Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book review: The Cross in the Closet

I recently read Timothy Kurek's The Cross in the Closet. It's the memoir of a 21-year-old, straight, evangelical Christian man who, in order to overcome his own homophobia, decides to pretend to be gay for a year.  The book recounts an eventful period of change that takes the young man from anti-gay bully to GLBT ally. Of course, the premise isn't completely credible-- there's also the small matter that the person in question intends to write a book about his experience and not just live it.

So without admitting in the narrative that he's doing this, Kurek embarks on undercover journalism in the tradition of Black Like Me and Nickel and Dimed. In this case, going undercover includes falsely coming out as gay to his own parents, siblings and friends. This is a cruel and foolish thing to do, and we read of some of the unsurprising fallout as the story unfolds.

Cruelty is one of the themes of the book, and it's something that makes the story a tough slog at times. We learn for example that Kurek was involved as a teenager in the vicious and sustained harassment of a middle-aged gay man who ends up dying of a heart attack. Was this experience any motivation for reflection? Judging from the text, probably not. However, after Kurek's later change of heart, guilt over his involvement in bullying becomes the focus of a chapter in the book. It's an ugly and shameful story.

In another case, an acquaintance of Kurek's tells him that she's just lost her entire social world-- she's been rejected and shunned by her conservative parents, her friends and her evangelical church because she's a lesbian. Kurek's coldness in the face of this heartbreaking human suffering is shocking-- his impulse is to call her to repentance. He doesn't do this verbally, but his friend notices his silence and his rejecting body language and is deeply hurt. Later, upon reflection, he becomes wracked with guilt over his judgmental reaction to his friend's loss. This (ostensibly) gives him the idea of living as a gay-identified person for a year.

I confess that I was prepared not to like this book. There are a number of ethical problems with the premise, for example. However, despite the many cringe-inducing moments, the protagonist who emerges is likable and sincere. I found myself rooting for him as he bumbles along making all-to-obvious discoveries such as "gay people are capable of religious feeling" and "gay people aren't all drunk sex fiends." He also discovers that being the recipient of aggressive, unwanted sexual attention from men can be an uncomfortable experience. That these rather obvious insights are such revelations is evidence how burdened the author is by religiously-motivated anti-gay animus and misogyny.

One of the good points of this book is that it really is a window into the mind of a conservative Christian in the process of acquiring a more open view of the world. Kurek's entire life experience and cultural programming collide with the humanity of the gay people who embrace him and generously help him as a person who (they believe) has just come out. A lot happens along the way, and the story clips along at a reasonable pace. The author is a competent storyteller. His descriptions of his evolution and growth are the strongest parts of this book. The weakest part is his tendency to resolve complex situations with an emotional tidiness that is just a little too convenient. Also, this book is packed with spellchecker-induced malapropisms. A few of these are unintentionally hilarious. Unfortunately, the poor editing is a real distraction.

I think this book is worthwhile, and I think it applies to Mormonism as well as the evangelical tradition as a heartfelt, serious attempt at documenting the process of change that occurs when ideology softens in the face of human experience.

[Update: I corrected the text about bullying after feedback from the author.]