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 raised outlines of his undershirt stretched taut beneath his shirt, his graying blond hair tamed by the size-five hair clippers common in Sport Clips throughout the South. The rest of us sat in a semicircle facing him, all dressed according to the program 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 recognize 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 twelve-step program, a set of principles equating the sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for what counselors referred to as our “sexual deviance.” Sitting alone with him in his office just hours before, I had witnessed a different man: a kinder, goofier Smid, a middle-aged class clown willing to resort to any antic to make me smile. He had treated me like a child, and I had relaxed into the role, being nineteen at the time. He told me I had come to the right place, that Love in Action would cure me, lift me out of my sin into the light of God’s glory. His office seemed bright enough to substantiate his claim, the walls bare save for the occasional framed newspaper clipping or embroidered Bible verse. Outside his window was an empty plot of land, rare around this suburban subdivision, an untended grassy mess peppered with bright dandelions and their thousands of seed heads that would scatter across the highway by the end of the week.
“We try to blend several models of treatment,” Smid had assured me, swiveling in his office chair to face the window. An orange sun was climbing its way up the back of the hazy whitewashed 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 skepticism, 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, leaving the office and 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 anymore, but please give me the wisdom to survive this.
A few hours later, sitting in the middle of Smid’s circle, I waited for God to join me.
“You’re no better and no worse than any other sinner in this world,” Smid said. He kept his arms crossed behind his back, his whole body tense, as if he were tied to an invisible plank. “God sees all sin in the same light.”
I nodded along with the others. The ex-gay lingo had by now become familiar to me, though it had come as a shock when I’d first read it on the facility’s website, when I’d first learned that the homosexuality I’d been trying to ignore for most of my life was likely “out of control,” that I could end up messing around with someone’s dog if I didn’t cure myself. As absurd as the idea seems in hindsight, I had little else to go on then. I was still young enough to have had only a few fleeting experiences with other men. Before college, I’d met only one openly gay man, my mother’s hairdresser, a bearish type who spent most of his time filling out what I saw as a stereotype: complimenting my looks; gossiping about coworkers; discussing plans for his next fabulous Christmas party, his pristine white beard already sculpted for the role of Dirty Santa. The rest of my bigotry I learned from pantomime: limp wrists and exaggerated sashays from mocking church members; phrases that lifted out of natural speech into show-tune lilt—“Oh, you shouldn’t have”; church petitions that had to be signed in order to keep our country safe from “perverts.” The flash of neon spandex, the rustle of a feather boa, the tight ass shaking for the camera: What I did manage to see on TV just seemed further proof that being gay was freakish, unnatural.
“You need to understand one very important fact,” Smid said, his voice so close I could feel it in my chest. “You’re using sexual sin to fill a God-shaped void in your life.”
I was here. No one could say I wasn’t trying.
The main room was small and halogen lit, with one sliding door opening onto a sun-sick concrete porch. Our group sat in padded folding chairs near the front. On the walls behind us hung the laminated twelve steps that promised a slow but steady cure. Aside from these posters, the walls were mostly empty. Here, there were no crucifixes, no stations of the cross. Here, such iconography was considered idolatry, along with astrology, Dungeons & Dragons, Eastern religions, Ouija boards, satanism, and yoga.
Love in Action had taken a more extreme stance against the secular world than any of the churches I’d grown up in, though the counselors’ way of thinking was not unfamiliar to me. Within the fundamentalist strain of Christianity that goes by the name Baptist, my family’s denomination, Missionary Baptist, forbade anything that had the power to distract the soul from direct communication with God and the Bible. Many of the other hundred or so denominations that comprised the Baptist spectrum often quibbled about what could or could not be permitted within the flock, with some churches taking these issues more seriously than others, subjects like the ethics of dancing and the pitfalls of non-Biblical reading still up for discussion. “Harry Potter is nothing more than a seducer of children’s souls,” a visiting Baptist preacher once told our family’s church. I had no doubt that my Love in Action counselors would also shun any mention of Harry Potter, that my time spent in Hogwarts would have to remain a private pleasure, and that I had entered into an even more serious pact with God by coming here, one that required me to abolish most of what had come before Love in Action. Before entering this room, I had been told to cast aside everything but my Bible and my handbook.
