Did Camp Change Me? It Made Me a Liar, Which Is to Say a Novelist
On the Myth-Making Lessons of Summer Camp
Let’s begin with the snake. It was a rattlesnake, medium-sized, a nice long rattle the color of wheat. We found it sunning itself on the dirt path when Brandon and I led the kids back from the river. Brandon and I were both 20, in charge of six kids, aged seven to fifteen, who’d chosen to leave the main camp for a week at an outpost a half-hour hike away. We had neither pedagogy nor schedule. I led art projects. Brandon taught the kids to sing After the Gold Rush. The kids made lunch with food we’d carted in milk crates. The afternoon that we first saw the snake, we’d been swimming naked and were walking back barefoot in clothes that were warmed from lying in the sun. We gave the snake a wide berth, but we were nervous: clearly it lived near us.
I’d love to describe this camp to you, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to do so. If the person I’m talking to has also attended summer camp and loved it, she interrupts to tell me about hers, speaking both quickly and vehemently as if attempting to convince me of the superiority of her experience. If the person I’m talking to hated or didn’t attend camp, she interrupts to say, in a tone of finality: I’m not a camp person. At this point I can become unpleasantly shrill. Mine was not a normal camp, I insist. It was wild. It was—I sometimes dare this word—utopian. Her head shakes: I’m really not a camp person.
The only way a camp can be spoken about is by two people who’ve attended the same one. This is not so much a conversation as a mythic reconstruction. It’s best to leave them to it and walk away quietly. Because a beloved camp is nothing but myth. It’s not the songs or lanyard-making that keep us talking about it long after we’re grown. It’s the egoic relief of being part of a group. It’s the elevation of mundane actions into rituals. It’s the metamorphosis of a few acres of forest into holy land, of counselors into deities. It’s a lie told again and again until it becomes truth.
Before I went to camp, I longed for camp. That is, I longed to escape my nuclear family with its sad Sunday afternoons. I would read books about early American utopian communities where people trembled with god in the Adirondacks and about kibbutzim where the children all lived together and the adults harvested grapes. My favorite book when I was 14, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, described an experimental boarding school in midcentury England where the students made the rules, choosing whether to study, whether to have sex. I desperately wanted to go to Summerhill. Would I choose to have sex? Would I choose to study? I was certain I’d be a different person there: Less afraid and less bored and knowing how to kiss.
From all of the books, I understood that nature was the necessary catalyst for this type of personal transformation, but only certain types of nature. Not the nature found in suburban Santa Monica, where I lived, but some desert arbor or verdant gully or British moor. And so, when I was 14 and attended a promotional screening of a home movie about a back-to-nature camp in the mountains of northern California, I saw it as the next best thing to Summerhill. Since the movie was old, from the early-70s, everything was washed in the same faded colors as photos of my early childhood; the long-haired counselors resembled my first views of my mother. I begged to go, sure that somehow time travel would be involved and I’d be welcomed into a hippie communal bliss that would nullify the pains of eighth grade.
“I was 14 and I was turned on by the very wind. I was turned on by camp, that potent mixture of ideology, nature, and sex.”
The camp was indeed a paean to the past. We slept outside, did ranch chores, square danced, sang folk songs. But the kids came from the 80s, with their Swatches and MTV references and social strata, and since I’d arrived halfway through a four-week session, they all knew each other and ignored me. I was precisely as miserable and self-conscious as I was at school. Even worse, I was frightened of the very nature I’d longed for. What might it catalyze? Only the transformation from life to death. So plentiful were the ways I might die here! Bucked from a horse. Struck by lightning. Drowned in the river. Slipped off a cliff. Bitten by a rattlesnake. Having begged for this unstructured, Summerhillian time, I spent it feeling guilty for wasting my parents’ money on a delusion; I used paper from the art shack to do the math, dividing the expense of 14 days into hours and then into minutes in order to calculate exactly how much each 60-second increment of my unhappiness was costing.
