Cameron kisses a girl for the first time the same day her parents die. She internalizes this coincidence as a divine punishment for something she “somehow” knew was “wrong.” But Cam is too self aware to stay there forever–she begins to regard her sexuality as something like the size of her ears or her height, something that isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, her Aunt disagrees. An evangelical Christian with a penchant for pre-marital sex with the local Schwan’s driver, Aunt Ruth is outraged when Cam is outed and sends her to Promise, a boarding school where she can supposedly pray away the gay.
We need this book. There are still those who believe as Aunt Ruth and Cam’s “counselor” at Promise do, that a person’s sexuality is not a fact to be honored, not a reality woven into the fabric of their personhood, but a habit formed (subconsciously) by old psychological wounds. And CAMERON POST demonstrates exactly how insidious that way of thinking is: for all the ways it tries to sound like compassion, its inevitable result is self-hatred.
In fact, when a student at Promise commits a horrifying act of self-harm, state investigators come to assess the school. In their interview with Cam, one investigator asks “Do you trust the staff?” It’s a question Cam uses to explain the problem. Yes, she trusts them to drive safely and feed the students and keep them up-to-date on school credits. But no, she doesn’t trust them. Sometimes, she explains, just because someone is trying to do what they think is the best thing for you doesn’t mean it actually is the best thing for you. She points out that the primary mission of Promise is to change the students, an impossible task. This endeavor either makes the students angry or makes them hate themselves.
One of the most terrifying elements of the book was Lydia, the “counselor” at Promise. Since she’s a Cambridge-educated psychologist as well as a rabid ultra-conservative, she’s effective at getting into students’ heads. She’s effective at leaving no corner of their lives private or unexplored, at writing everything down in her notebook, and at offering a strange blend of emotional healing and emotional torture. Cam herself notices this and comments on it, offering readers a strand of hope for what happens after the book ends, “I didn’t know much about psychology, but I’ve learned some since then…”
As other reviewers have pointed out, the book is long, but I didn’t mind. It’s essentially two books–the first coming of age and coming out story follows many of the traditional tropes of those genres. But the second, which follows Cam to Promise functions partially like a fictional documentary and partially like an allegory. In terms of the documentary component, Danforth has suggested that the story is partially inspired by the 2005 Zach Stark controversy. In terms of the allegory, it seems to me that Cam’s exile to Promise and ultimate escape mirrors the journey of many gay kids in the 90’s: kids on the edge of a cultural shift that hadn’t quite happened (and still hasn’t in some places), kids who had to overcome the entire weight of their culture’s disapproval and escape to a place where they could be at peace with themselves.
Cam finds that place in the same spot her parents died. With her true friends on the shore, she swims through the icy river of her past without drowning, blows out the candle of pain she’s carried so carefully, and finds closure. Then she swims back. Her friends have a towel and a fire waiting to welcome her out of the waters and into the beginning of their new lives.