TORONTO — Having your memoir go from bookshelves to multiplexes is not something that happens every day. It’s even rarer when you’re a queer memoirist whose work details the harrowing experience of surviving conversion therapy.
But that’s exactly what happened when Garrard Conley’s book Boy Erased became a major film with the same title, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film, which hits theaters November 2.
Conley spoke to INTO about what it means to see his story from 2004 get an international audience in the Trump era, what it was like to have Lucas Hedges play him and why we should all stan Cherry Jones.
Were you nervous or reticent about your book becoming a movie and getting such a large audience?
I was terrified, actually, because it’s like, Joel [Edgerton, director of Boy Erased] is a straight guy. So it’s like, “What is he going to do? How is he going to mess it up?” But, actually, I had seen him do promotion for Loving and he equated marriage equality to interracial marriage issues from that time period and I was like, “OK, great,” he’s at least an ally. But I was still kinda distrustful. I don’t have many straight male friends and he actually asked to meet with other survivors of conversion therapy in addition to me for that first meeting and he was very respectful and asking the right questions and I was like, “OK, let’s see where he goes with this.” I wasn’t going to sign anything, because he offered for me to write the script, and I was like, “No way am I going to write my own rape for the screen.” Not going to do that. But if you send me a script, I’ll tell you if it’s insulting or not.
Basically, he was in the grip of the story, kind of obsessed with it, and was calling me saying, “What do you think about this?” and then he sent me the script and, you know, it’s a very different version. He sticks to the tone of my book quite a bit, but he added and changed things, but I thought it was overall the same message that my book was doing. That being said, one of the terrifying things is like — we have so many sad queer stories, do we really need another one? I’m in the camp that I think we need an abundance of stories like, intersectional stories, we need stories that are happy, we need sad ones. In a perfect world, we would have both happy and sad and it would just be there. We don’t live in that world.
So I was like, “OK, obviously this film is going to be marketed in certain ways to appeal to people who like drama, but is that like a bad thing?” And I guess I just weighed the fact that after the book came out, I got so many emails from people who were still struggling with conversion therapy and people who were like, “Your book gave a voice to everything I was going through” and it was on such a massive level that I thought that we need to do something that can reach pop culture in a massive way and actually end conversion therapy and actually show the harm that parents’ decisions can make on a person and these counselors that are basically, you know, internalizing their own homophobia.
So yeah, I had hesitations, I was a nervous wreck seeing it for the first time. I’m still not quite sure I can process things. But I’m here to win that battle. I think we need to end conversion therapy. And even greater than that, we need to have a larger understanding of how bigotry operates in the country. I’m always saying, “You don’t have to be in conversion therapy to be in conversion therapy, you just have to be having a bad coming out experience.” One of the great things that this movie has done for me is that it’s given me access to almost every media outlet and I get to keep repeating these things. There’s people in the middle of the country reading People magazine reading this stuff.
It also enabled me to work on a podcast, it’s also coming out right when the film comes out, with the producers of Radiolab, and we’re like showing the full history of conversion therapy, and we’re going into survivors’ stories. So, I think of all of these projects as different iterations and, in some ways, tonally different outcroppings; it’s branching out from the original source, which is me.
Well, you are obviously an example of what happens when a queer person can tell their story and the ways that it can reverberate. What would be your advice to other queer memoirists who are maybe hesitant to put down their story?
There’s such a larger audience for queer stories than people realize. We’re proving them wrong every day. I’m good friends with Garth Greenwell who wrote What Belongs to You, and I love that book so much and it was a real success. When we were about to publish our books, we were both told by various people that our stories wouldn’t sell because they’re gay. I didn’t listen to it, because it’s bullshit.
But you’re still told that today, and I think it’s really silly. I was at a GLAAD panel the other day, and one of the statistics is that, in youth, something like 30 to 40 percent of people don’t identify as straight. That’s a reading audience in the future, so start now. If you want to be cynical about it, we have a reading audience — don’t worry.
But also we have to tell our authentic stories because the other narrative is so harmful out there. If we’re not doing this work, no one’s going to do it for us. It’s like when Cheryl Strayed in her advice column said, “No one’s going to tell you to write about your vagina.” There was this girl who was like, “No one wants to read my vagina stories!” And Cheryl Strayed was like, “Well no one’s going to tell you to write about your vagina. You have to write about your vagina for your vagina.”
One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever read is to write everyone in your life with love and compassion, even if they’ve done negative things to you. Boy Erased does that so well. Were you nervous that the people you wrote about in your life with empathy and compassion would become villains when translated to screen?
There are two things I was worried about with that. One thing was that we would anger the queer community who have had terrible experiences with their parents and their parents are villains in their stories. So I never wanted it to be this universalizing aspect where like, “Don’t worry, your parents too can be great someday!” Because that’s not always true. That’s very often not the case. So I was very worried about Joel doing that, but very luckily he didn’t.
