Jeannie Vanasco on Processing Rape by Writing About It

a photo of author Jeannie Vanasco, a white woman with brown hair smiling at the camera

Jeannie Vanasco (Photo credit: Theresa Keil)

As a reader, it was a natural impulse for me to use the word “brave” to describe Jeannie Vanasco’s second book, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, out this month from Tin House. Part memoir, part interview, and part psychosocial investigation, the book asks brave questions: Are there good people and bad people, or do good people just do bad things? Can a survivor forgive the man who raped her—and should she want to? But if she must be called brave, Vanasco would prefer it not be because she eventually confronted her rapist—a man she calls “Mark,” a once-good friend from her hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, who assaulted her at a party during their freshman year of college.

She’s not interested in being called brave for talking to him on the phone 14 years after the rape, or even meeting with him in person, looking him in the eye, and asking him why he did what he did. For Vanasco, the bravery lies in breaking the silence she’s kept for so long, and saying some terrifying things aloud: “My friend raped me.” And: “I miss him.” And: “I want to hate him, but I can’t.” The bravery is that she confronts these statements—and herself—as honestly as she can. Vanasco is the author of a previous memoir, The Glass Eye (Tin House, 2017), which traversed similarly difficult terrain. The book is about the death of her father, the abiding grief that followed, and her struggle with mental illness. Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl does equally intrepid work, and the result is a thoughtful interrogation of sexual assault, toxic masculinity, internalized misogyny, and the culture of silence.

It’s a work that has the potential to change the way we think and talk about rape and the people who commit it. Vanasco, who lives in Baltimore and is a professor of writing at Towson University, says this book is for her students, particularly those who have survived assault to tell their own stories—and one who ultimately didn’t survive. It’s also for her friends, an army of women who helped Vanasco tell her story, and helped make its telling what it is: an urgent, critical, and courageous book that confronts our understanding of survival, power, and shame. I sat down with Vanasco at Manhattan’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore to talk about the book, the nuanced challenges of writing it, and who she hopes will read it.

When did you decide you needed to write this book?

From the beginning, I felt so scared of this project because of how feminists I admire would receive the fact that I was talking with Mark and giving him a voice. That terrified me. But I didn’t know how to sort my feelings out about the project or about what happened. That’s how I knew this was the right book—because I didn’t know how I felt.

You interviewed your rapist for your book. What was that decision making process like? When and how did you decide that your interview with Mark deserved space on the page?

It’s complicated because part of me misses him. I miss the friendship. I wanted to talk to him, and it was an excuse to talk to him. I hate admitting that because it’s pretty fucked up. But part of me also wanted him to account for what he did. I wanted to confront him and go through, piece by piece, what he had done, so I could hear him say it and determine how I felt about it. Is it possible to forgive someone for this? Because I was hearing in the news this idea of rape being an unforgiveable act. And I thought, “Is it? Is it unforgivable? What does that mean?” That’s what I’m wrestling with. I’m not saying people should forgive their abusers. But I think it’s up to the individual, and part of what I was looking for was an opportunity to possibly forgive him if he did everything I needed. I don’t know if he did.

I think it’s so important that an apology be public—and while this is a book, I’m still protecting his identity. After I met with him, he made this joke: “Just stay off the bestseller lists and the book clubs and my parents won’t find out.” That made me angry because it assumes this privilege that I’m his protector, and the whole point of the book is to show that supposedly “good guys” are capable of this. They can be your brother, your cousin, your friend, your son. And we need to recognize that.

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Part of what makes the book so powerful are these admissions, and the way you grapple with warring feelings on the page—feelings of power and control, anger and shame, the changing definitions of rape and learning to call it by its name.

I was thinking about the ways misogyny has shaped my thinking, and the idea that there’s no one way for a victim or survivor to respond or feel. Some people continue to date the person who assaults them. [Or we have] Anita Hill, who famously asked [Clarence Thomas, who sexually harassed her] for a letter of recommendation. These human relationships are complicated. I wanted to show how I think and feel because surely I can’t be the only person who feels nostalgic for a friendship with someone who raped them. I wrestle with it in the book, but the word rape—I did not feel comfortable using that word at the beginning.

