One year, my mother scrimped up the funds to send me to Christian summer camp. I don’t remember which denomination—I don’t think there really was one. It was related in some way to the vagabond study group we’d joined up with after my father left, one of those charismatic American hybrids—a hardcore Born Again gang. She’d been dragging me to their meetings in the strip mall out by Highway 41. This was a conceited group, proud to be among the persecuted, and alongside the warm fuzzy sharing and singing, there was a lot of looking outward at the fallen world in search of signs of smoke, a lot of talk about the imminent battle society was thrusting upon them. They were hooked up to a larger network—an electrified chain of holy warriors united by their dream of wresting America back from the satanic forces trying to rebuild the tower of Babel. They didn’t have a preacher yet—they were a newish cell in the larger network that would one day fill our country with mile-wide churches—but they received sermons on tape from some control center in Ventura, California, and they’d listen, rapt, to each Sunday’s new missive, all heads leaning toward the boom box.
I’m not sure, really, what my mother got out of this. Conformity had never been her strong suit. She was more of a dervish, an ecstatic. Rules confused and bludgeoned her. It would have made more sense if she’d fallen in with a group that spoke in tongues or tempted scorpions to give them a sting. That had been my mother’s way: raw faith, frantic belief. It seemed sometimes like what she believed in didn’t matter. Any icon would do, so long as she had somewhere to aim as she took another swing at her fate.
Anyway, she didn’t last long in this church—a couple years, maybe three, and that was that. Then she was on to a new passion, hugging rocks and crystals, filling the house with wind chimes, cultivating friendships that would, she hoped, heal her aura.
At the moment, though, there we were, eager to believe whatever samizdat made its way to us surreptitiously from Ventura. I was at a literal, fascism-prone age, and for a while, during this phase of our lives, I felt the doomed world falling all around me. I lived in fear and self-abnegation. What impressed me most was the threat posed by music. This was the era of the PMRC, Tipper Gore’s crusade against rock and roll, of Jello Biafra, Frank Zappa, and Dee Snider arguing their right to be weird, angry, and lewd. I remember watching Zappa on TV (another evil, but one my mother indulged—life was just too lonely for her without her soaps), this skinny, twitchy, crazy-eyed guy sputtering before Congress about art and free speech, looking like he hadn’t bathed in ten years, and with funny facial hair that, together with the loose suit he was wearing, made him look like a Looney Tunes Satan. He captivated me—all of them did. They spoke to some shameful part of me that I’d been terrified others would see because it proved I’d never make it to Heaven. I knew they were sinners, but when I watched them on TV, they didn’t seem so bad to me. Maybe they weren’t all rainbows and hugs, but there was something of the campfire about them, like they might know the path toward a warmer world. I was scared, though, that being drawn in by their warmth might mean I was already lost somehow, already destined to turn out like my father.
Which is why I begged her to send me to that camp that summer. I knew, I just knew, that the righteous pros who ran it would pound me into a different, better shape.
The camp was called The Ark—like Noah’s Ark—and it was the only one of its kind. People from all over the country handed their prepubescent teenagers over, knowing that their precious minds would be kept safe. We were the animals, stabled there so we might be carried above the teeming, churning ocean of debauchery that our country was supposed to have become. We did summer camp stuff. Swimming and sailing and frisbee golf. We clustered around the fire after dark and played Bible Jeopardy. Who is Delilah? What is the Sea of Galilee? For one thousand, Alex, who are the Ephesians? We experimented with persona and presentation, learned essential lessons about the flexibility of the self, how we could be different, more ideal versions of ourselves, so long as no one from back home was around to tell our new friends about our true suckitude. All the usual summer camp experiences, the same lessons in community and socialization and archery.
Maybe they weren’t all rainbows and hugs, but there was something of the campfire about them, like they might know the path toward a warmer world.
