Confusion, Conflation, and Conversion Therapy
There is a movie coming out this weekend. It's called Boy Erased, and it is about "Conversion Therapy." It is an anguishing story of a boy and his parents trying desperately to overcome his "being gay."
When the trailer came out a few months ago, I was immediately tagged on Facebook and asked for my response.
I had to decline. What could I say in response other than, "the trailer is emotionally poignant and incredibly well put together. The story told in the trailer causes my heart to ache."
Then I thought about those words on the screen toward the beginning of the trailer: "Based on the Unforgettable True Story."
If this is based on a true story, I can read the full story and make a comment based on that. Sure enough, this movie is based on a book by the same name.
Written by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is his memoir published in 2016. So I looked up the book, bought a copy, and read it in August. I've been thinking about this blog ever since.
There are two things I want to address in this blog - how the book compares to the trailer, and the larger themes contained in the book itself.
As I was reading the book, I realized that the story in the trailer was significantly different from the story in the book.
Of course differences between the book and the movie are very common in adaptations. The stories are often changed to convey the message of the book effectively using the new medium of film. Words on a page do not translate exactly to the images on a screen.
I know that a movie can't be a one-to-one application of the words from the book, and I don't expect them to be.
What I do expect is for the film adaptation to be honest in conveying the story from the book it is based on.
Without seeing the actual film, I have to be careful here. I don't know if Boy Erased the movie will actually convey the story from Boy Erased the memoir.
Based on the trailer alone, though, I can already point to a number of major things in this film that are not supported by the book.
I'd love to do this part as one of those YouTube videos were people react to trailers/movie clips and break them down. I don't have that technology available to me at this time, so I'm just going to write about it. Sorry. Let me break down the trailer, pointing out the inconsistencies between the trailer and the book. After I do that, I want to write about Confusion, Conflation, and Conversion Therapy.
The Trailer Breakdown
Part I - Exposure
[Minute Mark 0:00 - 0:40]
This is a powerful opening sequence. It grabs you by the heartstrings and thrusts you into the anguish of the story.
The establishing shots demonstrate that Garrard is being raised in the south within a traditional family setting. His father is shown in the pulpit leading a Christian congregation.
Clips with the dark-haired man are probably references to David. He is vital to this story, and I'm going to talk about him in this segment.
The father's voice-over (which is actor Russell Crowe), is a great adaptation of the confrontation that Garrard records in his memoir. Garrard was already in college when his parents found out that he was "gay."
It is at college that David comes into the story in the book. I don't know if the movie will keep that factual reality, but the important thing is that David made a huge impact on Garrard's life. It was David who exposed Garrard by spreading rumors that he was gay.
Hearing these rumors, Garrard's parents came and got him from school. They only talked to him after driving all the way home in silence.
That conversation is captured here. The words in the trailer are not the same as the words in the book, but the trailer captures the sentiment so clearly. It is an incredibly poignant moment.
This line, "I think about men, I don't know why, and I'm so sorry." is my favorite line from the trailer. It is heart-wrenching. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe do an amazing job conveying the shock, disbelief, and dismay that parents so frequently feel when hearing these kinds of statements. Lucas Hedges conveys a deep anguish in his voice as he delivers the line.
These aren't the exact words that Garrard Conley and his parents used in their conversation that night after bringing him home from college, but the art form is certainly capturing the emotion of the moment accurately.
This film, with top-notch actors and beautiful cinematography and dialogue, will be a powerful statement in support of the agenda being advanced. I wish my point of view was being promoted with a multi-million dollar movie.
Part II - To The Refuge [Minute Mark 0:40-0:56]
It's laughable that the name of the program literally was "The Refuge." Whenever I hear the name I think of the line from Newsies where Snyder yells, "Sullivan! Just wait until I get you back to The Refuge!"
This program was a real program, though, and not an invention for a Broadway musical. The Refuge was operated by Love in Action for many years but was discontinued in 2007. Love in Action still operates today under the name "Restoration Path," and has a Wikipedia entry.
The Boy Erased trailer is conveying two messages in this segment that I want to address:
1. That Garrard's parents sent him to The Refuge, and 2. That the medical practitioner didn't think there was anything wrong with Garrard.
The first is certainly true. Mr. and Mrs. Conley did encourage Garrard to go to Love in Action and to get the help offered through the Refuge program. His experiences there are the entire basis of his memoir.
The second is not exactly true. The account that Garrard gives of Dr. Julie in his memoir recalls a serious diagnosis of self-inflicted torture. Garrard wasn't eating during that season of his life. She notes that he is harming himself, and suggests that she would be concerned if it was more than a phase. Then Dr. Julie told him that there are "plenty of people who have accepted this part of themselves," talking about homosexuality as a "part of themselves." She says "it gets easier," and suggests that he might move to a different city if he doesn't want to change.