Since most of Love in Action’s customers had grown up within this literal-minded Protestantism and were desperate for a cure, the counselors’ strict rules were met with mild applause. The unadorned white walls of the facility seemed appropriate decor for a waiting room in which we would gather to receive God’s forgiveness. Even classical music was forbidden—“Beethoven, Bach, etc., are not considered Christian”—a heavy silence blanketing the room during our morning Quiet Time, drifting into our daily activities and inspiring an atmosphere that seemed if not holy then at least not secular.
The study area at the back of the room, home to a bookshelf filled with inspirational literature and a hefty stack of Bibles, contained dozens of testimonies from successful ex-gays.
“Slowly yet surely I began to recover,” I’d read that morning, squeaking my finger down the glossy page. “I began to recover from not having a male friend unless it involved sex. I started learning who I really was, instead of the false personality I created to make myself acceptable.”
I had spent the last several months trying to erase my “false personality.” I’d walked out of my college dorm one winter day and jumped into the campus’s half-frozen lake. Shivering, I walked back to the dorm in water-suctioned shoes, feeling rebaptized. In the hot shower that followed, I watched, dazed by the shock of icy heat on my numb skin, as a drop of water traced the edge of the showerhead. I prayed, Lord, make me as pure as that.
During my stay at Love in Action, I would repeat the prayer until it became a kind of mantra. Lord, make me as pure as that.
I remember little about the ride to the facility with my mother. I had tried to look away, to prevent my mind from recording what passed by outside the passenger’s-side window, though a few details remained: the muddy caramel-colored Mississippi passing behind the steel girders of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, the scale of our American Nile feeling like the perfect stimulant for my uncaffeinated mind; the glass pyramid glittering at the edge of the city, spreading its hot light across our windshield. It was early June, and by midmorning almost every surface in the city would be too hot to touch for more than a few seconds, everything sweltering by noon. The only relief came in the morning, the sun resting at the edge of the horizon, still only a suggestion of light.
“Surely they could afford something better than this,” my mother said, steering us into a parking space at the front of a rectangular strip mall. The location was more upscale than much of the rest of the city, part of a wealthier suburb, though this strip mall was arguably the least attractive landmark for miles around, a place for lower-end retail stores and small clinics to find a temporary home. Whitewashed red brick and glass. Double doors that opened onto a white foyer with fake plants. A logo above the entrance: inverted red triangle with a heart- shaped hole cut out of the middle of it, a series of thin white lines spreading across the gap. We stepped out of the car and headed toward the doors, my mother always a few steps ahead.
Once we entered the foyer, a smiling receptionist asked me to sign my name in a ledger. The man looked to be in his midtwenties. He wore a polo shirt that fell loosely from his chest, and his eyes were a bright honest cobalt. I’d been expecting some wan-faced wraith who’d already erased everything interesting about himself. Instead, here was someone who looked like he’d be willing to play a few rounds of Halo with me, then use video-game analogies to tell me a little about what God had done for him. You have to fight against the enemies, the aliens trying to invade your soul. I’d met plenty of hip youth pastors with a similar look and attitude.
“Can I see the place?” my mother asked. Something about the way her voice lifted into a polite question made me feel uneasy, as if she were asking to look at real estate.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the receptionist said. “Only clients allowed in the back. Security reasons.”
“Yes, ma’am. Many of our clients deal with repressed family issues. Seeing a parent, no matter whose parent, no matter if it’s someone nice like you”—a winning, deep-dimpled smile—“can be a little unsettling. That’s why we call this a safe zone.” He stretched out both his arms at his sides, sweeping them wide— slowly and a little rigidly, I thought, as though his movements had once been much grander and he had since learned to rein them in. “Since you’re only in the two-week program, you’ll have access to your son at all hours except program time.”
Program time would be from nine to five. Evenings, nights, and early mornings I would spend with my mother in a Hampton Inn & Suites nearby, leaving the room only for necessities. I was supposed to spend the majority of my free time in the room doing homework for the next day’s session. The schedule sheet the receptionist handed me was fairly straightforward, with each hour accounted for in a black-bordered square, words like “quiet time” and “activity time” and “counseling” written in all caps.