And that might have been it for me and summer camp. In the future, I would have shaken my head when friends described their camps: I’m not a camp person. I would never have had a recurring dream about trying to reach a mountain valley in northern California, never written a novel about a utopian summer camp, if I had not been sitting alone under an apple tree (truly, it was this Edenic!) at the end of that first week, alone and embarrassed and trembling with homesickness. Two counselors came up to me, a man and a woman. They told me that they thought, from the way I was sitting there, that I might like to join them at an outpost for a week.
There were five of us kids, chosen and removed and then stuffed full of myths, as if the counselors could tell that the source of our loneliness was a lack of narrative. Each night we stayed up late while they read to us from a book of cosmologies, stories of the infinite and sublime across cultures. On my second day, I learned a different kind of myth: while hiking behind the 15-year-old boy, the female counselor explained to me how she knew that he’d fucked, how his experience showed in the way he moved his hips.
That night I lay on the warm dirt, listening to a Hopi creation story, looking up at a glut of stars, the mountains like dark animals, my head on the lap of a girl I wanted to be, my fingers just centimeters from those of the boy who had fucked, and I wanted all of it. The girl, the boy, the night. I wanted to fuck a mountain. It all seemed possible. I was 14 and I was turned on by the very wind. I was turned on by camp, that potent mixture of ideology, nature, and sex.
When I returned home a few days later, I announced that I belonged in the wilderness now. I had to go back immediately! Camp had changed me entirely! I couldn’t believe my family didn’t see this.
The American summer camp was invented precisely to foster this sort of metamorphic ecstasy. Toward the end of the 19th century, teachers, clergymen, and physicians—that is people in the profession of worrying about kids—became very worried indeed. Modern city life, they feared, with its ease and noise and stultifying confinement was creating weak and lazy kids. If these children grew into wimpy adults, the very stanchions of civilization would erode! The cause, they determined, was industrialization (and, I’m guessing, immigration); the cure was camp. Send the kids—well, at least the white, weak, wealthy boys—to live as Americans used to, in tune with the cycles of nature on farms or in the wilderness frontier, and watch them turn strong and wild.
In other words, camp was born from a particularly American myth of a simpler, Arcadian past, a myth that elides the horrors of slavery on farms and the slaughtering of Native Americans on the frontier, a myth that assumes white maleness.
Camp historians (they exist!) explain that these early American camps relied on an understanding of nature as dichotomous to home. Home was artificial and harmful; camp was real and natural. Over the past 150 years, as the dawn of modernity has turned into the fetid afternoon of postmodernity, many camps have changed their purpose. Instead of promising personal transformation, theater camps and computer camps and camps as posh as country clubs promise to transform college applications. But in the back-to-nature camps, the camps about which some besotted camper might use the descriptor “utopian,” the Arcadian myth remains strong. These camps rely on the communal desire to leave the city for an imagined Eden, to get back to Woodstock, and to become different people there: all of us less afraid, less bored, and knowing how to kiss.
So when I told my parents that I didn’t belong in Santa Monica anymore, camp was having its way with me. Did camp actually change me? I believe it did, just not into a wilderness adept. It changed me into a writer. But first I had to wash thousands of dishes and confront a rattlesnake.
At 16, unable to pay for camp, I got a job in its kitchen. A camp kitchen is a perfect vantage point from which to observe the construction of a myth. I could see how camp obscured class distinctions. Stripped of their possessions, none of the campers were coded as wealthy. They all wore the same dirty tee-shirts, ate the same pb and j. And yet, we were working for their leisure. I could see as well how the camp rules, which were presented as a moral necessity, the only way to protect the sanctity of camp from the modern world, were actually quite arbitrary. While the campers slept, we talked on the phone, listened to music, ate jello mix with our fingers, did everything forbidden.
“Wasn’t it only a matter of time before my fear unmasked me, revealing me as the girl standing awkwardly outside the group, afraid of everything?”