But also, in the afternoons, when at any other summer camp, we might be given free time to write homesick letters to our parents, we spent hours—five, six, seven, or more, they’d stretch into the evening after the dinner break—squirming on child-size folding chairs in the makeshift auditorium they’d erected, a blindingly white plastic wedding tent that snapped frighteningly in the wind. Here, we’d be taught the mysteries of the Christian faith by a pair of puppets named Petey Paul and Sally Sue. Each afternoon’s show had a different title: “Father Abraham’s Wonderful Family”; “Snakes and Apples, Chutes and Ladders”; “Watch Out, Here Comes Sneaky Satan!” Every day, a new parable.
The emcee for these sessions, Pastor Pat, had the look and demeanor, I realize now, of a career middle manager—the crisp bright polo shirts, the slacks belted around his tummy rolls, pressing them into flaps that bulged around his groin. He was perpetually upbeat, a consummate inspirational speaker, able to work us into such a fever for salvation that we would have tied ourselves to stakes if he’d asked us to, would have willingly let him burn us to cinders. Just because we were at The Ark, he’d say, didn’t mean we were on the Ark. In fact, we were definitely not on the Ark. We were, more likely, swimming behind it, scrambling through its wake, and the water was deep, and the Ark didn’t stop, and if we didn’t catch up to it pretty darn quick, we’d lose our will, we’d grow weak and tired. That life buoy trailing behind it would skim ahead of us, out of our grasps, and we’d sink in the black water, rancid with sex and drugs and alcohol and TV. And even though we were just ten or twelve, we’d drown. We’d die. Jesus wouldn’t turn the boat around. Jesus wouldn’t save us. When Pastor Pat’s daily pitch took its final turn—the exhortation to change our lives—it hit us like a nail gun between the eyes.
And then we’d go sing songs around the campfire, and then we’d head off to our cabins, to the darkness of our thoughts and the knowledge of how far away we were from everything good in this world and the next.
We were going to die. That’s what we learned that week. But—and this was crucial—we didn’t have to. There was a path through the eye of that needle, and Pastor Pat had structured his lessons toward showing us how to read the signposts.
Pastor Pat’s exhortation to change our lives hit us like a nail gun between the eyes.
On Thursday, he and the puppets focused their attention on the danger of music. “Salome’s Magic Dance,” the program was called. Sally Sue had been over to a friend’s house, and they’d spent the afternoon dancing to music from her friend’s boom box. Now she was back home at the puppet stage, but along the way, she’d picked up a Walkman, and no matter how Pastor Pat and Petey Paul pleaded, she refused to take it off.
She bopped around the stage in a trance, so lost in her music that she didn’t see what was right in front of her. Petey Paul, she smacked into him. The papier-mâché tree that decorated the stage, she almost took her head off on one of its branches. The cardboard rainbow mounted behind them, it nearly sliced her big blue nose from her face. When she rammed into the back wall of the stage, the whole set came close to crashing to the floor. No matter how wildly Petey and Pastor Pat waved, no matter how loudly they shouted her name, she was oblivious, a hyperactive zombie. The music was her master. She sang along sometimes, fragments of lyrics that implied but never explicitly stated the depravity that had entered her soul.
When, finally, Petey Paul snatched the headphones off her head, she told him he was hateful and cruel. She sulked in the corner of the stage. Pastor Pat and Petey tried to coax her back. They spoke to her with words of love. And just when it seemed they’d pacified her, she leapt at Petey and held on, punching and choking, trying to strangle him with the cord of her headphones.
She wasn’t herself, and it was the music’s fault.
Why? Because music, this music anyway, rock and roll music, danced like a sharp-toothed bug into your eardrums, entered your bloodstream, and took over your body. Those tingly sensations you feel sometimes when you’re listening to Prince or Duran Duran, that’s the insects gnawing at your brain. Madonna, don’t let the name she’s got fool you, she doesn’t care about your salvation. She wants to make you feel good, right here, right now, so that maybe you’ll forget the lessons Jesus taught you.
