What Happens When A Woman Confronts Her Rapist, Years Later?
Author Jeannie Vanasco talks 'Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl,' forgiveness, and memory
Jeannie Vanasco's new memoir, Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl, is poised to make a big splash in the #MeToo era. In it, she interviews her high school friend-turned-rapist in search of an explanation for his crime. The book is a meditation on the myth of the "nice guy," truth in nonfiction, and the (im)possibility of forgiveness.
Jeannie and I first met in 2017, when she wrote a Modern Love column for the New York Times titled "My Platonic Romance on the Psych Ward." The column described living with bipolar disorder, a mental illness I'd been living with myself since the age of 23. I emailed her about it and she wrote back effusively; soon we were friends. Since then, we've had a lot of phone conversations about mental health, writing, and feminism, so we decided to record one and publish it in this magazine. Except I forgot to hit record. What follows is a loyal recreation of a conversation Jeannie and I had on the night of Wednesday, September 18, 2019. Call it reportage, call it creative nonfiction, call it memoir: Whatever it is, I'll never forget to hit the record button again.
So, what I loved about the book was that it's in large part about female friendships. The conversations you have with other women throughout were always more important to me than the conversations you had with Mark, even though talking to Mark was kind of the point of the book.
Yeah, I liked having that realization that it was about my friendships with women. The variety of reactions to the project from the other women in my life was pretty remarkable. There was a lot of protectiveness and worry, a lot of anger that the book even had to exist. You, I remember, were really supportive of the project.
I was all in. What a fascinating thought experiment on the nature of forgiveness and the banality of evil! I just wanted you to go for the jugular because my antipathy for him was so strong. I remember saying I would've done the same.
What really fascinated me was that I was more worried about Mark's mental health while researching and writing the book. I thought, Well, you know, I'm on meds, I'm stable, I can handle talking to my rapist. And I knew he had depression, and throughout this entire process, I was just trying to take care of him, to keep him from getting too upset.
Such a typical reaction to being on the right medication: Let me interview my rapist.
[Laughs] It was like, Let's see how well the meds are working.
You write in this way I'll call "meta-interrogative." You did this in The Glass Eye, and you do the same thing, possibly to a greater extent, in Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl. There was a lot of self-doubt and self-criticism in those chapters, a lot of wondering if you're disappointing your friends or failing to be a good feminist and a lot of micro-examination of your own thoughts. Do you think there was some gender performance in that form?
Oh, definitely. I think I was constantly worried about outside scrutiny and getting things right, and that's definitely a gendered thing. Maybe it's because I'm a nonfiction writer with a journalism background, but I've developed this obsession with getting the facts right, especially when it came to telling this story. I remember being incredibly anxious—near-panic—doing the transcriptions of the conversations with Mark because I thought, If this sentence isn't exactly like it was recorded on my phone, my entire story will be discredited. I had the same problem in high school when the investigators asked me where the newspaper advisor touched me on my thigh. I was thinking, I need to get this exactly right because I don't want to lie. I want everyone to believe me.
I think you and I have had very different experiences with writing the truth. You're a memoirist and poet, and I'm a fiction writer and essayist, and so we're writing about very different things in our lives, and the stakes are very different. I'm less worried about people believing me—in fact, I'm writing a whole essay about dwelling in those lacunae where I can't remember something. I'm interested in feeling I'm making a point about the impossibility of grasping the capital-T truth. You have this situation where you're being disbelieved by a patriarchal system that always wants to discredit women who've been assaulted. This is bringing me back to the Kavanaugh hearings: Christine Ford was crucified because she couldn't remember how she got to the party, how many beers she had, how she got home from the party, etc. Who cares? She remembers the sexual assault!
With my first book, which was about having hallucinations and psychosis, I remember a lot of people asking me about certain passages, "Well, are you sure you didn't hallucinate that?"
And now it must be doubly frustrating because you have those disbelievers and patriarchy working against you.
Right. It's hard in that way, because I start to doubt myself, too. I was never a hyper-confident person, to begin with, and after this diagnosis, I'm even more unsure of my own narrative. I remember being in the hospital in 2013 and my partner coming to pick me up, and the doctor was asking me about my experience, and I just told him to ask my partner. And the doctor said, "No, I'm asking you." This tendency has definitely crept into my nonfiction. I'm shocked every time I encounter a nonfiction writer who's okay with deliberately lying so as to accommodate the narrative or lyricism or whatever.
Yeah, you have John D'Agata literally yelling at his fact-checker in Lifespan of a Fact. If I had been in that situation and someone had caught an error in my journalism, I would be falling all over myself apologizing, turning in my notes for extra scrutiny. While we're on the topic of truth and accuracy, I feel like I should tell you that I've been having major memory problems. Which should probably be devastating but is more interesting to me because I'm a writer.
[Laughs] That's the thing about being a writer! You can have something bad happen to you and be like, Oh, but I get to write about this!
[Laughs] What a thrill! But yeah, I was told by my psychiatrist that having too many unmedicated mood episodes could shrink my hippocampus, which is where memories are formed. And then I spoke to a professor of neuroscience who said that I was on a bunch of medications to treat those mood episodes that were themselves prohibitive to the formation of memories. So I've been having this interesting time kind of coming to terms with not ever knowing my experience, with having to rely on others who could not possibly know my experience. Which makes me think about you relying, in some cases, on Mark's memory of the rape.
Yeah, here I am talking to my rapist about his memory of my rape, and he has no reason to be honest with me. He has every reason to make himself look good. I remember being so surprised that he acknowledged what he did was rape. I felt so vindicated by that.
