Jeannie Vanasco on Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl

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the book cover for Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco’s new memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, out today, describes her survival of multiple instances of sexual assault, and focuses specifically on her efforts to understand the how and why of one event: Mark, her high school friend, raped her when both were home from college during their sophomore year.

To make sense of this, Vanasco interviews Mark (a pseudonym selected for specific reasons she shares with the reader) several times over the phone, and meets with him in person to discuss the details of the assault, for the first time, fourteen years after it occurred. Early on, Vanasco acknowledges the complexities of Mark contributing to the memoir, while also questioning his prominent place in it. She considers whether she should seek his permission to include him in a series of inquiries to herself: “Why do I need his permission, anyway? I never gave mine,” and, “What would the book be without him? . . . I want to include him—because without him, the book will be: yet another story about yet another sexual assault,” and finally, “Why do I assume yet another story about yet another sexual assault can’t be told? Or can’t be interesting?”

Vanasco records their conversations, and entire sections of their dialogue form the basis of her memoir. In addition, peppered throughout the book are excerpts from her conversations with her domestic partner Chris, her friends, her therapist, her editor, and others. This chorus of voices provides her with significant support, and positive feedback on her work. Despite their encouragement, however, Vanasco is conflicted about the project initially: “I want to stop working on this, which is why I should keep working on this—because I don’t know how I think or feel about any of it.”

Vanasco frequently stops throughout Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl to observe her motivations and question her expectations. For example, she notes that she wants to be angry—should be angry—with Mark, and yet she still sees him as a friend (“The narrative [is], I’m supposed to hate you,” she tells him). She struggles to use the word “rape,” and wonders if perhaps he has to use it first before she can permit herself to. She travels to see him while still having nightmares about the assault. Ultimately, she shares with Mark one of the memoir’s core themes: “I want to understand, I want to believe, that it’s possible to be a good person, a really good person, who makes a mistake.”

As in her previous memoir, The Glass Eye, which details the death of her father and the profound grief that followed, there are no pretenses in Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl; Vanasco shares her experiences openly and honestly. The narrative at times retreads ground in an attempt to discover the nuances of a moment, a single word. She writes, for example: “When Mark used the word rape, I felt uncomfortable instead of vindicated.” She revisits the details of the event as she remembers it, checking each moment, decision, and action against what Mark can recall in an effort to reconstruct the painful scene, piece by piece. She realizes it changed both of them forever.

I recently spoke with Vanasco about the powerful experience of constructing this important memoir: what lead to its creation, how the act of writing allowed her to reclaim the experience, and the artistic choices she made along the way.

Ray Barker: Your first memoir, The Glass Eye, focused on the grief surrounding your father’s death, and was written, in some part, because you promised him you would write a book about him. Can you go into some detail regarding the impetus behind Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl? When did you first begin to think about writing about the assault and rape, as well as the surrounding personal and cultural issues?

Jeannie Vanasco: The Glass Eye came out in October 2017, the same month the #MeToo hashtag took off. Around that time, I was trying to find my way into my next book project, and the first scene that came to mind: my high school teacher running his hand up my thigh and between my legs. The next scene: waking up to Mark undressing me. The next scene: pushing away the guy who raped me in my twenties. Those memories kept coming at me, in that order, every day it seemed—but I didn’t think I wanted to write another memoir. I was trying to pull together some essays for a collection. But the essays just felt like homework. Writing scenes for this book, though—those came easily. I didn’t want to work on anything else. That’s how I knew this was the right project.

RB: As you mentioned, this book and the #MeToo movement happened concurrently, yet I wouldn’t say Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is defined only by this movement; its story is more complicated than one might at first suspect. Can you talk about how the narrative fits into the broader context of the conversations (one hopes) individuals are having about the prevalence of men in positions of power exploiting, assaulting, and raping women?

JV: Mark doesn’t occupy some high-up position of power. He works at a small camera shop in the Midwest. He’s thirty-five years old but he’s never dated, is still a virgin, doesn’t have friends—and yet he despises the incels. He identifies as progressive and would like to consider himself a feminist. In other words: he doesn’t easily fit into any of the cartoonish stereotypes commonly portrayed in the news, TV shows, and movies. While writing this book, I really wondered: who are the majority of rapists? Do we even know? The longer we go on not hearing from “regular” rapists, the more men will benefit. If we go on labeling them all monsters, it prevents us from holding the seemingly nice guys accountable. Some survivors will feel bad for reporting the rapes since the guys seem otherwise nice. And juries will feel bad about punishing otherwise “nice young men” for “just one mistake.” That’s one of many, many reasons why rape is underreported. So in writing this book, I hoped to undermine our cultural perception of rapists. It’s terrifying to think our loved ones are capable of rape, but it’s essential we acknowledge the possibility.

RB: The book quotes, often verbatim, from your interviews with Mark. Do you feel they were conducted for you personally, for clarity regarding the event, or more so for the book’s narrative? Or both? Is it even necessary to make these kinds of distinctions in a memoir?