I think he kept it very specific to my story. That was one thing. The other thing was, I said to Joel, “You’re going to meet my family. Because if you’re going to do this story, you have to know what the South is like and you have to know what they’re like, and they’re not going to be caricatures and we’re not going to do this whole honky-tonk weird thing that Hollywood so often does.” So Joel and Lucas and the co-producer, David Craig, went with me to Arkansas and met my parents. And it was so funny because David Craig is also gay and we went to my dad’s church and everyone thought David was my husband.
Oh my God.
We were sitting there and I turned to David and said, “Everyone thinks you’re my husband right now.”
A lot of the action in your book takes place in 2004 and then, obviously, the book process takes so long. It was pitched and written during the Obama era and now the film is coming out in the Trump era. I wanted to ask you how it feels to have your story making its impact during this cultural moment.
Right when the book came out, I had a lot of people who were incredulous that this was still going on or had happened in 2004, that conversion therapy was even a thing! They didn’t know about it! Which I find funny, it’s like, how do you not know that people are being tortured in your own country? But there are a lot of really sheltered people. So, I was so frustrated. I would go to the readings and they would treat me like I was this delicate object, like, “Oh, I can’t imagine what you went through” and I understand where that comes from, but it’s like, maybe you should have spent a little bit of time understanding what the LGBTQ homelessness rate is in youth or what it’s like for a queer person to be in these other places and it really pissed me off.
So I would say it at every reading, because I thought it was a great place to say it, I’d say, “Trump could get elected. This could happen.” Because I go back to Arkansas and you don’t — you can see what these people are doing. And they’d be like, “No way, Hillary’s gonna win.” And I do not feel smug about it, because it’s terrible. But I’ve been screaming that from the beginning and now that it’s happened, no one questions whether or not that’s happening. Like, no one. We’re in like crazy detention center-level dystopian fiction level. People’s birth certificates, documents, being taken away from them, it’s insane.
My husband is Pakistani, and that makes for a very interesting time period right now. He has a green card, but he’s not a citizen yet, and we’re just terrified. It’s been, you know, he and I, when we’d go to these readings, we’d be so mad. Because you know, it’s punishable by death to be gay in Pakistan and he’s like, “Of course it’s not over yet. Of course marriage equality didn’t solve everything!” I could go off on that forever, so …
Obviously a lot of people come to the story not knowing about conversion therapy, so they walk away from it having learned about it and how harmful it is. But what about people who already know about conversion therapy and know that it’s bad and see the movie. What’s a theme or message you think the film has for people who are already in that place of recognizing conversion therapy is bad?
And if they’ve watched Miseducation of Cameron Post as well, which is a great film! I think the unique aspect of Boy Erased, for me, is that it shows where it all comes from. You see this family grappling with it and you see these moments where it seems as if Jared could get out of the situation. Like, Cherry Jones sitting across from him, saying like, “What if your parents were wrong?” and him like … “I’m fine.”
It’s kind of like a, “Blink twice” moment.
More Cherry Jones, please!
Literally! That’s the message of the film, I think.
That’s my main criticism. I was like, “Cherry Jones in every scene! Joel, put Cherry in more.”
Cast Cherry as Jared.
I want her in all the roles. That’s what I would have done. What were we saying? I’m on a Cherry Jones tangent.
What makes it unique is that you see the formation of this and I think most of us queer people already know how that’s formed on the ground level, we’ve been through it. But I think it can be a bit cathartic, I hope. I think it’s a tough sit no matter what and being queer makes it even tougher. I try to step outside myself and think, “OK, if I were just watching this movie, I wouldn’t go running into the streets and be like, ‘You have to watch this movie right now!’” I think I would I feel a little scared for people being triggered by it, but I still do feel it plays a very important role in documenting what happened and I think it’s accurate and it can be very cathartic. It was very cathartic for me when I watched it through the last time. I was finally able to be like, “OK, that story is done.” I also think like, Nicole Kidman whispering in a wig is always a good bet. That’s always fun.
This has now become stan territory for Nicole Kidman and Cherry Jones.
She’s just always whispering in a wig! It’s the best thing in the world.
What was it like to sit down and talk to Lucas Hedges about playing you?
Lucas Hedges is probably the sweetest person I’ve ever met. It’s kinda crazy. When we first met in DUMBO, he told me his story. And from the New York Magazine piece, we talked about his fluidity and he — we talked about that and how he felt a lot of shame about his first crush and then he showed me his copy of Boy Erased, which was marked up on every page. Which, like, flattery, you know? I felt like this was one of the most sensitive, real people I’d ever met. And I knew he wasn’t bullshitting me, I could feel that. And he was like scared to do it, because it was touching him, as well. So I immediately knew he was the right person. Like, you have to.
I’d seen him in Manchester by the Sea and I thought he was the best part of the film. When we were on set, it was really hard for me to be on set, as you can imagine. They recreated the entire facility.
Yeah, there were probably a few days that you didn’t come to set.
Where they kept me off set because I was sobbing! The facility was extremely accurate. They had the handbooks there, the actual handbook. And they had, every detail was meticulously researched. So going onto the set was terrible. But, when I would see Lucas on the set and we would just look at each other, it’d be like, “This sucks. But we’re OK.”
And I just, he’s wonderful. He made it ten times better to be there, he’s just the best.
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