Garrard says that he does want to change. He doesn't want to feel these attractions towards men.
And that is the whole account. Dr. Julie does a Testosterone test to placate Garrard's mother. She doesn't say that he is a "perfectly healthy young man." In fact, she says that he is torturing himself, and she is concerned if the behavior continues.
(In a prior section of the memoir, Garrard disclosed another behavior that was not healthy. He would binge playing video games in his bedroom for hours at a time and would not travel to the bathroom to relieve himself. Instead, he would urinate on the carpet. Another thing he discloses is that he would sometimes fantasize about his house burning to the ground.)
This movie trailer portrays a doctor diagnosis that is much more positive than the one that actually occurred. Garrard wasn't perfectly healthy, he needed help, and his parents thought that The Refuge might give him that help.
Part III - Strike the Demon Down
[Minute Mark 0:56-1:22]
This is the most serious departure from the source material in the trailer. The Refuge program is depicted in a way that does not reflect the account from the book. There are some minor departures, but there are extreme departures as well.
The first departure in the trailer depiction of The Refuge comes in the way the building itself is shown. Where the trailer shows a gated driveway and expansive facilities, ball fields, a chapel, and more, the book describes something much more nondescript. Love in Action and all of their programs were actually located in a retrofitted retail space in an unassuming segment of a strip mall.
That's a minor point of departure. What is a much more serious departure are the words, "God will not love you as you are."
That was never stated in the book. And unlike the portion of dialogue earlier in the trailer, which accurately conveys the emotions of a real experience, these words convey an entirely alien meaning that was not represented anywhere in the book. The leaders of Love in Action were never recorded as saying that God would not love Garrard, or anyone else, no matter what the circumstances were.
This line might be an attempt to accurately portray the perception Garrard had of the program, but it is not a fair characterization. Unless there is actual evidence that these men don't believe that God loves all people, this line of dialogue is an unsupported attack against their character.
Another line of dialogue that suffers from the same problem is the line, "Who's gonna strike this demon down?"
This line and the accompanying imagery is the single most serious departure from the source material. The trailer shows an unidentified member of the Love in Action team striking a young man with a Bible. This. Did. Not. Happen.
The memoir has no allusion to such an event. It is an outrage to invent it for the film out of thin air.
Nowhere in the book is it claimed that anyone called same-sex attraction a demonic thing. Nowhere in the book is it claimed that Love in Action or the parents ever physically abused anyone. This clip is slanderous and an outrage.
I don't know how it will play out in the actual film, but the trailer makes the clear implication that Garrard and the other men in the Refuge were subjected to this physical abuse. That is not true. These few scenes are filled with caricatures invented for the movie.
Part IV - Songwriter Cameo
[Minute Mark 1:22-1:37]
Before I go on, I want to point out again the heart-wrenching way that this trailer conveys internal distress. This time it is the scene of Garrard throwing something at the advertisement depicting a shirtless man and then screaming at the sky. That image hits me in the gut. It conveys anguish and turmoil and shows Garrard crying out in desperation to God to fix everything. It is confusion and fury. I have felt these things, and the trailer conveys them powerfully.
Garrard doesn't record any acts of public vandalism in the book, but it's another way the film can convey an internal anguish that would be impossible to convey on screen without text.
This part of the trailer also features the singer/songwriter cameo. The bleach-blonde character at The Refuge is another caricature invented for the movie. His attitude and words don't reflect anything that Garrard actually encountered there. (I think he is a decade further along in the rhetoric and the social ideology that he espouses in the trailer than anyone who was actually there. It's wild how quickly our language has shifted on this topic. I can make comments saying someone is using rhetoric that wasn't present even a decade ago.)
The other young men that Garrard encountered during his time at The Refuge (the name still makes me chuckle) were a lot like him. They publicly supported the efforts being undertaken, and they hoped that these steps might help them stop being gay.
So the caricature here is imposing an ideology of identity through his dialogue that wasn't actually espoused at The Refuge. I only bring him up to point out that the actor is also the singer/songwriter who performs the song in the trailer.
Troye Sivan wrote the song Revelation for the movie, and earned himself a spot in the film. That's a fun fact.
I only listened the full song for the first time yesterday. Today I looked at the lyrics. It is a haunting melody that sticks with you. The words convey a deep sense of longing, unfulfilled desires, wandering, and hope for the revelation of someone to rescue. The rescue being sought is a rescue from the "holy world" of "walls" as the lyrics describe it.
