to send me to—although thinking about it, he probably wasn’t a nurse, but maybe an attendant, or a receptionist, or a switchboard operator. I didn’t hold back my tears. I didn’t even try to hold them back, since I was convinced that if I didn’t cry he wouldn’t believe me. My tears weren’t fake; the pain was real. But I knew that I had to play the role well if I wanted anyone to believe me.

Obviously, all this anxiety only went on getting worse in the days that followed. Later, in a different hospital, despite my determination to move the doctor so that he would understand and believe me, my voice remained stuck in a metallic monotone, I spoke coldly and with distance, my eyes stayed dry. I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, the gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, I was still as calm as I had been when I first arrived and the doctor nodded his head behind his glasses, which were slipping down his nose.

I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.

Didier had phoned me in the middle of the night to tell me Dimitri had died, on a night when I was out walking, alone in the dark night when the telephone first buzzed and vibrated in my pocket. It was Didier sending me a text asking: “Can I call you?”; and I feared the worst since normally he didn’t ask if he could call before calling, I was afraid something serious might have happened to Geoffroy, I was imagining an accident of some kind. I forbade myself to think of his body lying on a stretcher, but the image still appeared, and I wrote back: “Of course,” already trembling, my fingers unsteady on the screen.

My cell phone rang for a second time, and I hesitated, and then Didier announced, in a voice that was both controlled and shaking, shaking precisely with a calmness that was too overdone, too artificial, that Dimitri, who had been traveling for an important meeting far from Paris, and to whom I had spoken a few hours earlier on the phone, was dead.

I was doing my best to provoke a bout of crying so I could convince the doctor of what I was saying, but it was too far in the past, it didn’t affect me any longer. I was compelling myself to cry and he, on his side of things, was holding on to his skepticism, and I felt that these two opposing forces meeting in the same moment could allow us to establish or rather to reestablish the truth of the matter, that the truth was to be found in this meeting, and that it would be born out of this tension. I did everything I could to cry but I didn’t succeed.

So there I was standing in front of the nurse in the first hospital, and on that night I was crying with no problem at all. He was trying to reassure me: “Someone will come take care of you, there’s not much I can do personally,” and it was all I could do not to scream: “I don’t think you understand.” In the end a nurse arrived. When she came up to me and asked me why I was here, I spoke, and went on speaking and speaking.

I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.”

“[H]e wanted to be the image of freedom at its most spectacular. It wasn’t a matter of responding to some kind of conflict. He would make the conflict himself, he would produce it, he would invent it.”

I met Reda on Christmas Eve 2012. I was going home after a meal with friends, at around four in the morning. He approached me in the street, and finally I invited him up to my apartment. He told me the story of his childhood and how his father had come to France, having fled Algeria.

“I never read, my parents wished I was good at school, but it wasn’t my thing, I was always clowning around.”

“one of the sentences around which I tried, later, to imagine Reda’s life, to construct meaning and explanations where there was only silence.”

We spent the rest of the night together, talking, laughing. At around 6 o’clock, he pulled out a gun and said he was going to kill me. He insulted me, strangled and raped me. The next day, the medical and legal proceedings began.

“I did what I could to muffle any groans of actual pain, letting him hear only the groans I faked…I struggled harder to give him pleasure, more pleasure, and so to end it sooner. I controlled everything, I measured everything—at least that’s what I wanted, and what I told myself to do.”

“That night I simply ignored anything that seemed bad about Reda…only later did it strike me how much reality I set aside in order to keep what I liked”

“injected fear into his body”

“The individual I had become … dressed as badly as he could, thinking, I want to look the way I feel, I want to be as repulsive as the thing that happened to me.”

“my pillow was Reda, the pitch darkness was Reda, the sheets were Reda”.

“Reda would find me after he got out of prison…he would hunt me down and take revenge.”

“He’s not a murderer. You don’t just run into murderers on the street. Murderers aren’t skinny Kabyles. They’re menacing and you don’t just happen to meet them by chance.”

“made me describe my night with Reda differently than I’d have chosen, and in the form that they imposed on my account, I no longer recognized the outlines of my own experience.”

You’ve also stayed away because you’ve discovered how easy it is to cut her loose, how little you actually miss her, and sometimes you rub her face in it because you want her help, because you want her to help you leave. Now she knows. She knows how cold you can be and you’re ashamed. Even if there’s no reason to be ashamed, even if you have every right to leave her, still you’re ashamed. You know that coming to see her means facing your own cruelty.

“A medical team at the FEU could tell precisely whether I had been the victim of an attack or of attempted murder when I was being strangled, which would change everything . . . as for the forced penetration, they said that, too, would have to be proven: scientifically ….”

I see you’ve come for this medication once before.” It was true. I had taken a preventive medication for AIDS two years before. The moment after she said it, she winced, “There’s nothing wrong with that, of course”—and her nothing wrong with that meant that something was indeed wrong with me.

“They say we can never leave language behind; they say language is the essence of being human and that it conditions everything…they say we don’t think first and then organize our thoughts into language later on, for language is what allows us to think… but if language is the essence of being human, then for those fifty seconds when he was killing me, I don’t know what was…”

“That’s what saved me—my ability to deny the facts”

I told Clara, giving in to my weakness for grandiosity — is both the best and the worst news for humanity, since it means all you have to change is the world and then people will change themselves, or at least most people, and (Clara wasn’t listening) there’s no need to change them person by person, which would take forever; people adapt, they don’t endure, they adapt.

 

He was on top of me, but he materialised in everything around me; I gather this is a recurring motif in accounts of rape: everything became an extension of Reda, my pillow was Reda, the pitch darkness was Reda, the sheets were Reda.

now I realised that the doctor had been there from the very beginning; since the moment I stepped into that phantom hospital she’d been sitting here in this office, across the hallway from the room with the graffiti, just a few metres away; she was playing solitaire on her computer while, inside my body, with every passing second, the AIDS was prob­ably germinating and had begun to wreak its pitiless destruction on my immune cells.

