Format: 360 pp., hardcover; Size: 5.9” x 8.8”; Price: $25.95; Publisher: Tin House; The FBI’s definition of rape in 2003: “The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” The FBI’s definition of rape in 2013: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” What prompts the author to call her experience “rape”: In a victim impact statement for a 2016 criminal trial against Brock Turner, Emily Doe uses the word “rape.” Representative Passage: “I tell Chris how hard it is to talk to acquaintances lately. If somebody asks what I’m working on, I don’t know what to say. Telling the truth borders on rude. But being vague also feels rude. Why is it rude, he asks, to say what your book is about? Because who wants to enter a conversation about sexual assault? But isn’t that the point? Chris says. You’re writing this because people should be talking about it. Sure. But am I supposed to describe the book to my hairstylist? Why not? It’s not rude? No. Not at all.”
Central Question: How can we, a society of rapists and survivors, talk honestly about sexual assault?
What is the appropriate way to talk to one’s rapist? There is no right answer, of course, but there is often a wrong one. “I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz,” wrote Emma Sulkowicz on Facebook to Paul Nungesser, a friend who, Sulkowicz would later report to Columbia University, had raped them in their dorm room two days before they sent the messages. A couple of weeks later Sulkowicz wrote: “I want to see yoyououoyou.” A month later: “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”
In 2014, the following year, Sulkowicz attracted national media attention by lugging a fifty-pound extra-long twin mattress around campus in protest of the university dropping their complaint. Nungesser, who claimed the sex had been consensual, brought forward the Facebook messages as evidence of his innocence. After the alleged rape, Sulkowicz acted “amiable” and not “different or weird,” he told the Daily Beast—which, he maintained, showed he had done nothing wrong.
If he had raped Sulkowicz, they wouldn’t still be friends; because Sulkowicz was friendly, he hadn’t raped them. The logical fallacy in effect is obvious, yet this kind of argument remains pervasive as a character smear of those who make sexual assault accusations. What kind of woman continues to be nice to her rapist?
Jeannie Vanasco, author of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, was raped by a close friend in her second year of college. A day or two later the friend apologized, and Vanasco forgave him. She asked him to read Franny and Zooey, her favorite novel. He did, and reported back: the story made him think of the two of them. “I’m so glad you liked the book,” she said.
After some months of pretense, the friendship dissolves. Fourteen years pass, then Vanasco decides to write a memoir about the rape. She finds an old email for her former friend, whom she gives the name Mark (no other identifying details are changed), tells him about her project, and asks if he’ll speak to her. “It’s the least I can do,” he says. They text and speak on the phone, and eventually, Vanasco travels to Ohio to talk to Mark in person.
Even as she goes over with him their separate experiences of the rape, Vanasco can’t help thinking of Mark as her friend first and her assaulter second. Our first introduction to him in the book is in one of Vanasco’s cherished memories from high school, years before the assault. Mark is confiding in her as he drives aimlessly; they’re on a break from cramming for a physics test. The scene is both intensely emotional and banal, the kind of evening that high school is made of—waiting for time to unspool, circling around and around without going anywhere, just filling the space. Vanasco is deliberate in opening her narrative with this display of casual intimacy; she wants the reader to know Mark as a childhood friend first, like she did.
Much of the coverage of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl has described it as a memoir in which Vanasco “confronts her rapist.” To “confront” suggests an act of courage, moral clarity, and tenacity, perhaps carried out with a dash of aggression. It’s a word that fits neatly into a certain idea of how a sexual assault survivor should act in order to make predatory behavior visible to society at large and to demand justice. Anita Hill, Andrea Constand, Christine Blasey Ford, Chanel Miller—these women are heroes because they insisted, against significant opposition, that they knew what had happened to them, that they had suffered for it, and that their truth be part of the public record. The cumulative power of the #MeToo movement has derived from the factual and emotional unambiguity of such stories.
Vanasco’s story is not like these. It plays out on a smaller, personal stage—the stage most of us inhabit. No public figures are present, no legal or professional consequences are immediately at issue. The only parties implicated are two former friends, the only question how to heal from a trauma long past. The story here is in the telling: Vanasco’s narration documents, with the emotional transparency of chatting with a best friend, her tangled lines of thought and conflicting feelings while she goes through the process of talking to Mark. Her first messages, despite her best efforts to appear firm, have not a whiff of confrontation. Even as she coaches herself in advance of their conversations to not perform as the caretaker of Mark’s comfort and security—“I won’t thank him” for agreeing to be interviewed, she resolves—she slips into familiar feminine modes of self-effacing politeness, accommodation, and apology.
From her transcripts:
I really appreciate this.
It means a lot to me, I can’t tell you how actually helpful this is.
I hope you don’t mind my asking.
I hope this is somewhat helpful for you to talk about.
I didn’t want this to be upsetting for you.
I don’t want to write it in a way that would be hurtful to you.
What happened was, sure, hurtful, but I already was having a hard time.
It’s good to talk to you and hear your voice, and I’m glad that you’re doing a lot better.
Honestly, really, you’re a good person. I mean that.
I’m excited to talk again. Thank you. Thank you.
