Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Summer I Wasn't Me by Jessica Verdi - Review & Guest Post

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Ever since her mom found out she was in love with a girl, seventeen-year-old Lexi’s afraid that what’s left of her family is going to fall apart for good.

You are on the road to truth. Help is on the way.

The road signs leading to New Horizons summer camp promise a new life for Lexi—she swears she can change. She can learn to like boys. But denying her feelings is harder than she thinks. And when she falls heads over heels for one of her fellow campers, Lexi will have to risk her mother’s approval for the one person who might love her no matter what.

Lexi is a very mild-mannered kid. Although she’s on her way to New Horizons to be “cured”of her gay ways, she’s more concerned with her widowed mother who hasn’t been the same since her dad died.  His loss has been a huge blow to them. For Lexi, her mother is all she has left.  She knows she’s gay but out of love for her mother and desperate to keep her remaining family intact, she’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness and go to this conversion camp. Is it right? No, but I can sympathize with where she’s coming from. She views New Horizons not as an adversary but as a necessary step toward reconnecting with her mother.

At camp, she’s grouped together with three other people – Matthew, the jokester who’s out-and-proud, Daniel, a very confused and sheltered boy trying to reconcile his feelings with what it means to be a good Christian, and finally Carolyn, who’s there to fix herself so she can fulfill her idyllic dream of having a family and kids. Sparks fly instantly between Lexi and Carolyn though neither do anything about it. Lexi reminds herself constantly why she’s there and what she has to gain AND lose should this not go well.

Let me count the reasons why I liked this book...

1) The ensemble cast is fantastic. All the characters from the religious counselors, to the confused parents to the frightened camp kids, bring so much substance to this story. 

2) Lexi is great. She’s not antagonistic towards anyone. She approaches her situation gracefully and questions things. She's not easily brainwashed. At one meeting, the kids are told that their gayness is a “sickness”. This statement provides for a very powerful moment of introspection for her as she recollects when she first knew she was gay. At no point has she ever viewed this as a sickness or a disease to be rid of. And it wasn’t like it was this melodramatic journey to get to that point. She just knew and she had clarity. 

3) Every opinion, belief, viewpoint is given equal “airtime”.  Whether you agree with them or not, this book is about each of their individual experiences and their own personal journey. Each of the camp kids has their own reason for being there – some reluctantly like Matthew and some voluntarily like Carolyn. It’s what they figure out for themselves that’s important.

4) This is a difficult story to tell but it's done articulately and courageously with the very emotional and turbulent moments handled delicately. Thank goodness for that because I would've been a wreck. Still that doesn't erase the horrors of the inappropriate and questionable things that happen at camps like this. I'll be honest, I'd heard of such places but had never given them much thought. Now that I've had some insight, how anyone can think it's okay to treat people in such a debasing and sometimes abusive manner like those mentioned here, is beyond me. 

The Summer I Wasn’t Me is thoroughly engaging, disturbing and inspiring. The characters involved keep you invested but the camp and its procedures are horrifying. My hope for anyone who reads this is not to just cling to the same old arguments or any religious predisposition. Set all that aside if you can. In the end, I hope the thought turns to the importance of treating a fellow human being with compassion. And then I hope that thought turns to daily practice.

~ Bel

Now that you've read my take on the book, I am pleased to have the author herself, the brilliant Jessica Verdi join us today to discuss her book in further detail. Welcome Jessica!

Hi, Bel! Thank you so much for having me on your blog! I’ve been getting a lot of questions recently about my research process for The Summer I Wasn’t Me, so I’m hoping I can use this opportunity to discuss that a little!
This was a very research-heavy book, being that I personally have never been to a conversion camp. But because this world is so secretive, so purposefully hush-hush, there was only so much research I could do before hitting a brick wall. The things that go on at these camps are not only incredibly morally unethical, but emotionally (and often physically) abusive, and in many cases illegal. These kinds of programs have already been outlawed for youths in New Jersey and for all people, regardless of age, in California.
The bulk of my research consisted of doing a lot of technical research on so-called “reparative therapy” (the techniques and methods they use, the argument for the work, etc.), reading first hand accounts from people who have been to camps like these, and watching several documentaries. Every single “exercise” you see in the book came from research—I didn’t make any of that stuff up, including the horrifying events that happen (no spoilers!) in Chapter 29. In fact, one of the hardest parts of my research was watching YouTube videos of that very type of thing. It was extremely difficult to watch kids going through something like that, but I knew I owed it to the accuracy of the story to get every detail, even ones as awful as that, correct.
I was recently asked if I came across anything in my research that was just TOO much to put in the book, and I said no. Not that I didn’t come across some of the most terrible forms of abuse I’ve ever encountered, but I NEVER felt compelled to protect the people who run these programs, or downplay anything that happens there. This book was, from the beginning, going to be real and raw and honest—I’ve never had any interest in sugarcoating it.
The people in The Summer I Wasn’t Me of course are all fictional, and I made the physical setting up as well—the multiple cabin setup in the Virginia mountains felt right to me for the story, but I can’t be 100% sure of its accuracy. Basically after I did all the technical research, I let the characters and setting and story build up around it. It was interesting to be able to almost create a new world for this book, sort of like one would do when writing fantasy—the only difference being, sadly, these conversion programs are all too real.

Thank you Jessica for sharing your eye-opening research with us! You can learn more about Jessica Verdi and her other books by visiting her website at www.jessicaverdi.com or follow her @JessVerdi  And thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for arranging this guest post.

~ Bel

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