I love memoirs. There’s something about reading about the human existence from a first-person perspective that can change the way you see the world. I like reading essays written by people I’ve heard of, but I also like reading creative nonfiction on topics I want to know more about.
Thus, this week I listened to the audiobook version of Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging by Dick Van Dyke (read by the Man Himself), and I finished reading Boy Erased by Garrard Conley.
Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging
It’s easy to bash on celebrity memoirs, because they are often full of phrases like, “I did this,” or “I remember when so-and-so recognized me as such-and-such.” They also tend to be laced with lower level writing quality and riddled with hidden underwriters. However, I don’t think it’s right to fault someone for how he/she got his/her book deal until we’ve tried out the content. In all honesty, I prefer poor writing over underwriting, because I find it to be more authentic. Thus, as long as a book appears to have been written by the actual celebrity in question, and I have an appreciation for said celebrity, I’ll usually try reading the memoir.
So, of course, as a lifetime “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” fan, I wanted to see what Mr. Van Dyke had to say!
The best part of this book was having Van Dyke read it to me. There’s an additional layer of authenticity added to a writer’s work when you have the opportunity to hear his own choice of inflection on each word, and that is certainly true of this one. Each chapter in the book has a smattering of stories (reminiscent of the storytelling habits of most of our 80- to 90-year-old grandfathers), and having Van Dyke make the connections between those tales with his words and intonation made the story that much more enjoyable. His humor was easier to spot (or hear), and you could glimpse his sincerity in the rare moments where he got serious to discuss Truth as he saw it.
This book, as may be evidenced by the title and the age of its author (91!) is mostly about old age and growing older. While I, at 24, couldn’t really relate to the struggles of failing health, lost spouses, and children and grandchildren, I could appreciate the wisdom Van Dyke has gleaned over nearly a century of living. He has many nuggets of knowledge tucked between his stories that shed significant light on life today. While he never dove deep into philosophy, he often addressed the presence of the “Big Questions” of human existence.
I think my favorite part in the memoir was the chapter about What Really Matters, based on Van Dyke’s experience. He discusses such topics as how unproductive and unhealthy “hate” is, and how much easier and better it is to “help.” My favorite quote from the entire book is:
I read constantly, mostly theologians and philosophers. Among those whose book I have turned to repeatedly are Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tournier….The thing these writers have in common is that they mostly ask questions, either of themselves or others, but especially of those who claim to know all the answers. Doubt shines through all of their writing, an unrelenting, resilient doubt that I relate to intellectually. As I have grown older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve come to see that there are no sure answers, only better questions–questions that get us closer to the truth about whatever it is we want or need to know. Just knowing you don’t have the answers, in fact, is a recipe for humility, openness, acceptance, forgiveness, and an eagerness to learn–and these are all good things.
As a person of faith, this brief revelation speaks to me on a spiritual and intellectual level. While I feel convictions about what I believe, I am most comfortable in environments that allow me to doubt and ask questions. As someone who finds natural comfort in analysis, I prefer spaces in which nothing is known, so that I might posit my own ideas. I am grateful to Van Dyke for sharing his own thoughts on this, and so boldly, as an important and significant reminder in this world’s current climate that none of us can surely know, and we can find comfort and understanding from that foundation.
Long story short, this is still just a celebrity memoir, but it is written and about a very significant member of American culture. Van Dyke is a figurehead of many, if not most, of our childhoods, and his words deserve the reverence he has earned through the life that he is writing about.
My experience with Conley’s story was entirely different than my experience with Van Dyke. I had never heard of Garrard before I read about this book on Buzzfeed, and I actually selected this memoir to learn about its topic: conversion therapy.
In this book, Garrard Conley recounts his experience growing up gay in the South, and as a member of a devoutly Christian family. He retells his story of coming out, sexual assault, and ultimately his exposure to Love in Action, an ex-gay therapy organization. He recounts his experiences there, before, and afterward, and how these moments have impacted his life and his relationship with his family.