Arendt writes: `In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth ­the ability to lie — and the capacity to change facts — the ability to act — are interconnected; they owe their exist­ence to the same source: imagination. It is by no means a matter of course that we can say, “The sun shines,” when it actually is raining . . . ; rather, it indicates that while we are well equipped for the world, sensually as well as mentally, we are not fitted or embedded into it as one of its inalienable parts. We are free to change the world and to start something new in it.’ That’s what saved me — my ability to deny the facts.

I had become racist. Suddenly I was full of racism ­the one thing I had always considered most alien, most `other’ to my mind. Now I became one of those others. I became exactly the thing I had always rejected becoming — because you don’t become anything with­out excluding other possibilities, and now one of those possibilities had reared up from my past.

A second person took over my body; he thought for me, he spoke for me, he trembled for me, he was afraid for me, he inflicted his fear on me, he made me tremble over terrors of his own. On the bus or the metro I lowered my eyes if a man who was black or Arab or pos­sibly Kabyle came anywhere near me — because it was always men, and this was another absurd feature of the racist fantasy that colonised my being: the danger always came in the shape of a man. I would lower my eyes or turn my head and silently beg, Don’t attack me, don’t attack me. I never bowed my head if the man was blond or red-headed, or if he had very pale skin.

It turned out that I don’t write in order to seek pleasure; on the contrary, it turned out that by writing I am seeking pain, the most acute possible, well-nigh intolerable pain, most likely because pain is truth, and as to what constitutes truth, I wrote, the answer is so simple: truth is what consumes you, I wrote. Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child

 

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

The only child of a car salesman and soon-to-be Baptist pastor, Conley was “terrified and conflicted about his sexuality”. At nineteen, while in college, he was outed as gay to his parents and given the choice of being disowned or being subjected to gay conversion therapy that promised to cure his homosexuality. The timing came as his father was about to be ordained as a Baptist minister. Conley was enrolled in a Love in Action ex-gay program, and recounts the harm he was subjected to there in the name of curing his sexuality. The Bay Area Reporter noted, “Conley’s memoir oscillates between his revelations, good and bad, during time spent in the fold of the ex-gay ministry during his two-week stint in the ‘Source’ trial program, and his personal and familial history [that led up to] induction in the program.” He recounts the months of counselling he underwent followed by a two-week intensive intervention.

The book opens in June of 2004. Garrard Conley was 19 years old, homosexual, and living in the American South. His parent assigned him up for a sexual reorientation program at a fundamentalist Christian institution called Love in Action (LIA). The director of LIA, John Smid, preached the rejection of all secular pleasures in favor of religious devotion. Thus, when Conley arrived at LIA, the staff confiscated all of Conley’s belongings. Just like in the community of Conley’s hometown, the LIA program preached that homosexuality was sinful and unnatural.

The book then shifts back about one year. As a teenager, Conley developed a deep love of reading and writing, but his father and community viewed these interests as undesirable and effeminate. Conley’s father was a car salesman who was training to be a fundamentalist Christian pastor. In high school, Conley dated a girl named Chloe. Their relationship was chaste and they enjoyed spending time together. However, when they were 18 years old, Chloe wanted to have sex. Conley was unable to go through with the act, and so they ended their relationship.

In his teenage years, Conley worried that he would not be able to follow in his father’s path, both in terms of professional and religious pursuits. Conley felt this especially keenly after failing to perform satisfactorily during a morning Bible study. Conley enjoyed playing video games, as they were a type of escape from his daily life. As a teenager, he began fantasizing about men, and he felt fear and self-hatred due to these fantasies. Conley and Chloe began dating in high school, although their relationship was quite chaste. At work, the other dealership employees sometimes pressed Conley on questions of politics and romance, and Conley did his best to avoid these questions. Conley’s father advised Conley and all of the employees to preach religion to customers when possible, but Conley never had the will to do so.

The book then returns to Conley’s time at LIA. He became friends with a male patient called “J,” whom Conley found charismatic and intelligent. Conley also began to develop romantic feelings for J. As part of therapy at LIA, the patients were required to share all of their homosexual experiences and declare that these experiences were sinful and morally wrong. Conley’s sense of self-hatred grew as this process progressed.

The book then shifts backward to Conley’s arrival at college. He had lost a substantial amount of weight following his breakup with Chloe, because as a form of penance, he began to eat as little as possible and exercise as much as possible. At college, Conley befriended David, a fellow freshman. David was a highly devout Pentecostal Christian. They spent much time together. One day, David raped Conley by forcing Conley to fellate him. In a panic, David then called Conley’s parents and told them that Conley was homosexual. Conley’s parents threatened to stop funding Conley’s education if Conley did not agree to try to change his sexuality. At his parents’ behest, Conley began to attend sexual reorientation therapy every weekend. Conley’s emotional turmoil and self-hatred grew, and he contemplated suicide. He also contemplated leaving to live somewhere on his own, but he did not want to leave his parents.

Conley’s mother took Conley to a doctor to have his hormone levels tested, as Conley’s parents believed that a medical issue might have been causing Conley’s homosexuality. The doctor advised Conley that he should not feel ashamed about being homosexual, but Conley did not heed this advice. The book then shifts focus back to Conley’s time at LIA. A little over a week after he arrived at LIA, he could no longer bear the emotional destructiveness of the program, so he left. His parents continued to fund his education, and they gradually accepted his sexuality.

Conley’s father decided to take Conley on a ministerial trip to a local county jail as a means of strengthening Conley’s religious devotion. Conley’s father said that, for the moment, they could not speak about Conley’s homosexuality. Conley lived in constant fear of coincidentally encountering David on the street, as David was originally from a nearby town. Conley also worried about his relationship with his father. He worried that from then on, his relationship with his father would be forever strained and never fully genuine. Conley avoided talking about his college friends and professors with his father, as he worried that his father would disapprove of the particulars of college life. Conley and his father arrived at the county jail. Conley’s father gave Conley candy and religious tracts and instructed him to give candy to any prisoner that could recite a verse from the Bible.

