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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

Sex at Family Camp

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Every year, I attend Swan Family Therapy Camp in Santa Cruz, California. I’m twenty-four now, and I live in New York, but I still go. I don’t attend for the therapy; I just like to watch.
     Family Camp is the most bizarre, horrifying, sad and hilarious place I’ve ever known. It’s also an incredible place to meet girls. Held for a week every June in a romantic, isolated mountain forest, the camp is named for Shirley Swan, the family therapist who founded it. Campers come from all over California for the “nurturing” environment and to do “work," an intense drama therapy that involves a lot of havoc and hysterics.
     I met Heather Spoon at Swan Camp three years ago. That particular year was a notable one in my family’s history: a week before camp, my parents called a family meeting to announce their impending divorce. They said they had fallen in love with other people and spilled their guts about their secret open marriage and various affairs. My mother was now in love with Bill

It became clear that most people attending Swan Family Therapy Camp slept together at camp.

Noonan, a man we knew from Swan Camp. (My sister had a crush on his son.) My Dad was in love with Samantha, a woman we also knew from camp. Bill and Samantha were each married to other people we knew from camp, but they were also getting divorces. Upon further inquiry, it became clear that most of the people attending Swan Family Therapy Camp had open marriages and slept together at camp. Apparently, while their children stayed up late around the campfire secretly drinking and smoking pot, the adults stayed up late in their tents, committing their own secret crimes in the dark woods. Though there had been many clues (plenty of leering and lasciviousness at “party night," middle-aged married women dressed as sexy devils at “costume night," sex workshops for those twenty-five and older, etc.), my powers of deduction had failed me. I had been blind to the swinging, the wife-swapping, the orgies, the skinny dipping.
     Despite my family’s freshly broken state, we all returned to camp that year. Our parents’ new lovers came along. We kids weren’t forced to go, but we went anyway. I actually don’t know how to explain exactly why.
     I first noticed Heather Spoon at check-in that year. Check-in is the first thing that happens when everyone arrives at camp; anyone who wants to participate (everything is voluntary) sits in a circle of lawn chairs by the creek. One by one, the campers introduce themselves and tell the group what’s “bubbling” or “percolating” for them at the moment. Everyone listens attentively, some whittling or knitting, all swatting mosquitoes. The stories told hint at lives held together by Scotch tape. For the most part, Swan brains are consumed by depression, desperation and dread. These people save up their sorrow all year to spill their guts at Swan Camp. There, they tell everyone everything they’re afraid to mention to their therapists back home.
     My parents used check-in to announce the divorce. My Mom sat next to Bill, holding his hand; my father sat next to Samantha, holding her hand. As my parents spoke, the Swans sitting next to me put their hands on my shoulders in a comforting way. I told them to stop touching me. At family camp, it’s not offensive to say things like that, to mark your emotional boundaries.
     Over the course of six hours, one woman spoke about illegally assisting her parents in suicide. Another woman talked about the dozen men who had rejected her that year and explained, in detail, the reasons they had broken up with her and how hard she had tried with each of them. One man talked about irrationally blaming himself for his wife’s miscarriages.
     When check-in began to bore me, I looked around the circle and noticed Heather. She was seated next to a woman who was obviously her mother. Heather’s hair was black as a record. Her legs were long and white, like a mannequin’s. She wore a red vintage summer dress from the ’50s. It showed off her shoulders, which were also a heartbreaking white. She had huge lips and eyes, and her face looked like a cushion. I felt certain that fucking her would feel like a pillow fight. I wondered what she would say during check-in. I also wondered if she had a boyfriend, and if I could get her back to my tent.
     About nine hundred years later, it was Heather’s turn to speak. “I’m Heather Spoon," she said. "I was last here three years ago. But I imagine most of you don’t even recognize me. I’ve changed completely since then. Last time I was here, I was a mess. I hated myself. A woman who hates herself looks very different from one who loves herself.” Here, the crowd sort of chuckled and nodded knowingly. She continued, “Last year I joined the Santa Barbara chapter of the Children of Violence and I’ve found love and companionship I

