The Miseducation of Cameron Post
by Emily Danforth
2012 • 470 pages • Balzer + Bray
It’s been a long time since I read something as good as The Miseducation of Cameron Post. When I first realized this, I thought it couldn’t be true—2015’s been a pretty solid reading year so far, especially with my determination to read more lady authors than gentlemen authors this year. But it seems like the last books that I truly adored and found myself practically drowning in (Women in Clothes and Truly Wilde) were months ago, which, in nerd time, is practically an eternity. (See our attention spans regarding Fantastic Fours and Spider-Mans.) And both of those are nonfiction titles, which mean that I’ve been without a fictional character breathing in my ear with how weighty and real they seem for quite some time.
But The Miseducation of Cameron Post put that to rights. It’s a title I remember from my bookstore days, trying to give it the much-desired face out. I knew it centered on a young lesbian who ended up being sent to “pray the gay away” camp, but it’s… I hesitate to say so much more, because I think that every queer story is valuable. But some queer stories have become louder than others: the tragic lesbians of midcentury pulp novels whose affairs can only end in degayification or death (via, of course, a “properly” heterosexual man), white, cisgendered, genteel gay men who just want to settle down and raise a baby (just like you, straights!), and the coming out story.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming out story, in the sense that we are introduced to Cameron as a middle schooler as she and her best friend, Irene, start exploring a more romantic side to their relationship… days before Cameron’s parents die in a car accident, leaving her in the care of her grandmother and her born again Christian aunt, Rita. But once the teenage Cameron has a more serious relationship with Lindsey, an out and proud lesbian from Seattle whom she meets through competitive swimming, Cameron embraces being gay as much as a kid in Miles City, Montana, in the early nineties can. The rest of the novel, then, is about Cameron learning—learning about lesbian culture through missives of Lindsey and obsessive movie watching, learning about the adult world that lies beyond her, and learning about herself when she’s forced to attend God’s Promise. It’s about Cameron growing up.
Which makes it so much more rich than if it ended with Cameron simply coming to terms with her sexuality. (Because, guess what, getting a clearer read on your sexual orientation doesn’t answer all the other questions you may have about growing up and what kind of person you want to be.) As Emily Danforth writes in her Autostraddle interview:
I wanted Miseducation to be a great big coming-of-GAYge novel, one that both represented the literary traditions/tropes of the American coming-of-age novel/novel of development, and also one that queered some of those traditions, or answered back to them, subverted them.
Cameron is a deeply personal character for Danforth, which is something you can tell without ever reading biographical material about the author. She’s so lived-in and real. Her voice is truly incredible. It took me a little while to fall into step with her, but it was so madly worth it. Without her parents as a guidepost, she’s largely left to her own devices, piecing things together, acting braver than she feels, forlornly trailing a straight girl she’s madly in love with despite Lindsey’s clear instruction not to, staving off sympathy for her status as an orphan, and trying to figure out what this all means to her. I was most struck by a passage where Cameron, reflecting on her aunt’s order to attend God’s Promise, writes about the interim between the order and actually attending:
I could have snuck out. I could have made secret phone calls. I could have rallied forces on my behalf. I could have. I could have. I didn’t. I didn’t even try. (263)
My own experience of childhood and adolescence is so colored by how deeply I felt my lack of agency, both real and imagined, that I couldn’t help but feel for her in that moment.
Even when Cameron makes her way to God’s Promise, Danforth refuses to denounce the therapists as monsters, although they’re clearly committed to a truly hideous view of human sexuality. There, she actually gets to spend more time with other queer kids—including the wonderful winkte Adam Red Eagle, who identifies as a third, inclusive gender but is referred to by male pronouns exclusively—and tries to utilize what she can out of the therapy she’s been given. While it’s all presented as attempting to correct her “broken” gender identity (God’s Promise is big on conflating gender and sexuality), there’s still something valuable to be found in examining the parts of her life that Cameron shies away from exploring. And that, to me, feels so true to being a young queer kid—trying to stitch coherent meaning out of the conflicting information you are given and can gather yourself.
I feel like I can’t write enough about how good and necessary this book is. That’s how much I loved it.
I rented this novel from the public library.