At a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, freed from small-town bigotries, Conley found himself caught between the tug of his upbringing, on the one hand, and his new freedoms on the other. He withdrew from church, wore a Radiohead T-shirt, read Dostoevsky and Gertrude Stein and defended evolution in conversations with a fellow student, whom he calls David, while fantasising about how their bodies might feel curled into one another. Instead, David raped Conley in his dorm room later that day. “I’d been unable to move from the bed where he had placed me afterwards – I believed that God was punishing me physically for my mental transgressions,” writes Conley. A few weeks later, David called Conley’s mother and outed her son. “David had trumped me. The knowledge of my homosexuality would seem more shocking than the knowledge of my rape; or, worse, it would seem as though one act had inevitably followed the other, as though I’d had it coming to me.”

He also includes other participants’ accounts and a “Timeline of the Ex-Gay Movement”. Conley’s hope is that his story will expose ex-gay groups and gay conversion therapy programs as lacking in compassion and more likely to cause harm than cure anything, especially when participants are told, as he was, that they are “unfixable and disgusting over and over again”.

 Through an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program heavy on Bible study, he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay, cleansed of impure urges and stronger in his faith in God for his brush with sin. Instead, even when faced with a harrowing and brutal journey, Garrard found the strength and understanding to break out in search of his true self and forgiveness.

By confronting his buried past and the burden of a life lived in shadow, Garrard traces the complex relationships among family, faith, and community.

During winter break, Conley went to a church service at his parents’ church to watch his father become an ordained minister. While there, Conley contemplated the general repressive atmosphere of the church and its doctrines, and he pondered the things that many of its congregants were likely repressing in themselves. In conversation with Conley, several congregants seemed to comment upon the idea of college education as strange, foreign, and useless. One part of the ordination ceremony was that Conley’s father had to state that he unequivocally viewed homosexuality as a sin. The narrative then shifts forward a few months. Conley returned to college, but his parents planned to place him in LIA as soon as possible. On weekends, Conley had to attend gay conversion therapy sessions. Two of Conley’s friends were Dominique and Charles, who were liberal, African-American students.

One night, Conley asked his mother about his father’s father, who was a violent, abusive alcoholic. The question was for his family genogram project at LIA. He explained that, according to LIA, his homosexuality was caused by childhood trauma. Conley wondered about the ways in which the revelation of his sexuality had thrown his parents’ lives into turmoil and worry. Conley states that, according to John Smid’s testimony of Smid’s own life, he used to be homosexual but had overcome his homosexuality. Conley began to frequently consider the ways in which LIA was functioning to strip him of all forms of fulfillment and self-expression, which he began to realize would only increase the risk of suicide. One night, Conley and his mother went out to eat, and they were able to relax and forget about religion and LIA.

Garrard Conley discusses both his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality and his parents’ attempt to return him to heterosexuality through Love in Action (LIA), which was renamed Restoration Path in 2012. According to the program’s website, “Restoration Path is a Christian discipleship ministry that exists to restore those trapped in sexual and relational sin through the power of Jesus Christ.” It further states that “Restoration Path is passionately committed to helping people discover the truth about God and about who they really are in his son Jesus. In the safety and strength of God’s love men and women of all ages have found the courage to step out of destructive and life-dominating patterns of sexual and relational sin.”

Conley talks about his LIA therapy with John Smid, the program director. During his time there, Conley never fully embraced the “ex-gay” or “reparative” approach LIA promoted. In addition to the program not being effective for Conley, he indicates in his epilogue that his experience was counterproductive in that it negatively affected his relationship with his parents and God. He writes, “My ex-gay therapists took Him [God] away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life.”

Much of Conley’s later anger is directed at John Smid, for whom LIA’s purpose also apparently failed. In 1990 when Smid became director of LIA, he was living his life as an ex-gay who eventually married a woman. According to a Huffington Post article from November 19, 2014, Smid resigned from LIA in 2008 and divorced his wife that same year. In 2014, he married his partner, Larry McQueen.

Smid would later acknowledge that homosexuality was a part of his life. He now runs Grace Rivers, “a ministry with the gay community that reveals the message of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ and genuine community with His followers – because every person deserves to know that Jesus loves them.”

Smid has done an about-face in regards to the principles of LIA’s teachings. It is also important to note that founding member, John Evans, changed his mind as well after his friend committed suicide because he could not change his sexual orientation. Evans spent the rest of his life as an ex ex-gay and dedicated himself to speaking out against these kinds of reparative programs.

These two men made it out of LIA apparently safe and sound. But for some of its former participants, like Garrard Conley, the damage has already been done. Their lives have been forever impacted by their experiences there.

Like getting into a prison, he had to surrender the morning he arrived at the Love in Action facility in Memphis, Tennessee in 2004: his phone, his wallet, his driving licence and a Moleskine journal in which he wrote his short stories. A blond boy confiscated the journal and yanked a bunch of pages free from the binding. “And he said, in a voice free of emotion: ‘False Image’,”

“False Image”, a key tenet of Love in Action (LIA), referred to anything and everything suggestive of Conley’s homosexuality. Detecting and destroying FIs was how you got the gay out. “The concept is stolen from Alcoholics Anonymous, except AA doesn’t just have you stay in a place all day, monitored.”

When Conley handed over his notebook that day, it was part of a series of rules and prohibitions designed to maximise LIA’s mind control over patients during their treatment and beyond. Other rules included restrictions on where residents could travel within Memphis, on their dressing and grooming (no “muscle shirts”; no sideburns “below the top of the ear”) and on how they engaged with the secular world (no listening to Beethoven or Bach, or entering “non-Christian bookshops”, for example). Women were forbidden to wear “mannish/boyish” clothes, whatever that might mean, and men had to avoid “campy” behaviour.

Conley recounts a story in which a 19-year-old “defector” was forced to submit to a mock funeral, as other members read out his obituary, describing his slow decline into HIV and then Aids.

A Baptist deacon, Brother Nielson, wants to nuke Middle East.

