emily m. danforth, the miseducation of cameron post
when i first got this book, i was a little holy shit because it’s not short and i have a well-documented aversion to long books because books don’t tend to get better the longer they drag on — they get tedious. i was afraid that that might be the case with cameron post, and i was more hesitant about it, too, because i wanted to love it.
luckily, i loved it.
the first half of the book focuses on cameron’s life before she’s sent to conversion therapy. her parents die in an accident, and her aunt comes to live with her and her grandmother, but cameron is largely left to navigate and process her grief alone.
she’s also left to process her guilt alone because, the night her parents die in an accident, she kisses her best friend in her barn. the best friend is soon sent off to boarding school because her family comes into a lot of money, and she goes for heteronormative, leaving cameron alone to parse her own feelings and desires and eventually landing in the arms of a popular girl. they become friends, then they become more than friends, but this girl has a boyfriend and she’s a good church-going girl, and, when they’re caught, she’s the victim while cameron is sent off to god’s promise.
the main reason i hurried to finish this book was that i wanted to see the film adaptation with chloe grace moretz. i was excited for the film as is, but, when i’d finished the book, i was really curious to see how they’d adapt it because there’s a lot of material in the book, a lot of story that’s crucial to cameron’s experience at god’s promise, the “school” she’s sent to after she’s outed. she has a roommate; the doors are never locked or closed all the way; and the students are all checked in on during the night. they study independently, go to group therapy, draw icebergs that represent their sin of homosexuality.
i love the way the film adapted the novel. the film focuses on cameron’s time at god’s promise, but it also gives us all the important moments that lead up to cameron’s forced enrollment — even while focusing on a small part of the novel, the film doesn’t lose the expansive sense of the book.
and neither does it lose its horrors.
there’s nothing sensational or dramatic about either the novel or the film, but that’s kind of the thing about conversion therapy — on the surface, it’s not necessarily very sensational, and it’s not necessarily outwardly horrific. in cameron post, the people who run god’s promise aren’t cruel, abusive people, not in the strictest sense of either word, and, if you believe what they believe in the way they believe, you’d think them kind and loving, committed to their children’s eternal souls.
but the thing is that conversion therapy does so much harm. it’s an insidious, dangerous practice. it’s banned in fourteen states + DC.
cameron post doesn’t shy away from showing the harm wrought by conversion therapy. cameron herself is lucky to emerge relatively unscathed, at least in the sense that she retains a grasp of herself as who she is and doesn’t self-harm. others aren’t so lucky; there’s a girl who so wants to believe that she’s figured out the source of her homosexual urges and has them under control that i fear for what will happen when she has to confront all her repressed feelings later. there’s the boy with the violent rage. and there’s the boy who wants his father’s approval, who immerses himself in the bible and memorizes scripture and is trying so hard to be able to go back home, that when he continues to be rejected by his father, it breaks him.
i wasn’t thinking of including quotes in this post, but here’s a long one, four poignant, crucial pages from cameron post. i think it gets at why it can be difficult to explain why conversion therapy is so harmful and why people just might not understand, especially if they don’t want to to, if they subscribe to the belief that homosexuality is such a terrible, damning sin. in the scene, someone (cameron calls him mr. blah-blah because she doesn’t remember his name) has come from the child and family services department after a student at god’s promise mutilates himself, and he is interviewing different students.
“do you think you can tell me more specifically what you mean when you say that you can’t trust the staff here?”
that time he did sound like every other counselor who’d ever asked me to elaborate on my feelings. i was surprised at myself for having him to open up to. i was surprised even as i was doing it. maybe i picked him because i thought he would have to take me seriously, whatever i said, he seemed so fastidious and by the book, and he also seemed, precisely because of his position and that fastidiousness, a little nonjudgmental, i guess.
“i would say that rick and lydia and everybody else associated with promise think that they’re doing what’s best for us, like spiritually or whatever,” i said. “but just because you think something doesn’t make it true.”
“okaaaaay,” he said. “can you go on?”
“not really,” i said, but then tried to anyway. “i’m just saying that sometimes you can end up really messing somebody up because they’re you’re trying to supposedly help them is really messed up.”
“so are you saying that their method of treatment is abusive?” he asked me in a tone i didn’t like very much.
