Coming-of-Age Without Any Change: A Movie Review of The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

I have a longstanding fascination with adaptations.

When I was younger, instead of allowing myself to watch the utterly forbidden R-rated movies I longed to see, like Never Let Me Go, High Fidelity, and Girl, Interrupted, I would buy the novel and enjoy the R-rated material in private, because thankfully books come without ratings, and my parents, unless they dropped everything and read along with me, had no idea what sort of smut I was shoveling into my brain.

Hypocritical, yes, but one does what one must under oppressive regimes to answer burning questions about the world.

Something happens though, when I finally get around to watching the movie adaptations of some of my most beloved books. I often end up disappointed with the results. And I’m not sure if it has anything having to do with the quality of any of it or is due simply the order in which they were consumed. Are these books actually so much better than their movie adaptations, or do I love them more because I happened to experience them first, like an imprinting, attaching my sentiments to products of my imagination rather than of casting directors and set designers?

(Then of course sometimes the movie is better–like in the case of Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride, and The Shawshank Redemption–but these are movies I saw first, so I don’t know if I just imprinted on the first format I experienced or if the written versions really are sub-par. It probably matters that these three movies are all critically acclaimed and add major elements that were missing from the original written versions. I’ve probably just answered my question.)

But the question of which is better, movies or books is an old one. It probably doesn’t have an answer, but I feel I’m pretty close when I say neither, they’re different media. When I wonder about this, I’m not wondering so much about quality, but rather my age-old obsession with reader/viewer experience, and what circumstances must be in place and what criteria met in order to create a perfect bond between a work of art and its consumer.

Bearing all this in mind, let’s tackle my recent viewing of Desiree Akhavan’s and Cecilia Frugiuele’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, and Forrest Goodluck.

First off, four things that get in the way of me liking this movie:

  • I finished the book on Friday and watched the movie the following Monday
  • No 90-minute movie could ever convey the same depth as 143k words of prose
  • The Montana setting, a major part of what I love about the book, is completely absent from the movie
  • I was raised in a homophobic Christian cult, albeit without conversion therapy camps, giving me a more nuanced perspective on the subject than this movie presents. (For a quick look at what gay Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught about their sexuality, check out this excerpt from the book given to every teenager: https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/teenagers/ask/pressure-to-be-gay/ )

(Spoilers? Definitely spoilers.)

This movie starts off great. In the silence stretching behind the beginning title cards, I tried to envision the first sounds I would hear: the slosh of water of Cameron’s breaststroke across Lake Scanlan, the pop of firecrackers in the summer, an early-nineties alternative track, maybe even Cameron herself in voice-over, typical of book adaptations. I was pleased to find us jumping right into the meat of the problem: the reassuring voice of a pastor conducting a teen bible study group, complete with awkward close-ups of bibles and captive faces. We’re presented with the concept that teenagers are at an age where they’re especially vulnerable to evil. At hearing this, Cameron sighs anxiously and looks away. “What feels like fun is actually the enemy, and that enemy is closing the noose around your neck,” her pastor says in voice-over of her and an unnamed girl riding bikes to her house, checking to make sure they’re alone, and making out in her room. Next the girls get ready for prom, revealing Cameron’s discomfort in being dolled-up with lipstick and blush, posing with her boyfriend for photos, being told she’s beautiful. The girls find themselves in the back of a car, smoking pot and making out again, hands in each other’s panties. Cameron’s boyfriend catches them, and next thing we know, she’s off to God’s Promise Camp.

It’s an effective beginning. Trouble is, I don’t know who Cameron is beyond a girl who likes girls. I don’t know how she feels about her bible education, her relationship with the aunt who sent her away, with her girlfriend or her boyfriend, or anything really. I hoped I’d get a better sense of her personality as the movie progressed, but mostly all she does is react. She arrives fully-formed in her convictions that she did nothing wrong, and at end leaves no different. And even though I agree wholeheartedly that she did nothing wrong, that doesn’t mean I want to watch an entire movie about that non-revelation.

Other characters are better drawn. We get a real sense of their personality, their fears and conflicts. Cameron’s conflict is that she’s stuck in this backwards camp and wants to leave, so she does, with little apparent difficulty. She has nothing about herself that needs examining, which is fine except that this is all set up as a coming of age story. Maybe it isn’t, and I was just expecting that from the source material. I get the feeling, though, that the filmmakers saw the conversion camp as the most compelling element of the story and cut out everything that didn’t support that throughline.

That includes important characterization for the main character. The book provides a strong source of conflict for Cameron. The same day that she first kisses a girl, her parents die in a freak accident, and her first thought upon learning this is “Thank God they won’t have to find out about me.” The rest of the book shows her journey of acceptance, not just of herself but of her parents’ deaths. When she finally leaves God’s Promise, it’s to visit the location of their accident and let them go, looking forward to a future where she doesn’t have to feel the weight of her own guilt upon her. It’s a testament to Cameron’s strength that she goes to conversion therapy camp and there learns acceptance, despite the harmful rhetoric of sin and self-destruction she’s taught.