The father is an interesting character but is never drawn out. The mother could turn out top be a fag hag.

It’s repetitive and dull in places. Where is the anger? The epilogue tells you all you need to know.

Peanut butter will never taste the same again.

The author:

Andrea Arnold: Anyone would find it difficult to be forthright in a book about his or her early sexual experiences and yours were heartbreaking and traumatic. As someone who also writes fiction, why did you choose to write Boy Erased as a memoir instead of a novel, where an author can hide behind fictional characters?

Garrard Conley: I started writing the first essay for the book in a nonfiction class at UNC-Wilmington. The professor asked all of us what part of our lives we would be writing about in his class. Before that moment I had never considered writing about ‘ex-gay’ therapy or my childhood, but I blurted out some details of my life and everyone in the room leaned forward to listen. The interest was palpable. One girl said, “How is it even possible that this still happens in 2004?” Her words were my first indication that the story might be more important as a memoir than as a novel.

I worried that as a piece of fiction the story might seem exaggerated. In fiction you can get away with covering up the nasty parts of an autobiographical story or making the prose subtle. In nonfiction, however, you have the chance be explicit and say, ‘This stuff actually happened to me.’

The other indication that this might turn out as nonfiction came from a conversation I had at a café with friends at Columbia University in New York. I was visiting a friend, and someone asked about Arkansas, so I told the group a bit about my childhood. People at the table leaned forward just as they had at UNCW, and one person asked, “How can a parent do that to a child?” That question has followed me throughout the entire process of writing the book. My mom has also been asked this question many times, and she almost always cries and says something along the lines of, “I don’t know how we did this to you.” But the truth is, almost everyone in the church thought sending me to ‘ex-gay’ therapy was the right thing to do. Love in Action came highly recommended. And the more I started focusing on the question, this totally reasonable question of how it could happen and how any parent could do this to his or her child, I began to see that only memoir could begin to address the question.

AA: You were nineteen-years-old in 2004 when your parents encouraged you to go to ‘ex-gay’ therapy. Has the church changed or become more sympathetic about members coming out since then?

GC: The church changed right after I left. But you have to keep in mind that when we talk about ‘the church’ we are really talking about a lot of different dominations in the area I grew up in. There was the Assembly of God and the Church of Christ, which I honestly don’t know that much about, but my Missionary Baptist church was very plugged into the ‘ex-gay’ movement at the time. Church leaders considered it the best option if your kid turned out to be gay. But right after my experience in 2004, this sixteen-year-old kid Zack Stark posted all the rules of ‘ex-gay’ therapy at Love In Action on his blog, and this act caused a huge protest. There’s also a This American Life piece about it featuring John Smid, the former director of Love In Action, that explains why Smid decided to put an end to the facility. The documentarian Morgan John Fox even made a documentary about Love In Action called “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like,” which talks about how those protests raised awareness and caused even the ‘ex-gay’ counselors to reconsider their stance.

AA: Do you have a relationship with God today?

GC: My relationship with God is highly in flux. Like I said in the memoir, prayer for me was really a place of comfort. Like I could just speak into my head and order the world in some way. Even when I thought I was speaking to God, I was really speaking into my head and making a litany of the important things of the day or the things I wished would happen in my life. I sometimes still pray, but I wouldn’t say that I have a direct relationship with a knowable god.

AA: What about your parents? Do they?

GC: Yes. My father is still a preacher. His congregation is growing. He has a soup kitchen now and it’s pretty successful. And my mom is still a preacher’s wife, but she is very much in support of me. She’s stuck in the middle.

AA: It seemed like those recorded conversations highlighted in Part Two of Boy Erased were very difficult to have with your mother and that she was overwhelmed with guilt.

GC: It’s getting a little easier now, but we almost can’t go a full conversation without apologies and crying.

AA: The end made me cry openly like a baby. I think a lot of people can relate to having a parent who wants him or her to be something else. What is your relationship with your father like today? Has he read the manuscript?

GC: My dad was really worried about his congregation finding out about the book. As you know from reading it, there’s an idea in the church that says that the sins of the father are passed down to the son, or that whatever is reflected in the son’s behavior must be some fault of the parents. Because of this idea, my dad was worried that the church would turn against him and vote him out. His church has to be a self-sufficient by next year. Up until this year the Baptist Missionary Association has funded his church, but this funding will be cut off next year when his church becomes a fully-functioning, self-sufficient organization.

My father and I had this fruitful phone call about his fear. I said, “I know you don’t want to talk about the book, and ‘ex-gay’ therapy is not something we have talked about much in the past, but I want you to know that I didn’t write any of this to make you feel bad or to paint you as a villain.” I said, “I tried to make you into a three-dimensional human being.” He didn’t really respond this, but my mom said he went into his office, closed the door, and cried for about an hour. That night, he got behind the pulpit and said, “My son has this book coming out that’s about gay stuff. If you need to leave the church I’ll understand, but I’m staying here.” That was a really big deal in our family because he had not yet acknowledged the book, though there were certainly plenty of rumors.

Recently, some weirdo at my dad’s church saw my Twitter account and told my dad that he really needed to read what was going on. My dad got on there. I think he might’ve read the Virginia Quarterly Review excerpt. I think he read more of what the book was about, and my mom said he was really upset and wondering if I was going to Hell again. Even so, we just talked right before this interview and he seems to be okay. We’re no longer at a stalemate. I would say we’re just at a really awkward phase.

AA: What happened to the girl that you call “Chloe,” your high school girlfriend? Does she know about the book?

GC: I contacted her on Facebook right before I was about to write about her, because I didn’t want her to be mad at me. She was nice for a couple of days and then she blocked me! I guess my posts were too gay! [Laughs] But her brother, “Brandon” in the book, is openly gay and lives in California somewhere. He’s always posting these cute drinking pictures with his gay friends. She’s also cut him off a little bit. She’s married to a guy who in every photo on Facebook has camo on and her two children are carrying guns. So that’s a lost cause. [Laughs]

AA: You also wrote about how literature saved your life. What were your favorite books and authors growing up?

