Book Review: Autoboyography

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.

3 Comments

  1. Filosofieke

    I read Autoboyography somewhere last year and it had me torn to pieces. I recognize lots of what you describe in the review. Living on the edge of a more conservative but warm and thight-knit (though not mormon) family in which nothing is discussed, and an open albeit more distant family where everything is discussed, I feel what you say about communication is very true.

    If this is not part of your upbringing it leaves, to my feeling, lasting effects, unless you invest very heavily in breaking through that block.

    The Mormon community being given such a nuanced description I also got confronted with a lot of feelings I have towards religion. Just to be clear, I’m in this story as part of, I guess the supportive cast? I want to be respectful towards anything that brings people joy, and yet at the same time I am bone-deep angry about the religion induced prejudice that has caused harm to several of my friends and family.

    As a supportive cast member you get to witness that (like Tanner’s family is) and you don’t get to decide how to channel that harm.
    I have this distinct impression that conservative heteronormative families, don’t manage to see any warm family possible outside the box they have their mind stuck in, and it leaves them in the constant fear of their youngsters ending up lonely, cast out etc. Far worse is that they impose these fears on their offspring.

    So yeah, this book brought up lots of familiar feelings and if you ever feel like swapping some more thoughts about it feel free to do so.
    We’ll no doubt look at this story from different angles…but I felt there were not only lessons to be learned but also some support to be felt. I would love to see this book on a reading list in junior high schools, very much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wolfram-J VK

      So you think you might fit closely with Tanner’s mom?

      Queensland has a history of being redneck, and it’s hard to tell if we’re becoming the more progressive state or not. We’ve this weird habit here of ‘looking out for our own’ that can throw prejudices to the wind. Yet a stubborn hold against change as well.

      We do have (or had?) the largest population of queer people of faith in the southern hemisphere, aaand I think we have three churches here (Brisbane) that focus on supporting queer folk. It’s an interesting dicotomy​ – churches, usually made of different faiths, where it isn’t anyone’s first church. Yet people find their way to them in order to seek compromise between their faith and sexuality. I’m tempted to start going myself to see if there’s a community I can support… but a lot of broken people and only so many spoons, ya know?

      I’d also like to see this in schools. Apparently it had a lot of hype in The States, and took its sweet time to get here. Maybe if we create the same hype here we can convince libraries to stock it.

      Like

      1. Filosofieke

        Except I don’t carry around rainbow stickers like stamps :-). (pity though).

        Belgium is probably a bit more atheïst, but I might overestimate that since that is my own background too.

        I have queer friends who would have liked to get married before church though. I also have queer friends that don’t even realize you can’t get married in front of church in a same-sex marriage, so I found out last year.

        In general, though this is not a struggle I try to speak my mind in. Religions feel like stories to me… and if they exclude, they are not my stories. That’s not exactly comforting for people of Faith, and only hurts them, so I opt out there.

        Once, when I was about 20 I think, me and B had dinner with his grandma and the priest who baptized him. His grandma asked why she no longer saw him church, and he told her he had gotten married to a man, which wasn’t very combinable with being a priest, so he had to quit.

        B’s grandma just said: “Oh that’s not very nice, come over for dinner.”

        And B and I, being the notorious atheïsts were quite fuzzy over it. What does one say? Is it okay to swear in front of an ex-priest? Does it still bother him?

        We tried to be very delicate, but B’s granny just asked his pants off. Still religious, swearing doesn’t hurt him, he lost almost his entire network since he lost most of his family network over becoming a priest, so that wasn’t fun…

        For the religious families I do know, I feel like there is this: it’s okay just don’t go all gay in my face.

        And that puts kids and adults later in the awkward position where they feel they should be happy with the ‘okay’ stamp, while in truth, that’s just a lousy attitude. They can’t full out against it, but they’re relationship is treated as inferior.

        And that, I feel it does a lot of hidden damage. These situations, they are not healthy and they risk to be neverending.

        So yeah…I felt awful for Sebastian all the way through, and I think Tanner’s mom was a very relatable character in that respect. Some things, you just can’t cure.

        Liked by 1 person

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