After every conversation, Vanasco reviews her words and flags these moments with agonized self-awareness. (There are so many of them that for days after reading I policed my own speech for excesses of feminine warmth, for which I have never been known.) Part of Vanasco’s discomfort with baldly stating her hurt is rhetorical habit—the performance of three decades of encoded gender norms—but the effusiveness in her speech is pure emotional honesty. “I was so happy to hear his voice that I couldn’t feel angry,” Vanasco tells her partner after her first phone call with Mark. “I’m supposed to feel angry.”
We’ve come to understand that women are angry.
Three years ago, a tape of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy was made public, and he became president. Two years ago, reports on Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual harassment of women working in Hollywood were published, and while he lost his job and faces five criminal charges, he cannot be charged for the majority of his crimes. One year ago, Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate about her assault as a teenager by Brett Kavanaugh, and he now sits on the Supreme Court.
The vast scope of sexual harassment and abuse revealed in the #MeToo movement has provoked both a surge of constructive anger that women have channelled into collective action, and eruptions of uncontained fury that burst from the seams of everyday life. According to a slew of first-person essays published in celebration of this raw energy, women are yelling into pillows at home, yelling at men on the street, yelling during burpees at the gym, yelling during axe-throwing classes. This anger feels good. In the absence of actually having power, the clarity of vision that anger grants you feels something like wielding it.
Anger is in vogue, and Vanasco is ashamed to not join in on the collective scream of the zeitgeist. “Am I a disappointment to feminism?” she worries. To be sure, she is angry at Mark—just not always, not as a constant. She has recurring nightmares about the assault, and she’s aware that it has affected her relationships with men, both romantically and platonically. But her anger at Mark overlaps and alternates with other emotions: sadness, grief, loss, nostalgia.
“Is it messed up that I sort of want to see you? For so long, I believed that seeing you would break some rule,” she imagines writing to Mark.
Such unspoken “rules” governing how women can respond to their abusers only make it more difficult for them to openly acknowledge the abuse. If the available option is to loudly condemn an abuser, often women would rather downplay the harm they suffered. In Good and Mad, her book on the role of anger in feminist revolutionary action, Rebecca Traister discusses the difficulties of persuading women to sustain anger against men in their lives who have hurt them. She writes, “we must confront the fact that the bad guys are, in many cases, also our good guys: the men in our beds, our hearts, our families. They are our brothers and fathers and uncles and friends and lovers and husbands and roommates and sons. We love them.”
Vanasco’s book makes space for emotional responses to sexual assault other than rage, sobs, and fear. This is necessary, because women often carry on relationships with men who have abused them. Sometimes they have no choice but to continue to see these men in the office or in the classroom or at the dinner table. Sometimes it is just preferable—financially, emotionally, physically, however—with men than without. If we allow ourselves to recognize the full, horrifying, utterly commonplace spectrum of sexual violence in women’s daily lives, committed by men who are seamlessly integrated into those lives, we can understand how severing a relationship from one moment to the next is rarely the natural consequence of rape.
There’s a commonly known national statistic that one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. Somewhat less commonly known: eight in ten women who are raped know the person who raped them. So let’s consider a different, unknowable question. How many people do you know who have raped someone?
In telling the story of Mark’s assault, Vanasco keeps getting sidetracked by other assaults. There was the time in her twenties that she was raped by another friend, who told her, “You want this.” There was her high school newspaper advisor, who put his hand between her legs and threatened her after she filed a police report. (The police deemed her report uncredible.) There was the restaurant owner who offered to drive her home and attacked her in the car. There was the man on the sidewalk in Brooklyn who grabbed her while she was on the phone with her mom. Now in her early thirties, Vanasco confesses to a bad habit: every time she meets a man she wonders, “Has he raped someone?”
Vanasco dedicates Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl to “Hannah,” a former student in her writing class who committed suicide shortly after Vanasco began work on her book. Hannah had written an essay about being raped, a not-uncommon topic of creative nonfiction for female students, Vanasco tells us. At one point, she looks around her office and notices that it is full of gifts—a knitted scarf, a vintage typewriter—from her students, all of them women who had been raped.
Writing about trauma for a private audience is one way to avoid talking about it out loud. Many people would prefer never to talk about being raped. The rapists, even less—or at least not with their victims. (“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” Donald Trump is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House.) But if we, as a society comprised of victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, have any hope of achieving a measure of healing and justice that doesn’t rely on the inadequacies of the legal system, men and women must find a way to talk together honestly. For Vanasco, simply hearing Mark validate her experience of the assault offers immediate relief. This is a key idea behind restorative justice, as Nora Caplan-Bricker points out in her review of Vanasco’s book.
By opening a conversation with Mark, Vanasco writes, her purpose is “to understand how it’s possible to be a good person who does a terrible thing.” This is far from the most interesting question in the book—good people, or, more accurately, those who want to be good people, which is most of us, do bad things all the time. They do them because it’s easy: an opportunity arises, and they can get away with it. It’s the most banal story of the human species.
One thing that makes it easy is silence. Mark agrees to speak to Vanasco, but for the fourteen years before she reached out to him, he successfully avoided speaking and thinking about the night he raped his friend. The great achievement of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is that it attempts to share the burdens of correcting the public record and of reaching a private understanding—the kind of work usually left to victims—with the abuser. “It’s an uncomfortable point of view to have, but I think it’s important to listen to the perpetrators,” says Vanasco in an interview with The Cut. “Provided they’re going to be honest and thoughtful, I think we need perpetrators to talk about this, too.”