GC: The electric ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was when I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time. It was both the literal and metaphorical value of that scarlet letter that made me think: Okay, people hate her based on what she looks like and who she is, and everyone in this town is wrong! It was amazing: Someone took the time to craft this narrative that lets me know that everyone in a town can be wrong about an issue. Also, Hawthorne is obsessed with his family history, as I am. In the beginning of The Scarlet Letter he talks about how he discovered an embroidered scarlet letter in the file room where he was working this government job. He learned that his family was part of the Salem Witch Trials. Their family name was actually Hathorne but he changed his name to Hawthorne so he wouldn’t be associated with the Hathornes, who were some of the people that killed all those women. He felt like he had a moral duty to write about what his family had done and what people like that can do. I only found this info out later when I became obsessed with the book, but there’s also a more literal connection to the genogram. Hester Prynne had an A on her chest for adultery, and they (Love In Action) made me write an A on my family tree as part of a “Moral Inventory.” It’s really obvious why I would love that book, though at the time it just came as a shock of recognition.

AA: You got your masters from Auburn and then went to University of North Carolina — Wilmington for an MFA. You could have attended grad school in a liberal city like New York or Los Angeles. Why did you choose to stay in the South?

GC: One reason is that Auburn paid for everything [Laughs]. The other is that the South is what I have always known. I guess in some ways it’s easier to exist in a liminal space. I’ve since lived in Ukraine and Bulgaria, both of which are not progressive in terms of civil rights. The South is familiar to me, and I feel like I know my purpose there. Part of my upcoming book tour is with Garth Greenwell, and we’re booked for three different dates in North Carolina back to back. Bruce Springsteen recently canceled a concert in protest of the North Carolina Anti-LGBT Bill, but Garth and I are both Southern boys and we both feel like our best work will be to go to the places that hate us and shove it in their faces. [Laughs] We actually agreed to book two more dates together in North Carolina after the law passed. Publisher’s Weekly recently published an article about how the laws are harming bookstores. There are people living in North Carolina who aren’t privileged and mobile, who can’t leave the state, so we decided, Fuck it! Let’s go!

AA: Why did you move to Sofia, Bulgaria?

GC: I moved to Bulgaria because I fell in love with a Bulgarian man. We met at a writer’s conference called the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. She wrote The Historian, which was a big book about seven years ago. She uses her money to fund five English-speaking writers and five Bulgarian writers to go to the Black Sea and do a workshop. While I was there I met my boyfriend, but then we lived apart for a year while I was at UNCW. After I sold my book and it was under contract that first year, I moved to Sofia to be with him while writing the book and teaching English.

AA: I read your Acknowledgments page. You said that you sold your memoir before you had even written it. What was the publishing process like for you?

GC: That was so crazy. The publishing process for this book is something that infuriates people if I just tell it to them while they’re in the process of trying to publish something. I try not to talk about it often. It was one of those fairy tale stories. I was at AWP in Boston and had been invited to this dinner by a great short story writer named Kathy Flann. This was during the mini-blizzard, and we were getting snowed in. Some guy was holding court at the head of the table, mansplaining something, and I turned to the woman next to me and said, “What is with this guy?” She said, “Thanks for saying that!” She turned out to be Maud Newton, who writes these great book reviews and has a book on ancestry coming out soon and has a blog that’s been very popular. She has so many connections. She asked me what I was writing, and I told her about my essay. Then she asked me if I would like to go to an agent party with her to meet Julie Barer. I was like sure! I drank too much because it was open bar. Julie spoke to me, and very soon afterwards I sent one of the agents at Barer Literary a query letter, not knowing at all what I was doing. They asked to see more. I had like eighteen pages. I said I had everything basically written but I just needed to revise. [Laughs] I spent the next two weeks at UNCW not sleeping and writing what became the second chapter, The Plain Dealers, on their computers, sort of stealing my way into the computer building at night. I sent the chapter in, and right after that I signed with Julie. I wrote a proposal that summer on one hundred pages, which was then rejected by every house except Riverhead. It was sent to like thirty people!

AA: Do you think they were just afraid of it? I mean, I see this as a big deal book.

GC: I don’t know. Several big name editors like Lee Boudreaux were interested, but I guess they couldn’t sell it to the whole house. I have a different editor at Riverhead now, the fantastic Laura Perciasepe, but the editor who called was Megan Lynch. She’s great! She bought it on the proposal and two chapters, along with an experimental part, which is now Part Two, with my mom in it. I feel like I’m still very lucky!

AA: I was raised without a formal religion. My mother grew up Catholic, my father Jewish. We didn’t go to services regularly and holidays were for fun. Before I read Boy Erased, the concept of ‘ex-gay’ therapy was almost unfathomable. Why do readers like me need to buy your book and read it?

GC: There are two points I would like to make about that. I was thinking about why people should read my book when Riverhead was picking up the proposal, because I was worried that an editor might want to sand off the edges and make my story more palatable to readers. I wanted this memoir to be an odd document of that particular period of time in that particular version of America, an America that I believed was out to get me and the rest of the world. I thought that if this ‘ex-gay’ experience happened to me then the event wasn’t necessarily an isolated one. You can see this in current politics. Look at the North Carolina bill that just passed. Look at Tennessee. Look at Mississippi. This stuff is coming back. One of the things I say to my students when I’m teaching about civil rights issues is that it’s never a straight line of progression. In fact, these bizarre happenings are an essential part of our culture. It wasn’t so long ago that we had George W. Bush. It feels like it but it wasn’t. Even today crazy thinking controls a lot of legislature that gets passed in our country. I don’t want to sound inflated, but firstly I wanted my memoir to be a true document and secondly that if anyone found it ten or twenty years from now hopefully they would say, “What the fuck were they thinking?” [Laughs]

I started teaching The Crucible while I was writing the second half of Boy Erased, and I believe we’re still interested in that story and obsessed with witch trials because this is a strand of American history that’s still alive. What I didn’t want was for my book to become a trauma narrative or a healing narrative that would be touted as merely a testament to love. It’s not meant to be only an uplifting and inspirational piece of literature. I’m tired of the type of memoir that just shows you its scars and wants you to feel sympathy for it. This is not that kind of memoir. I wanted it to be a little scary

John Smid: One cannot repent of something that is unchangeable. I have gone through a tremendous amount of grief over the many years that I spoke of change, repentance, reorientation and such, when, barring some kind of miracle, none of this can occur with homosexuality. The article today is a great example of how we as Christians pervert the gospel as it relates to homosexuality as though homosexuals aren’t welcome in the kingdom unless they repent (which many interpret to change). But since homosexuality is not “repentable” then we put homosexuals into an impossible bind.

