Saint Unshamed: A Gay Mormon’s Life depicts playwright and actor Kerry Ashton’s painful, tumultuous, and empowering journey to physical, spiritual ,and emotional truth and healing, and living life as an unashamed gay man. Through the use of metaphor from The Wizard of Oz, particularly the yellow brick road, and anecdotes from his life, Ashton explores his belief that the doctrine of the LDS Church and the shame that religion uses to repress its believers’ inner-selves can lead to levels of repressed shame that are not only harmful to people’s well-being, but may lead to violence and suicide, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community whose very existence is considered an abomination by many.
We live in a world where for centuries children had no rights; where children were born to be the victims of victims; where the pernicious yet unconscious attempt by otherwise well-meaning parents to murder the souls of their children—usually through the rigid enforcement of religious dogma—is the root cause of most of the violence and addiction that we see in our world today.
However, Ashton also believes that living one’s most authentic self through honesty, self-awareness, love, and forgiveness can help a person heal themselves and live a meaningful life.
Saint Unshamed is broken into two parts, both of which involve his years at Brigham Young University (BYU) intertwined with his pre- and post- BYU experiences. In part one, Ashton shares the inner workings of his complex upbringing—a family dynamic filled with a volatile mixture of love, anger, domestic violence, mental illness, secrets, and shame all crammed together under the pressure cooker that is the doctrine of the LDS Church and the need to be, or rather, appear to be the perfect Mormon. He also discusses his early time at BYU and the inner conflict he struggled with throughout college that came with being a gay man being taught that who he is was not only a sin, but changeable if he just tried/prayed/wanted it badly enough. This inner struggle appears to lead him to live a double life full of the highs of friendship and personal achievement and the lows of self-hatred and shame. Tragically, this period also includes a traumatic rape so horrific and terrifying, he would repress it for forty years and struggle with his physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being for just as long. By alternating between his youth and first years at BYU, Ashton conveys how, with Mormon teachings beginning at an early age and the threat of abandonment hanging over the heads of eight-year-old children should they choose not to accept them, he learned a truth that guided the majority of his actions until he graduated from college, and that in subconscious ways, alternately led and sabotaged his career and health into his forties:
To survive, [he] had to lie; [he] had to become inauthentic and false.
Part two focuses on the latter part of Ashton’s college experience and his life post college, in which the long process of self-healing began. I believe it examines how the clash between doctrine and identity can create a crippling and harmful duality that produces secrets, lies, and a never-ending flood of shame; the tightrope walking of having to use and betray a friend and person you love to hide your shame; the ugliness and trauma of electroshock therapy; and the way in which good intentions can be used in twisted and painful ways. Ashton also illustrates how learning the difference between religion and spirituality and living a truthful life helped heal him and bring him closer to his personal truth and unconditional love.
In many ways, I applaud Saint Unshamed. I enjoy reading memoirs and am impressed by the bravery it takes for people to put their personal pain, inner thoughts, and soul on display for the world to see. Many of Ashton’s words and struggles resonate with me on a personal level. However, I did have some issues with the writing style. For me, the time jumping in and of itself isn’t a problem; however, the lack of fluidity/connectivity in the transitions is. Many seem somewhat rough or ill-arranged in that the themes/ideas connecting the shifts between time periods are separated by anecdotes that are too dissimilar, especially in part one. More than once I found myself confused about why things were placed where they were and to either have the connection not be made at all or come much later took away some of the emotional impact for me.
My separation from the emotional connection to Ashton’s journey is also compounded by the fact that at times, the writing becomes abruptly choppier, there are some very distracting errors, and there are several instances where people, relationships, or events are described in ways that make them seem as if they should matter, but don’t or contradict something in the narrative. Additionally, there are some portions of the book that go into detail, while others seemed glossed over and minimized, even when they are stated to be important. It’s hard to explain or put my finger on exactly, but the best way I can put it is that these elements combined gave the book an air of distance or inauthenticity in some places that I felt did the memoir a disservice (something another pass with a good editor might solve). However, Saint Unshamed does a good job outlining Ashton’s unique, hard-won journey to self-discovery, acceptance, and living proudly and unashamed, and I can see it being a powerful guide in people’s walks through life.