From what I can tell, movie Cameron enters the camp already in possession of herself. And on the one hand, I like that. It’s an interesting angle to explore, but the trouble is the rest of the story doesn’t support it. I think there’s a story out there about the girl who stays strong despite a system designed to tear her down, and I want to read it, but Cameron Post is not structured that way. Without the arc of change for the main character, there’s not enough to propel the plot further. In lack of any other source of propulsion, it becomes dull, leaving me unfulfilled at the end instead of enlightened.

The Atlantic review acknowledges this quality but spins it into praise:

Even though its running time is short, at 90 minutes, The Miseducation of Cameron Post does drag simply because it’s so much about inertia. The camp is trying to change Cameron, but the assuredness of Moretz’s performance suggests there’s no possibility of that. Akhavan’s script (co-written with Cecilia Frugiuele) commendably avoids melodramatic twists or explosive, expository arguments, though it does mean that the film drifts to an ending more than anything else. Akhavan’s confident move, in the end, is that she can tell a story of a person finding their identity without depicting a transformation. This is a film about Cameron’s core personhood, and how it stands up to concentrated efforts to transform it, and it’s told with quiet steeliness and grace.

David Sims, The Atlantic, AUG 1, 2018

One person’s quiet steeliness is another person’s tedious frustration, I guess.

All in all, I found the movie watchable. There were long shots I wasn’t sure conveyed anything other than the awkward atmosphere of the camp, but it’s generally well-edited and clings tightly to its central premise, that conversion camps suck and aren’t worth anyone’s time.

To which I say, well duh.

I guess I was just looking for a little bit more.

Do you know of any books that don’t hold a candle to their movie adaptations, or vice versa? Let me know in the comments!

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Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

I’m not sure if the world needs a review for a book published in 2012, but I sure do. This book came along at exactly the right time, and I devoured it in less than two weeks–which is fast for me, especially since that I found it on a list of really long-ass YA books.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a YA contemporary novel about a girl from a small town in Montana who gets caught in a sexual relationship with another girl and is sent to a Christian gay conversion camp, clocks in at 142,050 words. (Which is coincidentally 1000 words shorter than my manuscript at its longest.) One review said that it was originally double the length and is only the first half of the story, and if that’s true then I demand the second half pronto. 142k words were not nearly enough to satisfy me.

That could be partially due to the rather abrupt ending–though still, in hindsight, a complete ending, nicely capping the themes presented in the novel. It could also be because of the dreamy, lackadaisical pace of the narrative as it moves through main character Cameron’s life, starting with the summer her parents died in a freak auto accident and continuing through beautifully-realized moments of her sexual awakening, where Danforth not only digs deep into the fumbles and butterflies of young love, but lingers on the textures of life in a small western town in the early 1990s. Some reviewers complained that it’s slow, but I found it transfixing because of how authentic it feels. As I read I lamented that if Danforth did not actually grown up in Miles City, Montana, I was going to quit writing, because how can I possibly live up to the level of journalistic dedication required to present such a realistic setting in all its tarnished glory? Having recently driven lengthwise through the state and spent several days in the general area of the fictional gay conversion camp, I could feel the authenticity as sharply as a midsummer chill blowing down from the Spanish Peaks. When I reached the end and learned that she was in fact born and raised in Miles City, I’m pretty sure I laughed with relief.

Despite the high-concept sounding summary, this book is not that plot-focused. It’s more character-driven, atmospheric and emotional, about Cameron’s coming to terms with herself and the twists and turns of her life. I’m not really sure if coming of age can even be high concept. Obviously the subject matter offers a lot to chew on, but Danforth’s treatment of the evangelical Christian camp is incredibly nuanced. Even though the narrative rests squarely on the side of the children subjected to its terrible–as Cameron puts it, pseudoscientific–“treatment,” this is no a diatribe. Danforth presents the counselors (a young “ex-gay” reverend and his icy psychologist aunt), as rounded characters who truly believe their actions are in the children’s best interests. The harm they’re actually doing boils the blood in places, because I feel like I know these people, grew up with versions of them: normal, well-intentioned people who do terrible things in the name of faith. Yet despite their faith, sometimes you can see the cracks in the veneer that reveal their humanity. After a particularly horrifying incident where a devout student mutilates himself because of his lack of de-gaying progress, the reverend has no words for Cameron’s demand for answers and bursts into tears.

It’s stunning to me that a YA about such a huge, important, and–to some people–controversial topic could be so nuanced. It’s everything I want in a YA, everything I’ve been looking for. I want to read more books like this, where readers aren’t told what to think or how to feel, but are presented with a situation and allowed to live it along with the characters, using the power of story to make important statements about human nature and the world we inhabit.

In short, it’s everything I want my YA manuscript to be and very fervently hope that it is.

