While only 15 years ago, 1993 actually feels a lot farther away when you focus on the rights of gay men and women. THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST makes that almost immediately clear as Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her best friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) find themselves caught, still dressed in Homecoming wear, making out and more in the back of Cameron’s boyfriend’s car. With little rancor or pushback saw on-screen, Post finds herself shipped off to a Conversion Therapy camp.

The intent of the film is never in doubt. Conversion camp, and by extension, Conversion Therapy is bad. However, some critics feel it does not go far in depicting just how terrible this widely discredited “therapeutic” “approach” truly is. (For correct effect, read those quoted words with maximum sarcasm. As much sarcasm as you can conjure.)

As a therapist, I watched the film and considered this perspective in evaluating it. While the movie itself is uneven, if still recommendable, I think the critics are a bit wrong on the charge of taking it easy on Conversion. Let’s explore why, shall we?

Conversion Therapy: Van Pool
Chloe Grace Moretz rides the van with the rest of the Conversion Therapy camp residents in a scene from THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. (Courtesy of FilmRise)

But First, Some Background

You will notice, and perhaps already have, I have mountains of contempt for Conversion Therapy. For one thing, it’s track record of “success” (again, maximum sarcasm) is, in a word, mixed. Many “successfully” “cured” individuals (the most sarcasm yet!) do not stay “cured.” They often engage in same-sex sexual relationships or encounters after “treatment”. Several more have come out and admitted as much, detailing what they now feel are the gross practices of this process. The supposedly successfully converted have only their word to offer as proof.

Typically, self-disclosure would be enough. However, these individuals live in situations where being straight can feel akin to survival. Moreover, sometimes the converts become swept up in the selling of Conversion Therapy as a way of life. However, before we get too much into that, it is important to see how the field of psychology and therapy feels about Conversion. The American Psychological Association (APA) does not recognize Conversion Therapy as a sanctioned form of treatment. A large part of this is that not being straight is, thankfully, no longer considered a mental disorder. It never should have been from the start.

Second, there is very little by way of reliable reproducible data that demonstrates its success. Therefore, even if such data had been gathered, the APA would not recommend the use of Conversion Therapy. To put it in overly simplistic terms, it would be like recommending a kind of therapy to change your soda preference from Pepsi to Coke.  Might such a process exist? Maybe. But what purpose would it serve? Why stigmatize and attempt to cure that which is healthy, normal, and therefore in no need of a cure?

A Bit More Background

It is not only those in the field of psychology who have sought to curtail the existence of Conversion Therapy. Since the mid-aughts, states have been slowly, but steadily, stepping up to ban the process in their borders. At most recent count, it is illegal to practice Conversion Therapy in 13 states. Seven other states have banned cities and counties that have banned the process, not waiting for their state as whole to get around to it.

Insurance companies, unfortunately, have been slower to get on board. However, several have refused to pay for coverage in reaction to state bans, preferring to continue to operate in the state than stand up for Conversion Therapy and experience court fines and possibly more.

In 2001, the Surgeon General spoke out against the practice for the first time. Subsequently, the APA, American Psychiatric Association, American Counseling Association, and the American Psychoanalytic Association have officially raised objections to Conversion Therapy. President Obama subsequently became the first President to specifically speak out against it.

Given the associations that have opposed it, therapists who practice Conversion Therapy do so at the risk of their license. However, if no one reports it — and often no one will — therapists can often get away with it for years without detection or sanction.

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Actually, We’re Going to Need More Background

Functionally, Conversion Therapy tends to be a collection of psychologically and spiritually influenced techniques. There is no uniformity to this. Many practitioners use similar approaches but there is no governing body or formalized agreement of process.

While Conversion as idea dates back to the start of psychology, the modern version of it in the United States effectively began in 1991 with the publication of Joseph Nicolosi’s Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality and the subsequent founding of the Conversion Therapy advocacy group  National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Evangelical groups quickly embraced the organization and became its main source of funding and marketing. Catholicism, alas, also gravitated to it.

The Church continues to do so even now, in fact. Pope Francis’s recommendation that Catholics not condemn homosexuality but rather help gay and bi individuals via Conversion Therapy stands as the most recent indication. Instead, they should seek to help those they know who identify as gay or bi by encouraging Conversion Therapy. Even with the evidence and organizational pressure rising against Conversion Therapy, these religious institutions remain dedicated to its use. They are unwilling to admit that same-sex attraction has never been a disorder to be cured. Additionally, they refuse to see that even if a cure existed, Conversion Therapy certainly is not it.

Conversion Therapy: Car Kissin'
Quinn Shepherd and Chloe Grace Moretz share a brief moment of hidden intimacy in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. (Courtesy of FilmRise)

The Conversion Therapy of MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

The form of Conversion Therapy presented in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST is still in its nascent phase. The story unfolds only two years after the publication of Nicolosi’s book. Additionally, there are in-story details that seem to indicate that this camp’s approach sprung up independent of the book. Reverend Rick (a willfully clueless and broken just under the surface John Gallagher Jr.) presents as the patient zero of the camp.