“There’s a word for this,” Pastor Pat said. “Let me teach it to you. Hedonism.” He wrote the word on the giant memo pad mounted next to the stage. “It means doing whatever you want, all the time. It means chasing after worldly pleasures and no longer caring about God’s love.”
And while we were reveling in the pleasures of the world, those bugs would be laying eggs in our guts. They’d be reproducing at a phenomenal rate, taking over our bodies, eating away at us until there was nothing left of the good people we used to be. On the outside, we’d still look like anyone else, but if you cut us open, what you’d find there was a rotting, dying person crawling with insects. Those insects, they were Satan’s foot soldiers. “You won’t even notice the damage they’re doing,” Pastor Pat told us, “until it’s way, way, way, way, way too late.”
Sally Sue was stricken, horrified at herself. She’d let Satan in through the music on her Walkman. It was too late. She’d ruined her life.
Instead of comforting Sally Sue, Pastor Pat pulled his shoulders back and pushed out his gut. An acid pity dripped from his face. “You know, Sally Sue,” he said, “I bet you’re not alone.” He nodded in our direction and the puppets turned their googly eyes on us. “I bet some of the children out there have been secretly listening to the Devil’s music just like you. I bet they’re pretty worried right now.”
He was right, of course. I, anyway, was worried right then. Was it possible that those insects had entered me? I owned no cassette tapes, no Walkman, no boom box, but there were those late nights when, as I skimmed the channels, I’d lingered for a second too long on Friday Night Videos, and there was the jolt of identification I’d felt seeing Biafra and Zappa and Snider argue over censorship—I didn’t even know what their music sounded like. All I knew was that they looked on the outside like I felt sometimes on the inside. This must mean I was already crawling with cockroaches, right? I mean, right?
“Let me tell you a story, Sally Sue,” Pastor Pat said. “It’s from the Bible. It might help you understand how really important this issue is.”
As we writhed in our folding chairs, feeling sick to our stomachs, sure that this sickness was the work of the bugs, he told us about a woman named Salome. Daughter of Herod, the King of the Jews, known throughout the land for her ferocious beauty, she hypnotized the king and his court one night while they watched her dancing to the Devil’s music. She didn’t want to do this. She didn’t really know what she was doing. She’d been overcome. The music possessed her. Blame it on the bugs.
I had a hooded sweatshirt—powder blue. It was my favorite thing. I wore it everywhere every day. It was the kind without a zipper—extra thick, heavy and warm like a comforter. I’d bury my arms in the kangaroo pouch and stretch the fabric down to my thighs. If I could have, I would have slept in it, showered in it, worn it to church. Even though I knew possessions were bad—especially if you were covetous of them like I was of my sweatshirt, I didn’t care. The sweatshirt protected me from my fears.
While Pastor Pat spun his story about Salome, I hid in this sweatshirt, tucked myself deep inside the hood and revved the drawstring back and forth. The sweatshirt couldn’t protect me from me, though. And when Pastor Pat got to the part where Salome demands that Herod bring her John the Baptist’s head on a plate, I was sure I would have done the same thing.
The mood among the campers at this point had hit levels of hopelessness and self-hatred that, if left unchecked, might lead to years of merciless acting out, cutting and bingeing and shooting up the school as they dared an absent God to prove he cared.
Pastor Pat held a finger above his head like a TV antenna, able to draw the lightning away from us without interrupting the transmission he was receiving. “But wait!” he said to Sally Sue, who was pounding her head against the edge of the stage. “We’re forgetting something. Jesus died on the cross to forgive you of your sins!”