The receptionist handed me a thick LIA handbook and a folder. I opened the handbook, its plastic spine crackling, and was greeted by a black-and-white welcome note with my name printed in large type. Beneath my name, a few Bible verses, Psalms 32:5–6, written in a casual modern English different from the formal King James Version I’d grown up with.
I finally admitted all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, I will confess them to the Lord; and you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
I flipped through the pages at random as my mother peered over my shoulder. I wanted to close the book the minute I saw the obvious typos and clip-art graphics. I wanted my mother to think the best of the place before she left, not because I felt like defending the poorly designed handbook, but because I wanted the moment to pass as quickly as possible without any more of her overly polite interrogations. If she started asking questions about design and casual Bible language, she might start asking questions about qualifications, about why we were even here in the first place, and I knew this would only make things worse. Questions only prolonged the pain of these moments, and they almost always went unanswered. I was done with asking questions about how I had ended up in this situation, with searching for other answers, other realities, other families or bodies I could have been born into. Every time I realized that there weren’t any other alternatives, I felt worse for asking. I was ready to take things as they came now.
“Call me if you need anything,” my mother said, squeezing my shoulder. She was all blond hair and heavy blue mascara, blue eyes and a perennial floral-print top: a spot of Technicolor in this drab place.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the receptionist said, “but we have to keep his phone while he’s here.” For security reasons. “We’ll inform you if anything important pops up.”
“Do you think that’s necessary?”
My mother and the receptionist finished their conversation—“It’s the rules, ma’am. It’s in his best interest”—and then my mother was saying goodbye, telling me she was headed off to check us into the hotel, that she would be back to pick me up at five o’clock sharp. She hugged me, and I watched her go, her head high, her shoulders square, the glass double doors swinging closed behind her with a sigh from their pneumatic hinges. I’d seen her like this once before, during the year both my grandparents died. She had carried me through that year, patted a space for me next to her on the sofa as visitors wove in and out of our living room proffering casseroles and baskets filled with glazed pastries. She had run her fingers through my hair and whispered that death was a process, that my grandparents had both lived happy lives. I wondered if this was how she felt now, if she thought that Love in Action was part of a necessary process— difficult, yes, but easier to accept once you knew it was part of God’s plan.
“Let’s get you checked in,” the receptionist said.
I followed him to another room, also white-walled and empty, where a blond-haired boy stood beside a table and asked me to remove everything in my pockets. The boy was barely older than I was, perhaps twenty, and he carried an air of authority that made me think he’d been here awhile. He was handsome in a svelte, twinkish way, tall and angular, though he wasn’t my type. Then again, I didn’t really know what my type was.
On the nights when I’d allowed myself to look up images of men in underwear online, I’d only been able to get halfway down the page, the pixels threading strand by strand in a slow-motion striptease, before I felt the need to exit the browser and try to forget what I’d seen, the computer growing too hot in my lap. There were flashes, of course, hints of attraction emerging in my occasional fantasies—a toned bicep here, the sharp V of a pelvis there, a collage of various dimples beneath a series of aquiline noses—but the picture was never complete.
The blond-haired boy waited, tapping his index finger on the folding table between us. I dug in my pockets and removed my cell phone, a black Motorola RAZR whose small screen suddenly lit up with an image of the lake, my college campus’s obligatory slice of nature: a few maple trees clustered around a glassy surface. The blond-haired boy scrunched up his nose at the sight of it, as though there were something perverse lurking under the peaceful scene.
“I’m going to have to look through all your pictures,” he said. “Messages, too.”
“Standard procedure,” the receptionist explained. “All pictures will be taken for the purpose of sobering reevaluation.” He was quoting from the False Images (FI) section of the handbook, a section I would later be asked to memorize.
We want to encourage each client, male and female, by affirming your gender identity. We also want each client to pursue integrity in all his/her actions and appearances. Therefore, any belongings, appearances, clothing, actions, or humor that might connect you to an inappropriate past are excluded from the program. These hindrances are called False Images (FI). FI behavior may include hyper-masculinity, seductive clothing, mannish/boyish attire (on women), excessive jewelry (on men), and “campy” or gay/lesbian behavior and talk.