This book couldn’t have come at a better time for me. For the past month I’ve been stalling, knowing that my manuscript is done and I have to start sending it out, but still trying to trim more off the word count. I know now I need to stop and let it go, and not just because I found a very very long bestselling contemporary novel that was recently made into a movie. I’ve learned, through massive amounts of trial and error, that to cut any more would be to alter the foundations of the story, and some stories, I think, demand a longer word count. I’m trying to portray a complex issue from as many different angles as possible. I want to acknowledge what I’ve come to understand about people’s infinite capacity for good, and their equally-infinite capacity for evil:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

I’m glad I found this book. It’s the first YA I’ve really connected to in a long time, and one of the best books I’ve read this year. And, despite its length, I was so, so sad when it ended. Its beauty and honesty swept me away. If there is such as thing as the fictive dream, The Miseducation of Cameron Post resides solidly within it.

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A Momentous Weekend: In Which I Take Myself Seriously (And Get Disowned)

AND it’s double-sided!

I printed my manuscript this weekend. It took an hour to get all the Google Drive files together and get it properly formatted, and by the time the printer finally stopped whirring and enjoyed a well-earned rest, I had a block of paper so thick it surprised even me, and I’m the one who spent the past six years writing it.

With the house to myself for a couple days, I’m trying to get the whole thing read out loud. I spent six hours yesterday entertaining the mice in the crawl space with my teenage melodrama, and it’s surprising what I missed, considering how many times I’ve gone over this damn thing. I’m definitely not a vomit drafter. I can’t stand typos and often consult a dictionary before committing words to the narrative, so I didn’t think I’d have so many doubles and missing articles. I’m happy to say that for the most part, everything reads as smoothly out loud as it did in my head. I like to think of myself as someone who writes mainly by rhythm. I have to hear the music before I consider it right, and that apparently takes for-freaking-ever.

Hearing my story out loud in my own thin voice has helped me understand exactly what it is I’ve accomplished. When I went to Office Max to find a manuscript box–which apparently they don’t make anymore–I felt like a fraud trying to explain to the helpful sales associate what I wanted, that sometimes you print out your novel manuscript and need a convenient way to store almost an entire ream of paper. Because obviously that implies I printed out a novel manuscript, and what business would I have doing that?

But I’m enjoying the process. There are parts I’ll probably never be able to sand out, but there are also parts that legitimately make my heart race. I love the suspense and the way the characters keep getting themselves into deeper shit. I love how much they want what’s right in front of them, if only they could get over themselves and take it. And even though I know how it all works out, I still want everything to be perfect for my fragile little babies, and I’m happy to see I didn’t let that happen. Part of the delay in getting this thing done was going from a happy ending in the first draft to one that’s bittersweet. Because I don’t know how you can write about false imprisonment and emotional neglect and expect everything to be fine. Even when you actually do get justice, things are rarely ever fine.

#

My parents officially disowned me on Friday. That was a great start to my weekend. They’ve spent years toying with the idea, going back and forth on whether or not my very presence is detrimental to their spiritual health, so in some ways it’s good they finally made a decision. I haven’t seen them in eight months, so it’s not like anything has actually changed. It’s just final now. Before, the ball was sitting in their court. I told them that if they wanted a daughter, they need to act like it and actually talk to me. Friday they told me that won’t happen until I leave my husband and start believing in God again. (Over text message, no less.) So, there you go.

It’s been quite the weekend.

I decided against canceling Friday’s dinner plans and had my friend over anyway. We had a lovely time. She brought a vegan cheesecake and we drank wine and debated politics and watched a movie about a teenage girl who gets possessed. To my parents, this makes me evil. To me, it means I’m undeniably alive.

My dad was actually one of the first people to read the first draft. It’s funny to me that I wrote it over the summer/fall I lost my faith. You can witness the transition on this blog, which is one of the reasons I’ve kept it up. There’s a post where I’m clearly going through issues. (I cry over watching a squirrel’s nest fall out of a tree during a rainstorm, described as “bad stuff raining down from the heavens, indiscriminately dropping on unsuspecting targets.”) This was written during the worst year of my life, when I thought my husband was being misled by Satan because he didn’t believe anymore, and I was struggling with the possibility that maybe he was right and we’re all here by chance. You can see it in how I tried to tie the experience back to writing, which is basically an exercise in finding meaning in chaos:

I have no idea what the next step is. Maybe there is no next step. Maybe another nice squirrel family will take them in. All I know is, somehow, Squirrel Metaphor will be a reoccurring one. It will climb back into my head from reality and then out onto the page, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that sometimes, things happen for a reason. And no one else can tell you what that reason is: you have to make it yourself. You have to make it worthwhile, because otherwise, it’s just a bunch of baby squirrel death.

Then a couple weeks later I recount a near-death experience on the Ocoee River in Tennessee and fight back against that thought, that self-ascribed reason to exist. It’s hard to see it because again, I’m comparing it to writing fiction, but when I wrote these words, I had in mind my husband’s objections to my reasoning that God has to exist because if he doesn’t, then what’s the fucking point of anything?

