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Boy Erased’s Joel Edgerton and Garrard Conley on the Sad Legacy of Conversation Therapy

on November 01, 2018, 4:50pm

In 2016, Garrard Conley published Boy Erased: A Memoir, the chronicle of his time spent with Love In Action, an anti-gay conversion therapy program that promised devout parents a chance to “reclaim” their children by helping coach them out of their homosexuality. In a cultural period where high-ranking American politicians have publicly endorsed the practice, which has been the source of countless abuse stories over the years, Conley’s memoir served as a reminder that attempting to forcibly change that which cannot be changed is one of the cruelest things we do to others in modern society.

Now, Boy Erased has been brought to theaters through writer/director Joel Edgerton, who also stars as Victor Sykes, the demeaning head of Love In Action. With Lucas Hedges portraying Jared, a version of Conley, and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe stepping in as his parents (a stay-at-home wife and a Baptist preacher), Edgerton attempts to make a personal story universal, in ways that can hopefully change the cultural conversation around conversion therapy for good.

As the film prepares to begin its theatrical rollout, CoS sat down with Edgerton and Conley in Chicago to discuss the film, the evangelical culture that so often exists hand-in-hand with conversion therapy, possible ways forward for religious families that no longer involve the practice, and much more.

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Garrard, I’ve heard you speak about how a lot of the book was born from the question “how can a parent do this to a child?” How have both of you come to answer or otherwise understand that question as you’ve gone through the process of bringing it to film?

Joel Edgerton (JE): I always kept zeroing in on this rich conflict in the book and in Garrard’s life. You had two parents doing what most parents constantly do, if you’re lucky, which is to try and help you through life. The fact that what they thought was helping was hurting…I think it’s easy to look at this and go “everyone around Garrard was trying to hurt him.” I don’t think that was what they were trying to do. They were going “how can we help? How can we help him?” And that, in and of itself, was the catch-22 that excited me on a story level about the book, was going “what if one person’s help was another person’s hurt?”

How do you see that manifest in the ways in which the parental figures, in both the film and book, refuse to stop the process even as the evidence begins to mount that something really wrong is going on? 

Garrard Conley (GC): I think one of the great things that Joel’s captured from the book is that when you’re in a systematic, bigoted area, where bigotry is just in the air, everyone is affected by it and it’s incredibly difficult to leave it. I was able to leave it only after experiencing a lot of crazy stuff. My mom was only able to leave after seeing me in complete pain and fear. My father, you know, just now has admitted that it was probably wrong to send me there. It takes a long time to get out of those deeply rooted fundamentalist belief systems. And I think that one of the things that the film does is it shows a road map out of that. Not out of Christianity, it’s not attacking Christianity, it’s not attacking religion in any way. But it is saying that these sorts of black-and-white worldviews that don’t allow for human expression or a range of human behavior are dangerous.

How do you find that these issues [within evangelical communities] are entrenched and maintained? I mean, in its way, it’s also kind of the American question of the moment. 

GC: Yeah, like how do we have all of this, people still believing in Nazis and stuff.

JE: I find that an incredibly hard question to answer, because what are the answers? Education is an answer, but that doesn’t seem to be an easy solution. How do you get people to see the other point of view? One of the great conundrums of making a film like Boy Erased is getting the right ‘wrong’ people to see the movie. [both laugh] It’s fine to preach to the converted, and every one of those people are excited for the movie, [but] there’s also a bunch of people who aren’t excited for the movie, or don’t even care to even know about the movie. They’re the people that I actually prefer to see the movie.

Empathy is a great tool for education, and unfortunately, people stick to their own ideas, their own circles, their own communities. They build a fence around allowing themselves to access empathy to other communities and other ideas. So how do you do that? How do you break down the fences?

GC: I look at the church itself, the Baptist church that my dad’s involved in, and I say to him “how do you think people changed their minds on civil rights? How did they suddenly accept black people as human beings?” And my dad is like, “I don’t know, it was the right thing to do,” and I say no. There was a lot of protesting, there was a whole lot of people causing trouble in the church, saying “this is not fair. This is not right.” It’s exactly what I’m doing right now, it’s exactly what you’re doing right now. [gestures to Edgerton] The way forward is always going to be disrupting the status quo. That’s just always true.

So I think that these deeply entrenched behaviors, they’re based off of these fear models that are hard to get over. It’s really hard to believe that the Bible you’ve decided to believe in 100% needs to be seen in context. When it says that slaves should go back to their slaveowners, it’s not saying that right now we should have slaves. That was a time period in which it was helpful for people to believe that.

JE: Film is a peaceful protest. The great thing I’ve always found about films and plays and books is that, through one person’s experience, it speaks to many people’s experience. It becomes an identifier. Garrard’s story is an identifier for young people to not feel alone, and for other people to feel empathy for what he went through and see what was not right about it. His parents, as characters in the film and as people in real life, are their own road map for other parents to sort of examine that journey they took and realize that maybe they don’t want to take the same journey if they’re in the same position. Or if they have taken that journey, that they also identify with his mother, who is such a great hero and an individual that could help create some change by example.

From a filmmaking standpoint, how did you go about making sure that the story was being told in such a way that it’d be accessible to more than just the ‘converted’? How do you make it approachable for people who might not want to be receptive to what’s being discussed?

