Camille Preaker is, as our grandma would say, “a real piece of work.” But Grandma would be saying that to be nice (or more truthfully, to be mean in a nice way), and when we say it, we mean it kind of literally. Because...honestly? She’s a hot mess. She’s also a piece of work in the sense that she’s carved hundreds of words into her own skin, making her a messed-up exhibition of self-harm performance art as well. A living monument to the power of words, or something pretentious like that.
Anyway, Camille is disturbed. She’s dark. She’s depressed. She is pretty consistently disappointed in her surroundings, herself, and life in general. Part of this is due to a lack of effort, or maybe an inability to feel connected with the people and material possessions around her. For example, this is how she describes her apartment in Chicago:
I kept my eyes closed and imagined myself back in Chicago, on my rickety slice of a bed in my studio apartment facing the brick back of a supermarket. I had a cardboard dresser purchased at that supermarket when I moved in four years ago, and a plastic table on which I ate from a set of weightless yellow plates and bent, tinny flatware. I worried that I hadn’t watered my lone plant, a slightly yellow fern I’d found by my neighbor’s trash. Then I remembered I’d tossed the dead thing out two months ago.(3.58)
It’s just so… sad. Her one plant was something someone else had discarded. Her window looks at a brick wall. She moved in four years ago, and still hasn’t done anything to make her surroundings cheerful, or even just utilitarian. She lives like a broke college student who’s been thrust suddenly into the witness protection program.
Some of this is explained when she reveals that she lives her life in a dreary kind of survival mode:
I like checking days off a calendar – 151 days crossed and nothing truly horrible has happened. 152 and the world isn’t ruined. 153 and I haven’t destroyed anyone. 154 And no one really hates me. Sometimes I think I won’t ever feel safe until I can count my last days on one hand. Three more days to get through until I don’t have to worry about life anymore. (8.162)
Yeah, so, when we check days off a calendar it’s usually a countdown to vacation or something. Or even just Saturday. But Camille’s mental checklist is so defeatist; she’s just biding her time until she can die.
By the end of the book, we’ve learned enough lurid details that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what could be the cause of Camille’s, um, Camille-ness. Obviously, her mom poisoning her and her sisters to death in a messed up need for attention is a big factor, but she doesn’t realize that has been happening until the end of the story. And clearly she’s been suffering from an OCD-like problem when she begins to hyper-focus on words as a kid:
The problem started long before that, of course. Problems always start long before you really, really see them. I was nine and copying, with a thick polka-dotted pencil, the entire Little House on the Prairie series word by word into spiral notebooks with glowing green covers.
I was ten and writing every other word my teacher said on my jeans in blue ballpoint. […]
By eleven, I was compulsively writing down everything anyone said to me in a tiny blue notepad, a mini reporter already. Every phrase had to be captured on paper or it wasn’t real, it slipped away. I’d see the words hanging in midair – Camille, pass the milk – and anxiety coiled up in me as they began to fade, like jet exhaust. Writing them down, though, I had them. No worries that they’d become extinct. I was a lingual conservationist. (4.203-205)
We’re not doctors, but we can comfortably say that acute anxiety over the potential for words going extinct puts up just a few red flags. Maybe if her mom wasn’t such a cold, distant maternal figure she might’ve gotten Camille therapy right then and nipped it in the bud. But clearly, that wasn't the case.
Marian died on Camille’s thirteenth birthday. That’ll mess anyone up. And then Camille got her period (and apparently also began “compulsively, furiously masturbating.” (4.207)). And then, in her own words, her looks “settled” and she became undeniably beautiful. And because beauty can smooth out all kinds of rough edges, all of a sudden the people at school who thought of her as the weird kid with the dead sister...started to love her. She was popular. And pretty. And so, so mentally disturbed:
It was that summer, too that I began the cutting, and was almost as devoted to it as to my newfound loveliness. I adored tending to myself, wiping a shallow red pool of my blood away with a damp washcloth to magically reveal, just above my navel: queasy. (4.208)
Ugh. We’re queasy just thinking about it.
You would think that would be enough to illustrate how thoroughly self-destructive Camille was in her youth, but, um, nope. In addition to self-harm, compulsively masturbating, and being poisoned by her mom, Camille has also experienced some pretty traumatic sexual encounters, and doesn’t even realize how awful they were. Here she is relating a story about “a girl” (cough cough, it’s her) to Richard because he’s asked about acts of violence in Wind Gap:
“Once, an eighth-grade girl got drunk at a high-school party and four or five guys on the football team had sex with her, kind of passed her around. Does that count?”
“Camille. Of course it counts. You know that, right?”
“Well, I just didn’t know if that counted as outright violence or …”
“Yeah, I’d count a bunch of punks raping a thirteen-year-old outright violence, yes I sure would.”
This wasn’t the only incident, but you get the picture. Perhaps in her desire to be the popular girl she seemed on the outside, Camille developed the idea that sex is something that it isn’t. It’s not that she’s promiscuous (she is, but that’s not the problem)...it’s the fact that she uses sex to feel accepted. She trades it like favors, or like it can be the universal band-aid to all of life’s boo-boos. When she and Richard have a spat, her first instinct is to give him a blow-job, like that’ll make everything okay. That’s not a good way to solve problems, Camille.
Don’t get us wrong, there is nothing bad about having a full and healthy sex life. But the key word there is “healthy.” She wasn’t having sex because it was the natural progression to a relationship, or even just for fun. Many times, she was doing it because she felt like it was what the guy expected, and that’s not a good reason. In fact, the only time she has sex in a remotely normal way is when she drunkenly falls into bed with John Keene. Questionable partners aside (he’s like half her age, and the prime suspect in a grisly murder), it’s the only time she is actually intimate with someone. She lets John see her naked (scars and all), which is a huge departure from her typical modus operandi.
Despite all of her glaring shortcomings, though, we find ourselves rooting for Camille the whole time. She’d be an easy person to dislike: a self-harming, low-self-esteemed alcoholic with a penchant for mediocrity. Like, in real life, we’d avoid her like the plague.
But somehow, Gillian Flynn makes her likable. We want Camille to succeed, even if it means that she has to discover that her own mother and sister are the vicious villains of the story. We are happy at the end when she goes to live with her editor and his wife (who are saints for taking in a full-grown woman and treating her like a mentally deficient child), because she is finally getting the loving childhood that she deserves. And the befuddling thing is: we’re not really sure how Flynn did it. There are very few redeeming qualities to Camille’s character. She approaches everything with a half-assed effort, and typically even then is under the influence of alcohol. We’re not even mad when she knows she’s disappointing:
Curry had always backed me. He thought I’d be his best reporter, said I had a surprising mind. In my two years on the job I’d consistently fallen short of expectations. Sometimes strikingly. (1.36)
And…she doesn’t even offer excuses for this. She just unapologetically admits that she’s a huge disappointment, and um, well, there it is. Accept it.
So, honestly, if you could figure out why we root for Camille so hard, we’d really appreciate it. We can’t fathom it. We’re starting to lose sleep at night.