Several of our featured authors watched the film, Boy Erased. It’s based on the real-life story of Garrard Conley who wrote a memoir of the same name. Boy Erased follows a young man’s journey through reparative or conversion therapy, and it’s also a story of a mother’s and father’s relationships with their gay son. It’s a heavy film, and we debriefed it together in our extensive conversation below.
What was your first thought, emotion, and gut reaction as the credits rolled on Boy Erased?
EUGENE: I was pretty depressed and wrung out afterwards. I had listened to the Boy Erased audiobook before seeing the movie so I knew what was coming, but seeing it on screen impacted me more. I really felt for Jared and his story. Many parts made me squirm in memory of things I had looked into or experienced.
Prior to the movie’s release, I’d heard a few concerns from friends saying it would be “just another Hollywood Christian-bashing movie.” That’s understandable. I’ve also grown weary of the negative Christian stereotypes (evil Puritans, crazy fundamentalists, and corrupt priests with the major exception of Frollo from Hunchback of Notre Dame; he’s awesome).
But I thought the movie presented a nicely balanced view! Jared’s parents are shown to be loving, caring people, just deeply misguided. That was so refreshing! The movie didn’t showcase a black-and-white Gays: GOOD; Christians: BAD approach, which I appreciated.
MARSHALL: I felt sad but not depressed. The movie motivated me to seek ways to somehow change the environment of churches and Christian families so that people struggling with their sexuality will be supported and not merely confronted.
RYAN: When the credits rolled, I sat in stunned silence. The whole movie, I kept looking for someone to blame for what was going on. Should I lay the blame at Jared’s parents’ feet? Some of it, sure, but they didn’t invent conversion therapy.
Should I lay the blame at the feet of the primary therapist, Victor Sykes? Perhaps more blame was warranted here, but again, none of it seemed to be his idea, exactly. He was complicit, but he was perpetuating an evil that had been done to him first.
I wanted to be angry at someone after watching Boy Erased. I wanted to pray down the wrath of God upon someone.
DEAN: I wonder, Ryan, if the ultimate blame goes further up the ladder to the point wherever it instilled in Victor Sykes, Jared’s dad (a pastor), and many others this idea that sexuality automatically discounted a person’s salvation. Perhaps the blame shifts to incorrect understandings of human sexuality and psychology.
Victor and Jared’s dad are indeed responsible for the decisions they made. But you noted correctly that they acted out of a belief that originated somewhere.
As for me, I silently cried. Tears streamed down my face as I grasped the hand of my best friend who saw the movie with me. My heart ached, my mind reeled, and my spirit just felt crushed. Everything in me wanted to go out and start correcting so many wrongs done to LGBT people in the name of religion. I felt angry at misdirected actions from uninformed and unqualified Pharisees.
I felt broken over the lives that have been destroyed, ruined, or ended because of such a thoughtless battle to change something — sexuality — that doesn’t need to be changed.
TOM: So, I watched the movie on my laptop at a Panera Bread. After finishing, I sat in my car and promptly wept for a half-hour. It hit me harder than any other movie I’ve ever seen, no exaggeration, undoubtedly amplified by my currently emotional season of life.
Boy Erased sobered me and drained me, and I felt prompted to make a video response a day later. I felt emotionally rocked throughout the movie, relating with Jared and disagreeing with him but understanding him and mostly feeling despair over it all: this horror of reparative therapy and how my story, how our collective YOB story, fits into the larger cultural and spiritual narrative.
This world of faith and sexuality — it’s such a supercharged world full of supercharged experiences.
Have you directly or indirectly experienced conversion/reparative therapy? How did this dynamic of Boy Erased affect you as a Jesus-follower who holds to a traditional sexual ethic without attempting to change your sexuality?
DEAN: As a grown adult, I once ended up talking with a conversion therapist for a few hours, though I didn’t know that’s what he was at the time. I was looking for a counselor, and someone recommended him. They definitely should have not recommended this guy, though. He spent the entire time trying to convince me that I had been molested by my dad — I’d have never been attracted to men otherwise, he surmised.
I never saw that counselor again after that conversation. I don’t personally know anyone who has undergone conversion therapy, but I’ve done research into the stories of those who have. Not everyone experiences such horrible techniques as in the movie. Sometimes, conversion therapy seems more like a distorted cognitive-behavioral therapy combined with exposure practices focused on sexual thoughts.
Basically, speculated nonsense.
