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'So many unanswered questions': The podcast that explores the dark side of conversion therapy

Alana Chen and her mother Joyce
Image: Dear Alana

Dear Alana is a podcast series about the story of Alana Chen, a 24-year-old woman who disappeared from Boulder, Colorado in 2019.

At 14, Alana confessed to her priest that she was attracted to women and was instructed not to tell her parents. Over the next seven years, Alana covertly received conversion therapy which her family believes played a role in her fate.

Alana left behind two dozen journals chronicling a deep faith, love of fashion, and dream of becoming a nun. Using Alana's own words from her diaries, and talking to her friends and family, host Simon Kent Fung evokes Alana's life and her deep spiritual struggles. Simon who sought to change his sexual orientation through conversion therapy embarked on the podcast to understand the truth of what happened to Alana—and finally, face what happened to him.

Dear Alana, is an unravelling mystery and a poignant spiritual memoir about teenage rebellion and spiritual manipulation, the price we pay to belong and the systems that pay no price.

Crime + Investigation spoke to Simon over video call to discuss the podcast and find out what inspired him to tell Alana’s story.

What first drew you to Alana’s story?

When I read about Alana, it felt like I was struck by lightning because of how the details I was reading about Alana seemed to map so much to my own life: Her deep religiosity, her desire to become a nun, and her involvement with conversion therapy. A lot of those elements were very similar to my own.

I had spent most of my 20s in various forms of conversion therapy in an attempt to become a Catholic priest. So, I could relate to her, as a young person growing up and trying to find belonging.

How did you first come to speak to Alana’s mother, Joyce who plays such an important role in the podcast?

I started to do some research and found her mother Joyce on Facebook. I reached out to offer support. I shared my own story and some of the things that I felt were similar and offered her support. I was not expecting a reply at all. She did get back to me and she wrote back, and we got on a phone call a few months later, and that began the early days of me learning more about Alana, her daughter and really at the same time, facing a lot of unanswered questions that the family had.

What was the genesis of the podcast?

I had already been texting and having a phone friendship with Joyce for about a year and a half. It was 2021, I had just recently left my job and was burnt out and needed a bit of a break. I was lying awake in bed at 2am and I couldn't stop thinking about Alana. Her story kept on haunting me.

It felt like there were so many unanswered questions. There were so many parts of her story that I felt were inviting me to revisit some of my history. Then the idea came at that moment in the middle of the night to perhaps document that process in audio. That perhaps could be an artefact that could be helpful for other people. And so, it came pretty quickly, and I got on a Zoom with her family and their attorney a week or two later. I told them about the idea, and they were very supportive.

The podcast quotes passages from Alana's journals to tell her story. What was it like when you first read them?

It was difficult. Part of it was the material itself. Alana is so vulnerable and so honest in her writing. Because of that, I felt a kind of moral dilemma around about to use them. It wasn't until I came across some passages that Alana wrote - that I talk a bit about in the podcast - about her deep desire to have someone catch a glimpse of her inner life that gave me a little bit of ease. There was a real feeling that Alana herself wanted her story to be told. I can only hope that it did justice to her memory.

What sort of person was Alana? How would you describe her personality from her journals?

Vibrant is the word that comes to mind. She was everybody's friend. She was a star athlete who had so many artistic dreams that she writes about. She wanted to be a writer and a poet and had this creative side to her. But at the same time, I think her journals show and capture what it's like to be a young person trying to find her way in the world trying to find her place.

Did learning about Alana's story help you learn about yourself and your past?

Very much so. When I had first conceived of the idea to make this podcast, I had not intended to put myself into it. I had hoped to tell it from a very detached point of view. But it wasn't until after making a few episodes that I got feedback from people saying, 'Hey, we need to learn a little bit more about you’. That began a process of revealing parts of my own life, that I found in common with Alana's, as well as parts that were not similar. To point out some of those similarities and differences helped paint a broader picture of these forces that were operative in both Alana's and my own life.

What do you hope viewers will get out of the podcast?

I hope that listeners who are trying to reconcile disparate parts of their identities, whether it's their religious identity or their sexual identity, can hear Alana’s journey and our words and feel less alone.

More broadly, I hope that folks can see a human story here, of someone who's coming of age and who went to great lengths to find that belonging and by learning about Alana’s story, extend some compassion towards other people who might be feeling similarly isolated.

Dear Alana is available to stream on all major podcast platforms