It turned out that it wasn’t too late for us after all. We could pull ourselves away from hedonism’s grasp if we admitted our sins, right now, right here. Just because we’d succumbed in the past didn’t mean we had to succumb in the present. We didn’t even have to say it out loud. There’d be no public shaming. This wasn’t a witch hunt. If we really and truly knew in our hearts that we’d listened to and enjoyed rock and roll music, well, all we had to do to clear ourselves with God was to say a little silent prayer, come clean, and turn our backs on the Devil. This meant forever. This meant never ever allowing our ears to come in contact with that music again. “This will be hard to do,” Pastor Pat told us, “but luckily, we’re here to help, and we love you.”
That night, as the other kids in my cabin took turns digging through their packs and tiptoeing off to deliver their contraband to our counselor, I flopped and fidgeted on my bunk. I knew that I, too, should take the long walk and purge the bugs from my system, but I had no cassettes. I had nothing to give. All I had was my memories and the suspicion that, short of carving them out of my brain with a scalpel, there was no way to get rid of them. My brain. This was where the bugs lived—the main one anyway, the one that laid the eggs. I concentrated, tried to isolate it, but it must have been there a very long time because, though I could sense something burning up there, what I mostly felt was the churning in my stomach, the mass of this bug’s offspring feasting on the sweet meat of my bloated belly.
There was something wrong with me. I just couldn’t prove it, which showed how severe my problem really was. Curled up in my sweatshirt in my bunk, I dwelled on this fact, watched it balloon in the darkness until it encompassed all of God’s condemnation.
The title of the show on the last day of camp was “You’ve Got a Friend in Jesus.” The puppets were frantic, desperate. They cackled and howled and flung their shaggy woolen hair around with more force than usual. I kept waiting for them to go flying off the hands inside them and shoot across the room. They were afraid that we hadn’t heard what they’d been saying, that we’d go home the next day and no matter how really, really hard they’d tried to help us, no matter how important it had been to them that we live in the warmth of God’s love—‘cause He really did love us, more than anyone in the world ever could, more even than our moms and dads loved us, and we all knew they loved us a lot—we were going to forget.
We were going to die. That’s what we learned that week.
They knew we wouldn’t do it on purpose—they knew we didn’t want to betray Jesus. We’d just see our old friends and they’d ask us to join them in doing all the old things we used to do with them. They’d lay on the peer pressure. They’d be like that snake in the Garden of Eden. Have some alcohol. Have some drugs. Have some premarital sex. Come listen to this one song with me. Don’t think about what the lyrics say. The lyrics don’t matter. They’re not really urging you to sin. It just sounds that way. It’s okay that the guy who sings the song wears a satanic pendant around his neck and bites the heads off doves—doves! The Holy Spirit!—that’s just for show. That’s just for fun and games. And maybe it is, but even so, it hurts God’s feelings. It sends a message to God that you don’t care.
The puppets covered their eyes with their nubby paws. They fretted and bit their fingers. They held their arms above their heads and trembled like they thought the sky was falling. “What can we do, Pastor Pat? How can we make sure this terrible thing doesn’t happen? How can we be really, really sure that we’ve saved the children?!”
Silence crashed down from the Kingdom of Heaven, and the puppets and Pastor Pat, fighting not to collapse under its weight, cowered against the rail of the puppet stage.
“I don’t know,” Pastor Pat said, “I just don’t know.”
One of the puppets, Sally Sue, slowly, so slowly, straightened up to her full foot-and-a-half. She stared out at us with her big ping-pong eyes, pleading, begging, beseeching us to promise that we’d stay saved. Weakly, tentatively, Sally Sue said, “What if . . .”
“Tell me, Sally Sue,” Pastor Pat said.
Sally Sue hedged for a moment. She shuttered. “No. It’s stupid.”
“I don’t know how that could be true. You’re a smart little bugger, Sally Sue.”
Petey Paul draped an arm over her shoulder. “I think you’re smart,” he said. “You’re so much smarter than me.”
More bashfulness from Sally Sue. If puppets could blush, the pink felt circles glued to her cheeks would have been turning red.
