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Boy Erased [Book and Movie]

Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir Boy Erased recounts his experiences at the Memphis, Tennessee, “ex-gay” therapy program Love in Action, to which his parents sent him in 2004 upon learning that he was gay. A movie adaptation of the book was released in November 2018.

Conley, who was born in Memphis and grew up in northern Arkansas—first in Cherokee Village (Sharp and Fulton counties), then in Mountain Home (Baxter County)—is the son of Hershel Conley and Martha Caudill Conley. His father served as a Missionary Baptist pastor in Mountain Home. Conley was a Lyon College freshman when another student outed him as gay. In response, his parents sent him to Love in Action. His memoir is a painful reflection on his struggle to deal with his sexual orientation in a culture dominated by a conservative Christianity that disapproves of homosexuality.

In Boy Erased and interviews about it, Conley stressed that he wrote his book to give hope to others facing similar circumstances. As he told Bryan Borland of the Arkansas Times, the message he seeks to convey to others like himself is, “Hold on. Keep reading. Keep learning. Some day you will make it out. But don’t forget where you came from. There are people like you who haven’t made it out, and these people need your help.”

In Boy Erased, he states, “On some days, it’s hard to believe that I ever lived in a world that operated on such extreme notions of self-annihilation. But then I turn on the news, read a few articles, and realize that what I have experienced may have been unique, but in no way was it disconnected from history. Minorities continue to be abused and manipulated by nefarious and well-intentioned groups of people, and harmful ideas continue to develop new political strains all over the world. What I can’t quite understand —and what I may never be capable of understanding—is how we all came to be mixed up in the ex-gay movement, what drew each of us to Love in Action’s double doors.”

Reviewer Steven Tagle noted that, while Conley repudiated the “ex-gay” therapy on which his parents insisted and began living an openly gay life, he writes with sympathy for his parents, and, in particular, his mother, who supported his decision to leave Love in Action. Reviewer Emily Donaldson found Conley’s mother to be the hero of his narrative “who unironically embodies the concept of ‘love in action.’” In an interview with writer Lauren Prastien, Conley recounted a conversation in which someone asked him, in his mother’s presence, what kind of parent would send a child to “ex-gay” therapy. His realization: “This is her story, too. The story won’t make sense if it is not also the story of a woman who ‘did this to her child.’ Out of Love. Out of Fear. Out of a South that spends a lot of time killing its children on accident. And of course it doesn’t hurt that I teach ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ every year now.”

In 2008, Love in Action’s director Jon Smid resigned and in 2016 married his partner Larry McQueen. In his memoir Ex’d Out, he states that, in his view, “ex-gay” therapy is ineffective.

The movie adaptation of Boy Erased premiered on September 1, 2018, at the Telluride Film Festival and was released in U.S. theaters on November 2, 2018. Directed and written by Joel Edgerton, the film stars Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Edgerton himself.

The film faithfully mirrors the story Conley’s memoir tells, focusing on his experience at Memphis’s Love in Action conversion therapy program, to which Conley’s Baptist minister father, with the support of Conley’s mother, sent him in 2004 after they learned he was gay. In the film, Conley’s name has been changed to Jared Eamons. Hedges plays the role of Jared, and Jared’s father Marshall Eamons and his mother Nancy are played by Crowe and Kidman. Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, a role based on Love in Action’s director Jon Smid. Shot in Atlanta, Georgia, the film follows Conley’s memoir in depicting his painful struggles in college (a fellow student sexually assaulted him at Lyon College and then outed him as gay) and at Love in Action.

Boy Erased grossed $7.9 million at the box office. The film enjoyed strong critical reception, with critics praising the understated tone of the film and how each detail held resonant meaning. They also gave it high marks for helping to educate audiences about conversion therapy. Some critics insisted, however, that the lens the film employs as it deals with “ex-gay” treatment is unnecessarily soft.

For example, reviewer Sarah Ward stated, “Edgerton may write, direct and act in Boy Erased, but one of his biggest achievements stems from how he treats the film’s main characters. This is a sensitive, earnest, somber and understated movie that’s shot in neutral tones, and wants to explore what motivates folks like the Eamons.” In David Edelstein’s estimation, “Edgerton proves an incisive filmmaker. Every beat has weight. Every close-up registers. He values silence —he trusts you to feel things along with his characters.”