"I’ll bet you could hypnotize me," Heather said. She winked again.

never could have imagined.”
    She stopped for a moment to wipe her eyes. I remember thinking, “Do bigger eyes cry bigger tears? I suppose not.” When Heather started speaking again, she did so in the sloppy voice of a crier. That voice is the thing I resent most about crying. Tears reduce the voice of the most eloquent orator to a slurred warble you can find in any drunk or retard.
    Swan Camp is all about talking while crying. “I am a Child of Violence,” Heather said, her eyes leaking. She grabbed her mother’s hand at this point, almost violently. Her mother accepted the hand as if it were covered in thorns, and stared at the ground. Heather continued, “My mother was impregnated by a rape. But she was strong, and she didn’t have an abortion. My mother didn’t tell me about my father until I was eighteen. But I could feel it before I actually knew it, you know?” She started crying harder now. “But I wasn’t the only one. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. And now that I’ve met other Children of Violence, I don’t have to be crazy anymore. I don’t have to do drugs and sleep with everybody and try to kill myself all the time. Now I can be happy.” The circle applauded like they were in Carnegie Hall.
    That night in my tent, I could think of nothing but Heather Spoon.
    The next morning, about fifty people showed up for the camp’s first "session," setting up lawn chairs in the same clearing where check-in had taken place. The first woman to “work” went up front and told the story of her sexual abuse as a teenager. When someone does “work,” they always weep. They can’t help it. The weeping done at Swan Camp is ten times harder than any weeping one would ever encounter in the regular world. I watched New Yorkers crying on television after 9/11; having been to Swan Camp, I couldn’t help but feel that the tears seemed uninspired. At Swan Camp, they cry with the unself-conscious fury of newborn babies or of elephants giving birth.
     The woman “working” told the story of her drug-addict father who regularly sold her body to dealers in exchange for drugs. Her father sold her body for the first time when she was fourteen. She was listening to music in her room when there was a knock on her door. She answered the door expecting to see her father and instead found a stranger who was there to fuck her. After that first time, her father removed the lock so no one would have to knock. Some nights after the rape was through, her father would come into her room and wake her, sobbing, and he would say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
     When the woman finished her story and descended into mad, wild tears, the facilitator asked her to call up someone from the audience to play her father. She picked a tall, blond man in shorts and a family camp T-shirt. The facilitator instructed her to tell this proxy father all the things she wished she could tell her dead father. Her speech to her father was more like keening or moaning than speech and her mangled words rode from her lips on strings of drool. After a few minutes with this proxy father, her cries turned to screams and the facilitator called up men from the audience to hold her down as she “explored her rage." Four men came up to the front, each taking a limb as the woman squirmed and howled. The facilitator instructed the man playing her father to chant, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” As he chanted, the part he was playing overcame his real self, and his eyes flooded. The facilitator started knocking on his clipboard to simulate that first knock on the door. I watched the woman struggle in the dirt. She was dripping with sweat. Her chest was heaving. I became aroused. I looked around the audience and wondered how many of the audience members were aroused. In the midst of searching the onlookers’ expressions, my eyes met Heather Spoon’s. She was wearing a short-sleeve white button-up shirt and a thin red scarf around her neck. She had a white flower in her hair. She winked at me.
     When the woman up front finished her “raging,” the facilitator asked her to call up someone from the audience to represent her ideal father, the father she never had. She chose a handsome man with graying hair whom I had often seen playing the ideal father in sessions like this. He was sort of typecast. The man with gray hair embraced the woman and told her that he’d always love and protect her. At this, she lost it. She collapsed, and a couple of people brought her a lawn chair with a pillow and a box of Kleenex.
     At lunch break, I was told that today was the day for “country games.” Children were hopping about in potato sacks. Heather approached me and asked if I’d be her partner in the four-legged race. Our legs were the longest, but we still lost. Then she gave me some good advice about how to look a girl in the eye. She explained that usually when you look into a person’s eyes, your gaze darts back and forth from one eye to the other, but that steadier eye contact was possible; if you simply looked at the bridge of the nose, the gaze would be steady.
    “I read that in a book on hypnosis,” she said.
    “Have you ever hypnotized anyone?” I asked.
    “No, but I fantasize about hypnotizing people. And I love being hypnotized,” she said.
    I noticed that the session was starting up again. “I’ll have to ask more about that later,” I said.
    “I bet you could hypnotize me,” she said, smiling. Then she winked again.
    Heather and I sat next to each other for the session wrap-up. The woman with the drug-addict father sat calmly up front with a blanket around her shoulders as people responded to her work. One woman said, “Your father saw you as a sex object but only gave you to other people. It seems amazing to me that he was weak enough to sell you for drugs, but strong enough not to rape you himself.”
     This comment seemed to press a button for a man sitting behind me, who went berzerk. “She’s right!” he screamed. “A father can’t help but think of his daughter as a sexual object! My daughter is on the swim team!” When he said “swim team” through his tears, it sounded like “sin team." “Of course,” said the man, calming down a bit, “as a man, you have to hold yourself back. I have to control myself. But then in bed with my wife, she’s always telling me to cut loose, to lose