The song makes me sad. We can all relate to this kind of emotion to some degree, but I think that having same-sex sexual and romantic desires are particularly implicated by these lyrics and this emotion. (Duh, it was written for this film. So that would make sense.)
Part V - Father and Son
[Minute Mark 1:37-1:59]
This segment of the trailer explores the father/son relationship between Garrard and his dad. I don't remember this being so prominent in the book, which spent a lot more time on the relationship between Garrard and his mother.
The relationship between Garrard and Mr. Conley was strained and uncomfortable throughout the book. There were many anecdotes where Garrard describes feeling like he was letting his dad down. Whether it was when they went on a prison ministry trip together, or when Garrard led company devotions at the car lot his dad ran, it was clear that Garrard was feeling pressured to perform.
There isn't anything in the book that indicates that Mr. Conley ever abused his son. That scene of him grabbing his son's arm was also invented for the movie. I don't know how far the movie will carry it, so I won't object too strongly. But if the movie does claim that his dad abused him physically, that will be another way this film attacks people's character without any evidence.
What is accurately conveyed here is the segment about Love in Action setting up the empty chair and telling Garrard to tell them how much he hates his father. His response in the book is very similar to the response given in the trailer. Naturally the movie will make it much more dramatic, but Garrard does record that he rejected this idea that he must hate his father somehow.
I'm glad that this portion is in the movie and in the trailer. I agreed with Garrard in this part of the book. I reject the idea that there must be some deep-seated hatred against one parent or the other that causes a person to experience same-sex attraction. It's not true of me. Garrard says it is not true of him.
The trailer depicts that scene really well.
It's probably the most accurate depiction of the Refuge in the trailer.
Part VI - Mother Locked Out
[Minute Mark 1:58-2:07]
This is a completely inaccurate depiction of the Refuge. While this depiction is at least based on something in the book, it is so distorted that it becomes an outright lie.
Mrs. Conley was never prevented from visiting her son, and Garrard was never physically restrained from leaving the program at any time (much less tackled).
The only basis for these clips is that Garrard tells his readers that the Refuge did not permit parents to go beyond the lobby. This rule was established with the rationale that some members of the program had such severe issues with their parents that they could be triggered if they saw a mother with her child.
This rationale sounds insane. Mrs. Conley should have heard that rule and left the Love in Action program immediately. It is scary stuff to think that these leaders thought the men and women in the program were so fragile. But she went forward. And Garrard went forward with the program.
She never tried to enter. He never tried to leave. The leadership never tackled him or threw him against the wall.
He was there throughout the day, and would stay in a hotel with his mother every night.
So she saw him every night after the day's "sessions." It was not a prison program. It was a day camp in a strip mall.
The way this scene is portrayed makes it a million times worse than it was. This scene imagines behaviors and actions from the Love in Action leadership that they never took. It is a lie.
Part VII - The Whole Narrative
[Minute Mark 2:07-2:30]
This segment of the trailer contains more beautiful cinema. It is a great depiction of emotional anguish. The closing of the door on the father represents to me a painful separation from God. The tender touch on David's cheek conveys so much longing for intimacy. It runs the gamut of emotions and ends on a hopeful note when Garrard embraces his mother.
It is beautiful and it is enticing. It tells a compelling narrative that I anticipate the movie will carry on.
I don't know how it impacts other people, but this trailer leads me down a very clear trail.
It starts out showing a man feeling isolated and different and fearing that his sexual desires will cut him off from his family and from God.
After that it depicts his desperate efforts and drastic measures to fix the feelings and his frustration that God doesn't take them away.
Next it shows his "Revelation" that the whole effort to change is unnecessary, and he can break out of the programs.
Finally it depicts his acceptance of the identity, tenderly touching a man and warmly embracing his mother.
What a brilliant depiction of the entire story told about what it means if a man has same-sex attraction. This is the story of Boy Erased. With a multi-million dollar film to support it, this will be a powerful story. But it is not the only story - and it is not the true story. Now that I've broken down each segment of the trailer, I want to talk about the bigger themes.
My favorite line in the movie includes the statement, "I don't know why."
This statement accurately describes the entire Conley family and their reaction to Garrard's attractions for the same sex. They don't understand. It is confusion in the family.
Rather than turning to Scripture to understand the truth, Mr. and Mrs. Conley turn to culture. They look to their congregation's approach to this issue to try to understand it. Later tehy turn to Dr. Julie for an answer.
Before Garrard was "outed" by David, he had a front row seat to observe how his family and church would react to someone who "was gay." His former girlfriend's younger brother was found in bed with another teenager, and Mr. Conley was called upon to come over to the house (as the pastor) to sort it out.
