Among the swelling ranks of #MeToo narratives, Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (Tin House, out now) stands out. In this work that combines the techniques of memoir with those of journalism, Vanasco contacts a man who used to be a close friend, even after he raped her one night in his basement. They fell out of touch years ago…until the day Vanasco tracked him down and asked him if he would participate in a book project.
Is the book what it seems—the real-time journal of an investigation?
Yes, very much so, starting in January 2018 and going through August. I didn’t know if Mark would agree to talk to me or how things would unfold. As I transcribed our conversations, there were things I might have wanted to censor out, but I left them in.
After each conversation, you get together to discuss what was said with female friends.
My friends helped me process what had happened—some of them have also been raped, and because of those experiences, they encouraged me to ask harder questions. Their prominence in the book shows how important a support network is, not just for rape survivors, but for everybody.
One friend points out that your book participates in the #MeToo genre but says something a little bit different. What is the “little bit different”?
I think it’s having the conversation, listening to him, letting him have a voice. Honestly, when I was working on this, I was sick to my stomach every day. Thinking about what I was doing, it felt so wrong. I was so nervous about releasing this book.
It’s pretty controversial to let the rapist have a voice. Yet he seems to accept full blame for his actions.
Yes—but what disturbs me about our conversation is the fact that he said all the right things. He said all the right things back when we were friends, too. That doesn’t mean he was lying, but that our words and our actions don’t always align the way we think they will. Mark didn’t think he was capable of rape—and I didn’t think I would handle our conversations the way I did. I didn’t think I would be so accommodating and concerned about how he felt.
Yes, he did agree to the project, and yes, he did try to give honest answers, but one sticking point for me is that he’s withheld the story from his parents all this time. I may be 35 years old—but I still want to tell his parents! I was so close with them, and I could never explain what happened. He said he was protecting them, but I feel he was protecting himself. And men in general, because the longer we go on thinking certain men are incapable of rape, the harder it will be for survivors to come forward.
Have you continued to be in contact with him?
We haven’t been, and he didn’t insist on reading the book before publication, but I just heard from him today and am sending him a copy. And now he says if his family reads it, so be it. That means a lot.
Marion Winik, author of The Big Book of the Dead, teaches memoir at the University of Baltimore.