Review: "Boy Erased" directed by Joel Edgerton
In the Summer 2019 edition of Ascend, Ed Shaw and I both extolled the virtues of “promiscuous reading”. That is, to read and study widely about human sexuality, even when the views expressed might challenge our own convictions. We need to do this wisely and carefully, recognising our weaknesses, but understanding that the counter-arguments to traditional Christian teaching help us remember why we believe what we do, and keep us ready to “give an answer… for the hope you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
With this in mind, I finally plucked up the courage to watch “Boy Erased”, an account of a young man’s experience of what is commonly called conversion therapy. The film was released in 2018, and has proved to be an influential contribution to the political debate about conversion therapy. Although TFT is clear that we do not offer or endorse conversion therapy, many will incorrectly conflate what TFT believes and practises with what we see in the film. For this reason, I would encourage those who feel they can to see the film, subject to the content warning below. However, the challenging material means this is probably one to watch with wise Christian friends, and to talk through afterwards.
The film is based on “Boy Erased: A Memoir”, written by author and activist Garrard Conley, detailing his experiences in 2004 at Love In Action, a residential programme in Tennessee. The programme was designed for Christians with same-sex attraction and was focused on changing sexual orientation, what we would now call conversion therapy. The author, Garrard Conley, and the film’s director, Joel Edgerton, are clear that both the book and film support the campaign for a ban on conversion therapy.
Names in the film have been changed, so the real-life Garrard Conley becomes the film’s Jared Eamons, and John Smid (the leader of Love In Action at the time), becomes the film’s Victor Sykes.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Content Warning: Before I summarise the plot, it is worth saying that the film contains homophobic language, religious bullying and abuse, and sexual violence, which some may find distressing.
The film opens with Jared rising early for the long drive with his mother, from their home in Arkansas to the Love in Action campus in Tennessee. Parents must stay outside, and attendees must not discuss the programme outside the building. The staff confiscate phones and examine notebooks, with “offending” pages then torn out. There are many rules and restrictions, such as insisting that delegates only go to the bathroom accompanied by a staff member. From the outset, the atmosphere is intimidating and controlling. There is a great deal of shouting. Group therapy sessions distort established therapy techniques into something coercive and brutal.
Then time rewinds, and we see how Jared came to be at Love In Action. Growing up in a conservative Christian family in the Bible Belt of the southern United States, he struggles privately with his sexuality. He has a girlfriend, but their relationship falters. Upon going to college, Jared grows close to fellow Christian student Henry. In their dorm one night, Henry rapes Jared. A traumatised Jared seeks the solace of his family home to recover. In a hideous act of victim-blaming, Henry tries to cover up his crime by posing as a college counsellor and outing Jared to his parents. In a scene with which many of us will empathise, Jared’s world implodes. Jared’s father summons the church elders, and implores him to seek change through the Love In Action programme. Although Jared agrees to attend, he understands that the alternative would be losing his family, home and future.
Back at Love In Action, the intimidating atmosphere escalates. The staff force the delegates to do sport, and teach them to adopt stereotypically “masculine” postures and behaviours. In the film’s most troubling sequence, a delegate (Cameron), is humiliated and isolated during a group therapy session. Sykes tells him, “God will just not love you the way you are now.” Then, in a shocking ritual, a tearful Cameron kneels before a coffin while Sykes screams at him, “Is this what you want?” and calls his family forward (including a small child) to hit him repeatedly over the head with a Bible. He then leads Cameron to another house and dunks him into a bath full of water. Later, we hear Cameron has killed himself.
Jared decides to leave the programme and call his mother, although the staff try to stop him. They restrain him, and he only escapes after his mother threatens to call the police.
The story moves forward a few years, and we see Jared living happily with his boyfriend in New York. He writes his account and, on a visit home, tries to persuade his father to read it. Jared then confronts his father about what had happened, and the two reach an uneasy truce.
A post-script tells us that Garrard Conley has now married his husband in real life, and that the former leader of Love In Action, John Smid, now lives in Texas with his husband.
My thoughts on the film
“Boy Erased” is a well-made and compelling film. I had not expected an easy watch, but I was taken aback at how unsettled it made me feel, and I did not sleep the night after viewing it. Only when a vicar friend saw the film and commented, “that wasn’t therapy, it was abuse”, that I realised it is entirely right to be appalled by what the film portrays. For nearly two hours, we witness vulnerable people being treated without dignity or compassion. Additionally, the film brought back uncomfortable memories of my time at school, with the shame and fear I felt about my emerging sexuality. I hated being made to do sport, and had an overwhelming feeling that I did not fit in with the prevailing definition of manliness. My story was different, though, as I have shared elsewhere. In God’s grace, I experienced freedom from shame and fear; from the church, I received acceptance; in TFT, I found a lifeline.
I also wondered if things were really as bad as portrayed in the film. Surely Christians could not have behaved this way. My subsequent research confirms that the film is true to Garrard Conley’s memoir (except for the coffin and bath-dunking scene, which is fictional). Whilst the melodrama and creepy music are obvious embellishments, John Smid himself accepts that the film is not far off how Love In Action operated. Other delegates of Love In Action have described similarly traumatic experiences, although some were more favourable in their reports. Even allowing for artistic licence, it seems fair to conclude that questionable techniques were used to control people and created an unsafe environment.
Lessons for TFT
We should do everything we can to protect our vulnerable members and contacts. If we see unsafe or abusive behaviour, we must challenge it. With this in mind, we train and supervise all of TFT’s volunteers. Within the constraints of protecting our contacts’ confidentiality, we are transparent about our work, and we have a robust and publicly available Safeguarding Policy. Simon writes more fully about TFT’s approach in his article, “Is TFT helping or harming?”
Beyond policies, though, we simply need to treat people Christianly. In the book of Colossians, Paul exhorts us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience… and over all these virtues put on love” (Colossians 3:12,14). It was so sad to see these virtues entirely lacking in the film. If we can embody Christ’s grace in TFT’s work, then, as Paul says of the fruits of the Spirit, “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22).
“Boy Erased” directed by Joel Edgerton
2018. Buy on DVD. Rent on streaming services
This film review was originally published in the autumn 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the autumn 2021 edition of Ascend
Listen to the discussion
To give space to discuss certain topics in greater depth, the TFT staff team record occasional podcasts under the banner “Ascend Higher”, covering the issues raised in a more conversational style. To accompany this article, TFT Director Stuart Parker interviews the author, as well as a parent of a same-sex attracted child to get their take on the film. To hear it for yourself, you can use the audio player below