Garrad got to see the way his dad "handled it." His approach was to confront the boys, condemn homosexuality, and to tell them that they are not homosexuals and must not be. There wasn't much more to it than that.
Garrard watched this empty response to a real turmoil that he felt, and decided not to disclose his attractions to his family willingly.
In college Garrard was still confused about his desires. He was confused about the nature of God. He didn't have a solid foundation to stand on, but only the flimsy base of his upbringing and his culture. It didn't keep him safe.
At college, a Christian college mind you, Garrard fell in with David. David shared so much in common with Garrard, and they became friends fast. But David wanted more, and he took it by force. David raped Garrard in college.
This could only have compounded the confusion about his feelings and his desires. David was also deeply confused and troubled. Garrard says David admitted to raping another person - a boy - earlier in life. And David was clearly broken over all of this.
While reading the book, I found myself getting confused. (Mostly because the timeline jumps about frequently.) What I have, though, that Garrard doesn't have, is a solid anchor in the truth.
Without that truth, it is no wonder that everyone is confused by the presence of these sexual desires and the sexual behaviors of men like David and the girlfriend's younger brother.
They were all in Christian churches, but they had conflated Christian truth with something else.
Throughout the book there are quite a few ideas that are conflated.
Christianity is conflated with anti-science and pro-slave holding confederacy ideas. Garrad talks about the church he grew up in with some very harsh terms. He describes a simplistic and cruel kind of Christian community. One person in his church talked about killing people from the Middle East because that member of the church conflated "Middle Eastern" with "Terrorist."
Unfortunately I think Garrard does the same thing that this church member did. I would suggest that he might be conflating "Christian" with "Cruel and Unfeeling" because of his experiences with people who match that description.
God is conflated with Cruel Judge.
Garrard sees God through the lens of his church. He doesn't understand God's love and God's nature. Garrard describes God as a terrifying Judge with a "roving Sauron eye" looking to smite anyone with any hint of sinfulness. That is a tragic misunderstanding of God's nature.
Feminine characteristics are conflated with sin.
Garrard talks about his church condemning any affinity for the arts in men. He talks about Love in Action equating a love of story telling and even particular postures with sinful "false images."
Desire is conflated with identity.
This is the most persistent conflation throughout the book. It is basically assumed in this memoir that Garrard's experience of same-sex sexual and romantic desires is the same thing as Garrard's core identity. The book assumes that he is gay because he feels that way.
It isn't just Garrard who conflates these things. His parents do. The members of his church do. Love in Action does. Doctor Julie does.
It was from the adults in his life that he learned to conflate Christianity with a southern redneck value system. His church showed him the way to conflate God with a Sauron-like Judge. His doctor conflated homosexual desires with a core part of oneself. Love in Action conflated imaginative journal entries with the fruit of homosexuality.
Our culture at large conflates desire with identity. And it is on the basis of this conflation that Conversion Therapy has its origin.
The idea of conversion therapy is not possible without conflating same-sex desire with identity.
Conversion Therapy is an amorphous term that is difficult to pin down. What exactly is included in the term is hard to determine, but at the core of the term is an idea of "converting" someone's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
And that is where I see a conflation of desire with identity being at the root of Conversion Therapy. Conversion Therapy seeks to change someone's identity. The identity is imposed on them on the basis of their desires.
Conversion Therapy isn't about changing desires, it's about changing identity. The practice doesn't seek to overcome unhelpful desires or even to reduce unhealthy behaviors - it seeks to "Convert" someone from "gay to straight."
That is why there is such a strong push in public policy to ban conversion therapy efforts. Because if your very identity is being attacked and there are people attempting to "convert" your identity out of existence, you really are being threatened with "erasure." Boy Erased is about the fear someone has of being erased from existence.
There should be no fear of that. God has created each and every person as his image bearers - whether male or female. The desires that an image bearer experiences does not in any way impact the fact that they are still bearing the image of God.
Our identity is rooted in God's design. Our nature is not determined by our experiences, by the actions others take against us, or by our deepest desires. We are beautiful creatures made to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. No matter what happens, that is our identity.
The real conversion that needs to happen is a conversion from unbelief to belief. We need Jesus to save us - to be the revelation that comes in and breaks down the walls of a false identity. We need Christ to hold our hands and to walk with us as we roam on this earth before going home to be with God forever.
We don't need to be converted from one set of sexual desires to another set of sexual desires. Our calling is a calling to holiness - and I can pursue holiness whether I'm attracted to men or women. And that is what I am doing. I am pursuing life and godliness.