“look, nobody’s beating us. they’re not even yelling at us. it’s not like that.” i sighed and shook my head. “you asked me if i trust them, and like, i trust them to drive the vans safely on the highway, and i trust that they’ll buy food for us every week, but i don’t trust that they actually know what’s best for my soul, or how to make me the best person with a guaranteed slot in heaven or whatever.” i could tell i was losing him. or maybe i’d never had him to begin with, and i was mad at myself for being so inarticulate, for messing up what i felt like i owed to mark, even if he wouldn’t see it that way, which he probably wouldn’t.
“whatever,” i said. “it’s hard to explain. i just don’t trust that a place like promise is even necessary, or that i need to be here, or that any of us need to be here, and the whole point of being here is that we’re supposed to trust that what they’re doing is going to save us, so how could i answer yes to your question?”
“i guess you couldn't,” he said.
i thought maybe i had an in, so i said, “it’s just that i know you’re here because of what happened to mark.”
but before i could continue he said, “what mr. turner did to himself.”
“what?” i asked.
“you said what happened to him,” he said. “something didn’t just happen to him. he injured himself. severely.”
“yeah, while under the care of this facility,” i said.
“correct,” he said in another unreadable tone. “and that’s why i’m here: to investigate the care that is given by those who run this facility, but not to investigate the mission of the facility, unless that mission includes abuse or neglect.”
“but isn’t there like emotional abuse?” i asked.
“there is,” he said, completely noncommittal. “do you feel that you’ve been emotionally abused by the staff here?”
“oh my god,” i said, throwing my hands in the air, feeling every bit as dramatic as i was acting. “i just told you all about it — the whole fucking purpose of this place is to make us hate ourselves so that we change. we’re supposed to hate who we are, despise it.”
“i see,” he said, but i could tell that he didn’t at all. “is there anything else?”
“no, i think the hate yourself part about covers it.”
he looked at me, unsure, searching for what to say, and then he took a breath and said, “okay. i want you to know that i’ve written down what you’ve said and it will go in the official file. ‘ll also share it with my committee.” he had jotted something down as i was talking, but i definitely didn’t trust that he’d really written down what i had said, not really, at least not the way that i’d said it.
“right,” i said. “well, i’m sure that will be an effective method for change.” now i hated this guy, and myself a little too — for hoping that i could make something happen just by answering a few questions honestly. for once.
“i’m not sure i understand,” he aid.
and i believe that he really didn’t understand what i was trying to say; i do. but i also believe that he didn’t really want to, because he probably wasn’t so nonjudgmental after all, and maybe he eve believed that people like me, like mark, absolutely did belong at promise. or somewhere worse. and though i knew that i couldn’t explain all of that to him, make what i was feeling fit neatly into words, i tried, more for me and for mark than for this guy’s understanding.
“my whole point,” i said, “is that what they teach here, what they believe, if you don’t trust it, if you doubt it at all, then you’re told that you’re going to hell, that no only everyone you know is ashamed of you, but that jesus himself has given up on your soul. and you’re like mark, and you do believe all of this, you really do — you have faith in jesus and this stupid promise system, and even still, even with those things, you still can’t make yourself good enough, because what you’re trying to change isn’t changeable, it’s like your height or the shape of your ears, whatever,then it’s like this place does make things happen to you, or at least it’s supposed to convince you that you’re always gonna be a dirty sinner and that it’s completely your fault because you’re not trying hard enough to change yourself. it convinced mark.”
“are you saying that you think the staff should have anticipated that mark would do something like this?” he asked, jotting again. “were there warning signs?”
at that i just gave up completely. (398-401)
and here’s one last short passage to think about.
“you’re right,” jane said. “it’s completely fucked. but his dad doesn’t see it that way. he absolutely believes with everything in him that what he’s doing in the only way to save his son from eternal damnation. the fiery pits of hell. he believes that completely.”
adam kept sneering, near a shout now. “yeah, well what about saving him from right now? what about the hell of thinking it’s best just to fucking chop your balls off than to have your body somehow betray your stupid fucking belief system?”
“that’s never what it’s about to those people,” jane said, still calm. “all that’s the price we’re supposed to pay for salvation. we’re supposed to be glad to pay it.” (389)
fuck conversion therapy.