I looked at my white button-down, at the khaki pants my mother had pressed for me earlier that morning, starched pleats running down the center of each leg. Nothing in my wardrobe or phone could be considered an FI. I’d made sure of that before coming here, checking my reflection in the mirror for any wrinkles, removing long strings of text messages between friends, waiting for the gray delete bar to finish eating up all of the hope and anxiety and fear I’d shared with the people I trusted. I felt newly minted, as if I’d stepped out of my old skin that morning, my “inappropriate past” still rumpled on the bedroom floor with the rest of my unwashed laundry.
“Your wallet, please.”
I did as he said. My wallet looked so small sitting there, a tiny leather square containing so much of my identity: driver’s license, Social Security card, bank card. The boy in the license photo looked like someone else, someone free from all problems: a smiling face in a vacuum. I couldn’t remember how the DMV had gotten me to smile so idiotically.
“Please empty the contents of your wallet and place them on the table.”
My face grew hot. I removed each card. I removed a small wad of twenties, followed by a torn piece of wide-ruled paper with the telephone number of the college admissions office I’d written down at a time when I’d been nervous about my chances of college acceptance.
“What’s the number for?” the boy asked.
“College admissions,” I said.
“If I called this number, would I find out you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t have any phone numbers or photos of ex-boyfriends anywhere on you?”
I hated the way he spoke so openly of past “boyfriends,” a word I had so carefully avoided because I felt that just saying it might reveal my shameful desire to have one. “No, I don’t have any inappropriate material.” I counted to ten, breathing out through my nose, and looked up once again at the boy. I wasn’t going to let this get to me, not this early on the first day.
“Do you have anything else in your pockets?”
His questions made me feel paranoid. Could I have unwittingly carried in some kind of inappropriate object? At the moment, it seemed as if everything about me was inappropriate, as if I might be banned from the premises simply because I was already too dirty. His tone suggested that I was desperately trying to hide an extensively sinful past, but the truth was that, although I did feel the weight of this expected sin, I had very little physical evidence, and even less physical experience, to account for it.
“Are you sure you don’t have anything else?”
I did have one other thing, though I hoped I wouldn’t have to give it up: my Moleskine journal, the one in which I wrote all of my short stories. Though I knew these stories were amateurish, that I was just playing around with serious writing, I looked forward to returning to them the minute the day’s activities ended. I suspected that the long descriptive paragraphs on nature, innocuous as they had seemed when I wrote them, could be construed as too florid, too feminine, another sign of my moral weakness. One of my latest stories even featured a young female narrator, a choice I knew was hardly gender affirming.
“There’s this,” I said, holding the Moleskine in front of me, not willing to put it on the table with the other belongings. “It’s just a notebook.”
“No journaling allowed,” the receptionist said, quoting from the handbook. “All else is distraction.”
I watched as the blond-haired boy took the Moleskine in his hands, as he laid it on the table and began flipping the pages back and forth with disinterest, frowning. I can no longer remember which story he found, but I can remember the way he ripped the pages out of my notebook, wadded them into a dense ball, and said, in a voice free of emotion, “False Image,” as if that was all they were.
“Well, that should be it,” the receptionist said. “Now I just have to do a quick pat down, and you’ll be ready.”
He patted my legs, ran his fingers beneath the cuffs of my khakis, worked his way to my arms, the cuffs of my shirt, and then, as if to comfort me, patted my shoulders—one-two- three—looking in my eyes the whole time.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, his too-blue eyes fixed on mine, hands still weighing down my shoulders. “We all have to go through this. It’s a little strange at first, but you’ll come to love it here. We’re all one big family.”
I watched as the blond-haired boy tossed my story in the trash. Lord, make me pure. If God was ever going to answer my prayer, he wouldn’t do so unless I became as transparent as a drop of water. Crumple the first half of the story and toss it in the trash. All else is distraction.
