THINGS WE DIDN’T TALK ABOUT WHEN I WAS A GIRL
By Jeannie Vanasco
Facing the person who betrayed you, who preyed upon you, who haunts you: It’s the stuff of vengeful daydreams, born of nightmares. Jeannie Vanasco has had plenty of nightmares, but the story she tells in “Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl” is not one of revenge. It’s about violence and forgiveness, about friendship and the unwanted title of victim, about digging deeper and deeper to seek answers — from yourself and from your bogeyman. But in this memoir, questions beget more questions, and few are sufficiently answered. Trauma cannot be tied with a tidy bow.
Vanasco was 19 when one of her closest friends raped her. She gives him the pseudonym Mark (“its main definition: a boundary. And that’s what this is about: boundaries”), but little else has been changed to protect his privacy. Her father had just died (the subject of her previous memoir, “The Glass Eye”). She was grappling with mental illness.
For this book, Vanasco reaches out to Mark for the first time since college, to confront him about the drunken night 14 years earlier when he carried her to his basement room, penetrated her with his fingers and masturbated over her. “You’re dreaming,” she remembers him repeating to her as she lay still, quietly sobbing.
Vanasco and Mark exchange several emails and phone calls. They meet again in person. Many pages are devoted to conversations she has had with Mark and her friends (some recent, some not), as well as with her partner and her therapist. Woven throughout these communications are Vanasco’s inner reflections: “I can’t stop thinking about Hannah,” she writes about her creative nonfiction student who committed suicide after submitting an essay that revealed she had been raped.
Vanasco’s prose sometimes feels like a stream-of-consciousness seesaw, leaving readers disoriented and frustrated. But nowhere near as disoriented and frustrated as Vanasco feels as she bends over backward to comfort and shield Mark, to thank him for talking with her. “I want to write about it, but I don’t want to write it in a way that would be hurtful to you,” she tells him. She beats herself up for this: “Hearing myself thank Mark for talking to me about sexually assaulting me, I don’t know how to describe the feeling it induces. Mortified isn’t strong enough.”
The backdrop of the #MeToo movement is not lost on Vanasco: She worries she’ll “disappoint my friends — and women in general — by including so much of Mark’s voice,” to which her journalist friend, who has reported on ISIS, replies that “in order to fix a problem, you have to understand the enemy.”
Understanding the enemy is part of her motive, but it’s not the crux. “The point of this project is to show what seemingly nice guys are capable of,” she writes. The #MeToo stories we hear about in the media “mostly concern politicians and Hollywood directors and actors. What about guys like Mark?” He works an ordinary job. He has never had a girlfriend and is a virgin. It comes across as remarkable — and what does this say about how our culture processes sexual assault? — that he agrees to talk about what he did. To admit he’d been depressed. That he is sorry, very sorry.
His story dominates the book, but other men have also violated Vanasco. These stories are just as gutting: Another (less close) friend raped her after a literary party in New York; and her high school newspaper adviser molested her and tried to control her and sabotage her education. She reported this teacher, to no avail; instead, “they investigated me.”
I’m not a perfect victim, Vanasco confesses. There’s no such thing. And that fear of not being believed is what scares so many into silence. The night Mark raped her was the first time Vanasco had ever been drunk, but what if it had been the hundredth?
“Maybe this book will end my nightmares about Mark,” she hopes. Spoiler: It doesn’t.