Distortion

(NOTE: Full trigger warnings, this piece describes aspects of rape and sexual violence. If you are uncomfortable with this, please be aware.)

Distortion sustains existence. Every time you access your memories, look through a kaleidoscope and you see the world as you want to see it. Memory is a kaleidoscope of your own desires, a record of life that only you can stomach. The distortions in memory are the bricks that keep the past from destroying us.

I went to Camp Shohola, a quintessential summer camp in rural Pennsylvania, for five years. I had a never had a great time there, but I kept coming back, so it was worth it to me[1].

I recently learned that the camp was being sued for negligence and battery over an alleged sexual assault of a camper by an older camper on the annual Shohola Cape Cod whale watching trip in 2007. The kaleidoscope of the past shattered in an instant. What? Are you serious?

As a journalist, I felt suddenly compelled to find answers. When the past shatters, you can’t just leave the pieces lying on the floor. There is no chance anyone involved with the case will speak to me on the record. I can only go off public court records and documents submitted in the last few months. After paying my absurd $17.70 fee to the U.S. government to access PACER (the court records site), I started to read. The complaint said this:

“…it is alleged that a counselor employed by Shohola…sexually assaulted the plaintiff, and may have had inappropriate sexual contact with two other minors who shared a tent with the plaintiff and defendant’s employee during this excursion. [The plaintiff] who is now approximately 20 years old, has sued Shohola Camp Ground, alleging negligence, negligent hiring and supervision and battery.”

Those initials mean nothing to you, but they mean something to me. The counselor, who I will refer to as “Oswald” to preserve his identity, and I have 17 mutual friends on Facebook. He is not my friend–the older campers usually took no notice of me–but he’s someone I remember well. Everyone remembers him. Anyone who went to Shohola during 2008-2012 will know who he is.

As for the plaintiff, who I will call “Bernie”, his memory is far less certain to me. I do not know him and never met him. I only know him through transcripts of his filmed testimony buried in court documents. (graphic content below)

“And he asked us if we knew what a blow job was. And at the time I did not. I thought he said blow drop. I had no idea what he was talking about,” Bernie testified. “He started saying like, oh, it’s cool, you know, to do an extreme dare…Eventually I gave in and said okay. He never said what he was going to do. He told me to get on my knees, so I did. And then he pulled down my, and I felt him penetrate me…. I couldn’t scream for help. I couldn’t say anything.”

This testimony is, of course, horrifying. Bernie was 11 at the time. Oswald was maybe three years older. He also described Oswald giving a blow job to “Pablo”[2], another camper. I think it’s fair to say if events occurred as Bernie related, it was rape and Camp Shohola could probably be found negligent for not having any supervision on this trip. I do recall that the trip system at Shohola was disorganized and chaotic. I went on one trip, a whitewater rafting trip to upstate New York. There were at least 20 campers, two older “trips” counselors who drove the vans, and that’s it. I could totally see where things could go wrong.

However, we can’t just believe Bernie just yet. His lawsuit was amended twice because parts of it were incorrect. The original complaint said it occurred in July of 2008. This was revised to July 2007. Also, although Oswald was a respected older camper and destined for counselor status, I can confirm that he was not employed by Shohola at the time. He was employed while I attended the camp, but not until 2010. But in the complex constructions of memory, it’s easy to see how Oswald could be remembered as a counselor in those days. He certainly seemed like a counselor to me, when I was 10.

The amended complaint, released in January 2017, clarified that it was a camper that allegedly raped Bernie during the summer of 2007. Then, more evidence arrived. The proceedings unearthed “Clark” and “Pablo”, the other two campers who were in the tent in 2007. Somehow, they both agreed to testify on video.

Of course, their testimonies contradicted each other. Bernie produced Clark’s statement to the plaintiff’s investigator, submitted via video, that stated that Oswald had sexually assaulted him. Oswald allegedly convinced the younger campers in his tent to play “Truth or Dare” and proceeded to have anal sex with Clark, aged 11 at the time, as part of the dare. From what I found, and what the defense pointed out, there was no mention of Bernie in the video testimony. However, there are multiple corroborations between both stories. Both men mentioned the use of a “safe word” that Oswald told them to use. Both men said that it was initially a game. And it does seem strange for another adult to also give sworn testimony that this embarrassing event from the past happened if it wasn’t true.

But Pablo recounted events differently. At his subpoena, he stated that Bernie’s testimony was outright false, specifically the part about him receiving a blow job from Oswald at age 11. However, judging from the transcripts of the interview, it’s hard to say that Pablo really helped Shohola out. He admitted that he had been in contact with the camp director to possibly get a summer job at the camp, and that he had been in some contact with a private investigator and lawyers before the subpoena. Bernie’s lawyers argued that Pablo’s testimony was “telegraphed”, and could therefore be discounted.

The end of the examination was also damning. After questioning from Bernie’s lawyers, Pablo admitted that his recollections of the even were unclear. He could not even identify the correct campers who were in the lawsuit on a photograph. After four hours of questioning, the question-and-answer ends as such:

BERNIE’S LAWYER: Do you have any reason to believe that Bernie’s statement that he was penetrated by Oswald during the Camp Shohola 2007 Cape Cod whale watching trip was not accurate?

