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.]


Evan said...

I found myself going into the book wanting to like it, but being so turned off by the narrator's simple-minded and obvious conclusion that I can't help but thinking that he really was never against gay people at all, and just sort of assumed he was given his background? I mean, if not, he had the easiest reconciliation imaginable.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Evan,

I agree with you. I think this goes back to the problem of his not acknowledging from the start that this was a book project.

In other words, let's suppose that he held anti-gay attitudes at some point of his life, changed those attitudes, and then decided to live as a gay person for a year and write a book about it. We don't know if this is the case, but if it is, it answers a lot of questions about the book.

Timothy Kurek said...

Thank you for taking the time to write a review. I just wanted to clarify two points.

1. My boss that I bullied died of a heart-attack. Not suicide.

2. I wrote the book with my conservative audience in mind, which is why certain things feel simplistic at times. The complexity of the issues can sometimes do more harm than good, when the principles of loving your neighbor as yourself is ultimately all that is needed.

Again thank you for taking the time to review the book.


MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks so much for responding. I appreciate the correction about your boss, and I changed the text for accuracy.

I can certainly understand your focus on writing for your intended audience, even if it does have the effect of making other readers scratch their heads from time to time.

Thanks for writing this book. As I said in my comments-- I think your book is a worthwhile read, and you come across as a likable and sincere guy with something to say that a lot of people need to hear. I wish you all the best.

Just out of curiosity, I would love to know at what point in this journey you decided to write a book.

Anonymous said...

@MoHoHawaii. Just getting into the book now and liking it so far. I can't put words in Mr. Kurek's mouth, but on the subject of when he first intended to write a book... He's been an aspiring writer for a long time. Aren't aspiring writers ALWAYS working on a book? I think it pretty much goes without saying that anything major in his life is potential fodder for a book. I won't hold that against him. It's just how writers are. I have a sneaking suspicion Kevin Roose's "Unlikely Disciple" may have inspired the project.

As a former evangelical myself, I get it. I know what it's like to be unsatisfied with your religion, to dislike what it makes you do and think and to want to change. Some of us change simply by going to college and meeting new people. He picked this route, which was maybe faster.

I also understand how he has to think of his audience. Conservative Christians can be hard to reach. Anything written by a group they've been taught to hate, they would reject out of hand. Maybe identifying with him as a current Christian and former evangelical will make some of them more receptive.