I came across a writing prompt years ago, and I wish I could credit the source but I can no longer find it, that suggested writing a story about a camp organized around a theme we don’t usually have camps for – such as wife camp….What would one do at a wife camp?
It turns out wife camps exist, usually in a religious context, and this took me down a deep rabbit hole of research on the ways we teach girls, across different cultures, what will be expected of them as women. I looked at initiation rituals, both formal and informal, and superstitions regarding menstruation. I also thought about how baffled kids often are when they first encounter adult behaviors that are upheld as norms but are, from an outsider perspective, bizarre and absurd; I wrote from that place of absurdity. I had a great deal of fun.Ann Glaviano, Contributor Note
In the 50s, English psychologist Gregory Bateson proposed the double-bind as a cause of schizophrenia. That stance has been abandoned as neurotransmitters have become better understood, but the classic double-bind, a no-win situation in which conflicting rules are imposed, is still referred to as crazy-making because it does cause extreme stress and, depending on the context, psychopathology.
Nothing better exemplifies the double-bind as the realization Fin comes to at wife camp in this story:
I was supposed to want, and not to want, simultaneously. Those were the rules. There was no winning. I would fail either way.
Mom tells her not to be impatient, then tells her it’s rude to keep people waiting. She knows she’s supposed to be waiting for something, but no one will tell her what she’s waiting for. Give the girl a prize: make her swim for her life. What’s that, she can’t swim? Too bad.
This story is a lot of fun; if I sound less than amused, that’s only because good satire always buries painful truth under humor, and my sense of humor has worn a bit thin these days.
The camp, designed for girls who’ve had their first periods, has some of the normal elements – canoe races, cute team names, Stain Removal Classes (it is, after all, preparing them to be wives) – but there’s a lot of mystery connected to it. I suppose mystery is part of real-life camp lore: the camper preserved in myth who did something great, or who died; the legend of the Old Man in the Woods or some such thing. At Fin’s camp, there’s the Black Night Ceremony, which seems to consist of locking the girls in a room and telling them old wives’ tales about menstruation while the male counselors do… something … outside.
And then there’s the camp motto: Dignae et Provisae Iucundae. Neither Fin nor anyone else at camp knows what it means, but they recite it regularly. Jake Weber did a deep dive on this at his blog, including a consult with a PhD who couldn’t really parse the phrase beyond the translation of the individual words. If it’s as agrammatical as all that, I consider it up for grabs, so I’ll go with “Worthy and pleasing girls provided here”. It is a wife camp, after all. The hooker camp down the road probably has the same slogan, but forgoes the canoes.
Mystery is convenient when no one wants to really talk about something honestly. The girls know something important is going to happen, but they don’t know what. Now there’s a metaphor for marriage.
But the overriding (ahem) metaphor of the story is the horse. The cliché of little girls loving horses isn’t for nothing. I remember, at about age 7 or 8, practicing my proper trot, canter, and gallop strides with my friends, even though I’d never been near a horse nor had any particular desire to ride; I was just going along with everyone else. There are lots of theories that all boil down to sex, in one form or another: the literal physical stimulation of the genital region, sexual gratification with an acceptable father substitute, the ability to control something powerful, proximity to obvious sexuality. For Fin, it’s a lot simpler: she has the opportunity to both spend time with the counselor she has a crush on, and ride a horse that goes faster than a slow walk. And so she gets the ride of her life:
He hoisted me onto the horse.
Then we were moving fast an it didn’t feel like flying. I sat in front and his arms around me and his thighs pinning me and my back slamming against his chest and my butt slamming against the horse and all of it hurt….And Andrew rocking and grunting behind me. Finally it ended. He helped me dismount. We were both breathing hard. I stood still in the muddy pen and felt all the sweat pour out of me. I doubted it smelled of exotic fruit. Then Andrew bent his face down toward my face. “You’re not like the other girls,” he said. “I knew that right away.” I could see his eyes, finally. They were glassy blue and strange. “Did you feel anything?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, sweating, silently counting my bruises He did not ask me to specify but wrapped his arms around me and pressed his hands into my backside I jumped away.. “My butt hurts,” I told him. “Grow up,” he said, snorting exactly like a horse. “You got just what you wanted.”
I wonder if Fin will remember the ride someday hence, either when she’s date-raped or on her wedding night. Sex isn’t supposed to be that way, at least, not any more now that women are allowed to like it too, and anyone who’s been near a tv or a radio in the past 20 years pretty much knows everything they need to know, but it often is, particularly when girls aren’t really ready but try to pretend they are. Or, when they’re virginal on their wedding nights, as they’re told they should be, and then find out it isn’t quite as wonderful as all the mystery made it seem. Sort of like the Black Night ceremony, but with more bruises. Don’t you dare want sex, and don’t you dare disappoint your husband: crazy-making.