Some people say it’s merely human nature to look for patterns, to find meaning in the chaos. Maybe. But chaos isn’t a very nice place to be, and I would much rather spend my time looking for answers than accepting that we are all just corks, bobbing aimlessly down a river. I refuse to accept that.

At this point I had yet to open a single science book. It took a long time to learn everything my religious upbringing denied me, because if there’s one antidote to magical thinking, it’s critical thinking. The first image in the first draft of my manuscript is the main character finding a box that contains the answer she spends the next 50k words searching for, but she’s too afraid to open it. I was 100% in cult-mode when I wrote that, which is funny because that’s how cults work. They make you afraid to consider any dissenting evidence. They make you afraid to open the box of truth by filling you with lies.

Just two days ago, my mother told me to come back before it’s too late. Meaning, before I die in Armageddon, which is what they believe will happen to everyone who’s not a Jehovah’s Witness. I hate that she lives with that fear. But at this point there’s nothing I can do.

What would my father think if he read my manuscript now? Hopefully, someday he can walk into a bookstore and do just that, though I doubt he ever will. But if he did, I hope he would see it’s not about a girl bucking authority and doing what she wants because it’s more fun than following the rules. I hope he sees a girl whose life was ruined by lies, who spends a great deal of effort searching for the truth, and even though the truth hurts sometimes, it’s one of the most precious things you can find.

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YA Short Fiction: Signals That Sound In The Dark

(Note: Since I spent the past year trimming 30k words from my manuscript, I’ve decided to cultivate some brevity by producing random shorts. Here’s a random short inspired by some skaters in my life.)

“IMG_9374” by spmath is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Evan could remember the first time, but not the second. The third was caught on video by some kid at the skatepark and put up on YouTube. After a dozen watches Evan still could only manage a film of green light, even when he shut his eyes and focused on the dent in the middle of his forehead.

Was it green because of the trees at the edge of the park, or green from the massive bruise left by the lip of the bowl? He couldn’t remember the wind getting knocked out of him, couldn’t remember the split-second panic of losing his balance, he couldn’t even remember what trick he’d been doing.

The first time it was a frontside three-sixty, off the steps behind Rite Aid. He could actually see himself falling through the air, as if he’d been watching from a distance. See the board flying off and hitting the dumpster, see his limbs splayed like a starfish in the sand. Moving slowly, like a video dragged out frame by frame. He could pause, rewind, watch it again, and each time it would be the same: wind-up, take off, and those few glorious seconds of flight.

It was the After stuff Evan couldn’t remember.

Maybe the green came from that kid’s shirt, cutting through the frame near the beginning. The video was so grainy he couldn’t make it out, but he thought maybe he remembered what it said. Skate or Die? How typical that would be though. Maybe it was a Mario shirt, a 1-up mushroom. Green Day? No–he didn’t think they made Green Day shirts that were actually green.

Evan replayed the video and paused it over the flashing image of the shirt. For all he knew, it said Kiss Me I’m Irish. The entire day was a wipe. The sandy-haired boy launching out of the bowl and smashing into the concrete was him (he had the scar to prove it), but at the same time it wasn’t. Something had possessed his body and made it do things he had no say in. That’s what scared him the most. If he’d lost this, then what else had he lost?

The answer to that question existed, Evan just didn’t have access to it. All told the concussions had taken five months of his life–the entire middle of sophomore year–plus huge hazy swaths of shape and shadow stretching all the way back to middle school. The record of his past lay encoded in the memories of others, and they weren’t saying. After the second concussion he stopped hanging around the skatepark; he didn’t even know those kids’ names. They ignored him, and just as well. They were from his past life, same as all the other people he didn’t remember.

Save, of course, for one: Meera.

Meera was different. Of her, alone, there were feelings–that’s what the doctors called them, anyway. Memories are less actual records than sensual impressions, slowly amended and built upon each time they’re accessed. Evan figured he remembered her because they’d been next door neighbors since they were three; Meera was from Before, and the stuff Before still existed.

There was something else, though. Something that made her dark eyes go liquid when he approached, made the muscles in his abdomen tighten, the blood rush and redistribute itself elsewhere. His body knew, same way the dent in his forehead ached when he neared the skatepark. And that made their interactions kind of. . . complicated.

“Good morning, Evan,” her mother said as they passed by in spandex and oversized tees, walking the family Australian shepherd and speaking softly in Hindi while he practiced his jump shot in the driveway. (The skateboard and rail, the ramp he’d constructed himself out of masonite, those were gone, leaving only the restless twitch of muscle needing to do something, even if it wasn’t the excitement of dropping in on the near-vertical side of a bowl.)

“Morning,” Evan said.

Meera, walking on the opposite side of her mother, let her liquid eyes leer in his direction. She was swallowed by her tee, a dream billowing on the morning air, her deeply-tanned limbs and tangle of peppercorn hair swaying with each purposeful step. Evan felt the familiar pump and tingle of flesh. He palmed the basketball, raised it high above him, flexed his knees and jumped. The ball landed short, bouncing against the garage door and rolling into his mother’s azaleas.