In an early chapter titled “If He Says Yes,” you make a promise to yourself: If Mark agrees to be interviewed, you write, “I won’t thank him. I won’t tell him everything is okay between us. I won’t comfort him.” Then you observe yourself in the transcripts doing exactly this. We’re taught from an early age to please and accommodate men—to protect them and keep their secrets. And by writing this book you break that silence. But it’s complicated because you’re still—

I’m still protecting his identity.

Do you still feel conflicted about that?

I do. The more I think about it, the angrier I am. It’s important that people recognize that this is in their families. He came from a family of teachers, a “good” family. I was close with them, and then I disappeared from their lives and they have no idea why. And I think that’s why I have these complicated feelings around protecting his identity. It was interesting, after I told him the updated definition of rape, he was like, “Okay, that’s what it is.”

He calls himself a rapist.

Yeah. So it’s hard. I’m appreciative that he participated in the project. But as a writer I was like, “That’ll be useful for the book.” Suddenly, I was divorcing myself from my human emotions. In some ways the process of writing the book interfered with my processing of the rape.

The cover of

Jeannie Vanasco's Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (Photo credit: Tin House)

You mentioned finishing the book before the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018. Did that larger context of conversations around sexual assault impact your thoughts about the project?

I was just so angry. I thought, “Was I too easy on [Mark]?” After the hearings, there was a line of female students waiting to meet with me. I have a male colleague three doors down, and no one was there to see him. I’m happy to talk to students, but it reminds me of all the extra emotional work that people who are not cis white men end up doing. I bought a white-noise machine for my office because my students were coming in needing to cry, and they didn’t want my colleagues to hear them. They just needed to talk about how they felt.

I emailed Mark around the time of the hearings and asked him, “What do you think of all of this?” He wrote back and hit all the progressive points—that Kavanaugh clearly perjured himself, that he believed Christine Blasey Ford, that he hoped Kavanaugh didn’t get confirmed. But he didn’t once address what he did to me. And I was like, “Do I expect him to just keep apologizing?” Maybe I do.

I love the way you use the transcripts to confront your own thoughts, behaviors, and contradictions alongside Mark’s. Did you know from the beginning the book would take this form?

I had no idea. There were aspects of the transcript I wanted to delete. So many things I said that I wanted to take out. But then I thought, “No. I’m not setting myself forward as an example of what to do or how to behave; this is just how I behaved.” I wanted to be honest, because there’s a problem with how we assume victims or survivors are supposed to react or respond. The form became more clear to me the more I talked with my female friends because they were so much more critical of the transcripts. It was so important that they noticed the false equivalencies he was making. I didn’t want it to just be his voice. The more I talked to my friends, the more those conversations [I’d wanted to edit out] seemed essential. I could not have written the book without them.

You navigate some murky spaces—between victimhood and agency, betrayal and forgiveness, bad and good—and apply nuance to things that don’t always feel like they can or should be nuanced.

I was thinking about notions of punishment and control. In terms of punishment, what would be satisfying to me? Him being locked up? No, because if someone gets locked up in the United States, are they going to get the therapy they need to help them not do it again? No. They’re just going to get locked up, get resentful, eventually get out, and then what? And it’s a very controversial thing to say that rapists deserve therapy, that they should talk about how they feel about what they’ve done. So I think the nuance came from not knowing what punishment really looks like, or [what] punishment would mean something to me.

I thought, “When do I feel most in control?” In some ways it’s when I’m writing. I knew that I would control the narrative, and that seemed to come close to what I would want in terms of punishment. But I [also] felt [like] what I was doing was so wrong. I would read stories from the #MeToo movement and see people saying, “They don’t deserve a voice; they should all be locked up.” A lot of that was coming from men, who seemed to be othering rapiststhat made me uncomfortable

“I was like, ‘Do I expect him to just keep apologizing?’ Maybe I do.”

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The book is like an exercise in restorative justice. You approach Mark with a certain amount of empathy. You encourage him to go to therapy, even as you acknowledge it’s not your responsibility. You want him to get help.

Statistically men who commit sexual assault are repeat offenders, and that’s why restorative justice seems so important. [I]f we’re going to work toward putting an end to it, it seems important to rehabilitate the offender—so that they might make an apology to the person they harmed, reenter society, and hopefully deter others. That seems to me a more healthy, potentially rejuvenating response in terms of leading to a better society.

