Content note: This article contains a graphic description of sexual assault.
If sexual violence is part of your experience, and you had the opportunity to ask the person who hurt you one question, what would it be? What if the person who raped you had also been your best friend at the time? What then? These basic questions—and a host of smart, nuanced follow-ups—serve as the premise behind Jeannie Vanasco’s new memoir, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl.
Vanasco published a previous memoir, The Glass Eye, in 2017. In that work, she explored the outer edges of grief as she documented the impact of her father’s death when she was just 18 and her struggles with mental illness. As readers learn early in her newest work, released October 1, she refused to discuss the rape with any of the therapists she saw throughout her 20s.
In Things We Didn’t Talk About, Vanasco lets readers inside her head as she considers approaching the man she decides to call “Mark,” a name with purpose. “Its main definition: a boundary. And that’s what this is about: boundaries,” she writes. Even before she reaches out to Mark, she catalogues the reasons why she wants to include him in the memoir she is about to write, including an acknowledgment of the inherent power imbalance between a writer and their subject. A published writer has access to an audience that her subject typically does not. With powerful prose, a writer can make someone into a villain, and the subject will not have the ability to fight back. But what if the person being written about did a villainous thing?
She knows that she doesn’t want another apology—he has already apologized—but she is after something that he denied to her the night of the assault. “I want his consent,” she writes.
The word “consent,” through its Latin etymology, carries a subtlety of meaning that isn’t covered simply by the idea of someone agreeing to do something. It is derived from the Latin words com (with) and sentire (to feel). Being able to feel together may sound like empathy, but its original Latin meaning was lost as the word was adapted into first French and then English. What Vanasco is after when she uses the word, it seems to me, more closely resembles those Latin roots. She thinks she wants Mark to feel what she is feeling. Early on, she recognizes that she is afraid of writing “yet another story about yet another sexual assault.” Of course, such a book can still have new things to say, but Vanasco determines her book will “stand out” if it includes Mark. She decides, as she prepares to contact him, that talking to her so that she might write this book is what Mark owes her rather than another apology.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The book comes out one year after the Kavanaugh hearings. To anyone who was watching, those hearings showed once again how women’s anger and words continue to be seen as less important than those spoken by men. But if that was the message that many women received, then recent memoirs, including Vanasco’s book, and television series about sexual assault serve as a clapback. The Netflix series Unbelievable, based on the book I reviewed at Rewire.News in 2018, asks viewers to imagine how a life can change the instant one is raped. And Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, has written a memoir, Know My Name, that serves as an extended victim-impact statement. Not only an accounting of the crime and its effects on her, the book is also a memoir of her life before the rape and how she came to understand that her previous life has been forever changed. As Megan Garber writes in her review of Know My Name: “Pain should not have to be alchemized into prose, for public consumption. The survivors who have already given so much should not need to give even more—of themselves, of their stories, of their words. But victim-impact statements—victim, impact, each term so fraught—often double as reclamations.”
The rapist counts on his victim’s silence—often an outgrowth of trauma and of shame—in order to escape punishment for the crime. As statistics continue to show, only 5 out of a thousand perpetrators are ever convicted.
The most painful part of Things We Didn’t Talk About was not Vanasco’s retelling of the assault. Rather, I found myself having to put the book down for a few moments as Vanasco revealed a lifetime of learned behaviors that taught her to take care of the men in her life. I suspect that many women will recognize just how common this behavior is.
Vanasco’s father died when she was in college, and that first anniversary of his death turned out to be the night Mark assaulted her. But as Vanasco writes about the accommodations she was willing to offer Mark to get him to tell his story—the reassurances she offers him each time he reveals something intimate about himself; the constant self-questioning she performs when she is writing up the transcripts, asking herself whether she is not, in fact, manipulating Mark in order to have revenge—I found myself thinking about similar instances in my life where I was the person who comforted a man who had just hurt me. The recognition of this behavior comes with the painful realization that so often the desire to take care of a man is a survival mechanism to avoid (more) violent behavior.
Vanasco’s first account of the assault comes in a series of memories where she tries to separate out what she remembers from the gaps in her memory. She cringes when she recalls that in the days following the attack, while still in shock, she tried to find a way to communicate with Mark. She writes:
But I know what he did, and he does too. The next day, or maybe a few days later, he apologized: I should not have done that to you … Can you ever forgive me?
I said I could. I said I would. I told him to read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, my favorite novel back then. I cringe at the memory.
He read it and told me it reminded him of us.
But no one in the book carries his drunk friend into a basement, takes off her clothes while she’s passed out, fingers her, masturbates over her while she cries, and tells her: It’s just a dream.
Nightmares about Mark and that night returned to Vanasco over a decade after her attack, following the election of Donald Trump. Having an accused sexual predator in the White House triggered memories and deeply buried truths. In talking with other women, she heard similar stories from those who survived sexual assault. She writes of how the reporting about Brock Turner reminds her of her own attack, and how some of those details lead her to change the words she is willing to use to describe what happened. So, partly in response to the fire in her limbic system, Vanasco decides it’s time to ask Mark what he thought he was doing that awful night.
In a series of emails, telephone calls, and an eventual face-to-face meeting, she interrogates Mark and asks him to account for his actions. His immediate response—an apology—makes Vanasco more determined. What she really wants from him is some sort of clarity that might help answer the questions that have haunted her for over a decade.
She acknowledges how ubiquitous her story is. Boy meets Girl. Girl trusts Boy. Boy rapes Girl. Trust shattered.
“There’s nothing original about my story, and that’s the point,” she writes. “There have always been Marks and I doubt they’ll stop existing. Although these Marks rarely apologize for their behavior.”
The book is organized in chronological order. That is, the conversations between Mark and Vanasco are presented in the order in which they took place, as Vanasco provides transcripts of each phone call and email exchange. This format allows readers to take part in the experience—in a sense playing the role of best friend or big sister, being told the story as it is unfolding. In that way, I found my anger at Mark was not ameliorated even after he repeatedly acknowledges just how much damage he did. As Vanasco tries to figure out if “forgiveness” is something she can embrace and accept going forward, I found myself wanting to play the best friend who tries to warn her not to take back the abusive boyfriend.
Of course, in insisting that Vanasco follow any script for how to respond to her rapist, I came to realize that I was trying to control her—the last thing a survivor of rape needs. Only Vanasco can decide if or when she will find peace in her contact with Mark. She is the agent, and we do not get to control someone else’s narrative. In the craft and beauty of her writing, she makes herself vulnerable so that readers can see all aspects of the crime and her ensuing survival.
That is not to say that Vanasco forgives Mark. Or that she doesn’t consider having him arrested and using his email confessions as evidence to convict him. To say more would deny you an experience through prose that enlightens and educates.
Vanasco’s memoir speaks truth to power in ways I never saw coming. She exposes to the reader her doubts and fears about what she is doing, but then confronts her rapist anyway. Whether Vanasco’s rapist will face justice is ultimately secondary to her bravery in sharing her experiences with an audience, calling our attention to the ways that power can be used to justify reprehensible behavior.