MARSHALL: I have never experienced reparative therapy myself, but I have talked to guys who have. Their experiences were not as traumatic as portrayed in the movie, just somewhat ineffective and expensive. Seeing the trauma depicted in Boy Erased made me even less a fan of reparative therapy.
TOM: I’ve heard a little from folks who have experienced reparative therapy, but I’ve simply never asked for the full story. I regret that so much now, being so ignorant to it all. Boy Erased has inspired me to learn more of this sub-world within our already same-sex attracted (SSA) or LGBT+ Christian sub-world.
I found Boy Erased conflicting to watch, agreeing with this base belief — not that sexual orientation itself is sinful and needs to be reversed, but that God calls his people to a singular sexual standard — and yet horrified by all the therapeutic methods employed.
The therapists and other Christians in the film invoked the Bible and the name of Jesus and it all felt . . . off. Like a horror movie where everything appears normal on the outside but something just isn’t quite right.
RYAN: Tom, that’s the other thing I thought as the credits rolled — how much like a horror movie it was. Part of that feeling comes from Boy Erased being filmed that way.
Indeed, one of the ingredients of horror is normal, everyday things being supernaturally wrong.
I felt this way about conversion therapy: the Christianity I love and am so familiar with was bent, twisted, and contorted into something recognizable yet alien, something wearing angelic clothing yet demonic, powerful, and terrible.
TOM: And, no doubt, Christian critics of this film will point to the faux-Christianity presented and discredit Boy Erased as an “inaccurate portrayal” of Christians. But just because we’d agree that the film’s Christians don’t represent all believers, it does not discredit that this story happened. Is still happening. Today. 2019. All over the country.
These “Christians” and “Christian programs” indeed still exist, and this story needs to be told, heard, and seen.
EUGENE: I used to follow many reparative therapy-promoted organizations and even looked into it for myself. I never actually experienced conversion therapy, and I’m glad I didn’t. Although, in all fairness, the organizations I looked into were nowhere near as bat guano crazy as Love in Action, the one depicted in the film.
The first ever SSA-identifying Christian I met underwent reparative therapy and kept telling me how helpful it was, encouraging me to do it too. He said it helped him heal his childhood wounds from his father and even decreased his attraction to men. When we walked places together, he constantly looked back at women and said stuff like, “Wow, did you see her? She was so hot . . . “
Later on, he confessed to me that he’d had a sexual webcam session with another man. He proceeded to have a full blown meltdown over it, saying the incident had given him PTSD and that he felt he’d lost his virginity somehow. He went on about this for hours over several phone calls, and nothing I said calmed down.
I’ve had similar sexual stumbles, and I’m not proud of them, but I’ve moved on from them. It makes me suspect this guy’s conversion therapy might’ve contributed to his ongoing meltdowns. Like maybe he thought he was “cured,” only to experience that sexual incident as even more jarring than otherwise.
RYAN: I haven’t been involved with conversion therapy, nor do I think I know anyone who has. A few hours after the movie, a profound feeling of thankfulness washed over me that Jesus had protected me from that darkness growing up. I could have easily fallen victim to it, but the Lord went before me.
Boy Erased cast my youth and young adulthood in a new light: sure, I’ve often felt lost and alone, muddling my way through murky waters, finding my way by stubbed toes; but God guided me around so much danger, unbeknownst to me.
TOM: Wow, Ryan. I hadn’t even considered this perspective. And I’m right there with you now. I can’t imagine what my life — my very faith — would look like had I undergone anything remotely akin to Jared’s experience in the movie.
Forget the concept of choosing another sexual ethic for oneself; is it any wonder that so many people walk away from faith altogether in the aftermath of reparative therapy?
EUGENE: Even though I disagree with Jared’s affirming position, I totally empathize with why he went that way. I think just about anyone in his position would. As tragic as it is, it’s totally understandable. It fills me with such sadness. And it makes me more angry that some Christian organizations blow off people’s stories like this by saying, “Oh, they’re just perpetuating a victim mentality.”
What was your personally most impactful scene of Boy Erased? Call it your “favorite” scene or, perhaps, your most convicting?
EUGENE: The scene where students and family members take one of the students, Cameron, and physically beat him with Bibles in a sort of “mock funeral” was hard to watch. I should note that this scene is not in the book. I highly suspect it to be a separate Love in Action incident made to paint a bigger picture of that organization’s craziness.
RYAN: The scene that hit me hardest was Jared’s receiving the news that Cameron, who’d stood up for him in that climactic scene of his leaving the facility, had killed himself. The audience is sort of left to read between the lines that the Love In Action staff had driven Cameron to suicide as retribution for sticking his neck out for Jared.
