When Maggie Thrash was 15 years old, she did what most 15-year-olds do: She fell in love — or like, or lust, or whatever teenage girls do. But the thing that separated Thrash from her peers was the person who she had a crush on: an older camp counselor at a conservative camp in Georgia — who happened to be another girl.
After 15 years went by, Thrash decided her story had stayed in the dark corners of her mind and heart for too long, and so now she wants to share the coming of age story that shaped her life in the form of her debut graphic novel, Honor Girl.
BuzzFeed had the chance to speak with the author about her experience at this conservative camp and all of the complexities of growing up as a teenage girl. Here's what she had to say:
BuzzFeed: Why did you choose to focus on this particular story from your youth?
Maggie Thrash: When I look back on my youth, this moment, this time, this summer stands out as this really crucial moment where I was flooded with new, intense, and perilous feelings and basically everyone has that moment where you experience these feelings you've never had before and afterwards you can never go back, it basically transforms you into a different person and you're probably doomed to be miserable forever. Desire just dooms us all.
At the beginning of your story, you describe the criteria for becoming your camp's Honor Girl and write, "It was just the one who seemed, in an unmistakable way, to represent the best of us." What do you think teenage girls interpret as being "the best of us?"
MT: I think for girls, we're raised to think "the best of us" means the nicest, and of course nice is often conflated with being pretty, too. Being nice, being pretty, and not really offending anyone with aggressive weirdness is "the best of "us;" being someone who is for all tastes and just a stereotypical nice girl. That's what I grew up assuming was the ideal female.
What role did friendship play in your experience as a teenager and as a camper?
MT: I think especially for young women, a lot of friendships are based on the mutual expectations that you will adhere to the rules of your little clique. But a lot of friendships are challenged when people don't let each other change. This can be especially awkward in really conservative settings, like where I went to camp. From this age on, I was nervous about who to trust and confide in because you really are putting your faith into other people's hands. I think especially for girls, there is this ethos that in order to be close you have to know each other's secrets.
One of your friends jokingly told you that you were way too serious and you needed to "lighten up." Is that something you experienced a lot of growing up?
MT: Definitely. Adults often forget that teenagers are real and their emotions, feelings, and thoughts are real. It's weird because adults were teens once and should remember that teens' thoughts and feelings are just as as real as theirs.
Tami, one of the counselors, said this to you before you left camp for the summer, "Parents don't send their girls here to frolic around in some lesbian fantasy." Why was it especially difficult for you to be gay at this camp and how did that shape and affect your sexual coming of age?
MT: It all goes back to this reigning nice girl ideal that we had to uphold; this feeling that I'm grossing everyone out if I step outside of these heteronormative expectations. My first reactions of being attracted to a woman for the first time were, "Stop!" and it was hard to bounce back from that. I just remember feeling this tension that I was not being the nice girl who can just kind of blend in with all company, that it was rude of me to be attracted to a woman.
When you talk about sneaking away from the dance to make out with Erin, you mention that it's different from what you thought were "standard practices" romantically. How did your idea of "standard practices" shape your understanding of what was perceived to be "normal?"
MT: It was pretty clear there was this mutual attraction between Erin and I but I didn't really give myself permission to believe that. Other couples would have known what to do in that situation, but in this conservative society you're not really encouraged to trust your instincts. We were in a "Don't ask don't tell" era, so I relied heavily on just gaydar and instincts. Being thrown into this was super nebulous; I laugh to call it a dating environment, when nothing can be spoken out loud. It was a lot for a newbie 15-year-old. I spent most of my teenage years shrouded in not making statements, almost wanting to maintain this plausible deniability.
You discuss depression and different mental health struggles throughout the story. Do you think this is something teenagers need to talk about more with each other?
MT: Often times, serious depression is written off as teenage angst by adults who don't want to deal with it. I was really crippled by depression for a long time after this. When you read a lot of stories about being young, they usually end with characters being fuller, stronger people but that's not always realistic. Sometimes you're gonna just go into this hibernation of depression, because cause that's what intensity does. It doesn't always make you happy.
If you could go back in time and tell your teenage self something, what would you say?
MT: I would say, "This is just a part of your process." Without coming across as condescending I would want to tell every 15-year-old girl, "You have no idea what you can do right now, so just try. You really have no idea." Don't limit yourself, because you have no idea what you're capable of.