Please note that this review discusses several potential triggers, such as homophobia, dead naming, suicide, mental and physical torture, internalised homophobia, and outing.
In the current climate, LGBTQ+ issues are becoming more apparent. With every victory for equality, such as LGBTQ+ representation in politics, this acceptance comes alongside losses in other areas, such as the increasing use of Conversion Therapy camps. These camps, although have been commended by mental health professionals, have continued to prove popular, especially in the Bible Belt of the US. Many young people who identify as LGBTQ+ face the threat of these camps every day, and therefore I felt it would be useful to review a book which deals with this issue for this month’s Book Nook.
Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry is a modernised albeit loose retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, however, instead of making his way through Hell, the action takes place at a Conversion Therapy camp.
The plot focuses on Raya, a 16 year old girl from a conservative town in Texas. After being abandoned by her mother at age 2, Raya was raised by her gran. After being caught in an intimate moment with her girlfriend, Sarah, Raya is sent to Friendly Saviours, a conversion camp, in order to cure her of her homosexuality. Sarah is sent to the same camp and, as the two of them navigate the horrors and trials of the camp, Raya assumes the role of Orpeus and vows to find a way for her and Sarah to escape their own personal hell.
The portion of the book that deals with the conversion camp is a lot to stomach, as the author doesn’t shy away from describing what goes on there. From Raya’s point of view, we’re told about how the people running the camp speak down to them as if they’re less than human and often make them do the most ridiculous physical exercises in order to physically exhaust them. They’re forced to go to regular confession sessions and have to learn how to perform appropriate gender roles, with the females being taught to be ‘girly’ and the males being taught to be more ‘masculine.’ The torture methods used are described with detail and are presented as torture and not a form of therapy, as some other books on this subject have. They include aversion therapy via ice water and electroshock treatment.
Although this is a lot of potentially upsetting material to read through, each section comes with trigger warnings which I felt was a sensitive touch from the author to the readers. The book will definitely incite strong emotions and anyone who has this book on their ‘to be read’ list should be aware of that.
One particularly poignant theme within this book is the idea of found family. Raya has her gran who has always cared for her, but at the first sign of Raya not measuring up to what her gran wants Raya is sent away to be forced to change. Having already gone through her own daughter having a child out of wedlock and abandoning her baby, the reader might have thought Raya’s gran would be more sympathetic and try to at least talk about the situation. However, when Raya is at the camp, she is reunited with Sarah, as well as finding close friendship with two other characters at the camp. As they all experience the horrors of the camp together, they support, protect, and care for one another, thus forming their own found family. It’s an important lesson that you don’t always have to agree with or forgive your blood family and that some bonds are stronger than blood. The idea that Raya doesn’t have to forgive her gran for sending her to the camp is a refreshing and valid one and something which more people could benefit from as they navigate their lives.
Although this book is aimed at young adults, I feel the subject matter and the descriptions of the torture – for the book makes no secret it’s torture and not treatment – makes me think that some people, young adult or adult, will struggle with this book.|Some of the scenes describing the torture were a little overwhelming and I decided to take short breaks from the story when reading. One of the things that allowed me to continue to read was the author’s use of humour. I don’t mean there were huge comedic moments, but the small everyday moments that are funny helped to shield the reader from some of the more difficult sections of the book. I feel that without these small moments, the book would have been too difficult to continue with.
Personally, this book reached me on such a personal level. I’m very lucky to live in the UK and my family have always been highly accepting of my sexuality. I have experienced a lot of homophobia in my everyday life outside of my family, especially at school, university, and in the workplace. However, I know that I have been very lucky. When I think of the people who are sent to these camps and what they must go through, my heart breaks. As much as the subject matter and the detail the book goes into can be emotionally taxing, I feel that it’s important that we don’t shy away from the reality of it. According to https://psychcentral.com/, over 700,000 adults in the US had undergone conversion therapy by 2021 and the idea that these things still happen in 2024 is ludicrous and I can only hope that this is the year this type of barbaric practice is ended once and for all.