Autoboyography by Christina Lauren (2018). Sydney: Simon & Schuster.
CW: Plot spoilers, mention of ex-gay therapy, and feelings (ew, gross).
TLDR: This book shook me. Grab it, read it, and tell me what you think.
Autoboyography is the perfect novel for those stuck between YA and literary fiction. Following the trend of narrating in third-person, Lauren develops an intimate voice that harbours hidden concern for her protagonist’s brash decisions. Character dynamics make surprising turns for the narrative as well, as Lauren’s characters have meaningful and believable lessons to teach each other throughout the novel. I love how it creates a sense of ‘chosen family’, even between those already related by blood. Even when characters mess up, they offer each other a chance to express their needs and work together to negotiate a compromise. Not only is this the kind of open dynamic I’d like to capture in my own characters, it also demonstrates the kind of relationships I want to build with the people around me.
I finished Autoboyography before attempting Boy Erased and (Cameron Post), and I honestly expected to see some reference to ex-gay therapy. But there weren’t any. Instead I found how a strong attachment to family can become an obstacle for queer people of faith negotiating between what they feel and what they believe. I was attracted to the strong sense of community shared by Lauren’s Mormon characters, and wondered how I’d find that without faith. Then family became an oppressive force in Lauren’s narrative, creating moments where the fear of disrupting that space moved characters to make dishonest and destructive decisions. It felt sinister, yet believable, and made me question how I’d address this issue were I in a position of power. Reading responses to the book also acknowledged this as the common trial of being queer and Mormon — the double-edged sword of belonging to a tight-knit community, connected through a strong belief system, that denies your truth. To these people, I send my eternal love.
I found through Autoboyography that Mormons no longer believe in ‘curing’ homosexuality or abandoning their children for being queer. Instead there’s an expectation for queer folk in these communities to deny themselves, driven by the threat of bringing eternal shame to their families. This is the conflict for the novel’s love interest, Sebastian, who has everything a boy his age could dream of — and everything to lose by coming out. He’s smart, good-looking, and popular. He has a supportive family and a strong connection to his community. Basically, he’s the epitome of privilege. His academic successes, however, only increase the expectation that he’ll develop into the model Mormon leader. So while he acknowledges an exclusive attraction to men, he cannot see himself as ‘that’. He’s blind for his ‘boyfriend’ Tanner, the protagonist, yet the word ‘gay’ has such a destructive connotation for Sebastian that it’s beyond his ability to compromise.
Tanner’s family life is the opposite. His parents support his bisexual identity so vehemently that their house is brimming with ‘embarrassing’ attempts to make him proud of who he is. They only force Tanner back into the closet when they move to Utah, Mormon capital of the United States, out of justifiable fear for his well being. It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that Tanner’s mother grew up in a Mormon household herself, and made the difficult decision to cut from her family when her parents rejected her lesbian sister — now happily married to another woman. The mother’s experiences become the heart of their family’s fear when Tanner becomes involved with a Mormon boy (which I’ll leave you to cry through yourself), creating a conflict for Tanner where his relationship becomes the one thing he can’t talk to his otherwise supportive parents about. And since he isn’t allowed to come out to his best friend, he must harbour the burden of his heart alone.
While Autoboyography isn’t a first-hand account, it’s clear that a high level of research and care was put into developing an honest narrative. More importantly, it’s a story written by us, about us, and for us. It’s the type of book that engages with real stories and real issues, fostering opportunities for growth instead of weighing the topic down with blame. In this regard, I was surprised how much the novel had to offer me as a queer person. With the marriage plebiscite still feeling fresh to me, this novel made me realise I never acknowledged the trials forced onto our comrades with faith. I never engaged with their stories, nor was I sensitive to the position that discussion put them in.
I think it’s far too easy to be selfish in dealing with one’s own struggles, and Lauren’s characters are constantly struggling to fight those urges themselves. Some actions, therefore, feel unbelievably cruel even when they have selfless intentions behind them. It’s the first novel I’ve read where it made sense for characters to slide into drama that could have been avoided through better communication: ie, ‘the one thing they could have said to avoid this’ wasn’t said because it was too hard to say. And at times a character’s support for another meant staying silent about what needed to be said. But the characters get their happy ending — they do reach out for each other — and I hope I can remember that lesson next time I feel the urge to pull my own hand away.
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