This post contains mild spoilers from The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
Many movies have referenced conversion therapy, but the new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on a young adult novel of the same name, is perhaps the first to take an honest look at the practice without exaggerating or mocking what it looks like to “pray the gay away.” ThinkProgress sat down this week with star Chloë Grace Moretz, director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan, and ex-gay survivor Matthew Shurka to discuss the film and its portrayal of this shame-based treatment.
In the film, Cameron Post, played by Moretz, is a teenage girl in 1993 exploring a sexual relationship with another girl from her Bible study group. When they’re caught in the act, Cameron’s aunt sends her to God’s Promise, a sort of combination boarding school/conversion therapy camp run by Dr. Lydia Marsh and her brother Reverend Rick — who was her first guinea pig.
“There’s no such thing as homosexuality,” Marsh tells Cameron in her first therapy session. “There’s only the same struggle with sin we all face. Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?”
Whereas other films have either mocked conversion therapy (But I’m a Cheerleader) or focused on some of the most extreme practices like electroshock therapy (Latter Days), The Miseducation of Cameron Post conveys the subtle psychological manipulation that is at the core of real-life conversion therapy.
“They figure out what your most sensitive spots are and then they manipulate you into believing those are the reasons why you’re — in their mind — acting out,” Moretz said. She highlighted the film’s “cannibalism scene,” in which Cameron describes how her girlfriend is “perfect” and the type of person who everyone wants to be friends.
Marsh turns this back against her, saying, “It’s said that cannibals only eat the enemies they admire as a way to take inside their best qualities… When you speak, you reveal a compulsion to take into yourself the qualities you admired in this girl.” Cameron walks away from the conversation believing that the only reason she wanted to be with her girlfriend was because she wanted to be like her.
“That is the ultimate form of shock and manipulation because, as a kid, you go, sure, maybe that is what I find attractive,” Moretz explained.
Every kid at the school has to fill out an “iceberg” worksheet where they have to list all of the faults that supposedly contribute to their behavior. Cameron’s “same-sex attractions” are only the tip of the iceberg, Reverend Rick tells her, and she has to figure out what’s beneath the surface, such as the loss of her parents. As she looks at other students’ icebergs, parents are a common theme, with reasons like “too much masculine bonding with dad over Minnesota Vikings football,” “lack of physical affection from my father,” and “too much bonding with mom over feminine activities.”
“It’s so simplistic; that’s what’s amazing,” Akhavan laughed. “It’s not the smartest of the theories.” Echoing a line Cameron says at one point in the film, she pointed out that conversion therapists basically make it up as they go along:
But that’s the extent of the therapy. There are very few techniques. It was just basically like, ‘If you’re a man, you’ve had too much bonding with your mother and not enough with your father. If you’re a girl, you’ve had too much with your father and not enough with your mother. You need to do more feminine activities. You need to do more masculine activities.’ … They have this way of manipulating whatever your past is to conveniently fit into well, this trauma fits into this behavior. It’s like improv almost.
Shurka endured years of conversion therapy to try to change his sexual orientation and now works with the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy. He praised the film for its accurate portrayal of how “every character, whether they were male or female, had to make sure they were getting the correct gender roles.”
It’s also an approach that tries to reject all forms of gender nonconforming behavior. Several of the characters in the film describe experiences that suggest they may have had any variety of other transgender or non-binary identities. Adam, one of the friends Cameron makes, identifies as “two-spirit,” referring to the third-gender role found in many indigenous North American cultures.
Even the language used in the film pulled directly from reality. For example, Cameron isn’t gay; she’s suffering from “SSA” (same-sex attractions). Proponents of conversion therapy across different religious groups long ago adopted the language of “SSA” to convince people not to think of their sexuality as an identity. As Shurka framed it, the term is about conveying, “You’re not gay. You have a condition. We’re working on the condition.”
Akhavan said that some of the people who worked on the film were concerned this might confuse viewers, given the concept is only briefly explained once, but they stuck with it. “It’s really important that everyone says SSA, SSA, SSA,” she said. “This is coded language and it becomes more like an addiction than sexuality.”
The approach at God’s Promise in the film reflects what hundreds of ex-gay survivors experienced themselves in conversion therapy. A few years ago, the online community “Beyond Ex-Gay,” which serves those recovering from the trauma of conversion therapy experiences, surveyed its members to try to capture a snapshot of what they had been through. The most consistent theme they documented was shame, both in terms of what motivated them to enter conversion therapy and what they experienced when they did. Out of over 400 respondents, 92 percent said they experienced harm, often manifested as depression, self-hate, and suicidal thinking.
And while the film takes place in 1993, Shurka says these practices haven’t stopped. “They fully exist as they do in the film,” he said, but they’ve updated some of the language they use, disguising themselves as schools for troubled Christian teens. They also now treat same-sex attraction “as a form of addiction.”
“They love to say, ‘We only treat people who don’t want to be gay. If you want to be gay, that’s cool, but if you don’t want to be gay, we have the cure for you,'” he explained. “It’s in full swing. It’s just that the language is not as it used to be in the 90s and 80s.”
Akhavan also hopes that the film will be relatable to many other kinds of audiences outside the LGBTQ community. “To be honest, I had no interest in making a film that was about conversion therapy,” she told ThinkProgress. “I loved this book and I wanted to make a teen film. This seemed like the perfect setting for what’s actually quite universal, which is the fact that I feel like every teen, no matter gay or straight, starts to hate themselves and feel diseased.”
She likewise sees themes of abuse that are not unique to conversion therapy. “I also wanted to include abuse as I saw it through my eyes, which was always at the hands of people who loved me the most and with the best intentions,” she said. Referencing films like Mommy Dearest and Bastard out of Carolina, Akhavan explained that she always hoped to make movies that “depict the kind of subtle mindfuckery that I was raised with, where you’re just doubting yourself thinking it’s normal. And once you have your own autonomy, you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, that was definitely abuse and I definitely was not in the driver’s seat.’”
Moretz similarly noted parallels between their film and Hannah Gadsby’s recent comedy special, which has been widely praised and discussed across the media. “Nanette, in that same way, talks a lot about that shame,” she noted. In the special, Gadsby describes how she used comedy to cover up the shame and stigma she experienced as a lesbian and gender-nonconforming woman. “She didn’t even see it on the religious level, but just on a societal level.”
The film is already resonating with people of many different backgrounds. As the interview was wrapping up, Akhavan shared a Twitter thread she had just seen from a trans woman who was significantly moved by The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
It was the kind that seeps into your pores and convinces you that your desires are unnatural and in need of correction. I truly thought I needed correction, and as a child who grew up lighting church candles at the altar, I treated my shame like a rot.
— Spencer Williams (@burritotheif) August 6, 2018
Akhavan described it as profoundly rewarding to be able to affect audiences in such a way. “That’s why we made it! That’s why we made it!” she exclaimed.