Camp Paradox

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Published by: SheBooks
Pages: 59




Barbara with her mother during parents' weekend at camp, 1962

In Camp Paradox—the first literary memoir to break the silence on the subject of female sexual abuse—Barbara Graham bravely and eloquently limns her experience as a 14-year-old camper who was molested by her trusted 28-year-old counselor in the early 1960’s. It took Graham 30 years to recognize that she’d been sexually abused, and another decade to forgive herself for allowing the abuse to happen.

By turns haunting, wry and wise, Camp Paradox evokes the intense hothouse atmosphere of all-girls’ summer camps. These eight-week parallel universes offered an exhilarating sense of freedom from parents and school. As Graham puts it in the book, “Camp Paradox felt like my true home. Miraculously, everyone was, if not equal, then accepted. That’s because as soon as the bus pulled through the camp gate, we were granted a clean slate. We could become someone new, someone freed from the labels our families and friends slapped on us back home: in or out, overly sensitive or mean, fast, plump, skinny, smart or, worst of all, average and, therefore, invisible.”

It was as normal for campers to have crushes on their female counselors as it was to fall madly in love with Elvis or the 19-year-old stable boy. The difference between Graham and her fellow campers—at least to her knowledge—is that other counselors didn’t take advantage of her friends who were also grappling with the many varieties of early teenage angst and vulnerability.

Graham’s story of abuse began the way many stories of abuse begin: with kindness. A kind, caring counselor who made Barbara feel understood. Special. But when the 28-year-old woman started touching her, Graham was plunged into a shadow world where she didn’t know the rules and she felt more isolated, shamed and confused than ever before. It took her months to work up the courage to put a stop to the counselor’s abuse.

Thirty years later, while writing a magazine article on repressed memory, Graham finally realized that she had been sexually abused and raped—according to the laws of New York State, where the camp was located.

Camp Paradox details Graham’s growing understanding of what happened to her, from the initial abuse through contact with her counselor 40 years after the fact to a sense of healing and closure that will offer hope to anyone who has ever felt violated or been confused about the nature of an intimate relationship.



"This beautifully written account of a girl's soul-shattering experience is a teaching story. Graham shares her journey from trauma to transcendence and reminds us that facing pain honestly transforms it into redemption.”
—Mary Pipher, author Reviving Ophelia and The Green Boat

“Barbara Graham’s memoir, Camp Paradox, is a clear, insightful, and important story that needs to be heard. Although we’ve made great strides in exposing the sexual abuse of children, the sexual abuse of girls by women is still a subject rarely talked about. But this is not only a book about suffering. It’s also a book about healing—about reclaiming our selves and becoming whole again. Camp Paradox is engaging from the opening paragraph all the way through to the suspenseful and rewarding ending.”
—Ellen Bass, author The Courage to Heal

“This eye-opening story of violation and love, romance and rape, is unlike any memoir that I know of.  Witty, heartbreaking, yet finally hopeful, Graham tells her initiation story of summer camp sex and betrayal with clear-eyed compassion and unsparing truth.”
—Mark Matousek, author Sex, Death, Enlightenment


Although I’m a memoirist and playwright, I hadn’t considered writing about my experience of sexual abuse at summer camp until 1990, when an Off-Broadway producer asked me if I’d be interested in doing a play on the subject. I was and proceeded to write Camp Paradox, the play. It was first workshopped at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, in 1991, then produced at the WPA Theater in New York City in the fall of 1992.

I was pleased with both productions, but when I wrote the play I hadn’t yet fully integrated or psychologically processed the experience. I was still somewhat on the fence about whether or not what happened with my camp counselor was true sexual abuse or simply a weird relationship—and the play reflects my lack of clarity.

Since I wrote the play, however, there is no more gray area in my thinking. I am quite clear that what happened to me was sexual abuse. The laws of New York State, where the camp was located, are also quite clear. According to state statutes, I was raped.

After coming to terms with this, I was compelled to tell the whole story. Originally, the camp material was meant to be part of a larger memoir titled Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, about coming of age in the 1960s. But the camp story simply took over and demanded to be told on its own.

Happily, the team at Shebooks jumped at the chance to publish it, and Camp Paradox, the memoir, was born.


Even now, at night when I close my eyes, I can sometimes still hear her. Footsteps crunching on the gravel path, growing louder as she nears the cabin. There’s a pause as she inhales and exhales one last drag on her Salem before crushing it out in the dirt. The screen door whines as she teases it open. Then she tiptoes across the rough wood floor to my bed, and on clear nights her body casts a shadow over mine in the moonlight.

It was the summer before the Beatles, before Kennedy got assassinated, before sex. I mean, other people had had it obviously, just nobody I knew.

I was 14. She was 28.

I’d never heard the L-word before. None of us had—well, except maybe Ls, but they kept it pretty much to themselves in those days, for obvious reasons.

I’d never heard any of the other words either: Sexual abuse. Molested. Incest. Pedophile.

I’d heard of rape, but I had no idea the term applied to me. Actually, it took me about thirty years to figure out the rape part—and that it never had a thing to do with whether or not I was a lesbian, or the fact that she was.

I knew what we were doing must be somehow wrong, but I never blamed it on her. The problem was the crushing small-mindedness of “society,” which is how she explained it. And I couldn’t afford to see it any other way without having a breakdown. That would come later.

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