June 3, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Garrard Conley's memoir Boy Erased is one of the year's most moving and important books.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Exceptionally well-written... This timely addition to the debate on conversion therapy will build sympathy for both children and parents who avail themselves of it while still showing how damaging it can be."
"How to Disappear Completely" by Radiohead
I suppose it's a little too on point to include this song in a playlist for a book called Boy Erased, but I don't think any song has ever captured so well the twinned feelings of despair and wonder that lived with me throughout every day of 2004, the year I attended ‘ex-gay' therapy at a facility called Love in Action in Memphis, TN. The string sections add a sense of dread to the beginning of the song, moments of exquisite beauty to the middle, and then collapse into chaos by the end, so that finally we have a sense of relief/release by the time the song lets us go. The lyrics could have been plucked out of my brain at that time: "I'm not here / This isn't happening." Denial is a prevalent theme in my book, and almost every character, including myself, is steeped in it.
"Human" by Goldfrapp
I've included only songs that were available to me before 2004, as I wanted to see how they shaped my life at the time of the events in the book. While writing the memoir, these songs granted me access to a wealth of emotion that I'd buried in the past. You always hear about smell being the strongest memory trigger, but sound might be a close contender.
Listening to a song like "Human" puts me right back into my freshman dorm room. As I describe it in the book, my first year of college, before everything fell apart, was a time of growth. I was learning all kinds of things I hadn't been allowed to learn from my family or from high school. I actually attended a public school where a biology teacher refused to teach us about evolution, so almost every idea I encountered in my freshman year of college was a wonder. The original title for the book was Signs and Wonders, from the famous verse in the book of Matthew speaking of false prophets. I remember feeling that even studying evolution might be a sin, but I was also extremely excited by the idea of learning about it. "Human" is a song that captures a bit of that excitement. And just listen to those strings picking up right where Radiohead left off in the last track, spinning beauty and James Bond intrigue out of chaos. The poetry of this song is almost too much to process, as was my freshman year.
"Pagan Poetry" by Bjork
Intense strings again! Still with me? I know there are a lot of feels. A close friend once described my memoir as "claustrophobic," and I take this as a high compliment. Since one of my biggest goals for the book was recreating a structure of feeling I'd experienced, recording the psychological damage 'ex-gay' therapy inflicted on a subject, I wanted the reader to go through some of the brainwashing herself.
"Pagan Poetry" is a song I mention toward the end of the book, in a section called "Self-Portrait," in which I kiss a boy for the first time. The boy is an artist. His name is Caleb, and he was, and is, very beautiful and strange. After listening to this song together, our hands interlocked, Caleb stands up from his bed to smoke some pot, and I am so horrified by this forbidden moment that I try to convert him on the spot, though of course all I want to do is sleep with him. Bjork describes this song as a sense of preparation, of a bride preparing for marriage, and this is what I felt with Caleb in that bed. I also felt as though I were preparing for my own death, because people had always told me that having gay sex would lead to HIV/AIDS, and isn't there always something a little deathlike in Bjork's songs? The repetition of "I love him" feels liturgical and a little terrifying, so that by the end of the song you begin to question the voice's mental stability.
"Slow Burn" by David Bowie
It's all in the name. "Slow Burn" could very well describe my sensibility during 'ex-gay' therapy. The title also references (perhaps intentionally, or unconsciously-Bowie was a big reader) the Flannery O'Connor short story I quote at the beginning of the book: "Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away." That beautiful line is from "Revelation," one of O'Connor's most brilliant stories, all about how the lame are the first to enter heaven and the ‘virtues' that hypocritical church members claim daily are also being burned away along with all of their human vices. In other words, heaven has no time for distinctions. People are just people in heaven, and they're certainly not Good Country People. Hypocrisy is impossible in O'Connor's version of heaven. When she puts it that way, I kind of like the idea of going there.
The saxophone is the real slow burn in this song. We feel it winding behind Bowie's strained, mature vocals. The two voices intermingle in such ways that only a music major could explain to me. "Where shall we live / in this terrible town // And the walls shall have eyes / and the doors shall have ears": The claustrophobia is foregrounded in this song, yet we are allowed to linger in the lushness, even if we know we're lost.
"It's All in Your Mind" by Beck
Beck was having a rough year when he released Sea Change, one of his most gorgeous albums. Stripped down and intimate, Beck wants us to feel every ounce of his pain, and the invitation is irresistible. There were nights when I would sneak out of my dorm room and walk barefoot to the campus lake, imagining what my future might look like, listening only to this album. How would I ever lead a normal life, given what I was? Beck's ode to lost friendship felt like a welcome friend at the time. Here was someone who understood me, this former retro sex genius (Midnight Vultures) contemplating the after-after party. The words "It's all in your mind" repeat again and again, and each time we don't know whether he's referring to the lost friend or to himself, and this confusion adds an extra layer to the story. On those lonely nights by the lake, I hadn't known whom it was I thought I'd lost. Now I realize it must have been a former self.
"Jesus, etc." by Wilco
I believe this song has already made a few appearances on Largehearted Boy, and it's no surprise. This song is lush and relaxing but also a bit disorienting in the best way. Where did that country twang come from? Listen how the twang comes in around 1:59 and stays there just long enough to make us want more of it. It's probably no surprise by now that I love strings. It's also probably no surprise that I love lyrics that don't give way to easy understanding. 2004 was a time of extreme confusion for me, so Wilco helped me out by giving me an album that refused to cohere on first listen. I knew only that I wanted to hear more of what I was hearing, and the temptations of the song (strings, twang, etc.) gave me a window into a life very different from my own repressed life, one that seemed to quiver just outside of view.
"Deceptacon" by Le Tigre
There were plenty of windows that seemed to offer another life, but there was only one door. Once I walked out the glass double doors of the 'ex-gay' facility, my entire life changed. My mother and I decided to abandon any hope of changing my sexuality.
"Deceptacon" is a silly but committed riot grrrl anthem. It's a celebration, and though leaving ‘ex-gay' therapy didn't exactly feel like a celebration at the time, the song captures a sense of elation that would arrive only after a decade of reeling from the counselors' brainwashing. The publication of this book is the first time I'm truly celebrating my escape. And it feels really fucking good if I'm going to be honest. So I guess I broke my rule with this song. The song did exist before 2004, but I wasn't able to enjoy what it suggested to me until this very moment.
Garrard Conley and Boy Erased links:
Arkansas Times interview with the author
The Barnes and Noble Review interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Michigan Quarterly Review interview with the author
OUT interview with the author
Signature interview with the author
WAMC interview with the author
WUNC interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)