He claims to be a convert and has the pretty blonde girlfriend Bethany (Marin Ireland) — the camp’s only teacher — to prove it. His counselor, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), also happens to be his sister. After she “cured” him, they founded the camp together. In practice, the therapy seems to consist mostly of reading the bible, doing work around the camp, being in nature, and attending group and individual therapy sessions. An “iceberg” worksheet oriented around gender confusion appears to be the camp’s main, if not only, tool.

The results are less than encouraging. No one, beyond Rick, seems converted. The teens are either just toughing it out without actually committing to the work or faking it til, they hope, they make it.

The film also uses structure to undermine the case for Rick’s conversion. Despite Rick dating Bethany the movie never has the two share a single scene. The one exception is the scene where we first learn of their romance. The shot captures them from across a crowded lunchroom, sharing a table with other staff members. We never hear the supposed couple say a thing to one another. We never see them share a tender moment. In other words, from context clues, the film tells us that Bethany and the Reverend may say they are dating but their relationship is hardly deep or well-connected.

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The Gender Confusion versus Same-Sex Attraction Error

The conflation of gender presentation and same-sex attraction provides the first example of the lousiness of the camp. The fact that the camp repeatedly engages in this conflation is an error on their part but not on the filmmakers. This is intentional to indicate how badly misinformed or uninformed they are.

Granted, we have come a long way in our understanding of the interplay of sex, gender identity, and sexual identity. However, even back in ’93, the idea that too little masculinity or too much femininity in men and vice versa in women caused same-sex attraction already had been discredited in therapeutic circles. The camp either ignoring or being unaware of it is a sign. They are operating from a place of either dangerous ignorance or dangerous refusal of accepted practices.

Beyond not applying best practices, it also points to the inevitability of failure. Again, there is no reason to convert anyone. However, if we, just for this moment, accept there might be a reason, this still won’t work. Gender and sexuality may be associated but that does not make them the same. Like straight, asexual, pansexual, and so on people, bi and gay individuals present on a gender spectrum. Gay men appear hyper-masculine very feminine and anywhere and everywhere in between. Same goes for lesbians.

Same goes for bisexual teens. Often individuals might appear differently depending on the situation or peer group present. The camp’s reliance on clichéd and regressive stereotyping demonstrates the approach was already out of date 15 years ago. Additionally, it exposes how their desire to “cure” is driven by those same stereotypical and regressive notions.

Conversion Therapy: In Class
Chloe Grace Moretz struggles to make the best of her “self-led instruction” in a scene from THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. (Courtesy of FilmRise)

Schooling Or, Rather, The Lack Thereof

The camp operates under the notion that treatment need occur away from the rest of society. Additionally, campers’ parents’ refusal to allow the teens to come home until they are cured. Therefore, the camp has to provide for all the needs of the teens. Given that all the residents are of high school age, these needs include education.

The problem is that the camp is no way set up to provide a strong education. Bethany — the aforementioned girlfriend of Reverend Rick — appears to be the only teacher on site. Thus, her job means having to teach a group of teens of various ages, previous instructional approaches, and abilities. It would be like teaching a group of 13-18-year-old biology when some had had it, some had had AP Bio, and others had never even cracked the textbook.

As a result, she does not actually teach. Instead, she hands each student a textbook and leaves them to self-instruct, wandering the room to keep watch, and doing little else. While not intentionally cruel, denying teenagers a good education certainly does not help them. This is especially true when your stated goal is to reintegrate them into society to be upstanding and healthy members of the community.

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Emotional Cruelty Masquerading as Tough Love

This is not subtle and this is undeniable. The very existence of the camp is a monument to emotional cruelty.

Let’s go back to my previous example of the Pepsi drinker. For whatever reason, his parents believe his preference for Pepsi is sinful and/or deviant. They send him to a camp to “change” him to be a “proper” Coke drinker. He does not like Coke. He knows he does not like Coke. Yet he finds himself in a world where he has to endure repeated pronouncements that his preferences are wrong and evil. Moreover, he hears over and over that despite his feelings, deep down he does like Coke.

In psychological terms, this constitutes an invalidating environment. Invalidating environments are incredible dysregulating to people and lead to a wide range of psychological issues including if done long enough or intensely enough, the development of significant mental disorders. Additionally, they lose their support network. They cannot call home when they want. They cannot receive mail until they have “earned” it. We never seem them receive visits or be granted trips home. This is destabilizing and, again, obvious emotional cruelty.

Conversion Therapy: The Siblings
John Gallagher Jr. and Jennifer Ehle attempt to run a Conversion Therapy camp in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. (Courtesy of FilmRise)

More Specific Emotional Cruelties

The staff, Dr. Marsh in particular, also singles out campers for specific forms of emotional cruelty. For instance, she unceasingly badgers Adam (Forrest Goodluck) about the length of his hair. Beyond it being one of the few aspects of his life he can determine now, it also connects him to his Native heritage. Adam believes himself to be a two-spirit and his hair length is one way of honoring that. Plus, with his father’s ascension in politics, Adam has been able to engage, less and less, with Native rituals. His hair is literally all he has left. Marsh’s repeated comments and threats related to it, therefore, function as attacks on his very sense of self.