Pastor Pat ruffled her shaggy hair. “It’s okay to be smart, Sally Sue,” he said. Then, coaxing her to continue, he said, “Why don’t you tell us what your idea is? Because we’re still waiting. We’re still afraid for the children’s souls. What will happen to them when they return to the temptations and evils of their hometowns?”
And Sally Sue haltingly explained her big idea, that maybe they should ask us what to do. If we really, really wanted to be saved we’d be willing to make a commitment to God. What’s a commitment? A commitment is a promise. What if we told God that, when our friends back home tried to get us to listen to Satan’s music and do drugs with them and engage in premarital sex, we’d remember who our real best friend was? And what if we told those people back home that he could be their best friend too? What if we shared Jesus’s love with them?
“What do you say?” the puppets asked us. “Are you willing to commit to sharing Jesus’s love?”
“There’s a word for this,” Pastor Pat said. “Let me teach it to you. Hedonism.”
Yes, we shouted. Yes! We promise. We promise. The puppets would lead us. The puppets would save us. We’d follow them anywhere, do anything they said, because only through them would we be assured of the everlasting life that Jesus died on the cross to give us. We’d have to become new, different people to do this. We’d have to become soldiers for the Lord.
Uncapping his Sharpie, Pastor Pat wandered over to the easel and scrawled the words A COMMITMENT TO CHRIST across the top of the pad. Dear Jesus, he wrote, I promise to remember that you’re my best friend. This means that I will:
-Love you every day.
-Resist the temptations my other friends might place in front of me, no matter how much fun they say they’re having.
-Share the Good Word of your love for me. Show my friends that there’s a better way.
The counselors were handing out mimeographed sheets of paper, individual contracts, one for each of us, containing the same three rules Pastor Pat had written on the pad. There was a line at the bottom of the page. We were supposed to write our names there so the contract would be binding. Once we did, Pastor Pat explained, the contracts would be collected and squirrelled away to be kept somewhere safe, an eternal record, and if we ever, even once, broke our promise, St. Peter might whip them out after we died and wave them in our faces like a teacher announcing our failure to the class.
When they’d finished distributing the contracts, the counselors worked their way back up the aisle and gave each row a single Sharpie, which then traveled from kid to kid as we struggled to put our names on the signature line, each in turn learning, when the Sharpie came to us, that there was no flat surface on which to brace the paper. Some kids used their knees, some tried to use the palm of their weak hand, some tag teamed, using each other’s backs. It took forever.
I used the knee technique, wondering as I did, if this was a test and if maybe, like those men in Joshua’s army who stupidly slurped their water from the river like pigs, I’d failed it. Or maybe we’d all failed it because when, finally, everyone had finished signing and the Sharpies had made their way to the end of each row, the counselors didn’t collect our contracts, didn’t squirrel them away, didn’t keep them somewhere safe. They just wandered off, leaving us alone in the tent with the puppets.
That’s when we realized Pastor Pat had disappeared.
Before this could sink in, though, we received another shock: the puppets stood up and led us out of the wedding tent. It was dark now. Who knows how long we’d been cooped up inside. Paper bag lanterns lighted our way along the dirt paths and horse trails and open fields. We were traveling together, taking our contracts somewhere, but where, we didn’t know, walking single file, down the hill, through the parking lot, across the paved road, toward the beach where we’d taken our swimming tests.
A miraculous bonfire floated on the water, an island of flames blazing above the waves. Standing in front of it, fully clothed, up to his belt in the manmade lake, Pastor Pat waited, his arms out wide, like he was preparing to hug us all at once. “I know you’ve been born, and you’ve been born again,” he said. “Today we’re making another commitment. We’re promising Jesus we’ll be his apostles. Do you know what that means? That means we’re his messengers. It’s not enough just to believe. We need to make sure the people we care about believe, too.”
There was no moon that night. The world was dark. And the only light anywhere came from the paper bags at our feet and the flames popping over the surface of the water.
