On Tuesday, Nov. 19, acclaimed memoirist and activist Garrard Conley visited SUNY New Paltz for his talk, titled “Radical Compassion.”
His 2016 memoir, “Boy Erased,” adapted for film in 2018, was what brought Conley to SUNY New Paltz. The book details his life as the son of a Missionary Baptist preacher in Arkansas, and his time spent in a residential conversion therapy program called “Love in Action,” where he was psychologically manipulated and denigrated for a two-week period.
For many years following his traumatic time in conversion therapy, Conley and his parents rarely discussed his experience. “We swept it under the rug. Just stopped talking about it for ten years,” Conley said. “I went back to college — nothing. There was never a moment when we were like ‘hey, remember that crazy thing that happened?’ A family who grows up in that [Baptist] environment gets very good at denial.”
After repressing his trauma for many years, Conley decided to revisit and reprocess his experience in order to move on and collect information for his book.
“The ignorance of the people who had done this to me prevented me from being the person I was supposed to be,” Conley said. “At some point, after a while, anger can prevent you from living a fully happy life while holding onto this grudge.”
In order to write “Boy Erased,” Conley conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with his family and individuals associated with the institution that attempted to convert him.
“At a certain point in all of these interviews, what I began to understand was what had brought us to the double doors of Love in Action’s facility was this common denominator… it was bigotry and hate. It was reading the words of Christ, and deciding to look away, and instead use words of hatred.”
In order to paint a proper vision of reality in his memoir, Conley felt the need to build the characters from his life — even the nefarious ones — as three-dimensional human beings. With this, a lot of “radical compassion” came into play. He didn’t want to absolve anything the perpetrators of anything they had done, but believed that a part of forgiveness and compassion was holding people accountable.
“[Forgiveness] is not just this simple thing where you just go ‘welp, I guess I’ll just roll over and let everyone walk all over me, and I’ll never ask them to apologize,’” Conley said. “No. I think it’s hard work, and I was willing to do it, though not everyone can.”
Conley emphasized how much stories mattered to him in his self-acceptance, and how sharing his own story has saved or helped the lives of many LGBTQ+ people.
“[I had] my life basically saved by seeing other people struggle in books and film and art, and through talking to people who had gone through similar things — through finding a queer family to rely on, and being educated,” Conley said.
To wrap up his talk, the author asked the audience to imagine people — even the worst among us — as complex individuals. “Every single human being is important, and all of our stories are important,” Conley summarized. “So that’s my message.”