‘Pray Away’ Is Gut-Wrenching, Fatiguing, and Absolutely Necessary

A fair warning that this review may become a rant.

by Spencer Henderson
Pray Away

How many LGBTQ lives have been completely shattered and irrevocably hurt in the name of God? What is the state of mind of the individuals who level that destruction upon those lives? These are the questions at the heart of the documentary Pray Away, Kristine Stolakis’s examination of LGBTQ individuals who were subjected to conversion therapy, and later became the face of Exodus International, which falsely claimed to be able to change an individual’s sexual orientation to help them avoid “the fiery depths of hell”. In other words, just another day in the world of organized religion.

I am not a religious person, and I find myself often disgusted by the state of organized religion. I am also bisexual, and have many friends and family members who identify somewhere within the LGBTQ community. Needless to say, I view the notion that sexual orientation or gender identity is a choice and that an organization can “change” you in the way that aligns with their hateful vision of God as exactly what it is: absolutely evil bullshit. It is even more discouraging that this act of hate and psychological torture against a community that I am a part of is still legal in the majority of the United States, encouraged and allowed by a frightening number of members of the Republican party, and accepted by a vast number of smiling people who claim to love Jesus.

Pray Away‘s intention is to make the viewer feel sick from the atrocities depicted, and it succeeds mightily. This is a harrowing film on every level and each subject of this documentary who has been victimized by conversion therapy has my deepest pity. It is a tragedy beyond words to see just how this process has wounded these individuals. Kristine Stolakis brings an incredible level of nuance to these subjects without ever leveling any type of judgment their way. With subject matter like this, that is an incredibly fine line to walk.

However, Pray Away is also an infuriating film that is exceedingly hard to stomach. It truly challenged my sense of empathy because while I recognize that the subjects here were victims of a practice that has been denounced and debunked by every major medical and psychological organization in the U.S., these individuals also went on to harm countless lives by subjecting people to the same process of pain and self-loathing that was inflicted upon them. How much sympathy can you have for a victim who goes on to victimize a staggering amount of individuals?

This can be viewed as both a positive and a negative for Pray Away. It is not often that you see a documentary interrogate such complex lives. It is important to have these stories out in the world because it allows a viewer to see how much this process dehumanizes a person. However, I had a really hard time not feeling anger toward these subjects. The hatred you hear coming out of some of their mouths in the considerable amount of archival footage collected for this documentary is frankly disgusting. It’s necessary to show, but knowing where some of these individuals stand in their views toward conversion therapy today makes me feel a strong sense of sadness for them; they have to live the remainder of their lives knowing the damage they inflicted upon so many. It’s such a distressing experience to see how organizations like Exodus International completely strip an individual of their soul; watching these individuals reckon with that is very fatiguing.

Pray Away is a viewing experience that I am grateful to have had. It challenged my perspective by asking complex questions regarding who is deserving of empathy. It’s also a harrowing watch that made me question what to even do with the remainder of my day afterward. I hope to see a day where films like Pray Away no longer need to be made, but until then, I will admire individuals like Kristine Stolakis who seek these stories out to work toward that better world.

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afzal May 22, 2023 - 3:07 pm

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Aimer Boyz August 9, 2021 - 9:15 pm

I just started watching this documentary. I wish I thought that the people who need to see this will…

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