I was near the back of the line. For a long time I inched slowly forward, watching the kids in front of me take turns wading into the lake, shivering in front of Pastor Pat, giving him their contracts, releasing their bodies into his hands, and letting him dunk them in the burning water. They were being swallowed up by the intensity of the cause, having the experience that my mother had spent so many years longing for and never quite finding as she ran from faith to faith—here it was, burning all around me, but instead of soaring ecstatically toward God, I felt more earthbound, more hopelessly isolated than I had before I’d come to this camp. Without thinking, I’d crumpled the contract in my hand. It was damp now, my signature smudged, streaked, washing away. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up and cinched it tight around my face. Then I whizzed the cord back and forth as though by tugging hard and fast enough, some engine in me would rev to life and change my attitude. But nothing did. I was still the same me. Something in me was unfit for God. I thought of Frank Zappa, of Jello Biafra and Dee Snyder. Why couldn’t they come start a riot for me? A compulsive stabbing thought. I wished it would cut me open and kill me.
Instead of soaring ecstatically toward God, I felt more earthbound, more hopelessly isolated than I had before I’d come to this camp.
When my turn came to wade into the water, I felt a sudden urge to flee. I stood at the edge of the beach and thought about how wet my shoes were going to get, how long they’d take to dry, the mildew, my allergies. I tugged at the ragged cuffs of my sweatshirt and twisted them around and around my thumbs. Then I submitted, waded toward Pastor Pat, my cut-rate Kmart shoes sucking with each step, until I was submerged up to my armpits and standing directly in front of him. Though his face was soft with kindness, I didn’t trust it—I didn’t trust myself in front of it. He couldn’t save me. My world would be forever smudged and demonic. If there was a place for me in this life, it was out there with those guys I’d seen on TV. Which meant it was my fate to let everyone—God especially, but also my mother—down.
But Pastor Pat didn’t seem to notice this. He took the wilted paper from my hands and without looking at it, placed it in a half-soaked cardboard box with all the others. He said to me, “Do you accept the challenge? Do you commit to resisting temptation and sharing the love of Jesus with the world?”
I lied. I said I did. More a wish than a lie, but since I knew I’d already failed, it amounted to the same thing.
He mussed my hair and said, “I know you’ll make a good apostle for the Lord.”
“But—” I said, and then I gave up. From the way he was looking at me I could tell that to him the conversation was over. It was time to dunk me.
He was rough about it, mechanical, with none of the sensitivity to the wondrous act he was performing that had filled me with such awe the first time, when I’d really been baptized. Just a quick down and up, and before I even found my balance in the muck, Pastor Pat had me turned toward shore and was sending me away with a little push.
I felt the same as I had before I’d walked into the lake, a little colder. The closest thing I could find to a change was that my sweatshirt had been soaked through. It was so waterlogged that it hung to my knees. It never regained its shape after that.
The next morning my mother picked me up and took me home. She was in a good mood that day, excited to hear that I’d had a nice time. She wanted to know every detail of what had happened, which activities I’d done, the names of all the new friends I’d made, what they were like, was the food good, was the water warm, did you learn how to sail, do you want to go back next year? She sometimes confused her hopes for me with her hopes for herself and I knew if I told her about my self-loathing, her protective instincts would blister inside her.
“It was good, Mom,” I said, “It was fine. It was fun.” I scrunched up my face, trying to smile. I took her hand in mine and held onto it, squeezed, sent little pulses of comfort her way. More falsehood. More lies.
God was no longer with me. She still had hers, though, and He was not vengeful; He was forgiving, pure in His love. She turned on the radio and found the NPR station. I knew in that moment that she’d split with this church soon for her own reasons. Any push I might give would have been malicious.
It didn’t matter.
I had other, more important questions on my mind. Which cassette to buy first. Whether or not I’d like it. What it might say about me if I did. I was oddly unafraid to find out.