MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Back in 2004, Garrard Conley was like a lot of college students. He was trying to figure out what to study, what he wanted to do with his life and his sexuality. But after he was outed to his conservative Christian parents - we'll talk about how that happened a little later - he went through an intense, even brutal course of therapy that pushed him to the brink of suicide. Conley described that experience in a critically-acclaimed 2016 memoir called "Boy Erased." Now that memoir has been made into a movie, so we thought this would be a good time to speak with Garrard Conley about the real story behind the film. And he's with us now from NPR's bureau in New York. Garrard Conley, thank you so much for joining us.
GARRARD CONLEY: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So let's get into the story a bit. You grew up in this very conservative household adherent to, I think it's fair to say, a very conservative branch of Christianity, very literal.
CONLEY: Yes, the Missionary Baptists. They're - I consider them to be fundamentalists. They believe that every word of the Bible is meant to be read literally. I grew up in a very small town of 100 people. And my dad, when I was 13, opened a car dealership and also became a preacher at the same time. I was dating a girl at the time, and no one knew that I was struggling with my sexuality or coming to terms with it. And so when my father became a pastor, I was very worried about the position that I would be placed in because suddenly I knew people would be paying a lot of attention to me.
MARTIN: And now I'm going to go and ask you to try to describe as sensitively as you can this extremely traumatic experience that you had in college. And this is where I need to warn people who may be listening that this is very uncomfortable. Garrard, I'm going to leave it to you to describe what happened to you.
CONLEY: Yeah. I'll try to do it in a way that's not too triggering for people. I was - I mean, this person's identity has to be protected for legal reasons. But this was someone in college that I knew pretty well. And I had told this person at one point that I was having these feelings about men. And one night, this person that I knew raped me. He assaulted me. And after he did that, he told me that he had also assaulted a 14-year-old boy in his youth group. And the only thing that was swirling around in my mind after that was this really harmful idea I had encountered in childhood which was that all LGBTQ people were somehow predators. And it seemed like I was being initiated into that world. And because of that, that was one of the leading factors why I agreed to go into conversion therapy because I thought I'm not that. I don't want to assault a child.
So that person, when I told what he'd done to a few friends, he retaliated by calling my mom. And he told her that I had confessed that I was gay. And my mom came to get me. I said, well, it's not true. He's a liar. And my mom said, well, I think we need to go home anyway and talk to dad. And when dad took me into his bedroom and closed the door, he said, do you swear to God that you're not gay? And I couldn't do that because I had a close relationship with God. And he said, well, I can't see how you could be part of this family or this community if you continue to use that term.
And he called some pastors at the Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., which is a big mega church. And the pastors there hooked him with a place called Love in Action which was a conversion therapy facility designed to turn LGBTQ kids straight. But they also believed that people dealing with bestiality and pedophilia and marriage issues were also welcome to change their addictive state, as they called it.
MARTIN: There's so much about this that is so disturbing. And this is where I want to say that, first of all, this practice of convergence - I think many people now will have heard of this because this practice has actually been banned in a number of states.
CONLEY: Not enough, but yes.
MARTIN: It's now estimated that some 700,000 people have been subjected to this. And I also want to point out that the practice has been rejected by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association. You know, many people think of this is something people are forced to undergo, but you actually decided to go. Why?
CONLEY: Well, this is - why such an important part of the conversation, I think. I don't care what age you are. If you grow up in an environment where people say that being gay is evil or they make you feel that you can't live your life that way, you're going to say yes.
MARTIN: Can you describe what it is about this experience that pushed you to the brink? Can you just describe what it is that can push a person to that point?
CONLEY: Sure. I mean, imagine entering a place for the first time with a group of people you've never met who are all feeling shameful. And imagine telling this group of strangers all of your erotic fantasies or anything that you've ever experienced sexually. And then after you tell them, the group shames you, tells you that God will not let you live that way and then gives you a set of Bible verses to change you.
All the prejudiced opinions that I'd encountered as a young person were concentrated in this one place dressed up under the guise of this sort of pseudo science. So it seemed like everything everyone had said to us like you're a pedophile, you're a pervert, God doesn't love you - all of this was given a kind of set of explanations. And I think that that in itself is enough to drive anyone insane.
MARTIN: You were able to leave - spoiler alert, you were able to leave.
MARTIN: Well, we're talking, so thankfully, you made it.
CONLEY: I'm not talking from inside Love in Action.
MARTIN: You made it. And why do you think your mom listened to you?
CONLEY: Well, I think that she saw that something was changing in me and that I was becoming more depressed. You know, I made the first step. I was doing this exercise called the lie chair. And I was asked to sit across from an empty chair and imagine my father sitting there. And they told me to yell at him and say how much I hated him. And I didn't want to because I knew that I didn't hate him. And I knew Christianity couldn't be about this. It couldn't be about hate.
And I stormed out. And I called my mom. And when she came, the counselors came up to the side of the car, and they said, he needs to stay for a year. And my mom could see that I was crying and that I was upset. And she said to them, I don't know why I've never asked this, but what are your qualifications? And we drove out of there.
We didn't know what we were going to do. But she pulled over because I was losing it. And she said, are you going to kill yourself? Because she'd heard stories about people committing suicide there. And I said, yes. And that was when she drove me home. And dad met us at the door. And he said, did it work? And she said, well, no. Does it look like it worked? And we all swept it under the rug for about 10 years. We didn't talk about it.
MARTIN: Wow. Before we leave you, I just find myself having to ask, how are you now? I mean, I'm talking to you, and you sound great. I mean, you sound amazing. But I still find myself worrying about you. How are you? I mean, how are you now? Do you feel whole?
CONLEY: I don't know if anyone feels whole. I hope someone does. I think that, if anything, I am becoming more myself than ever. If anything, it feels like it's giving me a purpose in life. It's tough to keep sharing this story over and over again and reliving the trauma to a certain extent. But I also grew up in a Christian household where the idea was you try to help other people become more compassionate. And that's something that I took from Christianity that I still love. And that's what I'm trying to do.
MARTIN: That's Garrard Conley. His memoir, "Boy Erased," is now a major film, and it's out now. Garrard Conley, thanks so much for talking with us.
CONLEY: Thank you so much for having me.
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