In 2004, 19, aspiring writer of Arkansas named Garrard Conley, found himself in a state of discomfort. Inappropriately released by his baptist parents after being sexually assaulted by a male student while in college, he was sent to a gay conversion facility in Memphis with an ironic name: Love in Action.
Not surprisingly, the "cure" did not take.
Years later, Conley wrote a book about that experience. Entitled "Boy Erased", Conley's memoir book for 2016 has now been adapted as film starring Lucas Hedges ("Manchester by the Sea") as the fictional Jared and Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared's parents. Now 33, Conley talked to us about the film and his advocacy work. We also checked in with Joel Edgerton, 44, screenwriter and director of the film, who plays a character based on the former director of the Love in Action ministry.
(This interview was condensed by two conversations).
D: Joel, your directorial debut, "The Gift," is a psychological thriller – also by coincidence of someone who has been mistreated by his father, who mistakenly assumed that his son was gay. Were there any thriller elements that brought you to the story of Garrard?
Edgerton: Strangely, yes. The reason why I opened the book in the first place was the fear of my childhood for the institutions, of being locked up, of being taken away from my family. I remember kneeling beside my baby bed and praying that I should never have to go to jail. If I had behaved badly, sometimes my father was joking, saying that he could always exchange me with another boy, and that made me so upset. As for the gay conversion, I had this morbid curiosity about this very different kind of prison. Imagine that the people who sent you to prison – those who are telling you that you are broken – are your own family.
D: Is this when you understood that the story is about the family as much as the conversion of gays?
Edgerton: Absolutely. The family history seemed to take over. That's why I decided to turn it into a movie. Jared's parents are those who must undergo their conversion.
D: Garrard, what's your relationship with your parents today?
Conley: What has put a strain on all of us. My father and I are still discussing. He is a Baptist minister. He still has a church. It was only a couple of weeks ago that my father finally told my mother, "I do not think any of those therapies worked." Ya, do you think?
There may be pervasive bigotry in small cities. Although I am the one who came out, in a sense my mother also had a coming out. After all, it is she who saved me in the end. He is a member of this secret Facebook group, the Mama Bears: they are mostly Christian mothers who can not be opened on their support for their gay children but who try to devise strategies to change the church from within.
It was also just a couple of weeks ago that my father's church held a vote to see if my father was supposed to be expelled – all because my mother was joining me on the promotional tour for the film. In the end, they did not drive him away, but I think they would be happy if you divorced from my mother.
D: Is your mother – or the character of Nicole Kidman – the true hero of this story?
Conley: While Joel and I were still going back and forth on the screenplay, I was firmly convinced that whatever he wrote, it had to be in Jared's terms. The conversion must be parents, not Jared.
Before writing the second half of the book, I sat down with my mother and recorded four hours of interviews. She was married at 16, always super smart, but gave up part of herself to raise a family. Now he is receiving ovations at the Toronto Film Festival. He spoke at the Clinton Center. The public was nailed. This is what it is meant to be. Now he is living this second life.
D: Joel, your character is based on John Smid, former director of the Love in Action ministry who eventually abandoned that gay conversion program and now lives as a gay. Did you meet?
Edgerton: Yes, I visited Texas. But I've also watched a lot of footage since he still believed he was right, back in 2005. He's very charismatic, very catchy, like a politician. This made me realize how dangerous his random rhetoric was. Although, on the surface, he is like a big brother, he would use the information he has confused with young men and women to shame her.
We could make a lot more with this film if we made the "heroes and villains" version of Garrard's story, if we let Love in Action come out to be this torture chamber. But this is not the truth. Garrard calls the book a "document" of something that will soon be in the past. The irony is that people like Garrard do not need help; it is the others who need to convert.
D: It takes a while before Jared comes to see the pernicious effects of Love in Action, which initially seems to embrace, albeit with little enthusiasm. Why is this part of your journey important?
Edgerton: It is important for children, especially children of conservative Christian families like Jared, to be able to identify with him. These children are simply eating the meal they are fed.
D: What, if nothing else, was changed from the book?
Conley: Whenever you edit a book, there is a loss. I wrote with a slightly campy voice – very gothic in the south. But the film, even an act of advocacy, must be more objective.
Before now – and before this other gay conversion drama, "The Miseducation of Cameron Post", of which I was a consultant – every other portrait of conversion therapy treated these programs as a joke, as in the film satirical of 1999 "But I am a cheerleader." We have already seen that story. I wanted this to be a form of advocacy for people both inside and outside the LGBTQ community.
D: What is your hope for the film, which has received awards?
Conley: The awards are great, because they serve to keep the conversation alive. My eye is very much on the topic of conversion therapy – and on the bigotry that creates it – a familiar topic. People are always incredulous when I say there are 700,000 Americans who have undergone conversion therapy. I want the shock to be something that I will never have to meet again.
D: If the film is a form of advocacy, how do you reach the audience that most needs to see it, and who is that audience?
Edgerton: This is the frustrating dilemma. We have this conversation all the time. I spoke to a guy who saw him at the Telluride Film Festival. He said: "I would like this movie to have existed when I was 15". But how can we not simply preach to the convert, so to speak? We do not want to throw God under the bus.
One of my hopes is that once the film has arrived at a streaming platform, there will be people watching – perhaps half of a couple who are parents of a gay kid – who are too afraid to see it at the cinema. If there is someone who has understood how to get the "wrong" people right to see this movie, I would like to talk to them.
D: Do you consider yourself a model, Garrard?
Conley: I certainly did not choose to be one. I always wanted to be a writer, not in the public eye. I find it mandatory. But from time to time I find in my mailbox the screams of terror from people who are looking for pain. It is impossible not to feel a sense of responsibility. In fact, I received an email from a man the other day that said he was thinking of suicide, and then he saw the trailer for "Boy Erased", and this made him want to move on.
Boy canceled (R, 114 minutes). In the area theaters.