Surely, indiscriminate sexual behavior, stealing, gossip, and other “behaviors” are things that need to be considered when we speak of walking in the kingdom of God. God desires to transform us into His image more and more each day.

After Jack McIntyre, a friend of co-founder John Evans, committed suicide out of despair about his inability to change, Evans left Love in Action and denounced it as dangerous. He was quoted by the Wall Street Journal (April 21, 1993) as saying: “They’re destroying people’s lives. If you don’t do their thing, you’re not of God, you’ll go to hell. They’re living in a fantasy world.”

John Smid recounts becoming a Christian in 1982. He found that his religious conviction was incompatible with his homosexual lifestyle. He entered into a relationship with a woman and married. In 1986 he joined the leadership of Love In Action, eventually becoming executive director. Smid left LIA in 2008. In 2011, on his website, he stated that homosexuality is an intrinsic part of one’s being, and that “change, repentance, reorientation and such” cannot occur, and noted that he had “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual”. On November 16 2014, John Smid married his same-sex partner, Larry McQuee

Department of Children’s Services dispatched its special investigations unit to the facility, and after conducting a full investigation, determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded,” Rob Johnson, an agency spokesman, told the Associated Press. On September 12, 2005, the Tennessee-based Love in Action facility was determined by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health to have been operating two “unlicensed mental health supportive living facilities”. LIA stopped accepting the mentally ill and dispensing medications and, in February 2006, the state of Tennessee ceased legal action.

Tommy Corman, in 2005 the spokesman for Love In Action, said the facility did not need to be licensed because it was “not doing anything therapeutic”.

In June 2007, LIA discontinued the Refuge program.

Quotations:

John Smid stood tall, square shouldered, beaming behind thin wire-rimmed glasses and wearing the khaki slacks and striped button-down that have become standard fatigues for evangelical men across the country. The rest of us sat in a semicircle facing him, all dressed according to the dress code outlined in our 274-page handbooks. Men: Shirts worn at all times, including periods of sleep. T-shirts without sleeves not permitted, whether worn as outer- or undergarments, including‘muscle shirts’ or other tank tops. Facial hair removed seven days weekly. Sideburns never below top of ear. Women: Bras worn at all times, exceptions during sleep. Skirts must fall at the knee or below. Tank tops allowed only if worn with a blouse. Legs and underarms shaved at least twice weekly. ‘The first thing you have to do is recognise how you’ve become dependent on sex, on things that are not from God,’ Smid said. We were learning Step One of Love in Action’s 12-Step programme, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, paedophilia and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for what counsellors referred to as our ‘sexual deviance’.

An orange sun was climbing its way up the back of the hazy white-washed buildings in the distance. I waited for the sunlight to spill over, but the longer I watched, the longer it seemed to take. I wondered if this was how time was going to work in this place: minutes as hours, hours as days, days as weeks. ‘Once you enter the group, you’ll be well on your way to recovery,’ Smid said. ‘The important thing to remember is to keep an open mind.’ I was here by my own choice, despite my growing scepticism, despite my secret wish to run away from the shame I’d felt since my parents found out I was gay. I had too much invested in my current life to leave it behind: in my family and in the increasingly blurry God I’d known since I was a toddler. God, I prayed, making my way down the narrow hallway to the main room, the fluorescents ticking in their metal grids, I don’t know who You are any more, but please give me the wisdom to survive this.

You’re using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void in your life.

“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.”

“With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn’t want to see.”

“There is a mystery in this, a minor apocalypse somewhere between what these two men once knew of themselves- a holding on to something that, in turn, refused to let them go- and I long to know it, like the old prophets.”

“Cutting away my roots and the people I loved would transform me into a shell of the person I once was, an automaton stripped of all its gears.”

As I grew older and discovered my love of literature, I externalized the markings, wrote them down in my Moleskine, kept my notebook close – so much so that when the LIA counselors took away my notebook years later, they took away much of this protection. But they didn’t take all of it. The empty pages still carried ghosts.”

“What did it feel like to not have to think about your every move, to not be scrutinized for everything you did, to not have to lie every day?”

“Masculine meant strong. Masculine meant straight. If we could only learn the essence of what it meant to be masculine, then we could learn the rest.”

“It seemed one talisman had activated the other: Mark’s number taught me that there were secret loves crouched and waiting in the last place you would likely go searching for them. What was Jesus’s compassion anyway but some well-crafted graffiti on the corridors of history, an invitation to follow Him into the most unlikely places? Love could come to you even in a room that seemed drained of it.”

“Sometimes it was what you left unsaid or undone that drew you into a state of wonder.”

“Love, over time, could either blossom or wither, become a source of wonder or a remembered ache.”

“You cut out what was once dear to you, ignore the ache in the back of your throat, erase the details you want to forget.”

“But love was always moving, always pushing us forward—always in action—and we often had no choice but to submit to where it lead us.”

“The chorus of voices will grow each year, revealing decades of pain, decades lost, families torn apart, relationships ruined because people outside the ex-gay world can never understand what we patients went through”

“LIA was telling me on a daily basis that a loss of self meant a gain in virtue, and a gain in virtue meant I was drawing closer to God and therefore closer to my true heavenly self. But the means to that end—self-loathing, suicidal ideation, years of false starts—could make you feel lonelier, and less like yourself, than you’d ever felt in your life.”