Meera passed, along with her mother, without further acknowledgement.

Evan’s memories of Meera Before did little to help. There were birthday parties, pool parties, popsicles and sticky-sweet balls of fried dough called rose berries that tasted like nothing else in existence. Around middle school the memories started to cloud over, and everyone from Meera to his own parents was swallowed by the darkness leading up to the concussions. The kids he used to skate with now triggered only apathy and resentment, his parents, annoyance, same as his sisters. What the past four years had contributed to these feelings was irrelevant. Evan was in the Here and Now, and everything that came Before was out of his hands.

“IMG_9366” by spmath is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Meera worked at the Donut Junction three streets over, and that’s where Evan found himself one day after school, looking through the plate glass window at her wisplike form working the register with agility and grace. She was tall; she’d make a formidable opponent on the basketball court. He wondered if her skin was as smooth as it looked, if she smelled like cinnamon or cloves or both, if she dreamed in the language of her parents or just in pictures, like him. 

He dreamed of her all the time. In them she was always silent, her face frozen in the throes of ecstasy.

Evan waited in line at the counter, waited for her to notice him. He pretended to be deciding between chocolate and chocolate with rainbow sprinkles.

“Welcome to Donut Junction,” she said, turning around. As her eyes hit him they melted in their usual way, then narrowed as she looked down the long length of her aquiline nose.

“Hi, Meera,” he said.

“What do you want?”

“I thought maybe you could sell me a donut?”

She snatched up a paper bag, flicked it open, grabbed the tongs with an arched eyebrow. She speared the nearest donut–looked like Boston cream pie–and thrust it into the bag.

“Why are you being like that?” he said.

“Like what?”

“Like. . . .” He watched her slender hands fold the top of the bag over and felt a part of him hurt. “Like you hate me, or something.”

“Are you serious right now?”

“Do you hate me?”

“We are so not doing this.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, maybe because I’m at work?”

“No. . . why do you hate me?”

She rolled her eyes. Surely she knew. He’d been out of school for a month, and when he came back it was like everyone was laughing at a joke he wasn’t in on. He thought it was the line of black stitches on his forehead, like Harry Potter only less interesting, but maybe they were laughing at something else.

“Whatever I did,” he said, “I’m sorry. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember. I had an, um, an accident, a while back–”

“This was before.”

“Yeah, I don’t remember before, either. The doctors call it retrograde amnesia. I’m probably not getting any of it back, so it’s almost like I’m a brand-new person.”

She tapped her fingers on the counter. People were waiting behind him, but he’d waited his turn same as them. He’d earned this audience with her, and he was determined not to waste it.

“Did I do something to you?” he asked.

“Why don’t you ask your friends?”

“We don’t really hang out anymore.”

“Your total comes to a dollar seven.”

Evan dug in his pocket for change. There was something, he knew there was, that bound them together, that made him feel the way he did. Had she rejected him, or something? Had he embarrassed himself, declared his undying love for her in front of the whole school, and had his heart irredeemably broken?

“I’m sorry about. . . whatever happened,” he said. “But it wasn’t me. Not the me I am now, anyway.” He set the change on the counter. She waited for him to remove his hand, then slid it toward her with the heel of hers. “You doing anything, later tonight?”

She snorted. “Not with you.” 

The register spat out a receipt. When he went to take it from her, his finger touched her thumb. That’s when he saw it: a flash of recklessness, wet leaves against skin. A porch light, laughter, grass stains on ass.

Evan felt himself recoiling. 

“Have a nice day, Evan,” Meera said.

He tried to hold onto the image, but it split in two: one with her present and one without, each as slippery as the other, stumbling with pants around his ankles and friends disappearing into the woods. He needed to know which one was true. He needed her to tell him what kind of person he really was.

“I didn’t. . . hurt you, did I?”

Her blank black eyes showed no emotion as they relocated to the customer behind him.

“Meera?”

The man asked for a toasted poppy seed bagel. Meera smiled effervescently as she reached into the bin beneath the counter. “You know, now that you mention it, I can’t remember.” She shrugged. “Funny. It must have slipped my mind.”

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That’s Why They Call It The Present

IMG_20170724_203329958

Artwork by Jeffree Lerner

I meet a lot of people in my line of work. The nature of childcare is of course that children have a habit of growing up, and even in my room, which covers nearly the first twelve blistering months of childhood, it seems that as soon as you and the brand-new human get used to each other’s presence, it’s time for them to move on to the next room and the next stage of life. After seven years I’ve learned not to get too attached, because it isn’t about me. These little wobbly-legged individuals likely won’t even remember my face past the one-year-old room, not unless their parents keep that memory alive as they pass by every morning and wave at me through the window. And I’m okay with that. Life isn’t a layover, it’s an odyssey; it’s constant motion, perpetual change, as we shed the parts of ourselves that somehow no longer exist. That’s the definition of growing up, and that’s what I deal with every day as an infant teacher, as my babies take on new challenges and leave behind the things that no longer serve them. I kiss and hug and send them on their way, because that’s what’s expected, that’s normal, and that’s how the whole world works.

