The Miseducation of Cameron Post
SPOILERS WITHIN (though even if you read this you will still enjoy the novel!)
First time novelist Emily Danforth’s book is a coming of age tale set in rural Montana in the 1990s. The titular character, Cameron Post, is twelve when the book begins; in short order, her best friend Irene dares her to kiss her, and she does, in a hay loft. She liked it; they both liked it, really. But not long afterwards, when she is sleeping over at Irene’s house, Irene’s father appears and tells her she has to go home. All the way home, Cam is thinking about how he must have discovered what they had done, must have decided that she could not be in his house anymore, not with his daughter. And then they return to Cam’s house and her parents have died in a car accident.
If there’s a recipe for longstanding shame, it has to be kissing a girl in a homophobic town, then returning to find that your parents have been killed. To a twelve year old, in that moment of terror and unreality and confusion and with no adult to help sort it all out, it feels as though the two things are linked, as though the kissing caused the crash. She feels tremendously guilty, because how could she not, that she is relieved that her parents will not find out about the kiss: she feels horrible because she feels responsible. (She also feels horrible because her parents just died, of course).
Cam’s born again Aunt Ruth gets custody of her, and they live together with her grandmother. Cam escapes into movies immediately. She watches everything she can think of, eager to slip inside a different world, at least for awhile. And then Ruth has her join Gates of Praise, Ruth’s megachurch, and things begin to change.
Gates of Praise—or GOP—is typical in its megachurch-ness; it denounces homosexuality, of course, and at some point a pastor names Rick comes and talks to the youth group about his new program for helping teenagers move past homosexuality. Cam, who at this point has begun fooling around with a girl in youth group, is fascinated and horrified.
Cam spends the next year or two beginning to understand her sexuality. In her small Montana town she hangs out with a gang of boys, and one of them, Jamie, has a crush on her. They kiss once or twice, but it doesn’t feel right to Cam. When she sees Jamie kissing another girl, she feels better—“as if the pressure was off me” (Danforth 2012 p171). Jamie figures out her sexuality, and he doesn’t even seem to mind, really.
Cam is introduced to a lot of queer culture by her swim team friend Lindsey, who comes to Montana from Seattle every summer to stay with her dad. Lindsey is a lesbian who is confident in her orientation and in herself. She tells Cameron about Pride, and gay- friendly musicians, and movies with queer characters. She is essentially providing Cam with the kind of Being Queer 101 information many LGBT youth discover in college. Cam looks up to her and finds her attractive, but when Lindsey goes back to Seattle for the school year she begins—slowly at first—to be with a girl named Coley Taylor. Coley is part of a golden couple at school—a heterosexual golden couple—but she has her own desires, and she and Cam explore them, slowly at first, and then not slowly at all. But when Cam and
Coley actually really have sex, they are interrupted by her brother and several friends. Cam returns home a few days later to find that the Gates of Praise pastor has heard that Cam seduced Coley; Cam is therefore being sent to Promise, a place that promises to move sinners past homosexuality and into holiness.
This is where my rage came in, and it did not dissipate until the book was nearly over. I found myself furious on Cam’s behalf—I had come to quite like her voice, witty and wry and honest and authentic without being cloying—and I was enraged at her aunt for sending her away, her grandmother for going along with it, the people running Promise for existing.
As it turns out, there’s a bit of an inmates running the asylum feeling at Promise: several of the students (or disciples, in the parlance) seem genuine, but others, particularly Jane and Adam, smoke a lot of pot (Jane grows it herself in a hidden plot) and are, basically, faking their way through.
Over her time at Promise, Cam goes through a few changes, which I’ll discuss below. Furthering my rage, another disciple—this one the son of a prominent conservative preacher—cuts his genitals and then bleaches the cuts. This is the part that really enraged me, because it is so absurdly obvious that if you tell kids over and over and over that some base, unchangeable part of themselves is ungodly and sinful and must be fixed, of course they are going to go mad with self-loathing. It cannot be otherwise.
This is the final straw for Cam. She, Jane and Adam plot carefully; they start pretending to really believe what they are being told, and to “work” in their individual sessions with Reverend Rick and his icy cold British aunt. And then they escape. They go to the lake where Cam’s parents died, and Cam swims out, in the frigid water, clutching a candle to her belly, and says goodbye to them, and then she swims in, to where her friends have made a fire for her.
