‘Boy Erased’ author Garrard Conley talks seeing his conversion therapy memoir turned into a film
On July 17, the first trailer for the upcoming film Boy Erased made its way online — and in the span of a week or so, the clip has already racked up more than five million views on YouTube. The awards season buzz has started, too, even though the movie won’t be out in theaters until Nov. 2.
The film, from director Joel Edgerton, stars Lucas Hedges as Jared, a young man from a conservative Christian family whose parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, send him off to so-called “conversion therapy” when they realize he is gay. For writer Garrard Conley, the overwhelming response to the film’s trailer carries special meaning — after all, it’s his story on the screen.
Conley wrote the 2016 book that inspired the upcoming film. Boy Erased: A Memoir focuses on his experience growing up in a small Arkansas town and his time in the Love in Action program in 2004, when he, as a teen, attended the so-called “ex-gay” ministry. In the book, Conley recounts his parents’ vastly different journeys to understanding their gay son as well as the harm he experienced as a result of his participation in conversion therapy.
Both Conley and his family wound up helping translate his story to film. “I was heavily involved in every step,” Conley told Mic over the phone recently, speaking about the experience of adapting his memoir. “It was very inclusive.” Conley chatted with Mic about the adaptation process, his family’s involvement and why he turned down an offer to write the screenplay himself. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: Congratulations on the release of the trailer. It must be another big wave of publicity for you to do.
Garrard Conley: It’s been interesting. The movie crowds are very different from book crowds, I’ve learned.
Oh really? In what way?
GC: Just the type of scrutiny that you get from people who are into film. I think book people tend to be — this is a horrible generalization — but I feel like book people tend to be a little more thoughtful in their critiques. I guess it’s strange that it’s a true story. When people are criticizing the story itself, I’m like, “That’s my story. How can you criticize it?” If it were just an artistic endeavor that were totally fabricated I would have a totally different reaction to it.
It must be kind of strange to have your personal story now on display as a new work of art.
GC: There’s been this really interesting reaction by, I’d say, a minority of people on Twitter who’ve said, “We don’t need any more sad queer [movies].” Which I totally get, and I completely sympathize with that. Because I feel like the history of queer cinema has been a lot of torture porn, almost. But it’s so strange whenever it’s a real story that’s still going on. I feel pulled in two different directions, where I’m like, “We don’t need more sad queer stories but we do need them, at the same time.”
I won’t get into any details, but just two days ago, and then yesterday again, I started receiving emails from people who were in other countries who’d seen the trailer. They were like, “I’ve been through conversion therapy, I feel like killing myself right now. I’m ready to do it.” It was so overwhelming, I actually spoke with the Trevor Project and a few other places to get advice. But what I walked away from that thinking was that, this one person emailed me that he was about to commit suicide before he saw the trailer — and he stopped. The need for these types of stories feels clear to me. But I know it’s not clear to everyone who’s not from the area that I’m from, or from some of these places that people are emailing from.
That’s been a really strange thing. One of the happiest moments in your career happening at the same time that you’re getting these emails.
I was actually going to ask you about that, because I saw your tweet about getting emails from people who are currently in conversion therapy. It seems like a really hard weight to bear — did you also get messages like that after the book was released?
GC: I got a few of them, but mostly it was people saying, “Oh, I had an Evangelical upbringing and I was in this much pain, but I made it through too, thank you for talking about our journey.” They always ended on a positive note. I think it’s perhaps easier to encounter Boy Erased, the film, because the trailer was everywhere — but you have to really go out of your way to pick up the book. You have to be like, “I am now ready to face my past and look at this book.” But a two-minute trailer, it can still have an emotional gut punch, but you don’t necessarily look away.
It’s interesting that we’ve got multiple films coming out about the experience of conversion therapy — with The Miseducation of Cameron Post coming out in August and then Boy Erased. Do you feel that we’re at a moment where creators are ready to reckon with conversion therapy through art?
GC: We have a really fun — it’s weird to say fun in association with conversion therapy — but a fun trajectory. It started with But I’m a Cheerleader, which is such a great movie. And then pop culture sort of sucked it up into South Park, and SNL — most of the depictions were comedic. And then Miseducation is pretty great; it’s an interesting balance between the drama of Boy Erased and the campiness of But I’m a Cheerleader.