She came into the tent, zipped up the door and kissed me with a whole lot of tongue.

control. I tell her she doesn’t know what that means, for a man to really lose control. If I let myself lose control for one moment, I won’t be able to come back. I’ll be an animal! I’ll strangle my wife and rape her sisters and our daughter and the babysitter! Every man is capable of these things!” Comforting arms wrapped around the man’s shoulders like boa constrictors.
     The facilitator reponded, “At a therapist convention I once did work with a man who had raped his daughter. I started by asking him, ‘What’s it like to have fulfilled every father’s dream?’ By the end of the work, I had the man on his knees begging his daughter’s forgiveness. But I had to start by acknowledging that this is desire that every father has to confront in one way or another.”
     Next, Heather rose to speak. Her forehead was lined, and she looked very serious. She said, “As a child of violence, I just have to remind everyone that some of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for rape. Violence can be creative. That’s all I wanted to say.” Then she sat down. The crowd ignored the comment. Heather didn’t seem to care, though. She turned to me, smiled and held my hand like a teenager at the drive-in.
     Once everyone who wanted to speak had spoken, a new session began. A short, plain, pudgy couple went up to the front. This would clearly be one of the very petty sessions about the inconsequential marital problems of uncharismatic, inarticulate people. “I’m going for a walk," I told Heather. "Want to come with me?”
     In the forest, Heather picked up a long stick and poked trees with it as we walked. It was sort of awkward; I had forgotten to ask her about hypnosis and I didn’t know what to say to her. “What do you do for a living?” I asked.
     “Don’t ask me that, man!” she said, letting go of my hand. “That’s the squarest question in the world!”
     “I thought it was a perfectly normal question,” I said.
     “Oh, come on,” she said. “Here, I’ll ask a better question. What do you do when you’re alone?”
     “I write songs,” I said. “I write stories sometimes too. What do you do when you’re alone?”
     “I think,” she said. “I sit and think.”
     “You just think?” I asked. She nodded. “You don’t do anything else while you think?”
     “You mean, like knitting?” she said. “No, I’m easily distracted.”
     “What do you think about?” I asked.
     “I fantasize mostly,” she said. She grinned. “Do you think that’s a waste of time?”
     I started to redirect us toward my tent. “No, I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time. What do you fantasize about?”
     “Rape,” she said. “Being raped, raping other people.”
     “Oh,” I said.
     “I have a good fantasy about walking down the street late at night and a beautiful boy jumping out from the shadows, pulling my hands behind my back, and handcuffing me to a streetlight or something. Or a stop sign or telephone pole.” She threw down her stick now. “Then I imagine waiting there, cuffed to the pole, deciding whether to call out for help. If I call for help, someone might come, but when they see me vulnerable there in my short skirt, they might not want to help. You know what I mean?”
     “That’s a pretty good fantasy,” I said.