I had heard my father preach against Pentecostal church against this “relaxed” attitude. “We don’t do any of that flailing around here,” he would say. “God doesn’t want to us crawling up and down the aisles, acting like fools.”

.One moment I was terrified that my ancestors were all sit­ting up in Heaven and judging my same-sex attractions, and the next I would judge them for what I assumed they’d done to black bodies. Less than a year later at LIA, I would wonder why sour genogram keys didn’t feature the sins of slavery or racism, /why it seemed so much of history had been left out.

“Even then I knew that logo was strange,” she will later tell me. “The heart was cut away, like that was all it took.”

photos of our family standing next to the foyer’s fake plastic plants, all of us beaming for the camera.

WHEN I WAS BORN, after my mother and fatd me and just before the nurse took me away to the nursery, my father had used the sharp point of his hunting knife to gently etch a small zigzag in the bottom of my left foot, a tiny scar that would prove I was his, a symbol to ensure that the nurses hadn’t mixed me up with some other baby. He was paranoid. He had just witnessed a miracle. He didn’t want to lose his son the way he’d lost the other one.

After my parents told me this, when I was eight or nine, I’d scanned my foot for this zigzag, tried to read the faint wrinkles for a sign of his penmanship, though, of course, it had faded within a few days of my father’s etching. It had filled me with pleasure, thinking about this special mark, and though I couldn’t read it in the bottom of my foot, I felt it there, the way one feels love in a certain room without necessarily identifying its source. When I first read the Harry Potter books and learned about the lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead, I thought, Of course. Of course love worked that way. Of course it left its mark on the beloved. This secret mark protected you, kept you safe from harm, reminded you of who you were. All it took was the small­est symbol and you were safe.

 

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Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

A key text in the history of gay literature, Wings was published in 1906 to the scandalized reaction of contemporary society and the generations which followed.

The novel deals with teenager Vanya Smurov’s attachment to his older, urbane mentor, Larion Stroop, a pederast who initiates him into the world of early Renaissance, Classical and Romantic art. At the close of the first part, Vanya is shocked to learn that the object of his admiration frequents a gay bathhouse. In order to sort out his feelings, Vanya withdraws into the Volga countryside, but his sickening experience with rural women, whose call on him to enjoy his youth turns out to be an awkward attempt at seduction, induces Vanya to accept his Classics teacher’s proposal and accompany him in a journey to Italy. In the last part of the novel, Vanya and Stroop, who is also in Italy, are seen enjoying the smiling climate and stunning artworks of Florence and Rome, while Prince Orsini mentors the delicate youth in the art of hedonism.

The novel, partly based on Kuzmin’s experience of travelling to Italy in 1897, is full of conversation in the Platonic vein; the title itself alludes to Phaedrus. Although the book was competently written in an elegant style all its own, its reputation has been dogged by scandal.

Kuzmin was one of the first writers in modern Europe to argue that homosexuality “was not immoral or ungodly, but morally distinctive, ethically sanctioned, and even at times spiritually superior, a matter not of decadent immoralism but the personal creation of values”.

The central theme of aestheticized sensuality has spawned comparisons of Wings with contemporary works by Oscar Wilde and André Gide.

Wings is in three parts, set respectively in St Petersburg, on the Volga and in Rome, and it is told in myriad episodic scenes of perhaps 2-3 pages in length: a curious and intriguing structure. In his Introduction, Hugh Aplin compares this structure to cinematic montage, which seems a fair approximation. These scenes, often thematically linked (e.g. death by suicide appears in parts 1 and 2, and the ‘death’ of an artist in part 3), are like dots that the reader must join together. It comes across as a series of brush strokes. Like Chekov, it addresses people by different versions of their name and you overhear seemingly isolated snatches of conversation.

“Wings”, is a metaphor threaded throughout the novel for a whole host of things: for the culture and friendships which allow us to soar, for what we acquire when we are open to beauty and courageous in our love, and as an allusion, in the final pages, to Icarus and his brothers.

Poignantly, many of the young men at the baths, including the one with the large penis, will soon be conscripted to war.

I found the “story” hard to follow. It is more allusive than narrative and is becalmed with philosophical soliloquies about love. Indeed, was the philosophising trying to justify homosexuality? Too didactic? Too much lecturing?

It’s misogynistic: ‘She’s only a vile female.’ (which may be inevitable from gay men of a certain type) and a callousness in their treatment. They are dismissed as worthless – relationships between men and women are portrayed as base and coarse.

Kuzmin was lucky to die of natural causes in 1936; just two years later other gay artists were rounded up with and shot.

Relevant today, given Putin’s current crackdown. In 1928, at the invitation of students of the Russian Institute of Literature, Kuzmin gave the final public reading of his life. He assumed the event would be poorly attended; the once-great writer had been largely silenced and, he worried, forgotten. The reading was not advertised to the public and only students with tickets were allowed entrance. The director of the Institute feared that any reading by Kuzmin would attract a large contingent of homosexuals and thus the attention of the authorities.

The director was right in his fear. On the night of the reading there came a crush at the doors, the ticket system broke down, and gays crowded in among the students. Kuzmin’s reading electrified the audience — no surprise, as he read his poem The Trout Breaks the Ice, a staggering work swirling with autobiography and cultural allusions that is also an ode to the triumph of desire, a poem that maintains its electricity through translation and time. An ovation followed the reading and the gays pushed to the front, showering Kuzmin with flowers, bouquet upon bouquet landing at his feet. The director and student organizers quaked — they knew they would be called before authorities to account for the scandal (they narrowly escaped punishment, pleading ignorance) — but Kuzmin beamed.

Nothing like Wings had ever been published; not in the West and not in Russia. As print runs sold out the book was immediately reissued. Also difficult to fathom is the relative ease with which gay artists were allowed to live their lives and envision their possibilities in prerevolutionary Russia. With the crumbling of the czarist empire, before Soviet repression took hold, we see a flowering of artistic daring and a measure of sexual freedom. But even so, Kuzmin’s daring humbles this writer, and ought to inspire us all.