It’s interesting to see these two different takes on [conversion therapy]. Miseducation is directed really well, it’s got this great color palette. It feels very inviting in some ways. I’m glad that there are two films out there that can actually show these two different perspectives. That one [in The Miseducation of Cameron Post] was more of a summer camp. And Love in Action was just in an ugly strip mall. There’s only so much you can work with in terms of cinematography when it’s drab.
So the film adaptation of Boy Erased was first announced last spring. How involved were you in the adaptation process?
GC: I was heavily involved in every step. In fact, the first time I met with Joel Edgerton, the director, he sat me down and he said, “You know, if you want to write this screenplay, I would be happy for that to happen.” And I said I can’t. I was like, “I don’t even know what I would do, I’ve already written my version.” It just felt like a betrayal to write anything else. I also just thought, “Okay, you want me to dramatize my rape scene for an audience? No thanks.” I thought that was just such an odd idea.
Joel was so excited. And I just thought, you know, if this is going to be a thing I want to give permission to this man who seems, for whatever reason, to be possessed by this vision. Pretty much every step of the way, he sent me every draft of the script. When I made edits he changed them for good, he didn’t even question it. If there was anything that felt off in terms of tone, he changed it immediately and I loved that.
Joel is someone who wants to know everything about the project that he’s doing so he and Lucas and [actor and co-producer] David Craig went with me to Arkansas. We met with my family. I was on set three different times — my mom was there, my aunt was there, my husband was there, we all have cameos.
In your book you start the narrative in this place where you believe you chose to be at Love in Action. Does having been in that situation give you more empathy for people who really think conversion therapy is the right thing to do?
GC: It’s so strange, it’s a hard line to walk. The film shows you a whole spectrum of different people that are in [the program] — [for] some people, it’s against their will, and then people like me, where it looks like we had free will, but we were just 18, 19. There was a lot of bargaining going on, it didn’t feel like there was actual free will.
I think just being from Arkansas, and going back to that town pretty much every year, I felt a need to really show the full picture. There are a lot of stereotypes about Christians and a lot of stereotypes about parents like mine that are infuriating. I get it, I totally get the immediate reaction that people have is like, “I would never do this to my child.” But I find that kind of reaction to be a little hollow. If you can’t imagine yourself doing something absolutely terrible, then you don’t know yourself as a human being.
Most human beings have a great capacity for doing harm, and I think in order to understand what kinds of harm can be done to us, and where it comes from, we have to really get dirty. We have to really think about why people are doing this. In the film and in the book, you see my mom on one side, her journey to acceptance, and then my dad, his journey is much smaller. And he hasn’t budged much. But you can see within that small journey, his struggle.
Something else you talk about early in the book is that, growing up, you hadn’t seen gay people in real life or in media — other than the one hairdresser in your town. Do you think about how your life might have been different if you had seen depictions of gay people living normal lives?
GC: It’s almost like one of those alternate realities you can’t even wrap your mind around. When I go back to Mountain Home, Arkansas, I can feel like the rest of the world doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a really scary, creeping feeling you can get. You can slowly feel like the rest of [the world is] a fantasy.
There were a few depictions I was able to see. I remember watching one episode of Queer As Folk and being like, “They’re doing a lot of clubbing.” But it was almost like, okay, that’s a fantasy. It’s a dream sequence.
The internet connects us so much now, and that’s another alternate reality. What if I’d had the internet when I was growing up? Or that kind of internet, not the kind where you’d type in “gay” and you’d get porn only. We do have all this connectivity now, but it’s easy to paint that as an alternate reality. And small communities do have a powerful pull still — it’s easy to still believe that the world isn’t what it looks like.
I saw in your Twitter bio that you’re working on a novel now. Can you tell me a little about it?
GC: I’m super excited. I can’t tell you much about it, but I can tell you the general gist of it. It’s a novel set in the 18th century in Puritan America during the Great Awakening. It involves a family, the Whitfields, who are loosely based off of Jonathan Edwards’ family. I’m obsessed with Jonathan Edwards, it’s a weird obsession to have.
I found this great detail that kicks off the novel. There was this family, called the Lymans, who lived near Jonathan Edwards. Their house burned down one night and everyone died in the house. And Jonathan Edwards, instead of letting his family mourn, he asked them to dress up in their Sunday best and come with him to the edge of the burned-down house while he recited a sermon to them about how they, too, could end up burned and dead at any moment and that’s why they needed to think of God. I just thought that was kind of funny. In a really dark way, it’s really funny. He’s just trying to scare the crap out of all these kids.