“For the wages of sin is death,” Smid continued. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the sliding door behind him. Each time he walked past us, the shadow of the door’s central rail passed over him like the sluggish pendulum of a metronome, marking the slow tempo of his pacing. Our therapy group sat quiet and still, our breathing calibrated to the pulse of his legs, the casserole from our lunch break sitting heavy in our stomachs. There were seventeen or eighteen of us in the group. Some had been here long enough to know to abstain politely from the meat and processed cheese, while others had brought their own lunches, opening neon Tupperware lids that sent off a whiff of tuna and mayo. Watching the older members eat their lunches, the ones who’d been at LIA for two or three years, I’d been able to see how the receptionist was at least partially right, that this was a family, however dysfunctional. Crustless bread and ultramarine Jell-O: This was a group that knew how to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of one another’s food habits. People settled into their routines with little of the self-conscious buzz, of the surreptitious glancing that usually accompanies large groups who find themselves suddenly thrust into intimate circumstances. I was the only one who seemed to be playing the outsider, scraping my fork through the Hamburger Helper as if I’d forgotten how to feed myself, hardly looking up from my plate.
To my left sat S, a teenage girl awkward in her mandatory skirt, who would later admit to having been caught smearing peanut butter on her vagina as a treat for her dog. “Pleased to meet you,” she’d said that morning, before I had the chance to introduce myself. She seemed always poised for a curtsy, thumb and forefinger twitching beside the folds of cotton. She looked down at my feet after the introduction, her gaze locking on the tile behind my loafers, and for a moment I felt as though I must have tracked in some kind of sinful residue from the outside world. “You’ll like it here.”
To my right sat a boy of seventeen or eighteen, J, wearing Wrangler jeans, a cowboy smirk, and a frat-boy part in his hair that tossed his dangerously long bangs over warm hazel eyes. J continually bragged that he had memorized all eight of the Bible’s “clobber passages,” so named because of their power to doctrinally condemn homosexuality and champion traditional straight relationships.
“I read them every night,” J had said, his voice serious but also a little playful. He gripped my hand in a practiced ironclad shake. There seemed to be a thousand handshakes behind this one, each of them gradually fortifying J’s grip until he was strong enough to pass this basic test of manhood. “I’ve memorized whole chapters, too.”
When our hands parted, I could feel his sweat cooling my palm in the downdraft. No hugging or physical touch between clients, I remembered from the handbook. Only the briefest of handshakes allowed.
“My favorite?” he said, smiling. “‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.’”
Later he would go on to tell me more about his interpretation of this “clobber” verse. “Abomination,” he would say, pushing back his bangs with the slow arc of his fingers, the white half-moons of his cuticles glowing large and bright. “Crazy word. In Hebrew, to’e’va. It can refer to shrimp as easily as it can to gay sex. All those little legs swimming through saltwater, it creeped the Israelites out, you know? They thought it was unnatural.”
The other members of our group included unfaithful married men and women, former high-school teachers or educators of some kind shamed by rumors of their sexuality, and teenagers kept here against their will as part of the Refuge program, a controversial branch that targeted parents who felt that sending their children to the facility was the only option.
Most of us were from the South, most of us from some part of the Bible Belt. Most of our stories sounded remarkably similar. We had all met with ultimatums that didn’t exist for many other people, conditions often absent from the love between parents and children. At some point, a “change this or else” had come to each of us: Otherwise we would be homeless, penniless, excommunicated, exiled. We had all been too afraid to fall through the cracks; all of us had been told cautionary tales of drug addicts, of sex addicts, of people who ended up dying in the throes of AIDS in some urban West Coast gutter. The story always went this way. And we believed the story. For the most part, the media we consumed corroborated it. During our childhoods, you could hardly find a movie in small-town theaters that spoke openly of homosexuality, and when you did, it almost always ended with someone dying of AIDS.
I was here as part of the Source, a two-week trial program meant to determine the length of therapy I would need. Most patients needed at least three months’ residency, usually longer. In many cases, college students like me dropped out of school for at least a year in order to create distance from unhealthy influences. Many stayed even longer. In fact, most of the staff members were former patients who’d been with Love in Action at least two years, choosing to remain inside the facility rather than reintegrate into their old lives. To be allowed to work at the facility, former patients were expected to find preapproved jobs, support themselves financially, talk only to those whose character and status had been cleared by the staff, and keep clear of the internet or any other “secular spaces”—including “malls of any kind” or any “non-Christian bookstores.” Because patients weren’t allowed to stray too far from Love in Action’s offices, the support group became the central focus of patients’ lives, the way and the truth and the light Jesus spoke of in the New Testament, the one true path to God’s love.
