“Dear Alana” podcast tells story of Colorado womans conversion therapy, suicide

Simon Fung felt haunted by the story of Alana Chen.

One day in 2021, Fung read a news article about Chen that plagued him as he tried to fall asleep that night. Chen was a young woman from Colorado who told The Denver Post about her experience, as a teenager, of undergoing conversion therapy with a Catholic priest and died by suicide four months later.

Fung couldn’t help but notice the parallels between his life and Chen’s. Both devout Catholics, both struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Both turning to conversion therapy in pursuit of a higher calling — aspiring priesthood for Fung and, for Chen, ambitions of becoming a nun.

“I felt like I needed to understand what happened to her,” Fung said in an interview with The Post.

Fung, who lived in the Bay Area at the time, found Chen’s mother, Joyce Calvo, on social media and reached out to her, sharing his story and condolences. Soon, Fung and Calvo were connecting on the phone and then Fung flew to Colorado to meet her and her family.

Their friendship became a partnership when Fung pitched the idea of a podcast delving into Chen’s life — a years-long project that evolved into the eight-episode podcast series “Dear Alana,” which hit No.1 on Apple Podcasts’ charts this summer and remains among the top show recommendations.

“The project attempts to go deep into what happened to Alana, exploring themes around identity and faith and, in many ways, what it’s like to try to grow up and belong and fit in as a young adult,” Fung said.

“Nearly identical” stories

Chen told The Post in the summer of 2019 that she had been shamed by clergy and church counselors from the time she was a teen through college after coming out to a priest at Boulder’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center while she was in high school.

Chen said she underwent conversion therapy with a Catholic priest without her parents’ knowledge. The Denver Archdiocese denied practicing conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy is counseling with the goal of changing a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s been deemed “harmful” and lacking scientific credibility by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Colorado banned conversion therapy for minors in 2019, but the law does not apply to pastoral counseling.

Four months after Chen and two other women shared their experiences with conversion therapy in a Post article, Chen took her own life. She was 24.

Fung was a first-time podcaster, but he felt Chen’s story would be best told through audio to allow for nuance and length, he said.

With a background in documentary film, storytelling wasn’t new to Fung, but the new medium was something he learned while making the trek back and forth between the Bay Area and Colorado to interview people who knew Chen.

Calvo said Fung was the first person who seemed to truly understand what her daughter had gone through and, in turn, what she was going through in the wake of Chen’s death.

“I felt like he could really help me,” Calvo said.

In the summer of 2022, Fung moved to Colorado to pursue the podcast full-time. The commitment proved to Chen’s family how serious Fung was about the project, and they ended up providing Fung access to Chen’s journals, cellphone and emails to help tell her story.

“I really trusted him,” Calvo said. “I just felt like her story needed to be told.”

Fung came to know Chen through her writings and experienced Colorado through her eyes. He would go to her favorite places — hiking trails, her ultimate Frisbee haunts, church settings — and talk to the people who knew her best.

“I had journal entries that were nearly identical to hers,” Fung said.

Seeing Colorado through Alana’s eyes

Fung didn’t grow up in a particularly devout household, but found a Catholic youth group as a teen that spurred his faith, he said.

In college, Fung found a Catholic community on campus he described as more conservative that appealed to him and nurtured his desire to pursue the priesthood. When Fung confessed he was having feelings for men to a priest who he considered to be his spiritual director, the priest slipped him resources on conversion therapy and told Fung to come back when he was “fixed.”

Fung moved to New York and spent the next decade undergoing conversion therapy, he said. Even when he stopped pursuing formal therapy, Fung said he was taught there was always more he could do to combat his attraction to men, like working through feelings of childhood bullying.

Eventually, Fung took a new job in the Bay Area and found himself growing increasingly depressed about his future.

“I realized if I continued pursuing this, I will not make it,” Fung said. “I didn’t have a very concrete idea of what that meant. It just felt like I wasn’t going to be living a full life if I continued to do this.”

The realization set Fung on a new path toward maintaining his Catholic faith and processing his true sexuality, which eventually led to finding Chen’s story.

The podcast was the hardest thing Fung has ever done, he said.

“I had been working through processing my own experiences and felt like a lot of that period was behind me,” Fung said. “Reading Alana’s story really resurfaced all of that. We often are able to extend more empathy and see things a little more clearly when we see them happening to other people. The more I learned about Alana through her own writings and the people that knew her, I began discovering parts of my own life that I felt like I had resolved.”

Fung didn’t intend to include his own story in the podcast, but it soon became inextricable, he said.

The response to his work, he said, has been overwhelming.

People have written him sharing their stories of conversion therapy or their struggles wrestling with their sexuality.

“There are so many aspects of this story that are finding resonance, and I’m excited for more people to hear it,” Fung said.

The episodes, from Tenderfoot TV and distributed by iHeartPodcasts, have been released every Monday with two more episodes still to come.

Calvo said grief has prevented her from listening to more than one episode.

“I feel like this is having a broad reach, so I’m happy about that,” Calvo said. “I just couldn’t listen to more.”

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