I read my second memoir in a month in my ongoing book binge (here’s the last one I wrote about), and this one is Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl. Vanasco’s book reads like a mixture of true crime research and narrative stream of consciousness as she discusses being raped by a close friend from high school and eventually meets up with said man to talk about why he did what he did and how the assault affected both of their lives. Megan let me borrow this book (as with all of the novels and memoirs I’ve been reading) and I was instantly drawn to the premise of an assault survivor talking about what was done to her by the person who committed the harm. The back cover of Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl shows a snippet of one of Jeannie and “Mark” (name changed, but the man who assaulted her)’s conversations where she writes their responses in an almost text-like format:
Me: I want to understand the larger question of how it’s possible to be a good person who—
Him: Does terrible things.
Me: I think that’s what was kind of heartbreaking for me. It was this one night. And otherwise, though, we were such good friends.
The memoir was published during the height of the #MeToo movement (with which I have many many many qualms) and is unique because it looks at rape in a way that’s not often talked about, but is statistically most common: where 51% of women survivors are raped by an intimate partner and 41% by an acquaintance. Jeannie and Mark were close to best friends in high school when he assaulted her, which is a frequent occurrence for women survivors, but isn’t often showed in media or widespread narratives about rape. Most of the time when the news talks about a woman assaulted, it’s by a lurking stranger in the dark who ambushes her in a violent affair, but in reality, strangers are only reported as having sexually harmed a woman 15% of the time. Jeannie and Mark remain uncomfortable “friends” for a short while after he assaults her, but don’t speak for 14 years until the nightmares about her trauma prompt her to write the memoir and eventually meet Mark in person once again.
As an abolitionist, I found the ways Jeannie coped with her trauma incredibly groundbreaking in a literary sense as I don’t know of many assault survivors who want to speak with, much less meet and empathize with, the people who have harmed them (though there are many organizations—such as Common Justice—that facilitate these types of restorative justice sessions). Throughout the book, Jeannie is constantly wrestling with her feelings about Mark, the rape, and how she might be letting down feminists everywhere if she empathizes with him. Once she works up the courage to contact him, Jeannie records and transcribes all of their phone calls (after which she analyzes her responses to him and everything else he says) until they decide to meet in person to talk.
I don’t want to spoil the book too much, but it’s a groundbreaking account that captured my attention from the first call. Jeannie’s vulnerability in sharing the darkest moments of her life and her willingness to talk about how people who do bad things aren’t necessarily bad people is unlike any other installment in the #MeToo era. I highly recommend Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl (but there are serious trigger warnings for anyone sensitive to rape and assault).