Over the next two weeks, Love in Action staff, along with my parents, would determine what kind of hiatus was necessary in my case. As its name suggested, the Source was the fountainhead of a long and difficult journey.
“Tell them what you did, T,” Smid said. We were in the Group Sharing portion of our afternoon session. “You need to admit what you did so it won’t happen again.”
T, an obese middle-aged man wearing several black cardigans, stood before our group to confess, stone-faced, that he had once again attempted suicide.
This was T’s seventh suicide attempt since coming to the program. He’d tried pills, knives, whatever he could find.
“Typical,” J whispered, leaning in, his warm cowboy breath tickling my neck. “The guy’s an attention hog. Got too many daddy issues to name.”
T seemed to shrink into his cardigans, the buried half of him stark black against his pale face. Whatever had first devastated him had vanished long ago, but Love in Action would try to dig it up.
“Who among us will cast the first stone?” Smid asked, turning back to our group. “We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
It seemed earnestness was more than half the battle in the fight for an ex-gay lifestyle. You had to want to change, and until you wanted to change so badly that you’d rather die than not change, you would never make it past step one—admitting you were wrong. The reason pre–ex-gays like T felt powerless to change, Smid said, was that deep-seated family issues kept them separate from God. “Suicide isn’t the answer,” he said. “The answer is God. Plain and simple.”
“What I did was wrong,” T said, pocketing his pink-scarred hands inside his topmost cardigan, his words scripted. “I know that with God’s help I can learn to see the value in my life.”
J coughed a laugh into the hollow of his fist. Don’t count on it.
When T finally sat down, we all said, “I love you, T.” It was a program requirement, rule number nine in the Group Norms section: Once someone from your group stops talking, say “I love you, ___________.”
All of God’s children being equal, our names were interchangeable.
“I love you, T,” Smid said.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Smid had advised just the opposite in the past. He was still dealing with a decade-long backlash that had arisen from alleged advice he’d given to one of the first young men to attend his program. According to Family & Friends, a Memphis, Tennessee, publication, Smid had told the man that it would be better for him to kill himself than to live as a homosexual.
Various bloggers have since approximated the number of suicides resulting from Love in Action’s treatment as anywhere from twenty to thirty cases, though figures like these are impossible to pin down.
The controversy didn’t end there. According to a Daily Beast interview with Peterson Toscano, a former patient of Smid’s who attended Love in Action meetings in the late nineties, Love in Action had also been responsible for staging a mock funeral for a “would-be defector,” a young man of nineteen or twenty who felt he might benefit from an openly gay lifestyle outside the facility. Love in Action members stood before the boy’s reposing body and spoke about “how terrible it was that he didn’t stick with God, and now look where he is, he’s dead because he left.” They read mock obituaries that described the boy’s rapid descent into HIV, then AIDS, and cried over him. This went on until the boy was fully convinced that his sinful behavior would lead him to a death without any hope of resurrection. Though the boy did finally flee Love in Action, it was only years later and, according to a conversation I had with Toscano, only after years of psychological damage.
It was our fear of shame, followed by our fear of hell, that truly prevented most of us from committing suicide.
“Now,” Smid said, walking over to a whiteboard on the opposite wall, “can anyone here tell me what a genogram is?” He clapped his hands together. “Anyone?” He picked up a black dry-erase marker from the silver tray at the bottom of the whiteboard.
S straightened her shoulders and raised one hand, the other hand tugging her skirt below the red knobs of her knees—I would soon learn rules two, four, and six of the Group Norms section of our handbooks: “(2) No slouching in chairs, sitting back on chairs’ hind legs, sitting with arms crossed, rolling eyes, or making disgusting faces; (4) Raise hand to speak; (6) Clients are to sit in such a way as to not cause another to stumble.” She’d obviously been here long enough to tame most of her False Images.
“Yes?” Smid asked.
