John Paulk and his wife Anne appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1998 as the face of Christian ex-gay therapy. In “Pray Away,” a wide-ranging documentary from director Kristine Stolakis, Paulk is interviewed today, and he is unrecognizable as the man on that cover. Even though he was much younger when he posed with his wife, the contemporary Paulk looks so relaxed and comfortable with himself that it really is like looking at a totally different and much more appealing person.
Such visual reenforcement is constant in “Pray Away,” as we see footage of Paulk and many other so-called “ex-ex-gays” when they were being tortured by their ministries alongside footage of them looking far happier after they escaped. Stolakis carefully and patiently charts the rise and fall of Exodus, an ex-gay ministry founded in 1976 and disbanded in 2013 after its president, Alan Chambers, went to listen to a group of ex-ex-gays and came out of that meeting very shaken by what he had heard.
“Pray Away” focuses mainly on religious ex-gay therapy starting with Exodus, but Stolakis does include a section on one of the figureheads of its secular counterpart, a doctor named Joseph Nicolosi. From what we see of a therapy session here with Nicolosi and a male patient, the psychoanalytic version of ex-gay therapy is far scarier and more insidious when it lacks a religious component. This would seem to call for some elaboration, but it’s a topic so large that it likely would need a separate documentary to do it justice.
The religious ex-gay therapy as practiced by Exodus and also by a group called Living Hope, which was run by a man named Ricky Chelette, is a bastardized and near-comic version of the psychotherapy doled out by Nicolosi and his ilk, with a leaning on clichés about childhood trauma as the explanation for everything. On a list of causes of homosexuality shown on screen, we see “exposure to pornography” and further down on the list is “exposure to the occult,” which lets us grasp just how low a level of superstition we are dealing with here.
Paulk was famously caught visiting a gay bar in 2000, after which he was ousted from Exodus, though his wife Anne is still active in a diminished iteration of it called Restored Hope Network. During their marriage, Anne kept asking her husband why he couldn’t just be “obedient,” but such obedience could lead to crime and horror.
The most disturbing story told in “Pray Away” comes from Julie Rodgers, first seen here preparing for her wedding to another woman. Rodgers was brought to Living Hope as a teenager and put under the care of Chelette, who soon saw that Rodgers could be an effective speaker for the group. He took advantage of her confidence, and he eventually took advantage of her sexually, pressuring her to use a rape at college as a part of her story at speaking engagements. Rodgers was so beaten down by all of this that she began burning herself regularly.
Stolakis is not afraid of complication. Yvette Cantu Schneider, who used to be a key speaker for Exodus, is still married to her husband and has come to terms with being bisexual. The most complex case here is young Jeffrey McCall, who has started his own ex-gay group with some anti-trans messaging used prominently as an attempt to stay new and relevant. McCall seems to sense that being anti-gay is somewhat old hat, but if he can get people riled up about children “chopping up their bodies,” then he might bring more members into his fold.
As “Pray Away” goes on, and the old ex-gay ministries start to fall apart and regroup only as weakened versions of themselves, there is the sense that this will soon be a dead issue, or at least an issue so small that it at least won’t hurt as many people as it once did. At the end of the movie, we see Rodgers getting married, and she is wearing a sleeveless dress so that some scars on one of her arms are visible. She looks beautiful and happy, but those scars are a reminder for us of the price she had to pay to get to this point in her life.
This is a very moving image, and emblematic of what has happened to too many young people in this country who have been taken advantage of by older people who seek obedience not for God’s purposes but for their own.
“Pray Away” premieres on Netflix in August.