     When we arrived at my tent, I asked, “Would you like to come in?” She came in, zipped up the door and kissed me with a whole lot of tongue. Her tongue felt long and hard, and she pushed it into my mouth with too much force. It was a terribly uncomfortable way to kiss, but very violent and erotic. I could never fall in love with a girl who kissed that way. Heather unbuckled my belt, pulled down my pants and bit down on my hipbone, hard enough to grip it in her teeth. Making out with physically abrasive, violent girls usually feels phony, like the wildness is an act, but with Heather it seemed compulsive. She was sexy in the way that a twitch can be sexy, or Tourette’s can be sexy, because it’s honest, so honest that it cannot be censored or controlled in the slightest.
     After our clothes had been shed, I pulled her arms behind her back, and flipped her onto her back, pinning her arms beneath her. I should have stopped to get a condom, but I was careless. Instead of thinking about condoms, I was looking at her, spread out naked before me like that. I remember thinking, “Now, that should be on the Swan Camp T-shirt.”
     When I penetrated her, I found that she wasn’t wet at all. She wouldn’t let me in. Her movements quickened, as if she were full of adrenaline. It’s something you can’t fake. Last week, I watched a woman on Fear Factor trying to escape from handcuffs while underwater; as she ran out of breath, her movements reflected her body’s panic. Heather’s body responded to me like that, expressing terror, resistance, and what felt like contempt. Her body seemed to tell me, “You’re a sick fuck.” I expected her to get wet as we continued, but she didn’t. After about fifteen minutes, I felt unwelcome, pulled out, and finished with my hand. I laughed when I came. I often laugh when I come. I thought she’d be funny about the sex not going well, but she put her arm around me and pulled me against her in a very cuddly way.
    “You laughed,” she said.
    “I know,” I said. “I do that sometimes.”
    “It’s funny how sex is so uneven,” she said. “Two people can’t actually fuck each other. One fucks, and the other receives the fuck. One kisses, the other accepts the kiss. You know,” she continued. “I love being tied up. I’ve been tied up a million times. It’s great feeling helpless and everything. But it would be better if the other person could be helpless too, you know? That would really be fucking intimate, you know? The ideal thing would be if both people were bound. But then nothing happens. It’s tragic. Sex is inherently tragic.”
    “I’m sorry it didn’t really work,” I said, though I didn’t blame myself.
    “Oh, it’s no big deal, Daddy,” she said. I thought it seemed overly familiar for her to call me “Daddy," and very uncomfortable considering the work we’d just seen and that her father was a rapist. “It’s not your fault," she continued. "I mean, sex is tragic no matter who you’re with. It’s like Casper the friendly ghost — all he wants is a friend, but people are scared of him so he can’t have friends. It’s essentially tragic. Sex is like that.”
    “I felt like I was raping you,” I said.
    She laughed. “Sorry, but you can’t rape the willing. Wouldn’t it be great if you could, though? That would solve a lot of my problems.”
    I didn’t sleep with Heather again that camp. When it was over, she returned to Santa Barbara, and I haven’t seen her since. Her mother still comes to camp every year, but Heather hasn’t returned yet. Maybe she’ll be there this year. Though sex with Heather could not be described as “good," I think about that sexual encounter more often than any of the others I’ve had. Heather Spoon represents to me exactly what I love about Swan Camp. She told me the crazy, dirty things on her mind. It seems a simple thing, but it’s not something I often find outside of that forest.  


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
 

Will Wells is a writer in New York.

©2004 Will Wells and Nerve.com