Consent plays an interesting role in the book. You needed Mark’s permission do the project how you wanted to do it, which reflects a problem you faced throughout the process.

It’s interesting when people describe the project as “brave” or me as “brave.” They’re often referring to it as brave because I met with him, because I talked with him. The thing I felt most afraid of was publishing this and having feminists read it and be disappointed in me. And I [found] myself so frustrated by all the stories I hear from my students—always women—who tell me about being raped, that they haven’t told anyone else, that they’re afraid, that he’s such a nice guy. I recognize their thought patterns as the same thought patterns I had, and in some ways still have. That’s how I knew that I had to write this book.

That care for your students really comes through. However much conflict you feel in your own story, you say to them, “Stop protecting these men. Write the story.”

Absolutely. I think about Hannah, my student who was raped and [who] later committed suicide. She had so much trouble writing about it, but she said she was over it. Why did I think she was? It’s hard as a professor because there’s the mandatory reporting policy. I think [that] comes from a place of good intentions, but it seems designed to protect the institution and not the student. I worry it’s taking agency away from the victim—even if she doesn’t want to come forward, we’re forcing her to. I think it’s up to the victim when they want to come forward. So this is so much a book for my students. I’m glad they trust me with their stories, but it’s also difficult to take these stories in all the time [and] then help students with them, both artistically and emotionally.

There’s also a frustrating line that gets drawn, especially in nonfiction by women, between trauma stories and art.

For so many of my students, that’s a concern; they don’t want to seem narcissistic. There was part of me, even though I know better, that felt insecure about writing a second memoir. I’d never feel that way about anyone else, but when people ask what the book is about, I find myself removing myself. I say, “I interviewed someone who committed rape.”

In stories about trauma, memory and nostalgia can be difficult to navigate. Both are critical to your book. I go back to the opening scene—it’s your favorite memory of Mark, but you acknowledge that both the memory and what it represents are flawed.

I thought a lot about nostalgia and memory as the book progressed. I wondered, “Why do I miss this friendship? Why do I care about it? Am I making these memories out to be more than what they were?” I thought about that favorite memory, and I thought, “I have other great memories with friends but I’m holding onto this.” I think it was because of the betrayal. And it’s messed up that I would be nostalgic for a friendship where the person betrayed me, more than for a friendship that just died away. On a writerly level, I wanted to show the fond memories, to show what supposedly good guys are capable of. That a close friend of five years can do this.

That’s one of the most striking things about this story, the possibility that Mark is every man and every man could be Mark. I’m wondering about the question you pose—“how it’s possible to be a good person who does terrible things.” Do you feel like you’ve gotten any closer to an answer? Do you think Mark is a good person?

That’s a hard question. He was willing to reflect on what he did and apologize. I don’t think it was a perfect apology, [but I do] I think he’s someone who’s trying to be good. It seems to me that he was genuinely surprised at what he did, that he was capable of it. For him to reckon with all of this meant a lot to me. I do think overall he’s a good person. I don’t know. I might change my mind about that next week.

And maybe that’s part of the process.

Yeah, I go back and forth. But I think the point is that good people do terrible things. And that’s why the potential for forgiveness is important. I’ve started receiving emails from women who read the book, telling me their rape stories, and that means a lot. I’m wondering if any men who’ve committed sexual assault will email me. Part of me is doubtful. But I hope that men might read it; that it might be preventative. It would be great if fraternities would make this required reading. That’s my hope: I want it to reach college students, high school students, and I definitely want men to read it.

What do you hope women and survivors will take from it?

Not to blame themselves if their thoughts and feelings don’t align with how they think they’re supposed to think and feel. So many women—certainly I do this—will beat themselves up over the question, “Why am I not having this response? My response does not seem to be the right one.” So destigmatizing victimhood and expanding notions of how a victim thinks or feels, and recognizing that it’s complicated.

That we all process it differently.

Exactly. And ever since Mark said, “Stay off the bestseller lists and book clubs,” I want everybody to read it.


by Melissa Faliveno
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Melissa Faliveno is a writer, editor, and teacher whose debut essay collection, Tomboyland, is forthcoming in summer 2020 from Topple Books. She teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.