Adults, however. . . I’m not so good at saying goodbye to them.

I’ve said goodbye to my fair share of adults, probably as many as I have children. And every time it happens, every damn time, I always catch myself thinking, this time, it’s going to be better. This is the one I’m going to get right.

Of course I’m always wrong, because it never gets easier. In fact it gets more difficult the more I have to endure, as I recognize in myself the patterns of guilt and avoidance that follow each and every one of these partings. Sometimes my reactions are self-inflicted: I can’t be hurt if I’m the one doing the hurting, can I? Part of this I think comes from experience, because like I’ve said, lately, goodbyes have become the default mode of my life. Why try to keep something alive when it’s clear the other party has no desire to uphold their end of the agreement? It’s destructive, and it’s counterproductive, but that doesn’t make it any less real. And every time it happens, I’m always struck by how callous my heart has become in the face of such repeated abuse, and how tender the wounds are still, even years after the fact.

#

I’ve kept busy these past three years.

I’ve written a novel I’m proud of, even if it’s not exactly finished. I have entered a level of craft that I never thought could be mine to achieve, and all I did was keep writing, keep reading, keep staring at the tiny letters on my laptop and giving myself eyestrain.

I have stubbornly clung to the one thing in my life I know for sure, that I love this, even when I hate it. I love the feeling of words in my head as they form themselves on the page, like clay on an armature, over the course of many drafts fashioning themselves into what they were always supposed to be.

I’ve said goodbye to more people than I thought would. It still hurts to think about them, and the rejection their silence signifies.

I’ve learned a thing or two about a thing or two. I feel knowledge–if not yet wisdom–simmering inside of me. I’ve taken up meditation, which the artwork at the top of the page is supposed to remind me to do, and it helps me see every ache and flaw and accept them for what they are.

And I’ve met people. Lots of people. But not enough. One thing’s for certain: it’s time for me to get a handle on this hello thing. Maybe hellos are the only way to counteract this many goodbyes. Maybe the secret to life is to fill it with so much you never miss the stuff that spills out over the top–or leaks out the bottom, corrosively, leaving holes that you struggle to patch.

I’ve spent the past four years trying to patch holes. Maybe, instead of focusing on what I’ve lost, it’s time to focus on what I’ve gained, which is every glorious and terrible moment of a life lived as honestly as I can, bravely, with little regret.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

–Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Back in the thick of my deconversion, my husband and I watched Donnie Darko, one of my first rated-R movies and needless to say a truly transformative experience. As I huddled on the couch sobbing for the titular character–as well as for all the children dying of starvation and all the children who have ever died of starvation and of course maybe a little for myself–I tried to reconcile my sense of justice with a world where people do not have their every wish come true. What is the purpose of all this shit if we aren’t rewarded with bliss for all eternity?

My husband, who had already gone through this whole rigmarole–and by himself, for I was no help as he privately lost his faith–calmly assured me that I was being ridiculous. And I know that now, of course, but at the time it was truly a conundrum. Why do we put up with everything we put up with, if all we get are a few moments where things might not suck as much as usual–and that’s only if we’re lucky? It was possibly the biggest thing that held me back from accepting what part of me knew was true, this stubborn adhesion to a sense of Universal Fairness. And it’s still something that bothers me, though I have a lot more perspective now on why that is. At the time it served as veritable proof that there had to be a loving creator up there somewhere, invisibly working his magic on a special, chosen few. Now I know that the universe isn’t unjust, it’s just indifferent. Some questions don’t have answers, and some problems don’t have solutions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Meaning is something that is ascribed, and human brains are oh-so-good at ascribing it to almost everything we come in contact with. And while that can lead us to believe in some very silly things, it also allows us to live in ways that, well, mean something.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

–Stanley Kubrick, interviewed by Eric Nordern, Playboy (September 1968); later published in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (2001)

I don’t mean for this blog to turn into some kind of atheist/humanist/heathen manifesto. Writing is and always will be the main focus of whatever I put here, but the fact that I’ve changed since its inception is unavoidable; any summary of the past few years of my life would be incomplete without it. Furthermore, having grown up with a Christian Fundamentalist perspective, this change affects and colors my everything. It’s probably why so many people I love want little to do with me, though most of that comes from having grown up in a high-control religion, with strict rules governing how ex-members should be treated. I knew and prepared myself for this, but then again nothing can prepare you for the ongoing loss of the living.

Still, I’m okay. I’m still writing and I’m still growing, and it turns out I have a lot to say. In the words of Shannon Hoon, of the wonderful 90’s band Blind Melon, I know we can’t all stay here forever, so I wanna write my words on the face of today (before they paint it).