PABLO: No.

CAMP’S LAWYER: Did anyone get penetrated while you were in the tent?

PABLO: I don’t remember.

In all court filings after this interview, the defense repeatedly stressed that Pablo testified that there was no sexual activity in the tent. This is true, but later in the interview, he also testified that he does not remember. There was a motion to compel the plaintiffs to produce Clark’s entire video, which the plaintiffs did.

I have no idea who is going to win this case. I was not able to obtain Clark’s full testimony to learn whether Clark said that Oswald raped Bernie in addition to himself. I can’t even say whether Bernie’s claims are corroborated by more than just Bernie’s testimony. But that is in real court. In the court of public opinion, things look bad for my summer camp, even if they win this case. Given that fake rapes are rare and that two men came forward ten years after the fact, it seems likely that something truly awful happened.

Here’s what I know for sure. Oswald was employed by Camp Shohola well after this incident. Bernie did not return to camp. Neither did Pablo. I showed up as an impressionable ten-year-old the year afterwards and lost a game of tetherball to Oswald. From what I have gathered, Oswald has a girlfriend and is living a fairly normal life now. I don’t know where anyone else is.

Here’s another thing I know. In the all-male setting of Camp Shohola for Boys, a culture of silence was the status quo. A younger, Cabin 1-3 camper to accusing someone of homosexual rape would be impossible to imagine. Cultures of silence on college campuses are one thing, but summer camp was another matter entirely. I would not have believed Bernie and Clark if they told me, at any point during my five years at camp.

Why aren’t rape victims believed? In this extreme case, I think the answer is clear. Those in power don’t want to believe victims. Those in power don’t want to believe because we believe the rapist has more worth than the victim. The respected, older counselor who is “cool” and hold sway in the community controls the power dynamic. The camp springs to defend him. The camp denies rape. It’s a simple and brutal truth.

The guilt is churning through my nervous system, yes. The guilt pains me now, as I sift through these court PDFs and realize that I was part of it, I was complicit, I wasn’t even there, and yet I helped enable the perpetrator to continue working at the camp for years. Maybe something else happened.

Even though there was nothing I could have done in this case, there were hundreds if not thousands of moments in which I could have done the right thing at camp. I could have stood up against the rampant bullying, racism[3], homophobia and intolerance. I could’ve been more understanding. I could’ve been a good person, but I wasn’t.

My friend Harvey Chang’s odd mannerisms and overall laziness earned him public embarrassment and several bruises. He was my friend before we went to camp. He was my friend after we stopped going. But why didn’t I do anything to stop kids in my cabin from bullying him, calling him racist names and getting violent? Sure, when you’re introverted, positively nerdy and emotionally unstable Korean-American pre-teen, there is little room for error. You want to get through the day. You want to make friends.

But how fucked-up should the system be? I’m not sure if all masculinity is toxic, but the behavior on display on Camp Shohola on a daily basis was most assuredly toxic. I did nothing. I contributed to it. You, reader, can take my “kaleidoscope of memory”, shatter it into pieces, and throw it in my face. Take a look at the real world. Swim with goggles. Fuck my distortions.

And so now, after reading this sexual assault lawsuit, I can only say: “now do you understand?” This is what happens when you give everyone a pass. This is what happens when you stay silent forever. Boys will be boys. So what? What excuse does that give? Every damn rule and social more we built there was to exclude or break apart something. When we snuck out at night to avoid counselors, we were delighted in breaking rules. When silence reigns, the world becomes sadder. You can sit there and say “men are shit, heh heh”, or you could try to get a glimpse of understanding at what the world should be.

The lawsuit is ongoing. The court case will continue throughout the year. However, it’s outcome is irrelevant to the moral judgment I have for the camp and on myself.

Reader, your imagination is wrong. When you think of the lake at Camp Shohola for Boys, a quintessential summer camp in rural Pennsylvania, you picture a pristine, seemingly chlorinated lake, sitting in the grand basin of a gorgeous American Landscape. The gorgeous landscape was there, but the lake itself was a shithole. Whenever I swam in that lake, I left covered in grime and dirt. Any use of the lake required a lengthy shower before all the particles were gone.

But I grew to appreciate that lake. I swam in it, kayaked in it, and dove in without a second thought. There was nothing else to be done.

Footnotes: 

[1] I have a contentious past with the memory of Camp Shohola. I never felt part of the camp. I was too quiet, too reserved and too damn uncool to be considered. But I had a good time, made one friend, and enjoyed summers. It was a rather rundown, antique place, with Sysco food and dirty cabins. The showers were terrifying. I spent five years there, and you were supposed to get a five-year sweater to commemorate your time. They forgot to give me one.

[2] Name has been changed

[3] The camp was at least 50 percent foreign internationals, mostly from Mexico. Rich Mexico City families would send their sons to the camp, for some strange reason. They were really the power group in camp society, if we’re being honest. There were seven Borgio brothers who all came, for example, who were all notorious rulebreakers and insane individuals in their own right. In the end, the racism boils down to the Americans discriminating against the Mexicans and Mexicans responding in kind with their own pride. There was also just casual racism and homophobia thrown around in conversation, but you know, all-boys camp.

 

 

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