There are several really notable things about Cam’s story. Her obsession with movies ties in beautifully to the idea that girls are “looking at their looks” as Gilligan said, that they are learning how to live within that male gaze (discussed as part of film, after all). You could argue, in fact, that Cam herself becomes also the perpetrator of that male gaze when she watches movies, since she is looking at them as a way to objectify the women.
Even more, though, Cam’s time at Promise seems an especially clear—and terrifying—example of the kind of gaslighting Gilligan and Simmons feel that adolescent girls deal with on a regular basis. Throughout her time, Cam feels more and more taken in by the entire premise. Again, this is not unexpected. Having something told to you over and over makes you likely to believe it. Not too long after she’s arrived—while she and Adam are helping Jane harvest marijuana—Jane asks Cam “so have you started to forget yourself?” by which she means, she says, “Promise has a way of making you forget yourself…even if you’re resisting the rhetoric. You still sort of disappear” (Danworth, 2012 p. 310). By far the clearest example of this comes when Cam thinks about her time at the center:
I felt all the ways in which this world seemed so, so enormous…but also so, so removed. I’d felt like this since I arrived, like at Promise I was destined to live in suspended time….all the ‘support sessions’ were designed to make you realize that your past was not the right past….And when you’re surrounded by a bunch of strangers….miles away from anybody who might have known you before, might have been able to recognize the real you….it’s not really like being real at all….It’s living the life of one of those prehistoric insects encased in amber: suspended, frozen, dead but not….But even if the amber could somehow be melted, and it could be freed…how could it be expected to live in this new world without its past, without everything it knew from the world before, from its place in it, tripping it up again and again? (Danworth, 2012 p. 313) (emphasis original).
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more clearheaded description of the damage done by telling adolescents—or anyone, really—that who they are is fundamentally Bad and Evil and Sinful. It is a crime of erasure. When you tell someone that who they love and how they love is wrong, you are erasing one of the most base, vital experiences a human being can have. That’s in addition, of course, to all of the other things wrong with telling someone they can’t love who they love because God says so.
To her credit, Danforth never makes any of the “pray away the gay” people evil caricatures, as I would be tempted to do. As I am tempted to do whenever I see them in the news. When Adam, Jane and Cam are talking about the boy who cut himself, for example, Adam says angrily that how could his father expect anything else, when he’d been telling him for years how sinful his thoughts were. And Jane points out that his father is genuinely trying to save his son from what he thinks is the horrible awaiting eternal fate the best way he knows how.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment, isn’t it? Now, I actually don’t believe for a second that most homophobia is the result of a genuine fear that your loved ones will burn in hell forever. I think it’s mostly a combination of fear, internalized disgust, xenophobia, power lust, and simple hatred. But, although I do not understand it, I can entertain the notion that there are people out there for whom this kind of thinking really does come from a different place. And Danforth does us all a service, I think, asking us to consider what those people’s duties to each other might be, and ours to them. Which is not a way of saying there is any reasonable, ethical way to condone a place like Promise—just that Danforth should get credit for avoiding the simple characterizations that could easily have fit into her book.
Cam’s story shares elements with many a YA novel. There are the adults who are utter failures at being adults. There’s the first love and first sex part. There’s the learning to rely on friends part, and the grief part. Hers differs partly because of how well it is written and mostly because of it’s authenticity and its refusal to seek easy answers, even as it is definitive about what not to do.
Cam’s voice shines through clearly in the novel. Although in the external world of the story, she loses her voice, but in the internal world as the reader sees it, her voice remains clear and genuine. When I asked Danforth where Cam’s voice came from, she told me that part of it “is almost certainly mined from my own adolescent outlook” (Danforth also grew up gay in the Midwest, although she didn’t go to a Promise-like place) and “part is an attempt to fully utilize the first person [point of view] to create a storyteller whose very style of narration becomes part of the story—a part as crucial as the plot itself” (personal communication, October 20, 2012). Indeed, Cam’s voice—her clearheadedness, her ability to think through things, her way of looking at the world—is what makes her story so compelling.