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Penn Jillette Took Pictures Up My Nose and Other Life-Defining Moments

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Penn Jillette (left), me (bottom center) and cohorts

About a month ago I got back from a road trip to Las Vegas, more than 60 hours in the car over the course of eight days and one of the greatest experiences of my life. While there, I had the pleasure of seeing Penn & Teller perform at the Rio Hotel and Casino, something I wholeheartedly recommend everyone try at least once. As is their custom, after the show they hung out in the lobby of the theater and took pictures with everyone willing to brave the crowds. As my friends and I waited for our turn, trying to come up with something coherent to say that would do justice to the ninety minutes of talent and hard work we had just witnessed, my husband suggested to me, “Why not tell them Bullshit! saved your life?”

This would not be an exaggeration, not really, not when you put it together with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Steven Hassan, and Christopher Hitchens, the BBC Two specials by Louis Theroux, and the various television shows by mentalist Darren Brown. Not to mention the efforts of my husband, tireless crusader for truth and justice, who never gave up on me even when I spouted crazy cult psychobabble like some kind of animatronic Jesus doll.

Bullshit!, of course, is Penn & Teller’s myth-debunking show on Showtime, which helps people think critically about everything from psychics to recycling. And it was just one blow in a series of well-calculated strokes that slowly chipped away my horribly blockaded mind.

My first reaction to my husband’s suggestion, and admittedly my first reaction to anything, was, “I can’t do that.” That’s what growing up in a high-control religious group does to you. It makes you feel like you have no control. It makes you glad you have no control, thankful someone else has figured it out for you. And that’s how I spent the first 27 years of my life, instantly skeptical of anything that presented me a choice more complicated than which knee-length skirt to pair with which high-cut sweater. Almost a year later, I’m still struggling with that.

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I left this blog for a while because I was frozen in fear of the choice I was presented: examine the greatest paradigm shift of my life by writing about it in something more public than a locked folder on my hard drive, or cower in fear of what might happen if the wrong people chanced upon anything negative I said about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious group my parents raised me in. In typical fashion, I pushed it all away, abandoning the blog and my best outlet for self-reflection. Now, I think I’m ready to go ahead with it, and part of this is because of what I ended up saying to Penn Jillette after he took pictures up my nose.

I chickened out with Teller. We had the privilege of getting a picture with him first, and all of us were so tingly with proximity all we could manage were giggles. When we had our picture and scampered away, I said breathlessly, “I touched him. I touched the fringe of his garment and his power flowed out of him and into me.” The perfect balance of blasphemy and truth to send us over to the crowd gathered around Penn, because now I was going to do it. I was going to tell him that Bullshit! saved my life.

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Penn is a huge man, six and a half feet tall. His thumb is no less huge, and it planted itself square on the shutter button and took at least a dozen pictures of us, quite a few of them an inch away from my face. Giggling, jittery and euphoric, I looked Penn as close in the eye as I could and said, “I just want you to know, Bullshit! saved my life.”

There. I did it. Declared myself to one of my heroes. My work here was done.

“Oh, really?” he said. “How is that?”

Shit. Now what? In hindsight, my plan didn’t take into account that he might actually say something back. But this was Penn Jillette. Of course he was going to say something!

“It helped me get out of a cult,” I said, bold as heck now. “All of us. We were all in it.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said, with the saddest, most sincere voice I’d ever heard from him. This giant, this expert in deception and truth, was sorry for us!

“No, it’s fine!” I said. “I just wanted to say thank you!”

And we tore out of there as fast as we could, scrolling through the pictures he took, our laughter echoing back up the hallway. Did that really just happen?

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I guess it did. The more people I tell, the less ashamed I am. Not that I’m ashamed of learning how to think, how to examine my beliefs and hold them up to the same rigorous standards I expected of the people I used to try to convert as a proselytizing Christian minister, or even of being identified as an atheist. I guess I’ve been ashamed of what the people I used to be close to would say about me if they really knew the extent of my unbelief. Because, if they did, they would call me the worst kind of person, the kind who abandons god and all his “promises” in exchange for a life of arrogant hedonism. They’ll say I’ve become “mentally diseased,” and even though I know it’s a lie, I guess I thought that by keeping my mouth shut, I could preserve whatever memory of me they may have.

But now I realize that’s out of my control. What’s worse, it’s playing by their rules. I’ve played by those rules my entire life, and to tell you the truth, I’m sick of them. I have no loyalty to a religious organization, but by keeping silent about the truths I’ve learned and the harm it’s done to innocent people, I’m still in the game. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. I want to be proud of who I am and the progress I’ve made, and I want to help people who are in the same position I was only a year ago. I can’t do that by pretending I don’t have an opinion. So, if I have to use scary words like cult to convey the gravity of the situation, I will. In my experience, that word gets the point across just fine.

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So I suppose it’s time I made a confession. I was raised in a cult, but I’m doing better now. I’m tempted to say that I’m an atheist, goddammit, but I think I’ll just say I’m an atheist, life is beautiful, and leave it at that.

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Messages In YA Literature

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I’m reading several books at the moment, and, as astute blog readers may be able to surmise, one of them is message-driven.