“A genogram is a family tree,” she said, “only one that shows patterns of family history as well. Kind of like an illustrated genealogy.” Or a character list, I thought, remembering the many hours I’d spent in my dorm room trying to chart the family history of Wuthering Heights in my Moleskine, annotations like “the meaner Cathy” written beside characters’ names. I wondered if I’d get my notebook back.
I shifted in the padded chair. I’d always felt this nervousness in classes, this need to put an end to the silence following a question no matter how inadequate my answer. I also wanted to impress my fellow group members. I wanted to show them how much I knew, let them see how much smarter I was, how I didn’t make obvious typos, how I didn’t belong here, not really, I was just passing through, I would find my way out of here in no time.
“That was a good guess, S,” Smid said, retrieving a stack of posters from the blond-haired boy. He handed the stack to T, who took one sheet and passed it on. “A genogram shows hereditary patterns and sinful behaviors in our families. It doesn’t trace our genealogy so much as the history behind our present sinful behavior.”
Smid walked back to the board. He pulled off the marker cap with a flourish. First he wrote an A for alcoholism. Then he wrote P for promiscuous. He filled the board with the thick black letters we would use as a key for our genograms. H for homosexuality; D for drugs; $ for gambling; M for mental illness; Ab for abortion; G for gang involvement; Po for pornography. I tried to ignore the lack of parallelism in Smid’s list, a basic style rule I’d picked up in junior-high English class. The medium, I told myself, didn’t always have to be perfect. J took one of the poster sheets and passed the stack to me. I could feel his hand tremble as it passed between us. I placed my sheet on the beige Berber carpet at my feet.
Smid turned to face us, clicking the marker cap on. “Trauma is often linked to generational sin,” he said. “We have to understand where the sin came from in the first place. How it trickled down from father to son, mother to daughter.” I recognized the sentiment from a Bible verse popular in our family’s church— Exodus 20:5.
I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
The blond-haired boy handed each of us a stack of rubber band–wrapped colored pencils. The veteran members of our group slid from their chairs to begin the daily group project, bringing their posters with them. I quickly followed, my knees already accustomed to hours of kneeling at the tung-oiled altar of our family’s church and asking God to change me. I had spent eighteen years of my life going to church three times a week, heeding the altar call along with my father and the other men, trying to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“The compulsive patterns of parents influencing children,” Smid continued. “This is the most common root of sexual sin.” Our color-coded genograms would tell us where everything had begun to go wrong. Trace our genealogy back far enough and we would find, if not the answer to our own sexual sins, then at least the sense of which dead and degenerate limb in our family tree had been responsible.
I scooted my poster over on the carpet so I could be closer to J. S slid her eyes at me as I passed, but I pretended not to notice.
J nudged my ribs with a red pencil, leaving a small check mark on my white button-down. The weight of my gaze slid down his long ropy arm to where his purple-veined wrist was drawing a wavy red arrow of abuse from his father to his mother. “I bet that’s it,” he said. His voice was so monotone, it was hard to tell if he was serious or simply regurgitating LIA lingo. I wondered if irony had been a greater part of his personality pre-LIA. I wondered if I would have liked him more outside of this place. “I bet some of that abuse turned me gay. Or it could have been Dad’s D. Or maybe Mom had an Ab before I was born.”
I wondered how anyone could know so much about his family. My clan was tight-lipped; when our past slipped through, it was only in accidental bursts or in code.
“I don’t know where to start,” I said, staring at the blank poster. It was a problem I experienced each time I sat down to write, but I had slowly started getting better at it. Relaxing my thoughts, I could enter my psyche through a side door, sit down cross-legged and examine the hieroglyphs.
“Start with the worst,” J said, smiling, “unless you’re the worst.”
It was hard to conjure a genealogy out of early childhood memories. My father’s life had, from the moment of his calling to be a preacher, filled a vacuum within our family mythology. His importance in our town and community seemed to override everything we knew about ourselves. I was His Son. My mother was His Wife.
