It’s midsummer: the time of year when parents get sick enough of their kids to send them far, far away. In 2006, Slate’s Timothy Noah mined the varieties of summer-camp experience for insights into the human psyche. The column is reprinted below.
If there’s a more reliable Rorschach than sleep-away camp, I’d like to see it. How you responded to being shipped off (often at an appallingly tender age) to a cluster of cedar cabins beside a mountain lake; to being taught Native American crafts, chants, and songs of dubious authenticity; and to being subjected to various painful hazing rituals—many of them involving underwear—reveals an awful lot about your fundamental character. If, as the Duke of Wellington claimed, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the psychotherapy bills of our own great nation were run up on the tetherball courts of Camp Weecheewachee (or whatever the hell your summer camp was called).
Let’s begin with the people who didn’t like camp.
I was one such person. The first camp I got sent to was Camp Lenox, an establishment in the Berkshires that is still in business. During my summer there, in 1966, it was run by and for males who thrived on athletic competition. I did not. My older brother was an enthusiastic jock and it was his love for the place that landed me there. I don’t remember seeing much of him after we got off the bus—he was seven years my senior—but he’d occasionally appear in the distance, wearing the black beret that marked him as my enemy in Color War. I was assigned to the orange team; our symbol was a baton. To this day I shake my head in disbelief that a responsible camp director would set brother against brother in the name of competitive sport. Perhaps you find my thinking on this point a little rigid. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not the sort of person who can alter his loyalties so easily, even within such a character-building realm. (I would have made a terrible Kennedy.)
Observing my perplexity with mild concern, my parents shipped me off to a different camp the following summer. This was Camp Arcady, in the Adirondacks. Now defunct, it was co-ed and less single-mindedly dedicated to sports than Camp Lenox had been. Arcady had other advantages over its predecessor, the most memorable being a waterfront counselor named Doreen who had once been a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club. Visions of Doreen (who in the decade since her TV stardom had filled out quite satisfactorily) haunted my prepubescent dreams. Even now, in my mind’s eye, I see Doreen emerging, like Botticelli’s Venus, from a clamshell perched on the shores of Lake George, a whistle nestled chastely in her cleavage. It was probably because of Doreen that I learned to water-ski. Water-skiing is the only camp sport I remember enjoying. Otherwise, I was pretty miserable. For the evidence, click here (center row, fifth from the left).
People (like myself) who didn’t enjoy camp tend to have a problem engaging in organized activities of all kinds. Later in life we often become criminals or sociopaths. The more respectable among us often become journalists. If we’re extremely bright or creative (or aspire to be), we may become writers or scholars or artists. The common thread is an outsider mentality. A self-flattering analysis, I know, but such is my privilege as author of this article.
Some people hated camp so much that they made their parents bring them home. These people should not be confused with the outlaws described above. There is nothing outré about not being able to endure summer camp. The come-and-get-me set grow up to be neurotic and needy. These are people who can often be heard on CSPAN’s early-morning call-in program Washington Journal, filibustering from a time zone still blanketed in predawn darkness, until the host says, “Please state your question.”
Some people enjoy camp. These people grow up to be normal. My own two children, I’m pleased to report, belong to this category, assuming the blasé letters I’m receiving (“Pringles would taste pretty good right about now”) reflect sincere contentment.
Some people really, really enjoy camp. I wish I could tell you that these people grow up to be really, really normal, but they don’t. You know who I’m talking about. These are the ones who wept uncontrollably when the papiermâché numbers spelling out 1967 were set ablaze on a little raft that a camp counselor, under cover of darkness, towed stealthily to the middle of Lake Weecheewachee on the evening of the last group sing. These are the people for whom childhood represented the zenith of human existence and everything that followed an anticlimax. The women—they’re mostly women—usually end up in abusive relationships with pathologically angry men who eventually abandon them and pay child support erratically, if at all. If the person who really, really enjoyed camp is a man, then he is unlikely ever to develop an intimate relationship and on occasion may be spotted in the back of a police cruiser speeding away from a grade-school playground.
The final category is people who really, really, really enjoy camp. These are the camp cultists. You probably expect me to say that these campers grow up to be utterly incapable of functioning in a noncamp environment, and end up sleeping on the streets in cardboard boxes. In fact, the opposite is true. Camp cultists grow up to be chief executive officers of major corporations, name partners in Wall Street banking firms, Cabinet secretaries, governors, and presidents of prestigious foundations. Their universities invite them to serve on their boards. Their home towns name schools after them. They are the Establishment. Longtime Disney CEO Michael Eisner is a camp cultist, having published, in 2005, Camp, a memoir of his bygone days at Vermont’s Keewaydin Canoe Camp, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest continually operating summer camp (it was founded in 1893), and whose Web site invites alumni to donate securities to something called the Keewaydin Foundation. I haven’t read Eisner’s book, but according to Amazon.com, its “statistically improbable phrases” include “winds ceremony” and “Indian circle.”
For camp cultists, summer camp is an experience that lasts a lifetime. When they’re too old to be campers, they come back as counselors. When they’re too old to be counselors, they send their children in their stead. When their children eventually succeed (on the third or fourth try) in getting themselves thrown out of Camp Weecheewachee, for infractions too ghastly to contemplate, camp cultists send money. Lots and lots of money. If it weren’t for camp cultists, half the summer camps in the United States would be forced to close their doors, depriving today’s campers of this essential early exercise in psychological sorting.
Or perhaps not. Montana Miller, a folklorist who teaches a class called “Summer Camp Ethnography” at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, insists that even children who don’t attend summer camp subject themselves to the same psychological sorting process by imagining that they did. In an e-mail to me, she elaborated:
There have been so many movies and books and TV shows—not to mention the stories told by friends who return from camp—that kids internalize whether or not they went to camp themselves. … I had [my students] do an in-class writing assignment in which they recounted an anecdote from camp—presenting it as a personal-experience narrative, but not necessarily real. It could be fictional or something that happened to someone they knew. They read their anecdotes out loud to the class and we tried to guess whether these were real experiences they had had themselves, or constructions from their imaginations and their pop culture educations. You know what? In almost every case, it was impossible to tell.
The summer-camp ink blot, then, is universal. You are how you camped, even if you never camped at all.