This book holds a special significance to me because, again, I am a person of faith. I identify as Christian, although I hesitate to attach “Evangelical” to that anymore due to the way in which many people have warped the definition of that term to fit their political agendas in recent history. I chose to read about someone who had taken part in conversion therapy because I wanted to understand what people of my faith have done–the damage to individuals and to the mission of Christ. Despite my general association with the evangelical Christian establishment, I do not see homosexuality as an abomination or a choice. Moreover, I see conversion therapy as a direct threat to the Gospel, and I think treating members of the LGBTQ community as sinners and outsiders is in direct contradiction to the cause of Jesus Christ. However, most of my education on topics related to homosexuality and the Church have been one-sided, i.e. from the pulpit. Thus, I have sought opportunities–like reading this book–to begin to understand the other side of this important issue.
That being said, Conley’s memoir resonated with me on a surreal level due to our similar backgrounds. I have read reviews of his work that identified the text as too religious and riddled with biblical references that many didn’t understand or appreciate. For me, however, these elements in Conley’s work gave me a connection to him I might not have had otherwise. Each passage of Scripture he quotes, each reference he makes to a sermon or a statement by a church member, each prayer he prays, are phrases and statements I have heard and said in my own life. In this way, his struggle was made more real to me. I had little to fear in my upbringing as I heard these Scriptures and prayed these prayers; other than being a woman, I belonged in every way. Conley, on the other hand, had everything to fear, and his references to Evangelical Christianity made that fear more palpable in my eyes.
I regret to say that, as much as I appreciated Conley’s story and ached for him in his struggles, I found his writing to be too elevated, and I felt like some of his accounts lacked real emotion. I can understand why his writing may be in the style it is; he admires and respects excellent writers from throughout history, and his prose reflects that. However, in a creative nonfiction way, he never reached a point where he tore into raw emotion. He remained fairly reserved. Again, I can understand why; this topic is so sensitive, so exposing, and as you see in the end the publishing of the book most likely ruined his father’s career. In many ways it’s enough that he wrote the book. However, the stories left me wishing I could sit down with him and have him tell them, like Van Dyke had, with his chosen inflections and enunciation.
That being said, the end of this book broke my heart. Even in his reserved way of writing, Conley is revealing to his readers the reality of his situation now, after going through Love in Action. In barest truth, he says:
I will open the LIA handbook, read a few sentences, and feel the old shame wash over me until I can no longer focus. Once again, Smid’s voice will swallow my own before I have a chance to say anything. I’ll face doubt, distrust my memories, spend hours trying to reconstruct scenes so charged with emotion they’ll seem impossible to pin down. I’ll call my mother to ask for details, sit with her at a table and record her words, and nearly every time one of us will end up in tears. My mother will apologize again and again. I will try to comfort her, but I’ll fail, because all of it truly was as horrible as we remember it, and because it will never really go away, we will never be completely okay. Our family will never be what it otherwise might have been.
And God. I will not call on God at any point during this decade-long struggle. Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there. What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing. My ex-gay therapists took him 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. I will continue to experiment with different denominations, different religions. I will continue to search. And even if I no longer believe in Hell, I will continue to struggle with the fear of it. Perhaps one day I will hear His voice again. Perhaps not. It’s a sadness I deal with on a daily basis.
This is what leaves me angry. Not with Garrard–heavens, not with Garrard. With the people who claim to share my faith. In an attempt to make someone look like our ideal model of a Christian, we have caused someone to lose his faith completely.
For all of those hurting like Garrard, I am sorry. For everyone who has experienced pain at the hands of people who claim to preach love and forgiveness, I am sorry. I am so sorry.
As I reached the end of this book, I realized this is a story we all should hear. I knew from the beginning it was one I would benefit from learning, but now I recognize its even greater significance and purpose. I don’t necessarily think everyone should try to read Conley’s book–after all, the writing is weighty at times, and I’m sure some people would have too hard of a time dealing with the graphic content at different points. However, each person should seek out a story like his, and hear it firsthand or in writing. Humanity as a whole needs to show more solidarity, and people who claim to have faith need to learn acceptance. I feel blessed and broken to have experienced this memoir, and I’m proud to sing its praises in this setting.
As you can see, my memoir-reading spans the gamut. This week’s exploration was particularly diverse, although each author landed on similar themes: Don’t hate, and demonstrate love.