People had always seen my father as a devout believer, but at the age of fifty he had taken the next step, stumbling down our church aisle, shaking and crying, kneeling with the entire congregation until our preacher declared that God had called my father to the service. “I was aimless before I found my calling,” my father repeated weekly, standing before pulpits across the state of Arkansas, until my mother and I started to believe him, to clap along with his audience. “I was nothing. But God healed me. He made me whole. Gave me purpose.”
In less than a week, in the middle of the Source program, my mother and I planned to drive from the LIA facility to my father’s ordination as a Missionary Baptist preacher, where we would be asked to stand with him on a brightly lit stage before a church audience of more than two hundred people. The trip was already preapproved by staff and considered integral to my development, a real opportunity to test my devotion to the cause. At the church, my mother and I would be expected to hold hands, smile, to burst into tears at the appropriate moment. Important Baptist Missionary Association of America members would be traveling from every corner of Arkansas to publicly interview the man who many were hinting might be their next Peter, their next Paul, the man whose moral compass might set things to rights for the Baptists, usher in a stronger belief in the Bible’s inerrancy, distill many of the complex issues that had recently begun to plague their association. Issues like divorce, cohabitation, and—most pressing—homosexuality.
“Just think about who you are,” J said, adding the finishing touches to his poster. He was so accustomed to these exercises he could have drawn the symbols with his eyes closed. “Then trace it back to your family history.”
I began by writing the names of my great-grandparents at the top of the poster, followed by my grandparents, then my parents. Next to my parents I added aunts and uncles and all of my cousins. At the very bottom, in slightly smaller print, I added my own name. I followed the genogram key as best I could, placing only one or two sin symbols next to each relative’s name. The grandfather with the alcohol problem: A. The grandmother who divorced him because of the alcohol problem: a line with two diagonal slashes. The two grandparents who’d died one after the other: twin Xs. The aunt whose first and second husbands both died in airplane crashes on the way to Saigon, who’d later remarried and divorced: a line with two diagonal slashes. The uncle with the drug and alcohol and gambling problems: D and A and $, respectively.
As I diagrammed my family tree, coloring in the boxes and arrows and textual symbols, the genogram started to make sense. It provided a sense of security to blame others before me, to assign everyone his or her proper symbol and erase all other characteristics. I could place an H beside my own name, and everything else about me would cease to matter. If I wondered why I was sitting on this carpeted floor with a group of strangers, I could count up the list of familial sins, shrug, and move on to the next activity without asking further questions. All of this confusion about who I was and why my life had led me to this moment could be folded up with my finished genogram, slipped inside a folder, and tucked away in one of LIA’s many filing cabinets.
“It looks like you’ve got a lot of A on both sides of the family,” J said, admiring my poster, his voice a steady monotone. “That must’ve done a real number on your mom and dad. You know, they say sometimes the biggest sins skip a generation. You must be really gay.”
“That sucks,” I said, looking up to make sure no one had heard me. Even mild profanity was strictly prohibited. “I guess it’ll take a long time to get cured.”
Smid stepped between us, eyeing our posters. “Good work,” he said, patting me on the back. Light and cool, the pads of his fingers barely registered. Later I would feel this touch again, on my elbow, as he corrected my flamboyant akimbo stance to something more straight appropriate, a flagging Cro-Magnon pose popular in small Southern towns like the one where I grew up.
“I don’t want to hear that language again,” he added, his voice lower, a filed-down baritone worn by strain. “Only God’s language is tolerated here.”
I could hear S laughing quietly behind me. “Newbie,” she whispered.
“No shit,” I said. The curse registered as a slap, but she quickly composed herself and laughed again, loud enough to draw Smid’s attention back to us.
Looking back, I think she must have been glad, for once, not to be the object of the room’s derision, to be rid of the attention of people who considered themselves lucky to know someone like her who hid an even more shameful secret. She must have been glad that people for one second had stopped picturing her lying on her back in the cramped living room of her trailer, the half-empty jar of peanut butter like a dark stain on the kitchen counter as her parents entered through the front door to find their daughter changed beyond recognition.
“Take your time,” Smid said, circling back to me. “You’ll want to get this right.”
I slid the pencil behind my ear and surveyed the half-finished genogram, trying to recall the sins of my fathers. I sat like this until the activity time ended, afraid to write something I couldn’t erase.