But Cameron’s sacrifice made him an image of Christ: suffering, beaten, mocked, and scorned so that Jared could go free.
MARSHALL: Like Ryan, that scene also impacted me most. I’ve had three friends from my church die by suicide, including one in the last year. One of those admitted his same-sex attraction, and the other two did not. But I have good reason to believe those two were also gay.
DEAN: Marshall, I am so sorry for the losses you’ve experienced. I cannot imagine what seeing that in Boy Erased felt like for you.
TOM: Jared’s two bedroom scenes with two gay friends hit me hard in two different ways. The first with shock and horror, because it erupted into an unexpected rape when I’d thought some mutual sexual experimentation would unfold; the second, with admiration and yearning as Jared simply lay with Xavier in his bed, fully clothed, holding his friend’s hand and caressing his cheeks as he drifted to sleep.
“Stay with me; nothing needs to happen,” Xavier told Jared. And nothing did.
I worried the scene would escalate into a sexual encounter, not because of my beliefs or anything, but because the moment already packed such a tender punch, especially with Troye Sivan’s gorgeous vocals in the background. That this encounter remained a warm, platonic expression of touch and intimacy really inspired me.
It made me think fondly of my own physical expressions of love with gay/SSA friends over the years, how I want to share more of this platonic intimacy with other males across the board.
DEAN: Tom, the contrast of those two bedroom scenes struck me as well, especially because Victor, the therapist, didn’t seem to regard Jared’s encounter with Xavier as bad and actually blamed Jared’s rape on Jared.
It struck me how Christian culture that places all of its stock in “staying within the right lines” can shame victims for what happened while completely ignoring other ways that sexuality plays out — without any sexual contact.
I believe it shows our skewed understanding of sex and sexuality in the church.
RYAN: I hadn’t noticed that contrast! That’s a good observation. In fact, neither encounter with either friend ended the way I expected. I was concerned the message of the rape scene would be: “See? If you repress your sexuality, you’ll turn into a rapist.” But maybe that’s a standoffish reading.
(I’ve never had sex and it has not turned out to be super difficult not to rape anyone.)
TOM: Yeah . . . me neither.
DEAN: The conversation Jared initiates with his dad at the end of the movie — “I’m your son, and I’m gay.” — shows his boldness in giving his father the facts while acknowledging that the decision to maintain a relationship is entirely in his dad’s hands. Jared would continue to grow into his own self, and his dad could be a part of that or not — but he would need to make that decision himself.
It’s a conversation I wish I were able to have with my dad. But my dad is mentally not there anymore.
EUGENE: I thought Boy Erased ended terrifically. It doesn’t end on a “yay he’s living with a boyfriend happily ever after” note. It’s rather dark, and it’s clear that Jared is still not a happy person afterwards. The movie is smart to leave it on an uncertain note and let the audience decide how they feel.
TOM: For sure. Even though someone takes a defined stand on sexuality, one way or the other, there are still consequences: ongoing family relationships, connection (or a severing) to faith, and the general day-in, day-out grind of life in a fallen world. Rain falls on us all. Life is hard for everyone.
Even though Jared ultimately reaches a conclusion on sexuality opposing ours, did you see any of yourself in his story? Did any personal experiences, relationships, or personality traits connect with you while watching Boy Erased?
MARSHALL: Although I could relate to Jared’s strong emotions of shame, fear, and wanting to please his parents, I have reached a very different conclusion. My own experience following Jesus Christ has been so fulfilling that I know I’ve made the right choice decades later!
RYAN: That scene where Jared smashes a cologne advertisement on the side of a bus shelter particularly resonated. The ad featured a muscular, shirtless man, and Jared lashes out upon seeing it, destroying it with a rock.
I’ve had seasons of life when I was so frustrated with myself that small things reminding me of my sexual orientation could trigger similarly dramatic responses. I’m in a much more emotionally spacious place now, but I can still get quite angry at advertisements like that sometimes.
However, this anger is less rooted in shame for my sexuality and more in having my sexuality leveraged to try to sell me something. I think this anger is righteous.
EUGENE: I squirmed a little when Jared’s dad told him he was deeply disappointed he wouldn’t be having any grandchildren because of his son’s sexuality. I’m also an only child like Jared, and I worried my parents would react negatively to my coming out because of that. Thankfully, they’ve been very gracious and loving, saying they don’t care about grandkids and just want me to be happy.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if they have been disappointed. One would think just about any parent would, right?
