Garrard Conley had just been through 11 days of what he describes as “psychological torture” when his mom pulled the car over and asked him, “Are you going to kill yourself?” He replied, “Yes.” His mother Martha recalls, “I remember looking at him, and the look in his eyes, there was such sadness.” Conley adds, “I wasn’t the person she knew.”
Conley, then 19, had been subjected to intensely brutal all-day sessions as part of conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific practice employing techniques including therapy and physical punishment with the goal of changing a person’s sexual orientation. “You feel like it’s life and death at every moment,” he recalls. He turned his experience into a 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, which has been adapted into a powerful new movie starring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges, and directed by Joel Edgerton.
Roughly 700,000 people in the U.S. have been subjected to the controversial practice, which, though discredited by the medical community, is still promoted within a number of fundamentalist Christian churches.
“The idea that homosexuality needs to be cured or fixed in the first place is misrepresentation,” says Scott McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He added that groups including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association say “conversion therapy is nonsense and psychologically harmful.”
For Conley, now 33, going to conversion therapy meant trying to reverse something he’d known to be true since he was very young. “I had known since third grade that I had an attraction to men,” he says. “But I think because we were raised in the church (his father, Hershel, is a Baptist minister), you believe that life is full of temptation. So just having that thought or that feeling is just another temptation, and you ignore it.”
Things changed when Conley was at Lyon College, where he says a student raped him. “I told some of my friends,” he says. “When he found out I did that, he called my mom, and attempted to basically cover up what he’d done by telling her that I was gay.”
Martha picked up her son from school, and brought him home, where he knew he would have to face his father. “My dad took me inside his bedroom and asked me if I was gay, or what was going on,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Do you swear to god?'” Conley, who says, “I was terrified I would lose my family, faith, and the God I’d prayed to every day of my life,” told his father, “‘I can’t do that… I am having these feelings.'”
That night, Hershel consulted other ministers he respected, and they recommended a Memphis, Tennessee-based program called Love in Action, which was about 5-6 hours from their house in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Before beginning the two-week introduction to the program, called The Source, Conley underwent therapy with an affiliated therapist.
“He would ask me to tell him my sexual fantasies, and I would tell him everything. And then he would say, ‘Well, you know, that’s disgusting.’ And, ‘God doesn’t love that.'”
All three agreed Conley should give Love in Action a try. “I really thought this was a godsend at first,” says Martha. Her son adds, “These were leaders in the church, that my dad looked up to. It just felt like an inevitable step.” Now, he says, “It was complete snake oil, but because it was under this guise of a religious organization, and they were using the right Bible verses, we bought it.”
Once there, Conley says, “It was a lot of shaming. It was lots of fear. You had to really express things that you’d never expressed before. And then you were told, after you expressed them, ‘This is disgusting, this is vile.’
In the movie, patients are subjected to physical abuse, which Conley says is accurate, though it didn’t happen to him. “It felt like complete hopelessness.” Adding to that, the program was actually angling for a lengthy stay. Participants are generally enrolled for three months, then a year, in order to be “cured.” And the cost is prohibitive, as Conley recalls his parents paying $1,500 per week in 2004.
The final straw came when Conley was ordered to yell at an empty chair that was supposed to represent his dad, and tell him he hated him. He refused. “They were just so angry that I wouldn’t do it. I was thinking to myself, ‘This is a Christian institution, and they want me to say that I hate someone, in order to be cured.’ That seems like the opposite of what Christianity is supposed to be.” Conley quit the exercise, fled to the room where they had his belongings, including his cell phone, and called his mother.
Once she arrived, she says, “I was horrified when I found out what was actually going on. I needed to get my son away from this.” On the way out, Martha furiously questioned, “What are your qualifications? Why are you doing this?”
After talking to her son, she says, “I remember calling Hershel and saying, ‘We’re coming home.’ He said, ‘It’s not over yet.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s over for Garrard.'”
While his relationship with his father “is always going to be a little bit complicated… We’ve found ways around it through the years,” says Conley, he remains very close to his mother.
“My mom saved my life,” says Conley, who lives in New York City with his husband Shahab, a software engineer. “If she’d hesitated, if she’d said, ‘Maybe you should try it, stick it out,’ I think I would have gone back. But she decided to take us home.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.