Performing Heteronormativity, Eschewing Gluten
(Spoiler alert for the last two paragraphs.)
Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to manipulate the raw landscape into some preconceived idea of what nature should look like. Goosebumps trickle across the back of my neck as I realize that’s exactly what they’re going to do to me too.
When seventeen-year-old Lexi Hamilton’s father died of pancreatic cancer, she not only lost her best friend – but one half of the only family’s she’s ever had. And with her father went the mother she used to know: happy, carefree, responsible. With it. There. In the six months since her husband’s death, Christine Hamilton spiraled into a deep depression, unable to perform even the most basic of chores. It’s all Lexi can do to keep the household going.
So when her devoutly Christian mother discovers Lexi’s secret sketchbook – brimming with lovingly rendered portraits of her gorgeous ex-friend Zoe Green – Lexi agrees to spend the summer before her senior year at a “pray the gay away” reparative therapy camp. Of course she does: she doesn’t want to lose her mother, too.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, camp New Horizons is as beautiful as it is surreal. Led by founder Jeremiah Martin – himself a ‘recovering homosexual’ – the campers perform a variety of bizarre activities over the course of the nine week-long treatment: uncovering and healing their “Father Wounds” (spoiler alert: not always caused by one’s father). Engaging in ‘gender-appropriate activities’ (boys learn the rules of football and how to do minor home repairs, while girls take in the finer points of makeup application and hair coiffing). The dudes play baseball while the girls watch (insulting, yes, but a welcome break for those young ladies recovering from hangovers!). Going on dates with their opposite-sex, equally gay peers. Performing heteronormativity … and participating in the occasional exorcism.
Though Lexi’s determined to go straight for her mother’s sake (and, okay, maybe to forget the train wreck that was Zoe Green – just a bit), a certain cute blonde camper named Carolyn threatens to derail her ‘progress’ (however dubious it may be) – and Lexi must decide what’s more important: pretending to be someone she’s not to win her mother’s approval, or staying true to herself.
There’s so much to adore about Jessica Verdi’s The Summer I Wasn’t Me: the campers’ diverse and sometimes surprising reasons for coming to New Horizons. Lexi and Carolyn’s creative use of The Great Gatsby to pass notes. (Though all the Gatsby love is a little difficult to relate to. Then again, maybe I would have enjoyed the novel more in high school if we’d explored the homoerotic undertones? Either way, I love that they nerd out over a book, any book.) The believable dialogue and frequent injection of humor into a potentially depressing story. Verdi’s sly hat tip to the fetishization of lesbianism for the male gaze. The oftentimes ridiculous rationalizations for “SSA” (same sex attraction, in conversion therapy parlance), and the correspondingly ridiculous exercises intended to “cure” it.
(As a vegan, I especially got a kick out of counselor Kaylee’s comparison of “choosing” to be straight to one’s choice of a gluten-free or vegan diet: “It’s hard work and involves a lot of discipline, and you have to keep making the choice to stick with it every day.”)
While the “therapy” does take a violent turn in the last third of the book, Verdi’s portrayal of New Horizons is somewhat tame compared to accounts from survivors of such camps: electro shock, food and water deprivation, solitary confinement, physical abuse, and suicide. Still, psychological abuse is on full display at New Horizons, with campers forced to confront past physical and sexual abuse with an audience of their peers looking on. Cell phones are prohibited, and campers may only make approved, supervised phone calls. The details of the “therapy” are frequently withheld until the moment of, and with all means of communicating with the outside world removed, the kids are essentially trapped there for the summer, helpless. Given that many of them come from tumultuous homes, this creates the perfect breeding ground for physical and sexual abuse, as we see in Matthew’s case.
* begin spoiler alert! *
And yet. Verdi wraps the story up rather tidily, with an ending that feels too optimistic to ring true. While Lexi does report Martin’s attempted rape of Matthew to the police, the story ends here: the consequences remain unexplored, as do the effects of the assault on Matthew. (Aside from some bruises, our perky hero appears to be fine.) While the ending implies that Martin will be brought to justice, this seems unlikely. Given the situation – a troublesome gay teen’s word against that of an upstanding Christian counselor – Matthew’s allegations are likely to be met with denial, victim blaming, and the like. The most probable outcome, considering what we know of Matthew’s home life, is that he’ll end up alone and homeless. What then?
Overall, I really enjoyed The Summer I Wasn’t Me. But I can’t help but think that Verdi gave us the feel-good ending we wanted, rather than the more nuanced ending we deserved.
4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down to 4 on Amazon.