JV: I interviewed him for myself and for the book. I wanted to tell him how much he hurt me, since I’d never done that. And I wanted to know if he felt genuine remorse, which connected to a larger question: Had he considered me a real friend? I also wanted proof of what he did. The high school teacher who sexually touched and harassed me, he’d denied everything. And I doubt the guy who raped me in my twenties would confess. With Mark, though, I felt I had a chance at getting confirmation. I knew he felt bad after it happened. The possibility that at least one perpetrator would offer me a sincere apology—one that involved affirming my version of events and acknowledging that real pain had been inflicted—I craved that. And the fact that I was writing a book about the rape helped me feel in control of the questions. I doubt I’d have otherwise asked him about his sex life and what sort of porn he watched in high school. Initially, after talking with him, I felt incredibly grateful for his agreeing to answer my questions for the book. Sharing the transcripts with my female friends, they helped me think through his answers and how I reacted to his claims in the moment. That’s why I included and broke apart the transcripts—to show the reader, in real time, my processing of the rape.

RB: In your memoir, we also get multiple voices in addition to your own: your editor, your friends, your partner Chris, Mark, your therapist. Was it a conscious decision to include these people so prominently in your work? What do these threads add to the narrative?

JV: Mark aside, those are all people I talk to regularly. I can’t imagine my life without them. And since a lot of the narrative unfolds in real time, their inclusion happened naturally. They helped me process the rape, encouraged me to ask harder questions. Their prominence in the book shows how important a support network is—not only for rape survivors but for everybody. Mark said he doesn’t have friends. It’s unfortunate. But he seems unmotivated to change his situation. He said, “It is what it is.”

RB: At times I felt like you had given a lot more thought to the rape than he had in the time since it occurred. What do you make of the apparent lack of reflection on his part? 

JV: Mark called the rape the biggest regret of his life—and yet, until I reached out to him, he never substantively considered what led him to rape. He said he never felt like he could talk about it with anyone. And I get where his feeling—that perpetrators don’t deserve a voice—came from. But as a result of not talking about it, he avoided reflecting on it. He simply labeled it inexcusable, and then excused himself from the really hard work of personal interrogation. No wonder he seemed surprised that I still had nightmares about it. He figured I was angry at him and always would be, and that was that. By sharing how confused I felt, I made him reckon with my feelings as well as his own confusion over what he did.

RB: There is a lot of uncertainty within the book—to me it is a narrative that focuses on paradoxes or concepts in opposition to one another: an exceptionally personal experience is shared publicly; a close friend performs a horrific, injurious, unforgivable act. The exact word used to describe that act is uncertain. Can you talk about these juxtapositions a bit more? 

JV: Complicated moral questions inspire my writing. For example, is rape an unforgivable act? The popular answer: yes. And that’s why my uncertainty about forgiveness—about whether I ever forgave or could ever forgive Mark—scared me. Just entertaining the possibility of genuine forgiveness—that itself seemed almost unforgivable. To then make my uncertainty public terrified me. That’s because I felt so afraid of letting down the feminists I admire. As a memoirist, though, I care about honesty—and so I knew I had to include my conflicted feelings. Some of those feelings were tied up in language. For example, what Mark did to me in 2003 was not considered rape, according to the FBI. However, as of 2013, Mark’s actions fit the new legal definition of rape. The act remained the same. But the term for it had changed. Examining the new definition, I came to realize that misogyny had shaped my understanding of rape. I’d prioritized his body over my own.

RB: Did you feel that through the act of writing about the experience, and exerting narrative control, you were, in a sense, reclaiming lost power?

JV: Definitely. Instead of getting judged for what I did or didn’t do to prevent or stop the rape, I redirected the attention, and therefore the culpability, on the rapist. For a long time, I didn’t talk about my experiences with sexual assault—mostly because I felt betrayed. Betrayed not just by the perpetrators but by how sexual assault was talked about and handled by those in power: politicians, lawyers, cops, teachers, journalists, cultural critics. What our culture expects of women’s stories and how it treats them—be it in the courtroom or the book reviews section—has been shaped by centuries of male control. This book was my way of taking control.

RB: Nearly midway through the book, you write: “By the time Mark assaulted me, I was too focused on grief for my dad. Sexual assault became an inconvenience, something I worried therapists would latch on to—which is why I never talked about it, or if I did, I’d say things like, A close friend sexually assaulted me, but that’s not what I’m here for. But now, with this book, that’s what I’m here for.” It’s a definitive, almost defiant statement about the book, as if now is the “appropriate” time to process, analyze, and share this experience. Can you elaborate on this notion a bit more?

JV: I wasn’t ready to talk about my rapes for a long time—not with friends, not with my therapist, not even with my partner. I just wanted to block those memories. Also, I wanted to wait until after I’d written a book for my dad. I didn’t want my narratives of sexual assault distracting from my narrative of grief. It’s so important for survivors to choose when they come forward, and to have control over their stories. That’s why I wrote this book. Now, though, my story is a story for others. I’m giving up control, and that’s my decision.