He was in the Old Believer tradition – having spent some years in defiantly Old Believer guise, including cap, tight-fitting coat, boots and beard, he switched abruptly to the mannered dandyism of the Russian admirers of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde

Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church as they existed prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. In 1652, Patriarch Nikon (1605–1681; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual revisions with the aim of achieving uniformity between the practices of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. The main objectives of reformers in the 16th century, many from the secular “white” clergy, were to outlaw pagan rituals and beliefs and to standardise the liturgy throughout the Muscovite realm. Old Believers use two fingers while making the Sign of the Cross while new-style Orthodoxy uses three fingers for the sign of cross (three fingers (including the thumb). Is there a degree of sending up Tolstoy with his seeming primitism?

It is salutary to reflect that Wings was first published in Russia in 1906, when Kuzmin was in his thirties. He had at last come to terms with his homosexuality, as Vanya Smurov is beginning to do in the closing paragraph of the book. That he was openly gay in the final years of Tsarist rule and the opening decade_of Soviet Communism almost defies credibility, particularly when one thinks of the agonies of mind and body Tchaikovsky was forced to endure.

They are relatively little known outside their homeland

He was a eading figure of what was, arguably, Russia’s most brilliant and he began studying in 1891 at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where his tutors included Rimsky­Korsakov, but he remained there for only three years. None­theless, music was to continue to play a very significant role and enabled him to form ties

Wings brought about a genuine furore in Russia’s literary world, the success of ‘Alexandrian Songs’ enabled him to become closely involved with many of the most prominent figures of the then dominant Russian Symbolist movement but he had artistic independence and produced an -ism of his own, in Russian `klarizm’, from the Latin ‘clarus’, signifying clarity or transparency, and the ‘beautiful clarity’ that was its essential feature was one of 1 the abiding elements in all Kuzmin’s writing during his most successful, pre-revolutionary years

Our broad-=ranging discussion even mentioned the Bhagavad Gita.

Despite the glossary, I had to look up anacreontic = (of a poem) written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, known for his celebrations of love and wine.

Quotations:

It does sometimes happen too, they say, that a woman loves a woman and a man a man … And it’s not hard to believe it, is it not possible for God to put that thorn too into the human heart, then? And it’s hard, Vanya, to go against what been put in, and perhaps it’s sinful too.

“Love, whatever its nature, can never be depraved except in the eyes of a cynic.” 

“I was in that kind of terribly stupid but not unpleasant situation, when you know that both of you know something, but are keeping silent. He stared straight at me, motionless, with a kind of mermaid look, not quite drunkenly, not quite insanely, almost terrifyingly, but when he began to wash me there was no room for doubt.”

Eroticism there had been aplenty in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, and gender ques­tions, particularly the role of women in society, had been under discussion for more than half a century; but serious mainstream works with sex, let alone homosexuality, as their primary subject were almost unknown

The youthful hero, Vanya Smurov, is shown in three novel, unorthodox and increasingly exotic settings. Newly orphaned, he is vulnerable and susceptible as a series of mentors introduce him to various possible approaches to life, and other characters, through differing experiences or parallel situations, suggest the fates that potentially await him, depending on the decisions he makes.

It was considered stylistically careless ­’all over the place, awkward phrases written any old how,’ commented Andrei Bely — and the mosaic-like structure, which may be a positive attraction to the modern reader accustomed to the frequent cutting of cinematic montage, was not deemed a success. Inevitably, however, it was the thematic nature of the work that drew most attention

the sense of the words, thinking how his mother had died, how the whole house had suddenly filled with old women of some sort who had previously been strangers and who now became extraordinarily close, recalling the fuss, the offices for the dead, the funeral and, after all of that, the sudden emptiness and desolation

the rotten smell of sour cabbage soup… mothballs…Stroop’s scent

think, Vanya,.how odd it is, that here you have another person entirely, and his legs are different, and skin, and his eyes — and he’s completely yours, completely, , you can look at, kiss and touch all of him; every le mark on his body, wherever it might be, the little golden hairs that grow on his arms, every little furrow and hollow of the skin that is loved much too much. And you know every­thing, the way he walks, eats, sleeps, the way the wrinkles spread across his face when he smiles, the way he thinks, the way his body smells. And then it’s as if you cease to be yourself, and it’s as though you and he are one and the same: your flesh, your skin cleaves to him, and in love, Vanya, there’s no greater happiness on earth, whereas without love it’s unbearable, unbearable! And what I would say, Vanya, is that it’s easier not to have while loving, than to have without loving. Marriage, marriage: the secret isn’t about the priest giving his blessing and children coming — look at a cat, it’s carrying as many as four times a year — but about a soul getting a burning desire to give itself to another and to take him completely, if only for a week, if only for a day, and if both of their souls are burning, then that means God has united them. It’s a sin to make love with a cold heart or for gain, but anyone who’s touched by the fiery finger, whatever he does, he remains pure before the Lord. Anyone who’s touched by the flaming spirit of love, whatever he’s done, it’s all forgiven him, because he’s no longer his own, in the spirit, in the rapture…’

`How are you to understand? I’ll say this: a husband lives with his wife, and a bachelor gets mixed up with a woman; someone might say that it’s all the same, but there’s a big differ­ence. What is it, one asks?’

`I wouldn’t know,’ responded Sergei, all eyes.

`Imagination. The first thing,’ said Prokhor Nikitich, as though searching not only for words, but for ideas too, ‘the first thing is: the married man has dealings with one woman — that’s one thing: the next thing is — they live quietly, peacefully, they’re used to one another, and the husband loves his wife in just the same way as he eats his porridge or curses the bailiffs, but the ers have nonsense on their minds all the time, it’s all fun and es, there’s no constancy, no steadiness; and that’s why the thing is lawful, and the other — fornication. The sin isn’t in act but in the application, how the thing’s applied to what.’

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