RYAN: Eugene, I suspect part of the journey for any parent is learning how to let go of their expectations, allowing their child to be their own person. If they’re still stuck on the grandchildren thing, though, it’s like: “Well, Sheryl and Douglas, this isn’t what I pictured either, but we all play the hands we’re dealt!”
TOM: I’m glad one of my siblings has already produced the first grandchild. Definitely takes some unconscious pressure off that scenario.
The end of the movie hit me in a hard way. Four years removed from the main events of the film, Jared winds up becoming an author: we see a published article about his experience in conversion therapy and hear of the additional prospect of a book. A picture of him and his boyfriend sits on his desk by the newspaper clippings.
As an author myself, it felt like watching the “other road” I could be walking right now: writing about my experience on this side of things before eventually coming over to the “right side” — especially as friends in my life have walked away and chosen this alternate path.
Seeing Jared choose what my dear friends have chosen devastated me all over again. Seeing real life unfold on a screen hit really close to home.
EUGENE: That’s such a haunting way of looking at it, Tom.
TOM: Haunting is how I’d put it, too. Like I’m looking in a mirror with so much identical reflection yet vastly different tweaks.
Watching Boy Erased also made me wonder if a story like mine — I’ve written a memoir, too — could ever unfold in a film. Will we ever see such a movie where the protagonist reaches a different conclusion on sexuality, one more comparable to ours? Or if he does, can said “Christian film” not be cheesy and lame and actually be well told, well produced, and deeply meaningful?
As much as I wrestle with this “mirror path” and even mourn a lack of representation in stories more akin to mine and those in our community, I also want to give Boy Erased the space and honor it deserves. I’m glad this film now exists.
DEAN: I saw myself almost entirely in Jared: similar age, similar church background, similar thought processes. My sexual experiences in college were very different than Jared’s, and I wasn’t outed to my parents, for which I am thankful — because I am absolutely sure that, had I been outed, I would have been sent to a conversion camp.
That’s why Boy Erased hit me so hard. For in only one difference — Jared’s parents finding out and mine not — our stories were the same.
I could have been sent to a conversion camp. I could have had someone physically beat me with a Bible. I could have had my life completely thrown aside.
My mom would not have stood up for me like the mom in the movie, though. I love her, but she would not have rescued me. I would have never been free.
And that possibility scares me.
Would you recommend Boy Erased? Why exactly, and to whom?
EUGENE: I’d recommend Boy Erased to any gay/SSA Christian, be they Side A, B, X, or Y.
TOM: You forgot Side Z. And Side LMNOP.
EUGENE: Regardless of one’s viewpoint, a lot can be learned from this movie. I’d also recommend Boy Erased to any church or Christian organization looking for how to approach sexual minorities and include them. This movie is a valuable crash course on what NOT to do.
MARSHALL: I’d recommend the movie to anyone who is a Christian, experiences same-sex attraction, or cares about someone who does. Boy Erased brings up so many thoughts and feelings that need to be carefully thought through.
DEAN: I’d recommend Boy Erased to any adult Christian. I cannot think of any Christian who should not see this movie.
RYAN: The rape scene really caught me off guard. I don’t picture myself as squeamish over sexually violent content when it’s presented the way it was in Boy Erased, but it was still kind of disturbing. I wouldn’t recommend the movie to anyone who thinks he’d have a hard time with that scene.
Honestly, I’m having difficulty thinking of anyone to whom I’d wholeheartedly 100% recommend the movie. I’m not saying it was poorly made or didn’t have a valuable message, but for anyone who’s anti-conversion therapy, it’s just upsetting and bias-confirming. And I think anyone who’s still pro-conversion therapy in 2019 would just find reasons to discredit the message (“That was just one program,” “It was a biased portrayal,” etc.).
Oh! You know who definitely should see it? Nicole Kidman fans. She did an incredible job as Jared’s mother. She had at least one scene praying in private, and speaking as an insider to the esoteric phenomenon she portrayed, it was amazingly authentic. Aquaman squandered her, but she shone in Boy Erased.
TOM: From Kidman as Jared’s mom to Russell Crowe as Jared’s pastor/dad to Lucas Hedges as Jared, the acting throughout Boy Erased was fantastic. It’s a sobering movie, especially for believers, but also a necessary one. I hope Jesus-followers you wouldn’t expect to watch give it a chance and allow this story to have its way with them.
I’ve already heard gratefulness from one such person in the aftermath of my talking about Boy Erased, and that just blesses me so much.
Have you seen or read Boy Erased? What were your takeaways from the film?