At the end of my second summer on the kitchen crew, the camp director drove me to the bus station two hours away. Like everyone, I was enamored of this handsome, weathered man who could silence a field of chittering kids just by standing in front of them. He was camp embodied, a man out of time, untouched by fashion. And yet, a few minutes into our drive he nonchalantly turned into a normal guy. He handed me a pile of classic rock cassettes and asked me to choose one, but before I could, he chose for me. You’ll love it. He sang along, off-key. He told me that he really wanted to buy some wheatgrass juice before dropping me off. I’m way into wheatgrass juice, he said, sounding just like a mortal.
The next summer, when I returned as a counselor, I worried about making my own transformation from human to counselor. I knew that I had much of the necessary attributes. I was a natural zealot, but I lacked something essential. I remained freaked out by the violent potential of nature, unsure I could protect my campers from all the ways they might die here. Wasn’t it only a matter of time before my fear unmasked me, revealing me as the girl standing awkwardly outside the group, afraid of everything?
I’d been a counselor for three years when Brandon and I were put in charge of an outpost. We saw the snake twice more on our way back from the river, although never near our campsite. At dusk on the fourth day, Brandon took the older kids to clear poison oak from the trail. I stayed behind with the younger girl and boy. The boy was stepping onto the wooden cooking platform when he screamed. There, stretched out at the threshold as if to block us, was the snake. Its tail twitched, began to hum. I shouted at the boy to move. But he froze, the snake moving toward him. I grabbed the shovel from the side of the lean-to and with one thrust chopped off its head. When Brandon returned, he skinned it. The snake drooped thinly over the fire, shrinking as it cooked.
I’ve told this story for 20 years. Just a few days ago, I thought: What a great essay it would make! I wrote a book about a transformative summer camp, and now I’ll describe my real camp, how it transformed me from a frightened girl into a snake killer.
Essays, however, rarely obey their authors. In the course of writing this one, I’ve come to realize that I have no idea if this story is true. I remember the smooth wood of the shovel, but then again, I’ve held many shovels. I remember Brandon skinning the snake, and I remember chewing its meat. I remember telling this story, and I remember my husband saying that it was his favorite story about me.
I don’t remember the shovel making contact with the animal. I don’t remember the head severed from the body. Was there blood? I remember touching the needle-points of the fangs, but only much later. I remember holding the rattle in my palm, light as a dried leaf. Did I really kill the snake? Or did I make up that story to impress someone in college, and after enough retellings it became truth?
I fear that’s it. I’m guessing it was Brandon who killed it. Or the camp director, visiting us at dusk.
But maybe I killed it and didn’t kill it at the same time.
What I mean is this: There’s a reason some of us long for camp, years after we’ve gone. I’m not sure it’s only because of the carefulness of its myth, its watertight wonder, its true Arcadian promise. Maybe we long as well for the carelessness of the myth of camp. The way it shows its construction. The way we can walk right into it.
The teachers, clergymen, and physicians were right to worry about kids, but not necessarily because of urbanity’s moral and physical pollutants. We should worry about kids raised in a country reliant on a myth that doesn’t serve any of us, a myth of a happier past and the true Americans who lived free amid nature. But camp with all its gorgeous and unsatisfactory myth-making can help us see a myth’s false promise. It can help us learn how to hold two contradictory truths at once—and if anything might save civilization, that might be it. The camp director is both a god and an annoying man. The kitchen is a drudgery and a sanctuary. Camp is real and artifice.
Did camp change me? Definitely. It turned me into a liar, which is to say a novelist. It taught me the power of a story, how to construct it, how to expose its contradictions. It made me want to create a world, to have that world be flawed, and to love it anyway.
Let’s say I killed the snake. Doesn’t that make a better story? A better life? In the 20 years since, I’ve rarely been so brave. I’ve hidden under trees at the sound of faraway thunder. I’ve hidden in the bathroom at parties. I’ve hidden from ambition, from adventure. But all along I’ve known myself to be a snake killer, too.
Why should it be a man who killed the snake? Why not Eve herself? Eve alone under the apple tree. Eve turned on by the mountains. Let her kill the snake to save the boy. Let’s say that it’s a myth and let’s love it anyway.