This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco.
Jeannie Vanasco's Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
is one of the bravest, most honest, and most unusual memoirs I've read. Vanasco's decision to confront her college rapist, who was at the time a close friend, is extraordinary enough, but her narrative voice — her lyricism throughout her interrogation of her motivations and thought processes, as well as "Mark's" and their shared history — makes this a riveting reading experience, and an incredibly important work. — Jill O.
The lingering impression of Jeannie Vanasco’s remarkable memoir, Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
, is the vertiginous experience of lingering itself. Throughout the course of Vanasco’s book, which is structured as though she’s processing her decisions in real time, alongside the reader, Vanasco reveals the lie behind fully resolving trauma. Instead, it becomes plain that trauma settles into the body like a smell settles into a room; you may stop noticing it until you leave and reenter, but it’s seeped into the walls.
Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
revolves around a series of conversations Vanasco conducted with her rapist, who was also a close childhood friend. Like many survivors of rape by friends or relatives, she’s curious about how Mark could care for yet rape her, and confused by her persistent impulse to assuage, comfort, or thank him while ostensibly asking him to reckon with his crime. Ultimately, Mark’s answers, while seemingly genuine, aren’t that interesting. He doesn’t know why he raped her; he’s sorry; her friendship meant a lot to him. Much more compelling — and troubling, and brave – is Vanasco’s frank and constant reassessment of her quality as a rape victim: “So I believed in boundaries — could even set boundaries. The problem: in the moment, I found it hard to articulate what those boundaries were — because doing so might embarrass a man. I treated men how I treated literature: I feared misinterpreting their intentions.”
Vanasco’s impulse to take on other people’s emotional labor is something her partner, friends, and therapist repeatedly point out to her. She’s also mortified by the habit, but as the memoir closes, there’s little indication that Vanasco’s increasing self-knowledge will lead to a less empathic response to the people in her life. Readers looking for a vindication or revenge narrative — something more like Lindy West confronting her troll
— will be disappointed with Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
— it’s possible that while the #MeToo movement has created a more sympathetic public space for Vanasco’s story to be heard and thrive, the movement itself isn’t yet up for the cloudiness of her experience. Vanasco’s need to be liked, her multiple experiences of sexual assault and harassment, and diagnosed bipolar disorder threaten her own conviction in the legitimacy of her story. Culturally, we may be listening to victims more, but we’re also asking them to do the work of sorting right from wrong, as if there wasn’t a gross, sticky mess of inherited gender bias, fear, and self-recrimination gluing the two together, compromising the enterprise. Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
demonstrates, sublimely, the difficulty (impossibility?) of extricating oneself from this mire to seek the collectively cathartic, court-room-movie justice so many of us desire.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here