A Western Education 

New novelist Emily Danforth aces coming of age in Miles City

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Praying away the gay

In the summer of 2005, Zack Stark made a startling post on his MySpace page, one that would also affect Danforth's novel in big ways.

It was the summer between Danforth's first and second years of graduate school at UM, and she'd gone home to Miles City to live with her parents. It felt strange, she recalls. She'd already left the nest, gone to undergraduate school and stopped coming home in the summers. She'd worked in New York and Connecticut. Miles City was in the past—except for the fact that she'd been writing about it lately.

"I think I did it for premature nostalgia for my youth," she says, laughing. "But I did it too because I thought that I could mine that experience for this material that informed the book. And that's when I heard the story of Zack Stark."

At the time, Stark was a 16-year-old boy from Tennessee who had just come out to his parents. They cried and sent him to a live-in ex-gay program called "Love in Action," sponsored by the organization Exodus International, in Memphis. He talked about it on his MySpace page. He also found his parents' copy of the Exodus youth rules and posted them.

Danforth had the reaction that perhaps many of us do, which is, "This kind of thing still happens? In this day and age?" She's seen But I'm a Cheerleader, a satire of "pray away the gay" programs. In that film, a teenage cheerleader is just living her life normally until everyone else starts pointing out their suspicions: She's not into making out with her boyfriend. Her locker is full of pictures of women in sports bras. They tell her she's a lesbian; she's surprised. And then she's sent away to a camp run by a coach (an ex-gay) who wears a shirt that says: "Straight is great!" The film is funny, the perfect tongue-in cheek farce that ends up being poignant and delightfully scathing in the way it portrays the absurdity of conversion therapy.

In Stark's case, the reality seemed just as absurd as the fictional film. "The clients may not wear Abercrombie and Fitch or Calvin Klein brand clothing, undergarments or accessories," was one of the rules at Love in Action. "Obviously, Calvin Klein is inherently gay," Danforth says, laughing. But the other thing that stuck with Danforth was Stark's complicated reaction. "What was so compelling for me about Zach's story is that he would sometimes, on his posts, refer to himself as gay and other times he wouldn't," she says.

He didn't know how to stand up for who he was because he didn't know who he was. He was having trouble reconciling his Christianity with his attractions. He didn't want to disappoint his parents and he didn't want to be sent away.

"That was interesting to me, to have it not be as black-and-white as I thought," Danforth says. "Because of course [conversion therapy is] torturous and absurd and harmful, but there's this other side of the story. So I came back the second year of school armed with that. I talked to people about how I know now this novel is going to feature conversion therapy in some prominent way and I continued to do research that year."

Almost half of Cameron Post ends up taking place at a "pray away the gay" camp. Unlike Stark, Cameron isn't quite as conflicted about the camp—she's not really buying into it even if she does have feelings of guilt. Ridiculous things happen, including a scene where the campers have to write about all the things that made them gay, such as too many sports for girls. Yet the camp is full of complex characters. Probably the most interesting is Reverend Rick, an ex-gay who co-runs the program with his icy aunt. Rick is a jovial guy who plays guitar and seems to care about the kids. In one scene, he has a breakthrough with Cameron in which they end up singing along to a Christian mixtape featuring the gospel song "Oh Happy Day," using a potato peeler for a pretend microphone, while making a Thanksgiving meal. It's a sweet moment—the first time in several pages that Cameron seems happy, not happy about her situation, but happy in the moment.

"Everybody in the kitchen was clapping along with the choir on the tape and watching us. I took the potato peeler from Adam, gripped it in my best Mahalia impersonation, and closed my eyes, fuck it, belted like a pro. We finished out the song like that, increasingly louder, recklessly, goofy as all get-out. My excuse was the marijuana, but Rick didn't have one other than being Rick."

The song ends, a sappy song comes on and the stern camp matron, Lydia, walks through the door. The moment is over. Danforth's rendering is deft. Like Cameron, you enjoy the moment and then you feel like you've betrayed your convictions. This camp is bad for everyone. But there was this nice time had in the kitchen, and you feel guilty for liking Rick.

The truth is, especially in the 1970s, there are truly horrifying conversion therapy stories involving obvious brainwashing and abuse. That's a route Danforth could have easily taken to excite the sympathies of her readers but it's also kind of the easy way out, like giving your character cancer as a way to evoke pity.

"I had people say to me, you know, why didn't you have them doing shock treatment," says Danforth. "Why don't you have some nasty aversion therapy where they would force the kids to watch gay porn and then they would douse them with unpleasant scents or whatever. And there are those horror stories, one can find those fairly readily. But those are the exceptions and I was much more interested...in not going there."

Hello from the riot grrrls

In the early 1990s, Nirvana's Nevermind hit number one on the charts and a storm of riot grrrls took over the independent airwaves. For most rural Montana literature, this might seem irrelevant, except that if you were growing up as an "alternative" teenager during these times, this new music would have been the soundtrack to your life. Danforth recognizes this change in the western scenery. Cameron Post has a friend in Seattle who sends her mixtapes buzzing with the sounds of Bikini Kill and giving her a taste of a rising movement that embraced lesbianism. And in that way, the book gives us a glimpse of the parallel world outside Miles City in the 1990s.

"I really think of this novel as a historical novel," Danforth says. "People who write historical fiction set in the 1700s give me this baffling look. But the experience of being an adolescent in 1992 in Miles City, Montana is not at all the experience of being an adolescent in 2012 in Miles City, Montana."

The riot grrl grunge keyhole isn't just a superfluous detail to ground the novel in its time. It also serves as way to highlight just how isolated Cameron is.

"Cam has no access to the internet," Danforth points out, "and for a girl who likes girls, trying to find a community—and the internet is certainly not a perfect way to do that, but it is a way to find teens who are talking about the same things you are—is not an option for her at that time. She's so desperate just to find representation of queer culture that, yeah, those mixtapes become crucial. And it's not just queer culture, but any kind of culture that she is not immediately surrounded by."

Cameron rents videotapes of movies that show how she thinks people act in the world. She looks for representations of women having relationships with other women. And because they're videotapes, not Netflix streams, they make her more vulnerable. It's "the idea of having to go and rent these things and then in a small town everybody knows what you rented," Danforth says.

Return to the lake

There's a story about how raven brings light to the universe by stealing it. It's one of thousands of aboriginal stories of the land, etiological tales of the way things came to be. Besides being historical fiction and a story of the West, The Miseducation of Cameron Post ends up being a story of the land. It starts out as a falsehood: Cameron is sure that the story of her parents' death begins with the kiss she shared with Irene. Not only that, but her parents' car accident happens near Quake Lake, which, we're told, is where Cameron's mother escaped death as a child when the 1959 earthquake occurred. Cameron is certain of God's hand in this irony: Her mother escaped only to suffer the consequences of the sins of her own daughter.

Quake Lake is a poignant place. The earthquake created a landslide whose 100-mile-per-hour force hit a campground and killed 28 people in the middle of the night. There's a plaque commemorating the loss, but the eeriest part is the lake, which still has a highway running through it, plus houses, their tops peeking from the surface.

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