Isn't that incredible what a low bar men have to clear in order to be thought of as good and decent?
This was actually something I was really mad at myself about throughout writing the book. Like I was thinking, You're being way too easy on him. I wanted him to be a part of the book, I had to ask him to be a part of the book, and when he agreed, I thought, Wow, what a nice guy! I was having such a difficult time doing these interviews because I would flash back to all the good times I had with him—we were such close friends—and remember what a good person he was. That's what a lot of the self-criticism and self-doubt was about, me asking myself why I kept applauding Mark for even doing this. And him seeking my approval for being so good. I finished the book right after the Kavanaugh hearings, and I called Mark and asked him what he thought about it in light of our conversations, and he ticked off all the good liberal boxes without even once relating it back to what he'd done. I literally have him on tape admitting to committing a crime and he can't even seem to make the connection between what Kavanaugh's done, what Trump's done, and what he's done.
It's like he's seeking your approval but doing it in the most thoughtless way possible.
I remember him asking me if he could call himself a feminist, because he said he believed in all the tenets of feminism.
[Laughs] So he needs you to tell him that he's a good human being, so he doesn't need to go out in the world and actually be one? Before this interview even started, you and I had a pretty lengthy conversation about getting yelled at and belittled by men and then having to stroke their egos and make them feel better for fear of inciting their anger. I have nothing substantive to say about this other than that it royally sucks. I feel like all this listening to and pleasing men has made me a mess of internalized misogyny.
This reminds me of something that interested me about your book [The Comedown]. I write in this really particular way with a lot of white space and short chapters, and I could never do what you did: write this big, dense multigenerational family saga. That kind of writing is often associated with men, and it's also usually about men—Infinite Jest is the big example that comes to mind. But you have a nonbinary character, a fat woman, a woman of color activist, though—just a diversity of characters. Were you trying to subvert this really male genre by including those characters?
Yeah, I mean, I think I was. But it's also been frustrating for me because so much of my intellectual and creative lives have been lived trying to please men. I was proud that I was able to include those characters and include issues that are pertinent to my own experience as a queer woman who struggles with mental health, but the book also has vestiges of that internalized misogyny I was talking about, just because it's attempting to be this muscular, multigenerational affair. Like, when I was 14, I read Philip Roth and thought that the hallmark of a good writer was being able to describe a woman's bare breasts. I've read all sorts of scenes in which male writers graphically depict sexual assault, and it's tacitly condoned as a "reasonable male urge." I think part of me thought that if I took this form—the social novel—that's been so aggressively dominated by the white male writer and used it for my own purposes, I could somehow weaponize it against him.
I felt the same way about talking to Mark. Maybe I wasn't weaponizing a subgenre, but I was using the memoir to try to get him to admit to his wrongdoing. To apologize. Except he didn't. If he were to have made a real apology, he would have told his parents. He would have come clean about it to our circle of friends. Instead, I was the one who told my mom, and she was very upset. She actually wanted to send a copy of the book to Mark's parents: "You've always been so interested in Jeannie's writing. Here's her latest!"
But isn't that what we're kind of getting at here, this idea that people like Mark and Kavanaugh and these exalted male writers don't have to apologize for any of this stuff because of their respectability? You mentioned that part of this book is showing that nice guys like Mark can also be rapists. This is where these issues of race and class come in, I think: Mark is supposedly this nice, white, guiltless, suburban boy, whereas tons of black men are regularly accused of being sexually aggressive.
Definitely. And I think that privilege really played out in the book. I think Mark made out to have been so affected by the rape, talking about how he'd sunk into a deep depression and how he'd struggled to remember anything before the rape—his memory was apparently "wiped clean"—but really I was the one who was hurt. I lost touch with his family, who I cared so much about. My mother had to be the one to hear about all this.
What I'm getting from this conversation—and from being alive as a non-cis white male—is that we're constantly being forced into this crouch of vulnerability. We constantly have to be the ones who bear the pain inflicted by others, or who come forward with our pain and then bear more pain for that.
Did you find that comes up for you writing fiction? There's a lot of mental illness and drug use and coming out stuff in your book. Did you feel like that was you having to come forward with your pain, or did it feel more mediated by the fiction?
In a way it did, but in a way, it was also mediated by the fiction. I'm a big researcher, so I'll research and research and research all this info for the book, and then I'll pack the interstices with my own experience. I think the fact that it's fiction does sort of take the edge off, but with the rise of autofiction, I find myself feeling more and more exposed. Like, people are going to be able to pick me out in this unwieldy cast of characters! The fact that I do have familiarity with the things you've mentioned, and the fact that they've all caused me pain, just sort of underscores this idea we've been talking about. I imagine in the hands of a cishet white man, that stuff would come across as valorous: Drug use is badass, mental illness and queerness don't exist, anger is purifying!
But there's a flip side to this where talking about vulnerability is good, even if it can sometimes feel demeaning. Like you and I are both people with bipolar who are in academia.
And, you know, I wrote that Modern Love column where I recount having hallucinated that my eyes had fallen out. After that essay was published, students wanted to talk about it and share their personal experiences.
I've had the exact same experience. Students will come up to me saying that they're struggling with mental health, and I'll remind them that they've basically got a mentally ill comrade-in-arms standing at the head of the class. I think the best moment I've had so far this semester is when a student said, "I high-key want to be you when I grow up."
I haven't been recording this whole time.
[Laughs] This is our meta-moment. The whole time I was talking to Mark, this was my worst nightmare.
Okay, well, we're writers. We'll recreate this from memory, right down to the moments we laughed.
Yeah. It'll be fine. This is nonfiction.
Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl is available for purchase, here.