For Cameron, Marsh withholds mail privileges until a letter arrives that seems sure to upset the teen. Even if you ignore my personal theory that the letter in question is a fake, this still shows a distinct intent to harm Cameron’s psyche. The doctor may be able to rationalize it as something else, but that excuse is easy to see through. Dr. Marsh is even less subtle at times, literally forcing someone to the ground by placing her high heeled foot on his back and pressing downward. The boy needs help and support. Instead, she only offers humiliation in the form of literally grinding him beneath her heel.

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No Escape

Make no mistake, the campers are hostages of this program. Despite being located on a beautiful stretch of land in upstate New York. Despite being given nearly free range to wander about the property. The campers have no place to go, no place of refuge unless they take it by breaking the rules.

First, they are banned from all secular music. If you remember being in high school, you can remember the ubiquity and importance of music in your life. Music woke you up in the morning, music followed you throughout the day, music often defined your identity. You were into punk? Plus, this is the early 90s. Music, played through a Walkman, was your best bet to distract yourself on long car rides.

It helped you escape the awkwardness of silence and boredom. It placed a wall between you and your parents when you needed a break. To be denied to music that they liked, that they related to, denied the campers a form of psychological escape from their surroundings. It denied them any kind of break.

Second, they all had literally nowhere to go. Their parents would not retrieve them until they were judged as cured. The only people who could declare them cured were the camp leaders. If they did not commit and play ball, they were trapped. And, as we see, even when they did commit, they were still trapped. As becomes clear, some parents are not interested in their child being cured, they are interested in just not having to deal with them any longer.

Conversion Therapy: Open Road
Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, and Forrest Goodluck wander the highways and byways in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. (Courtesy of FilmRise)

It Does Not Work, It Is Not Working

As noted briefly above, the camp is not working for anyone.

  • Cameron, Adam, and Jane (Sasha Lane) go through the motions but are not trying to change. Except for a brief crisis of faith Cameron has in herself, the three of them do not even believe in the need to change.
  • Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs)wants to change, believes in conversion as a good thing. However, she is failing. Attracted to Cameron, she gives in to the attraction one night in a sudden and sad moment of sexual fulfillment.
  • Steve (Isaac Jin Solstein) masturbates to manage his attractions. Except, then, he is told that that too is deviant and wrong leaving him, by his own angry confession, without any outlets.
  • Dane (Christopher Dylan White) projects so much rage, he may or may not be attracted to men anymore but he sure as hell hates everyone and everything around him.
  • And so on. With each camper, we spend any time with we see only tolls, no improvements. They delude themselves, deny themselves, distract themselves. But none of them are cured and none of them are feeling better about themselves.

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The Human Cost of Conversion Therapy

This last one is a sticky situation to get into without giving away spoilers. However, I shall endeavor to do my best.

Towards the conclusion of the film, there is a shocking and terrible incident. A camper reacts to a setback with a desperate and destructive decision that affects the residents and the staff. It is a dramatic situation for sure, but not one that feels inorganic. Moreover, it is not a decision that is out of line with some real-life reactions to forced Conversion Therapy.

While this movie is not based on a true story, many have done similar, if not exactly the same. When you tell someone their sexuality is wrong and fixable and they realize the latter certainly is not true, it is understandable. They either question it all and realize the former is a lie, too, or they do not and forever believe themselves inherently terrible.

Conversion Therapy: Outside Time
The camp gets some fresh air, confessions said in a scene from THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. (Courtesy of FilmRise)

The Criticisms

To work ourselves back to the beginning, many critics took in this movie, with all I mentioned above, and felt it did not make it clear enough that Conversion Therapy hurts, not helps. That it is cruel, not corrective. On the one hand, I know that Conversion Therapy can be given to more cruelties than the ones on display here. I know that, at times, these camps have gotten physical and have harmed the physical body, not just the emotional.

On the other hand, must of us know would recognize more intense abuses as wrong. Too intense and they can obscure anything else. If I show you a video of a dad yelling at a child and one of a dad beating a child and ask you which is worse, you will tend to single out the beating one. However, the video of psychological abuse is damaging too, perhaps even to the same extent.

If you show the camp as being extraordinary in its excesses, you risk letting the practice of Conversion Therapy off the hook. Not all forms of Conversion Therapy cross those bright lines. In fact, most don’t. However, all of them are dedicated to the central cruelty of forcing someone to stop being attracted to the people they are attracted to. All of them are based on regressive and ill-informed hypotheses. All of them are monuments to the banality of evil.

To show the ways the camp can and are harming the teens without being big or splashy, the film sets about exposing the inherent horribleness of Conversion Therapy. Even at this camp, where Reverend Rick seems nice and well-intentioned. Even at this camp with its beautiful land and its loose structure. Conversion Therapy does not stop being cruel or terrible.

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