Among the less positive reviewers was Scott Marks, who wrote, “If you know someone who is thinking of putting their kid though one of these programs, buy them a ticket. If not, what’s the point?” Richard Roeper concurred, underscoring the film’s educational achievement: “It’s madness and it’s cruel and our hearts break for these men and women, many of whom are vulnerable and bruised (emotionally and in some cases physically) and desperate to become ‘normal,’ so they be accepted by their families and forgiven by the Lord—or at least the Lord as channeled through the righteous Sykes.”

As a statement scrolling across the screen at the end of Boy Erased reminds viewers, thirty-six states, at the time the film was released, still permitted conversion therapy. As Conley indicated in a “Talks at Google” interview with Sanders Kleinfeld, before his memoir came out, “there hadn’t been a real definitive account, or at least a definitive literary account, of this type of therapy.” Kleinfeld noted that Boy Erased broke new ground in discussing the effects of conversion therapy in a detailed account not previously found in popular culture. As Conley stresses, the roots of this therapy run deep in the religious culture of some areas of the United States, including Arkansas.

For additional information:
Borland, Bryan. “Surviving Gay Conversion Therapy.” Arkansas Times, May 19, 2016, pp. 26–27, 32. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/a-qanda-with-garrard-conley-author-of-boy-erased/Content?oid=4413491 (accessed November 7, 2018).

Brickhouse, Jamie. “‘Boy Erased’: A Minister’s Son Trapped Between Religion and His Sexual Identity.” Washington Post, May 10, 2016. Online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/boy-erased-a-ministers-son-trapped-between-religion-and-his-sexual-identity/2016/05/10/48cc7c8a-0b14-11e6-8ab8-9ad050f76d7d_story.html (accessed November 7, 2018).

Conley, Garrard. Boy Erased. New York: Riverhead Books, 2016.

———. “Why My Parents Tried to Cure Me of Being Gay.” CNN Opinion, May 10, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/10/opinions/ex-gay-conversion-therapy-garrard-conley/ (accessed November 7, 2018).

Edelstein, David. “Lucas Hedges Is Remarkable in Boy Erased.” New York Magazine, November 9, 2018.

Gail, Amy. “The Opposite of Labels: Garrard Conley.” Barnes & Noble Review. May 16, 2016. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/the-opposite-of-labels-garrard-conley (accessed November 7, 2018).

Garrard Conley. http://garrardconley.com/ (accessed February 19, 2019).

Hicklin, Aaron. “False Images: Surviving Gay Conversion Therapy.” Out Magazine, September 13, 2018. Online at https://www.out.com/art-books/2018/9/13/false-image-surviving-gay-conversion-therapy (accessed November 7, 2018).

Lybarger, Dan. “Arkansas Native Wasn’t about to Be Erased.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 18, 2018, pp. 1E–2E.

Marks, Scott. “Boy Erased.” San Diego Reader, 2018. https://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/boy-erased/ (accessed February 2019).

Prastien, Lauren. ‘Boy Erased’: An Interview with Garrard Conley.” Michigan Quarterly Review, February 16, 2016.

Roeper, Richard. “‘Boy Erased’: All Get a Fair Shake in Powerful Drama about ‘Curing’ a Gay Teen.” Chicago Sun Times, November 11, 2018. Online at https://chicago.suntimes.com/entertainment/boy-erased-review-lucas-hedges-russell-crowe-gay-conversion-richard-roeper/ (accessed February 2019).

Summar, Todd. “Garrard Conley: On Surviving Ex-Gay Therapy, Writing His Memoir, and the Year in Queer Lit.” Lambda Literary, June 20, 2016. Online at http://www.lambdaliterary.org/interviews/06/20/garrard-conley-on-surviving-ex-gay-therapy-writing-his-memoir-and-the-year-in-queer-lit/ (accessed November 7, 2018).

Tagle, Steven. “Bad Education.” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 23, 2016. Online at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/bad-education/#! (accessed November 7, 2018).

Ward, Sarah. “Boy Erased.” Concrete Playground, November 8, 2018. https://concreteplayground.com/brisbane/event/boy-erased-3 (accessed February 2019).

William D. Lindsey
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 2/21/2019

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