Well, maybe not message-driven. Maybe message-personified is a better description. As in, that’s the entire purpose of the book. A message personified by characters representing the polarized sides of an argument. And from the very beginning of the story, we’re clear on which side we’re supposed to be on. One side is loving and tolerant, while the other is hateful and irrational, immune to reason. Granted, I’m only halfway through the book (a side effect of reading too many at once!) but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where this thing is going.

I hesitate to elaborate on the details, because I respect the author and what he’s accomplished in his particular area, and many of his points hold some serious water. The sad thing, though, is that the real world isn’t so clear-cut.

One of the beauties of children’s lit is its ability to help young people grow beyond the concrete, black-and-white morality of childhood. The development of moral reasoning, as put forth by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, starts with rule-based justification, which deals heavily with obedience and punishment. Most young children adhere to this thought process (and no small number of adults). Adolescents and adults develop more nuanced shades of reasoning involving social pressures and expectations, until finally, the last level (which some people never reach) acknowledges that rules are useful but not absolutes, and that any rule violating universal human rights should be discarded.

This developmental theory explains not what is right and wrong (leave that up to the philosophers and theologians if you feel you can’t trust your own conscience) but how people justify what they believe is right or wrong. According to Kohlberg, moral development is an ongoing process, and it’s my opinion that literature and stories play a big part in that development–not by shoving messages down kids’ throats, but by giving them the tools to figure out their stance for themselves.

The stories we tell young children usually have definite morals because that’s what children understand. By showing them how to put themselves into other people’s shoes (called perspective taking), stories help kids develop their moral reasoning skills. Not everyone is the same as you. People feel different things. People think different things. We have to live with them anyway.

Beyond early childhood, though, kids are able to handle more complex thoughts. As they advance through school, (hopefully) learning critical thinking skills, their stories need to keep up with their expanding views of the world, and they need to better reflect how that world actually works. Kids are going to form some definite opinions about things (have you ever met a teenager?) but their experiences can’t simply be summed up the way their picture books used to it, with the good side clearly presented in opposition to the bad and the obvious consequences played out. The bully gets what’s coming to him, and the hero, who sticks up for the underdog, gets the girl, saves the school, and wins the respect of everyone. (As Oscar Wilde satirized in the words of his silly Miss Prism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Besides, any self-respecting teenager can spot a message a mile away, and there’s no quicker way to turn them off than by telling them what to think.

Now, as a thinking human being, I have some definite opinions on things. I tend to think about them a lot, and, as a writer, they tend to pop up in my stories. My recently completed manuscript, Walls, deals with some heavy issues, not the least of which is capital punishment. I have definite opinions on capital punishment. You can probably guess what they are by reading my story, but I tried very very hard not to turn my work of fiction into a polemic against the inequities of the American justice system. That’s no fun to read. Besides, it’s pointless. That would appeal to very few people–in fact, probably only to me. And while I write for myself first and foremost, I want to share my stories with other people, teenagers in particular. I know they think about things, and they come to every story with a preconceived set of notions concerning those things, and no matter how much I beat them over the head with my views, they’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. I’ll have better luck if I present the facts and let them form their own conclusions.

My aim as a storyteller isn’t to get people on my side of any particular issue. My aim is to illuminate that issue within the very specific context of these characters and how it relates to them. I don’t presume to know what’s right and wrong–I’m not even convinced those things can be defined by absolutes. Reading fiction isn’t about absolutes, it’s about people and what they do when confronted by those issues. How a character reacts to finding out her father is on Death Row (for instance) should not be presented as a Worst Case Scenario Handbook, what to do should you find yourself in such a situation. Literature with that purpose is very ineffective and, honestly, embarrassing. It puts me off as a reader, even if I happen to agree with what the author’s saying. 

Now, the passions of an author can be a fine engine for getting a story written. You’re supposed to attack what terrifies you, after all, face the white-hot center of your fear, and find the universal truths buried within. However, once the story lands in the hands of a reader, it’s not about the author anymore. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, especially when you really care about what you’re writing.

What’s helped me to avoid the tendency to send messages can be boiled down to that old writing adage: everyone’s the hero of their own story. In the words of Tom Ripley, “You never meet anyone that thinks they’re a bad person.”

That bully, or critical parent, or judgmental teacher–whoever is represented by your antagonistic force–has just as much moral justification going on in their heads as your protagonists. Avoid turning your story into a polemic by searching for those antagonists’ redeeming qualities. What makes them worthwhile people? Very few humans are incapable of being identified with (even the most morally reprehensible had mothers at one point), and a story that presents people that way will come off flat and one-sided.

Even if your goal is to present an argument–go ahead, I’m not stopping you–please, make your characters real. Present your argument through the eyes of the characters, fully realized, possessing qualities both good and bad. Make your readers work to find the answers, don’t just hand them to them in black and white. The world just doesn’t work that way. We want kids to learn to think, not nod and agree with every well-formed argument.

Just some thoughts. Back to writing!

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