Recently I read Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began by Alex Cooper with Joanna Brooks. It is well known that I have a short temper, and I can often be heard shouting angrily at podcasts. Usually I am calmer with the written word, if only because books can be closed until I calm down. Not so this time. I cannot remember the last time a book made me so angry.
The long subtitle of the book indicates its subject matter: Alex was a teen growing up in a Mormon household. She caroused more than a good Mormon girl should, and more importantly she fell in love with girls. Then her parents sent her away to an unlicensed “residential treatment program” (aka a home in Utah) where her spirit was broken and she was emotionally and physically abused. Among other things, she is forced to stand against a wall wearing a backpack full of rocks. For multiple weeks.
The people who ran this “treatment program” are monsters. I cannot express how much ill-will I feel towards them. Of course, they get away more-or-less scott free, which just makes me angrier.
This book reminded me of two others. The first was a psychological horror book for teens called The Fog by Caroline B Cooney, which also featured authority figures gaslighting children. The second was James Loney’s memoir Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War, which documents an international incident where he and three other Christian Peacemaker Teams workers were kidnapped and held hostage. At least in the latter case we identified the Iraqis as kidnappers and terrorists. We would never call nice Mormons who psychologically torture troubled kids the same, but in some ways they treated Alex and her housemates worse than the Iraqi kidnappers.
The thing is that this kind of psychological gaslighting is happening to kids all over the world right now, and not just to LGBTQ kids either. I can’t deal with it. It touches some raw psychological wound in me; it reminds me of some of the garbage that was going on in my household when I was a teenager. I cannot express how damaged I feel I am because of those experiences. Intellectually I know that this stuff is going on, but psychologically I just cannot bear to face it. Never again am I willing to feel as helpless as I did back then.
Some people (including Alex Cooper) are using this story as an argument to outlaw reparative therapy. Some people (not including Alex Cooper) are using it as an argument against Mormonism in particular and religion in general. I see why people make these arguments, but my argument is much broader: children are controlled by authority figures, and sometimes those authority figures are abusive in horrific ways. You don’t need to be religious to be an abuser (although certainly religion can be used as a justification for this kind of abuse). You need not be trying to turn the child straight. All you need to do is gaslight them and isolate them so they cannot get help.
I should never have signed out this book. I should have known better. That does not mean it is a bad book. To the contrary: I doubt I would have been so enraged had it been poorly written. But unless you are made of stronger stuff than I, I am not sure I can recommend it.