JE: Watching Trump play to his own crowd is…it’s like a bunch of people in a bubble. He knows how to get the laughs, he knows how to get the applause. I think for me to take that approach with this film would be to twirl a moustache as my character. It would be to paint everybody where Garrard is a complete hero and the others are villains and demonize religion. I think taking a lead from Garrard’s book, treating everybody as human beings making their own righteous decisions along the way with all the information that they had in those moments, thinking they were doing the right thing, and treating them as humans and fairly as such, is the right way to render this story. There is an inherent terror in the ideas within the film that doesn’t need to be amplified in a false way. It does have a certain palatability that I think [will help] Christian groups and school groups to be able to access this movie, and for it to be the very beginning of another conversation, which is “what do we all think? What do you guys think about this? How do you feel about what Garrard went through? What do you think about the choices his parents make?” There’s some tough stuff to watch in it, but it’s worth a watch for everybody in order to examine your own point of view.

As far as presenting some of the really difficult material in the film, what was the thought process as far as both adaptation and visual representation were concerned in terms of what to show and where to look away? 

JE: There’s a couple things. One is the representation of the abuse that Garrard experienced in college. Just on a purely narrative structure level, it’s a necessary scene, in that it was a catalyst for him being outed to his parents. It’s also an expression of the supression of sexuality, and how in its darkest forms, it can come out through certain individuals because they’re not able to live a life in their own community that is free and welcoming of their sexuality.

There was something I did narratively by creating a certain character in therapy, Cameron, because there was one page of Garrard’s book talking about, in previous therapies of this faith, the idea of putting a child through a fake funeral. It just blew my mind, and I thought if we have one shot at telling this story, we need to include the damage of attempted suicide, or suicide itself. The first places that that damage can really go. There were a couple of things that I thought were tough but necessary.

GC: You also did so much research around all the different conversion therapies. To have Cameron in there, to have his full story, was a way to show the different types of damages that people went through. We wanted it to be a very specific story, it’s still my story of course, but also have these more universal leanings.

JE: Loving parents thinking they’re doing the right thing are not going to turn up to a barbed-wire, rusty, prison cell place…

GC: Some of them do, though.

JE: Some of them do, no doubt. But Garrard’s parents, they love him, and felt they were trying to assist in guiding him back to (in their belief system) a better place. They weren’t trying to physically torture him; the mental ideas in that place were designed to help. [both laugh, hollowly] It is worth mentioning that there are places that still do electric shock treatment, that still put hands in buckets of ice.

In Brooklyn, Garrard and I met in Brooklyn with one of the guys who was instrumental in taking down JONAH. [Editor’s note: JONAH stands for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, a notorious anti-gay therapy practitioner. They were shut down in 2015 after a lawsuit proved that their conversion promises amounted to consumer fraud, but used company funds to create the still-active JIFGA, or Jewish Institute For Global Awareness.] The most purely diabolical and outright abusive trap for already damaged children, to be then re-abused under the form of some quasi-therapy. There’s a spectrum, and it also speaks to the fact that these places are unsanctioned, so there’s no unity of therapy. They pick and choose. They call themselves doctors or therapists, when they’re not.

GC: Isn’t it just so American for people to be like “oh, I guess we should just send you to this place”? You outsource your pain. You’re like “Oh, we’re having this family problem. That’s how you fix it. Send him off, he’ll come back, everything will be fine.”

This is a huge problem particularly in evangelical communities, where there’s this mentality of salvation for pay. There’s a fee structure. 

GC: There’s a lot of that going on, yeah. That’s even more insidious, I think, because it’s so clear that people are like “just give us money, and you’ll be fine.”

JE: It’s also hiding problems. There’s also the idea that the person who is converted, if they’re…in that world, one of “the lucky ones,” you end up making everyone else around you happy because the problem seems to evaporate. But really, the problem is just swept under the carpet. A lot of people, when I told them I was making this movie and [they] didn’t know Garrard’s book, they went “so it’ll be set in the ’50s?” No, we’re saving money on the production design, because it’s still happening. It reminded me of one of my father’s friends who…you know, pregnancy in the ’50s, we couldn’t have that, it was shameful. So like [Garrard was] saying, send the problem off. Someone goes on a holiday, the child gets adopted out, and they bring them back to the community as if nothing had ever happened. Outsourcing problems and sweeping things under a carpet, rather than dealing with the truth.

GC: The irony and the sad thing with those situations, being LGBTQ or having this child out of wedlock or whatever, those are the things that make the community more interesting. Those are the things that actually enrich the community. But instead, they’re just farming it out, saying “oh never mind.” That’s their own death.

What’s the best way to push back against these practices in day-to-day life? 

GC: They’re headed back in that direction, you see it with Mike Pence and all that. In my opinion, there’s the 50 Bills 50 States initiative from The Trevor Project. We also have a website called Stop Erasing, which has a lot of details about how to stop conversion therapy. There’s also a podcast that’s coming out on November 2nd, Unerased, that looks at the whole history of it. The first step is, get the bans done. But at the same time, educate people about the statistics. 700,000 people in America alone have been through conversion therapy. 20,000 are affected by it today. Those things should be standard [knowledge] in every household.

JE: Spread the word. And if you know somebody close to you who conversion therapy is affecting, be willing to speak out loud about it and drag someone to the film if they’re unaware. There’s a lot of avenues to speak out, on a government level and on a personal level. There are a lot of ways to galvanize people.

Boy Erased opens in limited cities on November 2nd, and will expand nationwide in the following weeks.

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