The Compulsive Reader: The Summer I Wasn't Me by Jessica Verdi

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Summer I Wasn't Me by Jessica Verdi

There are some books that I read and I can't just review them. I need to talk about them at length, and The Summer I Wasn't Me is one of those books. Especially in the wake of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that started a few weeks ago, I really want to continue to keep having conversations about books beyond what a simple two-paragraph review can say.

Just a warning...this is going to get spoilery.

The Summer I Wasn't Me is the story of Lexi, a closeted lesbian who has kept her sexuality a secret from her religious parents. She lives in a small community where there are no gay people and the idea of two girls kissing is a diversion at parties, something that all of the guys would laugh at. When Lexi's father dies, she goes even deeper into the closet, convinced that her sexuality would further alienate her grieving mother, who isn't coping very well.

Well, then the inevitable happens. Lexi's crush on her friend and classmate Zoe is revealed to her mom (although no one else knows, except Zoe, who has already rejected Lexi). Mom consults her pastor and suggests New Horizons, an summer anti-gay camp. Lexi goes along with it, wanting to preserve her family.

This is where I first started questioning Lexi's motivations. She seems pretty gay to me, and she seems pretty certain of her gay-ness. No lingering doubts about liking the ladies, and no desperate boy crushes. Her mom, who has been emotionally distant and, let's be honest, a bit of a bitch to her daughter, wants her to go and so she does it "for family?" I'm calling it, guys. Nope. That's not the real reason.

Now, my writer brain (and the part of my brain that is motivated by the ANGST of crushes and unrequited love) immediately went to other reasons. I suspected Zoe, who crushed Lexi's heart and told her she was gross for being gay. If I were rejected and grieving for my dad and hiding from my mom and then on top of that, I had to see the person who broke my heart and told me I was gross every day for the rest of summer, I would be taking the nearest exit out of my life, too.

But this is sort of glossed over. Okay. That's fine. I can go with this--let's get Lexi to the camp. She goes, without ever attempting to explain to her mom her feelings. I chalked this up to her confusion and lack of real-life examples of healthy, open, out gay people in her life. It sucks and it's tragic, but that's realistic. I just wish her motivations had been better depicted and more believable.

Now, the camp is as sickening as you might imagine it to be. No touching, strict rules and curfews, awful counselors. The worst is the forced "therapy" sessions in which the director, a supposed pastor, forces the teens to act out painful moments in their childhoods--supposedly the root of same-sex attractions (SSA). The teens are forced into strict gender roles, wearing pink and blue. The girls are taught to put on make-up and bake while the boys are taught baseball and how to fix things. Because one day they are going to grow up into one half of a 1950's couple. It was enough to make me want to chuck the book across the room.

Verdi did a decent job of depicting different teens with different motivations for being at New Horizons. Matthew, the out and proud guy whose parents are forcing him to be there, and Daniel, the confused and timid boy who is desperate to bury his feelings. And of course Carolyn, who is hot and interested in Lexi, but unfortunately wants to leave her SSA and heartbreak over her ex behind.

These three characters and Lexi become close. Their dynamics and somewhat rocky friendship, forced by their circumstances, was very convincing to me. They try to understand each other and they try to support each other throughout the summer because no matter where they're coming from, it is not easy being at this camp. But their frictions--and Matthew's unwillingness to let any of them deny a significant part of their identities--bring about some serious tensions that Lexi has to confront.

What bothers me the most about this book is how religion is treated as the enemy. Lexi proclaims to be a Christian, but she is really wishy washy about it. She doesn't pray, doesn't really consider her religion too seriously. It's background noise to her larger identity, but not integral--saying she believes in God is like saying she once had a pet hamster as a kid. Instead, religion in this novel becomes this cement wall that is bearing down on all of the characters. They undergo abuse and manipulation in the name of God's love. I know that's the point of this camp, but Verdi takes it even further when it is revealed that the director and pastor is sexually abusing boys. Not only does religious belief seem suddenly not-right, but it's downright, definitely, emphatically wrong. And the other adults of the camp try to make excuses for their director, compounding this message. I'm not debating the believability of this scenario--it's tragic and horrifying and sickening, but I sadly have no trouble believing that it's possible, that somewhere in the world this happens. The problem is, I don't think this is the norm. And in writing this "twist," Verdi leaves no room for religion to be an element that is nothing but wrong, wrong, wrong. Even Lexi's mom denies her religion to accept her daughter, but it comes off as something she must cast off in order to do so, not an important part of her identity that she is attempting to reconcile with her feelings for her daughter.

The rest of the book sadly spirals into an even bigger mess. Lexi's discovery of the director's abuse and attempted sexual attack on Matthew leads to the teens keeping quiet, which leads to a horrendous scene in which a questionable religious leader attempts to exorcise the homosexual devil out of Matthew by beating him in front of the entire camp (to their credit, the teens are horrified by this, and they protest, only to be restrained by other counselors). Yet the teens don't report it. Lexi acknowledges that Matthew needs medical attention, but knows that he will not be taken to a hospital because of the questions that would be raised. And when she is kicked out the next week, she is more worried about leaving her contact information for her new girl Carolyn than GETTING MATTHEW THE FUCK OUT.

She and her mom drive home, and Mom tells Lexi she will always love her, even if she's not okay with the gay thing. Then. Then...Lexi literally phones in the crime. She phones it in and Verdi sums it up with, "It's a long, difficult conversation." Then the scene ends with Lexi calling her girl. The End.

I want books that are going to challenge me. I want books that are going to challenge the status quo. I want books with full, realistic characters whose lives are disrupted, who are forced to question, and who take action. I want books that are nuanced, that explore the complexities of human experience. In The Summer I Wasn't Me, religion isn't nuanced. The camp experience is horrible. Yes, it solidifies Lexi's belief in her own sexuality and helps her see how she doesn't want to live, but this only comes about in the worst possible way. I want to read about these experiences, I think these sorts of stories are important, but not when they take the easy way out. This story takes the easy way out when it makes religion all bad. The issues are simply black and white when most teenagers questioning sexuality and identity exist in the gray space in between the two extremes.

I might not be as harsh on this book if I hadn't already read The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth. It's an excellent novel and it takes Cameron to an antigay boarding school where she meets a much more varied group of queer teens who all have their own hang-ups. When tragedy strikes, it's not because of a sexual predator on staff, and one of the hardest, most important, and emotionally wrought scenes in the entire book occurs in the wake of this event. I won't ruin for you all who might want to read this excellent book, but it's the sort of nuanced discussion that I had hoped for in The Summer I Wasn't Me. Even just a smidge of that sort of thoughtfulness would have been nice.

We do need diverse books in children's and YA literature, and it's exciting to me to see so many books that are willing to tackle these tough subjects. I think though, now more than ever, we need to be aware of what these books are saying and hold them to high standards. We need books that are going to delve right into the gray area, not just simply play it safe or go for the opposite end of the spectrum.

Has anyone read The Summer I Wasn't Me? What are your thoughts?

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